Open Arms of Minnesota

Weekly Recipe #259: Bill Rowe's Firehouse 19 Macaroni and Cheese

As we celebrate Open Arms founder Bill Rowe’s life and legacy this week, here’s a Star Tribune article from 1996 about Bill and Open Arms, featuring one of the comforting recipes he made for clients:

Cooking for charity runs in Bill Rowe’s family. “I always associated great food with my grandfather,” said Rowe, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. When he was growing up in California, every fall his grandfather organized Jim Rowe’s Annual Ham Dinner to benefit local 4H clubs.

“I don’t know why he called it a ham dinner; there was no ham,” said Rowe. “But it was a huge event – flyers were posted everywhere – and 500 to 600 people would show up. Some would dig trenches for burning hardwood to roast beef and pork, and there were great vats of water boiling to cook fresh corn.”

Considering Rowe’s childhood experience, it comes as no surprise that in 1986 Rowe founded Open Arms of Minnesota. Volunteers prepared and delivered free lunch and dinner, five days a week, to people weakened by AIDS or the AIDS virus.

“We make one delivery of lunch and dinner; the food meets 80 percent of the clients daily calorie requirement,” said Rowe.

“Nutrition is very important and should be considered from the onset of disease. We interview clients about food quality and quantity, asking them what else they ate that day, and what needs the food we sent them met. These people need 25 percent more calories than people who are not sick, and if they lose 15 percent of their body mass, they can’t gain it back.”

Rowe committed himself to feeding people with the AIDS virus and AIDS after caring for a friend dying from the disease in 1984. “I was totally unprepared to see him. Here was a man of 37 who had become 80 years old. He couldn’t remember that his brother had called half an hour ago, but he would ask me about some wonderful antipasto we had at dinner seven or eight years ago. I would go out and buy all the fanciest foods and cook him great meals. It made it a lot easier emotionally to do something tangible for him every day.”

Using foods donated through area churches, Rowe plans Open Arms menus. “For three weeks I try not to repeat foods. Estonian pork chops with barley is popular, as is lasagna, beef stew and mashed potatoes. Next week we’re doing risotto. It’s comfort food. It’s familiar. If they open up the box and ask, ‘What’s this?’ we’ve lost.”

Sundays and Wednesdays, Rowe and volunteer cooks prepare soups, main courses and desserts for the week. Some clients need special-diet meals, including lactose-free and vegetarian. Rowe also caters to food allergies and requests for bland food. He sends out cakes and cards for birthdays, and traditional foods and flowers for holidays.

Rowe’s macaroni and cheese recipe is adapted from a dish he saw prepared by firemen on Burt Wolf’s television cooking show. Open Arms volunteers cook the dish at home for their families; for more spice, one cook adds 3 diced onions that have been sautéed in a little vegetable oil.

Bill Rowe’s Firehouse 19 Macaroni and Cheese

Photo credit: Kelly Garbato/Flickr

(Serves 10-12)


  • 3 lbs. uncooked elbow macaroni
  • 1 lb. swiss cheese, diced
  • 8 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
  • Six 11 oz. cans golden mushroom soup
  • Three 8 oz. cans mushroom stems and pieces, drained
  • Paprika


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cook macaroni in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Drain.
  3. Combine drained macaroni with cheeses, soup and mushrooms.
  4. Transfer mixture to a lightly greased large baking dish or roasting pan.
  5. Sprinkle paprika over entire surface and bake for 30-40 minutes.

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