I like sharing meals with people, typically of a golden age, who habitually eat the same things they’ve enjoyed since childhood with the glee and remembrance that only taste can bring.
One dear friend, who recently celebrated her 97th birthday, sits down at lunchtime several times a week to cream cheese with chopped green olives on rye. Ira Gewanter, who recently left the Jmore sales team for a gig with The Associated, remains a fool for Wacky Mac, kosher macaroni-and-cheese in which the pasta comes in whimsical shapes.
And this delicacy from Leonard Schleider, a retired caterer who told me his story last month over breakfast — sliced hard-boiled egg with lettuce and mayonnaise on toast, a treat which he patiently explained to our waitress.
“When I took it for lunch, it would really smell up the lockers at Louisa May Alcott Elementary” in Lower Park Heights, said Schleider, a 1955 graduate of Forest Park High School.
Such a simple repast from a man who has fed tens of thousands of people over the last 55 years — from TV crews at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to more than a dozen runnings of the Preakness; both ends of the ‘83 World Series (games in Philadelphia and those of the victorious Birds here in Baltimore); and possibly your grandfather’s bar mitzvah.
But it wasn’t the famous – such as Queen Sofia of Spain – or everyday Baltimoreans trying to work a good deal on their daughter’s wedding reception that drew me to Lenny Schleider. I set out to break bread with this mentsch when I discovered he used to give away food in the dead of winter – buffet style! – to the homeless in Fells Point.
A proud and still tough (though not gruff) ex-Marine, Schleider, 81, once self-published a book of poetry so his loved ones would know how deeply he felt about them in case he hadn’t made it explicit.
It was at the Olympics, where he advised corporate hospitality on how best to feed business associates and their families, that Schleider witnessed a waste of food so great it even made a professional caterer uncomfortable.
“My heart went out,” said Schleider, who asked other caterers at the games to donate their surplus before schlepping the food to rescue missions and a nonprofit for children called Paras Los Ninos. It was at the latter that he met the queen of the Iberian nation that was once the capital of world Jewry until another queen expelled them.
Back in Baltimore, Schleider was reading the paper one day and saw an article about Beans & Bread, a program of the St. Vincent de Paul charity that helps people with basic needs.
“The story said no one was feeding the homeless on Sundays,” said Schleider. “I took one of the trucks down and we set up around noon. I guess we fed about 150 people each week until the food ran out.”
And naturally, because it was Baltimore, the cops showed up. The D’Anna family, who founded the Mars supermarket chain in 1943 before selling to Weis Markets in 2016, had been donating unopened boxes of cereal to Schleider for his Sunday feedings. They were then given to anyone who asked.
A few blocks away, the police found people who were hungrier for cash than food, ostensibly homeless citizens selling the cereal on the street. It didn’t surprise Schleider, who did the Fells Point feedings for about five years through 1994. And it didn’t much bother him. What people do with another’s good deed is not his problem, he said, noting that true mitzvahs come from the heart. And for as long as he’s been eating sandwiches of hard-boiled eggs with a little mayo, Schleider has had the gift of not letting anything bother him for too long.
“If I didn’t have the ability to daydream,” he said, “I don’t know what I’d do.”
Rafael Alvarez can be reached via the website maconstreetbooks.com.