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Homemade soups fill stomachs, souls at St. Paul UMC
Dozens of cooks compile simple, complex dish for monthly First Monday Cafe in Gainesville
Elisabeth Leasure checks her pot of chicken and dumplings Monday morning at the First Monday Cafe at St. Paul United Methodist Church of Washington Street in downtown Gainesville.

First Monday Cafe
When: 11 a.m.
Where: St. Paul United Methodist Church, 404 Washington St., Gainesville
How much: $5 donation
Contact: 770-532-2977

For the vegetable steak soup recipe, click here.

Simple or complex. Short trips to the nearest grocery store or flights to Idaho for the finest elk.

Either way, a few dozen volunteer cooks compile their ingredients and simmer their sauces to bring their very best homemade soups once a month to the First Monday Cafe at St. Paul United Methodist Church off Washington Street in downtown Gainesville.

One such cook is Jim Roberts. He doesn’t believe in frilly dishes but he chooses some hearty meat from afar for his dish.

Contributing to the First Monday Cafe since its beginning, Roberts is known as the chili maker among the circle of cooks. His chilies are special because he uses deer or elk meats instead of ground beef.

“I’m a hunter,” Roberts said. “So, it’s always deer or elk.”

He has a processor in Murrayville he uses for the venison, but processes the elk meat himself.

This year, he had about 400 pounds of the animal to be transported from Idaho, where he shot the elk.

“It was a lot of meat to be brought back to Georgia,” Roberts said.

Once he got it home, he cut it into smaller steak-sized pieces. Some of the meat was turned into a ground form, similar to ground beef for a hamburger.

“We don’t put any fat in it. It doesn’t hold well,” Roberts said, adding if the animal meat is frozen, it can last more than a year.

With the unique meat in chili, Roberts does not add a lot of heat to the mix. He said he puts two or three green peppers in it for extra flavoring.

“That’s the secret to my recipe,” Roberts said.

Then, he adds chili beans, chili powder, crushed tomatoes, a Texas sweet onion and salt and pepper to taste.

“The meats have their own distinctive flavors,” Roberts said, adding elk tends to have a milder flavor than venison.

The Gainesville man does label his soups, because some people don’t like the taste of venison.

While his process is timely when you add in the hunting, making soup can be as simple as a trip to the nearest grocers.

“I just get whatever I can get my hands on,” Elisabeth Leasure said.

She wakes up at 5 a.m. to ensure she can make two or three different types of soups.

“I’m not the usual; most people just bring one soup,” Leasure said.

This month, she toted in her famous chicken and dumplings, beef stew and vegetable steak soup.

The secret to Leasure’s highly sought after chicken and dumplings recipe is none other than Paula Deen. She pulls her recipe from Deen’s website,

But Leasure also has her own recipes that she shares with those who attend the monthly community gathering. She uses ground beef — usually whatever she can find that’s on sale — to make her vegetable steak soup.

She cuts the meat, stir frys it until it is brown and tender and puts it in the freezer until she’s ready for it.

For that soup, she has learned a few tricks to make it as tasty as possible.

First, she replaces the typically used beef broth with tomato juice.

Second, she grabs vegetables on sale at the store and puts those into a Crock Pot.

Third, she adds in a gumbo spice mixture, a can of beans and canned potatoes.

“Canned potatoes don’t fall apart as easily as fresh potatoes do,” Leasure said.

Then she always adds in fresh potatoes later to thicken the soup.

“I don’t use milk or flour,” Leasure said. “That way, if someone has a gluten allergy, they can still eat it. I always try to put a label on it that says ‘milk free’ or ‘dairy free.’”

Leasure finally lets her soups cook for 12-15 hours before she serves them.

The most difficult part of it all is getting it to the church.

“Once you’ve had soup spill in your car, you do everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Leasure said.

She and her husband, Chuck, strap down the soups with bungee cords and place them in crates to avoid spillage.

But that’s not all. Leasure never leaves the house without a dessert to close out the hot meal. She usually bakes a cherry slab pie, a key lime cake or strawberry-glazed cheesecake.