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THE GIVE BACK

By October 27, 2020 November 24th, 2020 No Comments

A Dash of Love

By Babs Rodriguez
Photos by Ron Jenkins

A Pinch of Hope

Regina Smith cooks from the heart, guided by the wisdom of a grandmother who taught her techniques both practical — snap your green beans by hand, never cut them with a knife — and soulful.

“My grandmother would always be talking to her food, pouring in love. Now, as I cook, I bless the food. That’s what makes it so much better.”

Best known as Mama Gina, Smith has long been the mother who cooks for her family and everyone else’s. She and her husband have five daughters and two grandchildren. “Everyone and their friends were always saying, ‘Mama, I need your sweet potato pound cake, we want your meatloaf, can you please make us this or that,’ and so, I did.”

She started Mama Gina’s catering in July 2018, Regina Smith cooks from the heart, guided by the wisdom of a grandmother who taught her techniques both practical — snap your green beans by hand, never cut them with a knife — and soulful. “My grandmother would always be talking to her food, pouring in love. Now, as I cook, I bless the food. That’s what makes it so much better.”

Smith did some visiting with God about her new path. “I said, ‘Lord, if this is what you want me to do, I am committed to feed the homeless as part of my work.’ I promised to always use a percentage of any proceeds to buy food, cook and provide for those less fortunate.”

After her first catering job, she had enough money to provide 179 meals for the homeless. “I decided I was going to set up under the Lancaster Avenue bridge [in Fort Worth] where homeless people gather. It was perfect. Every Saturday, I would go there and give out food.”

When catering events began to be canceled due to the virus, Smith continued to feed the hungry as she could, sometimes providing 20 to 30 meals a week out of her own pocket. An uptick in catering allowed her to feed 60 souls at Mission Arlington one week in October, up from 45 the week before.

There’s never a shortage of the love and blessings poured into Smith’s dishes, which recently included rosemary garlic chicken, shrimp and grits, and bourbon-glazed banana pudding. And, yes, she does all the cooking. “People who have a passion for cooking understand it’s not a chore.”

As for what’s on her horizon, Smith hopes that funding comes through in November for a Mama Gina’s spot in a former Subway restaurant in Arlington, where she envisions serving breakfast and lunch to five or six tables. She will continue to cater and to serve those in need.

“Whatever I do, I still have to be able to take food to Mission Arlington. What little that I have, I am willing to share. That is my calling.”

Regina Smith stocks the fridge at the Mission Arlington pantry with her home-cooked meals.

On the menu one Friday: chicken spaghetti, Italian bread and mini chocolate-covered doughnuts for dessert.

Smith made extra servings of whatever was on her catering menu to serve the homeless. Word spread about her smothered chicken, collard greens, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, cornbread and cobblers. When her truck was spotted by the bridge crowd, people began shouting, “Mama Gina is coming.”

Around Christmas two years ago on a bitterly cold day, Smith arrived ready to hand out hot meals, socks and dozens of fleece throws but instead encountered a code enforcement officer. She learned that without a hand-washing station and a permit, distributing free food to the hungry could result in a stiff penalty.

Smith asked the officer if she had eaten that day and pointed out that the people who hadn’t were now forming a long line. “The officer said she’d drive around the block, and if I was still there when she got back that she’d fine me. I asked her to make it a slow ride.”

Smith fed the homeless, avoided a fine but went home distraught. A daughter suggested a partnership with someone in Arlington, where Smith lives, as a solution. That’s how Mama Gina came to introduce herself to Tillie Burgin, the famed 84-year-old founder of Mission Arlington. Miss Tillie, as everyone knows her, was more than happy to accept Mama Gina’s food. And now, once or twice a week, Smith’s comfort-style food arrives to much acclaim.

The soulful cook says recently she honed her skills at Neighbor’s House Grocery in downtown Fort Worth, where owners Kyle and Ashlee Cowan invited her to create dishes for a Sunday brunch. “I learned so much from them, things that made me a better chef.” But when the pandemic hit, Smith’s daughters suggested the 63-year-old, who had a stroke last year, limit exposure by stepping away.

When catering events began to be canceled due to the virus, Smith continued to feed the hungry as she could, sometimes providing 20 to 30 meals a week out of her own pocket. An uptick in catering allowed her to feed 60 souls at Mission Arlington one week in October, up from 45 the week before.

There’s never a shortage of the love and blessings poured into Smith’s dishes, which recently included rosemary garlic chicken, shrimp and grits, and bourbon-glazed banana pudding. And, yes, she does all the cooking. “People who have a passion for cooking understand it’s not a chore.”

As for what’s on her horizon, Smith hopes that funding comes through in November for a Mama Gina’s spot in a former Subway restaurant in Arlington, where she envisions serving breakfast and lunch to five or six tables. She will continue to cater and to serve those in need.

“Whatever I do, I still have to be able to take food to Mission Arlington. What little that I have, I am willing to share. That is my calling.”

THE DETAILS

Mama Gina’s Order online or explore menu options at mamaginas.biz. Mission Arlington For almost 35 years, this faith-based nonprofit has been providing health care, school supplies, food for the needy and more; visit missionarlington.org.