The cubed pieces of bread are just stale enough to soak up the moisture of the wet ingredients. They’re sitting in a large bowl, waiting to be mixed with eggs and milk. Off to the side, the eggs are being whisked before allspice and cinnamon is added. A drawer opens. Two heaping cups of sugar join the mixture.
One cup of dried cranberries, two loaves of bread, four cups of milk, three large eggs, two cups of sugar, two tablespoons of vanilla extract, one-quarter teaspoon of allspice, one-half teaspoon of cinnamon, three tablespoons of butter, melted. That’s the recipe for Jerry Griffin’s bread pudding. It’s also the recipe for his style of harm reduction, one baked with plenty of love.
It’s a crisp November morning in Newark, Ohio and Jerry Griffin started baking at 8am, just as he’s done every Saturday for years. It’s just him and his faithful companion Yang Li, a shih tzu mix who follows Griffin around the kitchen at his heels. Griffin drinks coffee and eats a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese as Yang Li climbs atop the dining room table to see out the window.
Griffin is baking this bread pudding for the Newark Homeless Outreach, a volunteer organization that feeds unhoused people on the corner of North Buena Vista Street in Newark, Ohio. He started making food for the Outreach in 2020. At first, he was just baking bread and pie.
“At some point it morphed into bread pudding,” he said. “It has taken on its own life, gets mentioned everywhere.”
Trish Perry, one of the founders and a co-leader of the Outreach, has had plenty of firsthand experience with Griffin’s bread pudding.
“It is excellent,” she said. “When we don’t have it, there’s many that ask about it.”
Many unhoused people eat primarily processed food, Perry said — which is why food like Griffin’s bread pudding is so well liked.
“When you get homemade foods, especially homemade desserts, that means a lot to people,” she added.
The pudding mixture sits in a large glass bowl on the counter. Griffin mixes together the stale bread and milk with his hands before adding the cranberries.
“I have to conclude that I actually like to feed people,” he said.
And it’s not just bread pudding: his freezer is full with 12 quarts of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, made for a party he recently attended, so that the attendees could have their apple pie à la mode.
Griffin pours the bread pudding mixture into an aluminum pan before placing it into the preheated oven. 350℉ for 35 – 45 minutes.
Griffin said he admires the work of harm reductionists in Newark. Harm reduction refers to practices and programs that focus on acceptance and oppose stigmatization of people with substance use disorders.
“Harm reduction, per se, in my own experience, is more or less theoretical,” Griffin said. “I’ve had no activism in it at all, I’ve just listened to other people, I’ve been much more involved in the Newark Homeless Outreach and the unsheltered aspect of all this, either providing food or housing of one sort or another.”
But activism and community involvement for his late wife, Judith Thomas, meant something completely different. She passed away in 2018 but was a strong social justice advocate within Granville. Thomas helped to establish Women have Options, Ohio’s statewide abortion fund and advocated strongly for LGBTQ+ inclusion after their son Richard came out as gay.
Griffin’s “co-conspirators” are two other members of the United Church of Granville, Cee Jay Cook and Pat Wanat. Griffin bakes the bread pudding, Wanat typically bakes muffins and Cook makes a corn casserole. Then Griffin drives over to the Outreach to drop off the food.
“This is a very routine thing,” said Griffin.
On this particular Saturday morning, Wanat arrives at around 9:30 with a big smile on her face and a chocolate chip muffin for me to try.
Wanat, a former nurse and board of health member, moved to Licking County from Holmes County in 2014 and joined Griffin in baking for the Outreach in 2020.
“It makes me feel good to know that people have a treat,” she said about the four or five dozen muffins she makes every weekend for the Outreach.
Griffin pulls the bread pudding out the oven. It’s golden brown and steaming. The aroma of cinnamon and sugar fills the room as we admire his work.
At 9:45 a.m. we load up the bread pudding and tin pan full of muffins and head out to pick up the piping hot casserole from Cook’s house. Yang Li is perched between us in the car, desperate to see out the front window.
On the way over, Griffin talks of his kids. He often donates money in their names to the Outreach as Christmas presents. Three of his six children live in Los Angeles, the other three live in Tampa. He splits holiday visits between the two cities.
Griffin also told me that his bread pudding recipe isn’t his own. He found it somewhere on the internet a number of years ago. He wasn’t even familiar with the dish before making it for the first time.
“I had never tasted it before,” he said.
But it has become his connection to his community and a way to provide comfort to those who need it.
We unload the food at the Outreach just before 10 a.m. There is a long line of people already waiting to eat this morning. Soon volunteers will cut and put pieces of the still-warm bread pudding into individual containers to hand out to the folks in the line.
And when they eat the bread pudding they will know, Griffin hopes, that they are cared for and loved.
Ellie Owen writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.