Ken Blackman, volunteer chef at First United Methodist Church of Gulfport, is no stranger to cooking for a crowd. Every Sunday, he and a group of devoted volunteers report to the church’s modest kitchen to prepare a fellowship brunch for the entire congregation. On Wednesday night, they simmer chili, bake ham, or fry up schnitzel with all the trimmings for the weekly church dinner. Once a month, it’s breakfast for the United Methodist Men’s meeting, and last Thanksgiving, it was a full turkey dinner for a crowd that joyfully filled the church’s Fellowship Hall.
That’s a lot of cooking. But Blackman doesn’t stress about it.
“It’s just natural to me,” he says. “I have all these recipes in the back of my head,” he says. “And then I just go do it!”
Blackman has been serving up meals for Gulfport’s FUMC – where he and his wife, Jean, have been members since 2016 – for four years. He’s been cooking since the age of 6, when he fried his mom an egg for Mother’s Day. Since then, he recounts, “I’ve cooked wherever I’ve gone”: catering for groups large and small and learning new cuisines while deployed with the U.S. Army in Germany and Vietnam. One of the most important meals he ever made was the spaghetti and meatballs with Italian sausage that he cooked to impress Jean.
It worked. They’ve been married for 47 years.
But there’s something special about cooking for Gulfport’s FUMC. The church has an open table policy – meaning anyone can partake in their rite of holy communion – that extends to the feasts that Blackman prepares.
“There’s an instinct about church sometimes,” says Blackman. “People think: I have to be a member, I have to dress up.”
Not at First United Methodist Church.
“The church is open to anybody at any time. I will feed anybody who is hungry!” Blackman says, blue eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
And his food ministry doesn’t stop there. In mid-February, Blackman will begin offering an eight-week cooking course in the church’s kitchen, open to anyone in the community. Students will learn to make nutritious, delicious meals in 30 minutes.
“I’m excited about teaching people to cook down-to-earth food they are going to enjoy and that’s going to be somewhat healthy for them,” he says. “I like to get them excited about cooking!”
The class will meet on Tuesday nights from 6-8 p.m. There is no charge to attend, but there is a “final exam”: On the last night the class meets, students will come together to plan and prepare a dinner – which they will then enjoy together.
“The last time I taught this class,” Blackman says, “they made a beautiful chicken meal!”
Instilling some culinary confidence in his students is an important part of why Blackman offers the course.
“Cooking is not hard. We make it hard,” he says, quoting an oft-repeated motto.
But, after a long life of feeding people, the most important ingredient in Blackman’s cooking is his sense of purpose:
“I cook for God,” he says. “If I can show God’s presence in my cooking, that’s the most important thing.”
Find more information on Ken’s cooking class, call 727-321-3620.