The leaders who lunch

Hospitality: A lifelong Port Deposit resident shares the midday meal with some of her town's officials - now her friends - several days each week.

April 23, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT - It's just past noon, and Helena Craig is standing in the kitchen of her neat-as-a-pin Main Street home, waiting for her "lunch bunch."

On the counter sits a meatloaf the size of a roaster pan and steaming casseroles of macaroni and cheese and baked beans. Lemon meringue pie is chilling in the fridge.

Her dining-room table is set with a white cloth. Glasses are waiting for sweet tea - but she won't get out the ice until the she hears the doorbell and her guests amble in.

After all, when they aren't at her table, the lunch bunch - the town administrator, the chief of police and the public works director - are busy running this Susquehanna River town of nearly 700.

So, sometimes they show up late.

"Oh, they'll be down," she says, her gray-blue eyes shining behind her brown-rimmed glasses. "Can't rush them."

How Craig, 81, came to cook for this Cecil County town's leaders is popular table talk. And each time the story gets passed around the table, it grows richer.

But on one point everyone agrees: If it weren't for a faulty furnace and a little eavesdropping, the lunch bunch might never have gotten together.

On this day last week, Town Administrator Eric Berry, in his 40s, is the first to arrive. After sweeping into her dining room, he gives Craig a big hug.

"Hey, Angel, how're you doing?" asks Berry.

Herb Yeatman, 34, the town's public works director, saunters in, and he and Berry head to Craig's kitchen, as they have for a year, to wash their hands before sitting down at the table.

Craig's daughter, Mary Beth Madron, 51, and Craig's best friend, Pam Moore, 55, who also are here for lunch, ferry dishes of sliced tomatoes, tangy cucumber salad, pickles, deviled eggs and olives, and steamed broccoli to the table.

There's so much to eat that Berry removes the candle centerpiece to make room.

The bunch says grace and then sits down - except Craig, who is busy dishing up her homemade delights.

"That's enough for me right now. I've got to watch it," says Berry. "She gets her back to you, and then she fills your plate up."

Around the table, the conversation is light and easy - never about work. It's not allowed.

Berry likes that rule.

"In this rat race, this hustle and bustle, it's almost like walking into your grandmother's house, and you don't have a care in the world," he says.

On this day, they eat and talk about horseback riding and home repairs - until someone notices the time.

The calm dissolves in the clatter of dishes being stacked by the sink. Hugs, thanks, and the lunch bunch is out the door, well-fed in body and spirit.

"This has done me a world of good, to have someone to do for and someone to take care of," says Craig, who doted for 55 years on her husband, Ed, until he died in the mid-1990s.

Craig and Berry's first lunch was on a wintry day in January last year. To hear the lunch bunch tell it, it happened like this:

Craig called Berry, then the new administrator, on a Monday morning, distressed about a neighbor's smoking furnace. Within hours, he had the furnace shut down. She was grateful, and that was that.

A few weeks later, Berry was eating in a local riverside restaurant when he spotted Craig and said hello. He returned to his table and told his dining companion what an angel Craig was. Unbeknownst to Berry, Moore was sitting at the next table. She went to Craig's table and told her his kind words.

Touched, Craig invited him to lunch. Soon she encouraged him to bring his co-workers. Once a week turned into almost daily - but no Fridays, because that's when Craig gets her hair done at Madron's salon in Rising Sun.

Moore blushes a little when asked about her role in bringing the group together. "I think it's wonderful," she said. "It's done a lot for her, but I'm sure it's done a lot for them, too."

For Berry, who is single and moved here from New Jersey, it has helped him feel at home. "I don't know how to explain it," he said. "It's the coolest relationship."

Craig buys the food and shoos away any talk of money. She says that what she pays for lunch is a pittance compared with the camaraderie.

"There's many a laugh that goes on in here," Craig says.

Nevertheless, Berry says, her guests have to be creative to repay Craig for her kindness, taking her out to dinner now and then or trying to slip a little money into her pocketbook when she's not looking.

Craig says she'd never cook the variety of food for herself that she offers them. Besides, they're good guests; they aren't persnickety about what she serves.

Craig has always enjoyed cooking for a crowd.

The youngest of four children, Helena Perugino was born to Italian immigrant parents and raised on Main Street in the house that is now the police department's home.

In the early 1940s, when she married her childhood sweetheart, Ed Craig, she wondered how she would learn to cook for him. So when she was 21, she bought an Italian cookbook.

When she wasn't working at her purchasing job at Aberdeen Proving Ground, she cooked for her husband and mother, for friends and even railroad workers passing through. She baked homemade pizzas for her daughter's friends, and served parish priests homemade noodles cut on her kitchen table.

"She's cooked like this for as long as I can remember," her daughter says. This house "ought to be Miss Helena's Cafe."

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