For the past eight years, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., historic St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral's Taliaferro Hall has been transformed into a busy lunch venue. The twist: The meal is orchestrated by students from the Clara White Mission's culinary training program.
Given the Mission's decades-old track record for helping serve the poor and homeless in Jacksonville, I was thrilled to learn that more than 700 aspiring students have graduated from the program – which teaches lessons from food preparation to commercial cooking to menu development and catering, over the course of 20 weeks.
These talented students prepare and serve a Southern-style buffet lunch. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the menu changes weekly and is posted on the mission's website each Wednesday. The previous week's offerings included baked vegetable spaghetti, brown-sugar-glazed baked ham, Southern fried chicken, creamed skillet corn, collard greens and sweet potato soufflé – yum!
The cost for the buffet lunch was $10, collected on our way in the door (parties of six or more can make a reservation, but fewer than that and you may be seated with others – which only adds to the experience). After being seated, we were greeted by a student with a warm smile offering us our choice of sweetened, unsweetened or tropical iced tea, or coffee. We then headed to the selections on the self-service buffet.
First was a salad bar with chopped fresh spring mix, diced hardboiled eggs, peppers, bacon bits, crumbled blue cheese, grated carrots, cucumber, tomatoes and beyond.
Our two soup choices were ham-and-split-pea or Italian minestrone. I went with a cup of the minestrone and enjoyed an abundance of kidney beans, pasta and chopped vegetables.
And now we beheld the feast. Bypassing the rice pilaf and rolls, I went straight for the fried Cajun turkey (a winner!), meatloaf (moist and flavorful), grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, boiled red potatoes, sautéed cabbage (buttery and delicious!) and baby carrots. The students earned two thumbs up – everything tasted fresh and homemade.
More than a good meal, Clara's was a nice escape from a busy Friday workday. As we ate, the soft sounds of a violin filled the air and natural light from the many windows flooded the dining area.
Despite having a full stomach, I made sure to taste each of the three desserts – warm bread pudding with peaches and whipped topping, peanut butter cookies, and an ambrosia salad. The bread pudding won me over. I can't wait to go back.