Somewhere along one of Tulsa’s busiest avenues is a little gate; hundreds of cars zip by it every day without noticing the home hidden there. If you’re one of the lucky few to be invited inside, you’ll find a sense of comfort. 

“Oh, feel at home,” says the owner, Shannon Smith. “It’s not fair that this huge house should be enjoyed by just my husband and me.”

On this fine summer evening, Shannon has prepared a meal. 

“My language of love is feeding people,” she says. Today, it’s pasta covered with a rich, delicious Bolognese sauce. “I’ve been to 52 countries,” she continues, “and wherever I go, I try to learn the local recipes. I learned how to cook this in Bologna. There are two secrets: one, I simmer it all day, and two, I add butter just before I serve it.” 

Her husband, Phil, chimes in: “Oh, she adds butter to everything.”

“Phil’s a good man,” Shannon supplied earlier, while her husband was out of earshot. “He has such a big heart. I’ve watched him help so many people, quietly and unnoticed.” 

Back in the 1990s, Phil Smith was a high-flying Tulsa oilman. At some point around 2000, about the time he met Shannon, he decided to pivot and devote his life to helping others. He read about microfinance and embarked on a journey to assist the less fortunate with modest loans to help them establish small businesses. He and Shannon have built their lives around this goal – both in Oklahoma and around the world. 

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During one such effort, about eight years ago, Shannon was arranging to donate a shipment of sewing machines to the Dominican Republic. 

“We love the machines,” she was told, “but we’d love it even more if you would come and teach the women how to sew.” 

Shannon countered with an offer to teach the women to cook instead, and soon after, she went –working morning to night.

“They wanted to learn to cook Italian food,” says Shannon, “and they had lots of potatoes, so for three days I taught 90 women to cook gnocchi.”

Before this happy and prosperous chapter, Shannon had dreams of being a teacher and giving fabulous dinner parties. But she married young and had two children, and those dreams were put on hold. She ended up as a sole breadwinner and, to make ends meet, established a tailoring business that saw her sewing for 12 to 16 hours a day. This went on for ten years before Shannon quit, took her children, moved away and filed for divorce. In order to retain custody, she needed to find a salaried job; the first one she found was teaching impoverished children how to cook. 

“They were so poor, those children, they just came to get some food,” says Shannon, recalling how many of the kids bickered with each other. “But I noticed that once food was on the table, all fighting stopped. Some even became friends. So I finally got to be a teacher … and I learned the power of food.”

Things turned around from there. 

“There was a place in south Tulsa that gave 12-week cooking classes,” she says. “I took six of those classes and I got so good they asked me to teach. And then, five years later, I met Phil Smith.”

In the present, the pasta is long gone, there’s apple pie on the table, and Phil is telling a story about how much he worried, when they met, that he wasn’t worthy of her. 

“Oh, but you were,” says Shannon, “and by the way, I said a lot of good things about you in the interview.” 

Try Smith’s recipe for baked stuffed tomatoes

Ingredients (makes 4): 

4 medium to large firm ripe tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1/2 cup white onion, chopped

1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts

1 teaspoon fresh basil, torn into small pieces

3 or 4 fresh oregano leaves, minced

1 cup cooked rice or grain, salted

4 ounces soft goat cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  

Using a sharp knife, cut the top of the tomato off and discard.

Use a spoon or paring knife to remove seeds and pulp from tomatoes.

Discard tomato pulp or save for another use. 

Place tomatoes on a foil-lined shallow baking pan.  

Heat a skillet over medium high heat, and add olive oil.

Sauté onions and bell peppers until soft.

Add garlic and cook for one more minute, then remove pan from heat, stir vegetables into the rice and add pine nuts, basil, oregano, salt and pepper, to taste.  

Spoon mixture into tomatoes filling halfway.  

Place 1 ounce of goat cheese over the rice, and then fill to the top with rice mixture.  

Drizzle all tomatoes with olive oil and bake for 45 minutes, until tomatoes are tender, and rice is golden. 

Serve while hot.