The Bride, the Youngest One and I didn’t hesitate when an acquaintance named Craig asked for volunteers to help cook a meal for about 120 food insecure neighbors, especially when he stressed we could simply eat with them rather than serve them.
The community meal is hosted once a month by an iconic San Francisco church. I didn’t know anything about the church, but I knew I wanted to cook for that many people and I wanted to hang out with them. The chef had attended the month before and took feedback what they’d like for a meal. Almost all said hot, filling and plentiful. He decided gumbo over rice would be perfect.
We arrived at 3:30 p.m. and started prepping huge boxes of peppers, squash, onions, celery, chicken, sausage, and bacon.
A gorgeous light-chocolate-colored roux simmered while the aroma of meats and spices filled the kitchen. Our crew of six worked well together. Along with Craig, the others in our group were seminary students. Being a seminary dropout, I found much to chat about. I soon was moved to onions being one of the few who don’t cry when I chop them.
The youngest one was on rice duty, feeding 120 cups of rice into two massive rice cookers. She started to get a little stressed when the fuses of the old church kept blowing and precious cooking time drifted away.
Unlike so many type A chefs, Craig simply encouraged and took it all in stride. He helped get the rice going again. I was enlisted to haul the heavy pots to different outlets. The church host went off the fix blown fuses. The Youngest One pulled me over.
“The rice isn’t cooking at all,” she said, the stress mounting.
Ah kitchen stress. It’s a unique kind of thing, sort of cool and sort of nasty at the same time. Craig and I decided our plan to run the rice cookers through twice wasn’t going to work so we started another massive pot on the crowded stove.
The Bride joined the stirring duty of big pots, including one vegetarian gumbo in the back.
It was a blast.
Until the host servers came in.
Suddenly the old worn cliché came true: too many cooks suddenly spoiled the broth of our pleasant afternoon. A bevy of biting complaints followed from people who didn’t even take the time to introduce themselves.
“This rice isn’t done,” said one self-appointed food inspector who didn’t actually sample the rice, but saw the excess water that simply needed to be drained off because of the intemperate fuses. She had someone else haul the rice back into the kitchen.
“Since the rice isn’t done are we not going to have two serving lines” the designated host snarked to Craig. Craig pleasantly said they could do that or wait another five minutes for the rice.
Soon I overheard the host talking to a server. “Well I guess the vegetables aren’t done so as you serve tell our guests the vegetables are coming in just a few minutes.”
The vegetables in a gumbo are in it. The pot this lookey loo had seen was “extra” squash and onions and peppers we cooked up to bolster the gumbo when seconds were served. Craig had saved $60 from the budget and provided enough food for everyone to have two helpings. Nobody bothered to ask him what was his plan.
The youngest and I checked the rice, saw it was more than done and she helped me drain the excess water off. We carried it back out. Less than a minute later the pot had returned back to the kitchen with another lady saying the rice wasn’t done.
“Scotty can we go home now?” she asked. “I’m done with these people.”
“Let’s just finish our job,” I said. “We aren’t doing this for these folks.”
I simply hauled the heavy rice pot right back out to where it went. As I put it in place one woman asked, “Where’s the sauce. Shouldn’t there be sauce?”
Sauce. On Gumbo. This was the same woman who kept sending food back. A thousand reactions flashed through my mind. I simply walked away.
As the servers started plating food, the host came in and talked to Craig. “Well, I see a problem. Folks are just getting broth and a few vegetables because I guess the meat is at the bottom.”
Craig looked stymied. “Uh… The servers just have dig into it to serve it up,” he said.
“Well, instructions weren’t given. Now some are going to have more meat,” he said.
Craig was genuinely confused.
“Craig, these people have absolutely no idea what gumbo is,” I said.
The thought struck him as both true and amazing. He’s from the south. How could you not know what gumbo is?
Craig looked at me and shrugged. “We are here to serve God and his people, not be praised.”
“Thank God for that then,” I said.
As we cleaned up yet another lady came in and started asking us where we had put the compost bucket.
“We filled it twice,” Craig said. “I’m not sure.”
“But compost items are in the trash,” she said, with an accusatory point. I had been cleaning food out of the sinks to start the dishes and had put the food waste in the trash can.
Craig started to explain again that we were simply in the clean up stages now.
“I guess it can’t be helped now,” she said, walking off.
