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Making Community Connections Through Cooking: Missoula’s Harriet Eichenholz
Montana Senior News Feb./March. 2017
Early in her catering career, Harriet Eichenholz made a memorable mistake involving—of all things—deviled eggs. Those eggs taught her a business lesson that continues to guide her over 20 years later.
The problem was not, as some might expect, that people considered deviled eggs passe or that no one would eat them. Quite the contrary. Even among Missoula’s foodie sophisticates, this All-American appetizer still commands respect and requests for “more please,” which is where Harriet’s problem arose. When prepared in huge quantities, this oldie-but-goodie quickly glides into labor-intensive territory.

“One of my first catering jobs was for an event with 300 guests and I suggested serving deviled eggs. That was a really bad choice,” admits Harriet with her trademark frankness. “You have to handle the eggs so many times—boiling, peeling, and splitting them, then preparing and piping the filling. After making hundreds and hundreds of them for that event, I vowed to never again do that for any group larger than 30.”
Another lesson she soon learned is that success in that field depends on the ability to work long and hard.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m tired and going to bed now’ until the work is done. Instead, you pour yourself another cup of coffee and persevere,” states Harriet, who festoons her kitchen cabinets with flow charts when tackling complex or multiple catering gigs. “Sometimes, I’m working till midnight then I’m up at 4; it’s intense.”

It would be difficult to say which aspect of her culinary past has influenced her the most. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Harriet was raised in an extended family that loved to cook. Her American-born mom excelled at Southern specialties while her Eastern European grandmothers prepared traditional dishes passed down from their Russian and Polish mothers.

“Every Sunday night, 12 to 15 relatives would gather around the dinner table. I can close my eyes and still remember the house and all the kibitzing,” recalls Harriet with the slightest trace of a gentle Southern accent. “I grew up liking and eating good food.”

That sense of appreciation for fine dining coupled with her adventuresome spirit drew her to Greece for the first time in 1969. She was smitten by both the countryside and the cuisine based on local ingredients. Harriet eventually returned to Greece and opened a restaurant there. She ran the taverna seasonally with her daughter Miranda for four years—the only eatery owned and operated by a woman on that island. After the restaurant closed, several years later Harriet bought a house on the mainland of Greece. She affectionately describes it as, “a few steps above camping,” and stays there as often as her busy catering schedule allows.

Understandably, producing Greek and Turkish meals comes as naturally to her now as baking brownies did when she was a child. But her repertoire, which also includes Thai and Korean dishes—among others—is by no means limited to Mediterranean-style menus.

A self-taught chef, Harriet regards herself as a lifelong student when it comes to the gustatory arts despite her years in front of a professional stove.

“I can always be learning no matter how long I’ve cooked,” she says. “Cooking is not a static thing. I learn from other people, from magazines, and books. I have a zillion cookbooks because trends change and I keep needing inspiration.”

Her Missoula food career began with catering parties for Adventure Cycling. Thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations, her business grew from there. She has been feeding Missoulians ever since at gatherings ranging from Christenings and funerals to weddings and birthday parties.

Aside from catering larger events, Harriet regularly delivers dinners to couples who prefer to have her do the meal planning and preparation. And she provides the same service to visiting fishermen who would rather spend their time in a blue-ribbon trout stream than in a kitchen.

“They don’t care what I bring them,” notes Harriet. “When someone has a good reputation, people trust it.”

Being civic-minded, Harriet generously contributes dinners and desserts for several local fundraisers. Organizations such as KUFM, Five Valleys Land Trust, and the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center have all benefited from her largesse and talents with some of her dinners garnering as much as $3,000.

“I donate ethnic meals that can be auctioned to the highest bidder. Many pick a Greek menu because it’s not too spicy,” explains Harriet. “Missoula seems to love Greek food but Paella and other Spanish meals are popular, too.”

For the last five years, Harriet has offered cooking classes at The Good Food Store for anyone wanting to expand on or acquire culinary skills.

“It’s an exchange, a hands-on class. I learn to interpret techniques so people can understand them. It’s a back-and-forth learning situation for all of us,” says Harriet. To maximize her class time, she preps all the ingredients before students arrive so they can whip up a multi-course feast and sit down to enjoy it together in 90 minutes.

As a volunteer with YWCA Missoula’s Cooking Angel program, Harriet also donates meals for families dealing with abusive home situations, who are living at a shelter. (See related article.) Every six weeks, she buys the ingredients to make a dinner that will feed the shelter’s current 15 to 25 residents. Typically, she chooses kid-friendly comfort food for the menu fare—things like mac n’ cheese, enchiladas, or meatloaf. As she says, “nothing unusual.”

“I give my time and expertise to help these families. It’s better than writing a check. Cooking connects you to your community and gives you an understanding of others’ lives. It’s no sacrifice. It’s a way to do something for others and puts you in touch with everybody else who’s out there,” sums up Harriet. “We’re all the same; we’re all on the same picnic blanket.”
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