The Mysterious Benefactor
By Justin Pinnell
In November 1930, Chicago was struck hard by the stock market crash and the subsequent great depression that followed. Over 75,000 Chicagoans were out of work and out of luck.
A week later, the Chicago Tribune reported that a mysterious benefactor had rented a storefront. This mysterious benefactor had opened the first of its kind, a soup kitchen at 935 South State Street. The benefactor was none other than the king of gambling, booze, and prostitutes– Al Capone. Al served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to an average of 2,200 people every day.
A Capone associate was quoted in a Chicago newspaper saying “He couldn't stand to see those poor devils starving, and nobody seemed to be doing much, so the big boy decided to do it himself.” The Capone soup kitchen hired women in white aprons to serve coffee and sweet rolls for breakfast, soup and bread for lunch, and soup, coffee, and bread for dinner. Second helpings were never denied to anyone. No questions were asked, no one had to degrade themselves to prove they had the need.
Thanksgiving, in 1930 was one of the hardest ever recorded in United States history. Al stepped up to provide holiday helpings for 5,000 starving Chicagoans. Capone had planned to serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal to the jobless. However, when he learned a load of a thousand turkeys had been heisted, he quickly changed his mind. Afraid he would be blamed for the caper he made a menu change to beef stew.
A Capone associate was quoted in a Chicago newspaper saying “He couldn't stand to see those poor devils starving, and nobody seemed to be doing much, so the big boy decided to do it himself.”
Capone’s soup kitchen added to his Robin Hood reputation with a segment of Americans who saw him as a hero for the common man. People pointed to newspaper reports of the handouts he gave to widows and orphans. When the government deprived them of beer and alcohol during Prohibition, Capone delivered it to them. When the government failed to help them in their desperate days, the crime boss gave them food. For anyone who felt conflicted about taking charity from a gangster, hunger trumped principles. The Bismarck Tribune noted, “a hungry man is just as glad to get soup and coffee from Al Capone as from anyone else.”
Harper’s Magazines' very own Mary Borden called Capone “an ambidextrous giant who kills with one hand and feeds with the other.” She noted the irony of the lines of jobless waiting for a handout from Chicago’s most-wanted man would often stretch past the door of the city police headquarters, which held the evidence of the violent crimes carried out on Capone’s behest.
The soup kitchen served more than 350 loaves of bread, 100 dozen rolls, 50 pounds of sugar, and 30 pounds of coffee a day. The cost was over $300.00 a day ($5,320.44 in today's money). It was a sum that Capone could easily afford. Fred Ries, an associate of Al testified that the profits from just one of his most lucrative gambling houses netted $25,000 a month ($443,369.76 in today's money).
Although the press never saw Capone in his soup kitchen, newspapers still ate up the story. The Daily Independent of Murphysboro, Illinois, expressed a distaste at the adulation bestowed upon the soup kitchen owner. “If anything were needed to make the farce of Gangland complete, it is the Al Capone soup kitchen,” it editorialized. “It would be rather terrifying to see Capone run for mayor of Chicago. We are afraid he would get a tremendous vote. It is even conceivable that he might be elected after a few more stunts like his soup kitchens.”
No amount of good deeds could save Capone from the guilty verdict handed down by a jury in November 1931. Convicted of income tax evasion, Alcatraz, not the mayor's office, was in his future.
Let us toast Al Capone's good deeds to mankind with his favorite cocktail and Italian beef stew; and pretend his illegal activities never happened. Let us forgive all the wrongs done to us this past year… and focus on all the good, Happy Thanksgiving!
Italian Beef Stew
3 stalks of celery
1 diced large yellow onion
5 cloves minced garlic
6 Tbsp olive oil, divided in half
2 1/2 lbs chuck roast or rump roast, cut into 1-inch pieces trimmed of fat
1/2 cup flour
salt and black pepper
4 cups beef broth
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 (15 oz) cans of diced tomatoes
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried crushed rosemary
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 bay leaves
8 oz cremini thick sliced mushrooms
4 carrots, chopped (2 cups)
4 medium-sized Russet potatoes, diced into 1-inch pieces
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
3 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Parmesan for serving
1. Heat two Tbsp olive oil in a large enameled cast iron pot over medium-high heat. Once hot add celery and onion and saute for four minutes. Add garlic and saute one minute longer. Pour mixture into a bowl and set aside.
2. Place beef in a large resealable bag, add flour, and season with salt and pepper (about 3 tsp salt and 3 tsp pepper). Seal bag and toss well to coat beef in flour evenly.
3. Return pot to medium-high heat, and add remaining olive oil. Once the oil is hot add the beef and cook occasionally tossing until the beef has browned and sticking to the bottom of the pan.
4. Transfer browned beef to crock pot
5. Add one cup of broth into the pan and then add red wine vinegar and beef and cook, frequently stirring while scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen browned bits on the bottom.
6. Add remaining 3 cups beef broth, diced tomatoes, oregano, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, bay leaves, mushrooms, and sauteed veggie mixture. Bring mixture just to a boil, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
7. Reduce heat to low, cover pot, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add potatoes and carrots and cook about 1 1/2 longer until beef and veggies are very tender.
8. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm sprinkled with fresh basil and parsley and parmesan
2 oz Gin (preferably Cygnet)
1 oz Fresh lemon juice
1 oz Simple Syrup
A handful of fresh mint leaves
In a cocktail shaker, gently muddle the mint and simple syrup. Add remaining ingredients with ice and shake then strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a mint sprig.
This story first appeared in the Ardent for Life Autumn 2022 issue.