STATEN ISLAND, NY — Thirty-one years ago, members of the New York Tamil Sangam, an association promoting culture, art and literature of the Tamil community, approached the heads of a Stapleton feeding operation. To salute their springtime celebration of the Hindu New Year, they volunteered to cook and staff an annual roast beef dinner for clients of the Saturday afternoon soup kitchen at Trinity Lutheran Church.
It became an enduring act of kindness.
“They had been doing it for years and years,” explained Sukanya Krishnan. Her parents, Dr. Shahikal Krishnan and Dr. Krishnan, were among the original organizers of the feast. The Krishnans are 55-year residents of Staten Island who moved to Dongan Hills in 1979.
“They came to Mary Haas at a time when it was run by Project Hospitality who used the church on Saturdays,” Sukanya recalled. Haas is a founding board member of Project Hospitality and an Advance Woman of Achievement who has been a key liaison leader in multiple feeding ministries in the borough. After Haas retired, Mary Ciccolella helped continue the Tamil Sangam’s mission.
At Trinity Lutheran, the Tamil Sangam employed Bruno Rzeszutko, a professional chef who Dr. Krishnan met through his hospital work. Rzeszutko prepped the meal with all the fixin’s starting on Friday night. Eventually his cam to pitch in.
WHY ROAST BEEF?
Long-time soup kitchen volunteer Jack Martz acknowledged that roast beef isn’t a likely choice for the Hindu to serve: the cow is sacred in the culture.
Sukanya detailed the animal’s significance as background. She said, “Cows give milk. Milk can turn into cheese. This food feeds a community. Also, cows graze on grass.” The cycle offers sustainability for a village, she pointed out.
Considering the bigger picture, Haas, the operation’s then-chief at the time, took the food options to a vote. And roast beef, considered a luxury among Trinity Lutheran’s clientele three decades ago, was the winner dinner.
Sukanya said, “Hindus and roast beef don’t make sense — but they all said ‘roast beef’ because that’s a treat the soup kitchen’s clientele doesn’t have often.”
Martz recalled that the Tamil Sangam were accommodating on the option and said, “We’ll do what you ask.”
The feast has become a neighborhood tradition that’s stuck and, this year, over 100 plates were served, said Martz. At its peak, the group fed anywhere between 200 and 300 guests. And the roast beef beckoned. Sukanya recalls how homeless New Yorkers would hear about the dinner and take the ferry to attend.
She said, “My parents wanted to create a bridge between the Indian community and Staten Island. We’re part of a bigger between the immigrant community and the American nation — the greater American dream, Americans united and helping each other.”
TIME MAYBE TO RETIRE
Three decades later, Martz reports that the Bruno is retiring as the chef of the feast.
Sukanya said her parents now are in their 80s. She herself has been tending the operation since her youth. Seeing Bruno’s final service for the group was bittersweet.
“That generation really believed in community and working together in unison for a better consciousness — a sentiment from post-Ghandi India. It was a bout everyone coming together, how new Indian immigrants can also help build Staten Island by giving back and, in return, becoming Staten Islanders themselves,” said Sukanya.
She expressed the family’s hope to continue the legacy in some capacity. The Tamil Sangam’s new president is from Queens and members are trying to figure out how to maintain its roots on Staten Island.
“We’re thinking about other ways to give back. Food insecurity is at such a high level,” said Sukanya.
Pamela Silvestri is Advance Food Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.