Someone else came in with a plate of food and handed it to one of our team, I guess to eat standing in the kitchen. She tried to hand one to Craig.
“No thank you. I’m not really hungry,” he said.
He handed it to me.
“Craig, thanks. This looks and smells awesome,” I said.
Then I walked outside of the kitchen into the hall and sat at a table of strangers. The Bride and The Youngest One soon joined us. Within minutes we were sharing stories about ourselves. I met a young woman named Tess who was sitting with an older man.
“He told me he hadn’t seen steam coming off food in a long time,” Tess told me. “It was great.”
“Yeah, so great, I just want some more,” the old guy said.
“You get seconds,” The Bride said.
The youngest one hopped up. “I’ll get them for you.”
He said thank you many times. Then The Youngest One came back.
“They said no seconds until after they serve dessert,” she said apologetically.
He brushed it off. “That’s ok. I can wait. I surely do want seconds.”
“Please finish mine,” The Bride said. “I’m done.”
“Oh No…” he said. “I won’t take food off your plate, not with your man sitting right there. That ain’t right.”
“It’s perfectly fine,” I said. “I knew she wouldn’t eat much of it anyway. Please, enjoy.”
“Nope, nuh uh,” he said. “My morals won’t allow it.”
We went on to other conversation. A man came over passing out candy bars. He offered one to The Youngest One.
“No thank you,” she said.
He started to insist. Another man seated next to her who had been talking with his friend about the Id, Ego and Super Ego said, “I’ll take hers.”
“Yes, that’s great,” the youngest one said. “What kind would you like?”
The server cut her off. “We don’t do that here,” he scolded. “I’m not kidding.”
The man started to apologize, the youngest scowled. The Bride looked at me fuming. I shook my head. Let it go. Let it go.
Eventually they rolled out seconds and the youngest went up to get the older man his plate. She refused to be delayed any further.
While getting it, the same man that had passed out candy bars chided her for not taking one.
“I don’t need to take a candy bar from these people,” she said. “I’m not homeless.”
“So you think homeless is bad thing,” he said. Her face turned red. She walked away, but made sure she brought our new friend a plate of food.
As we ate the church host came over.
“I heard from Craig that you all in the kitchen felt unappreciated,” he said. “I am sorry. You did an amazing job…”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We are fine. We are glad to help.”
I noticed those we were eating with exchanging glances, like those awkward looks when you really aren’t privy to a conversation happening right in front of you like you weren’t here. He tried again to apologize.
“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate that. We can let it drop.”
Thankfully he moved on.
We finished, said our goodbyes and went back to find Craig. He ate out of a paper bowl with his friends around him. They all looked a bit sad. The host found Craig and again tried to apologize. I considered asking him what exactly he was apologizing for but in the end decided to let it go. This wasn’t our place, our meal, our scene. We were just helping out. We wouldn’t return.
One of the people eating food wandered into the area where we all sat.
“Man, that food was delicious,” she said.
“Finally,” he said.
It’s amazing what a sincere thank you can do.
Craig asked The Bride if she had fun. She said mostly. He asked her if she’d do it again.
“I’d love to do it in another neighborhood sometime,” he said.
“We’d cook with you again in a heartbeat,” she said. “But maybe not here.”
On the way home we all had a lot of talk about. We processed the events of the night. I sincerely worried that the youngest one’s enthusiasm for community and service would be doused. I shouldn’t have worried. She loved the cooking and loved the eating, she said, which more than made up for the brief middle ground of those who made her feel stressed out and insecure.
We compared the attitudes we saw among the servers to the attitudes of those being served. The cliché of liberal elitism had rang so true. I hoped it wasn’t so. In theory these were my people: liberal Christians determined to be genuine light and salt in the world by their actions instead of soapbox preachers and ardent evangelicals. But in practice we were something very different. We saw things and people differently. Perhaps back in the day, back before the sobriety and the scandals and the failures changed the lens from which I view life, I wouldn’t have noticed these differences.
We talked a lot about stereotypes. About the labels. About the actions of people from all sorts of “groups” who infuse harmful stereotypes with energy simply because they act in a way that reinforces them.
I felt myself letting it all go. An attitude of gratitude, of honoring people no matter who they are, of forgiving those who don’t even know they need to be forgiven, and of service for the sake of simply serving goes a long way to fixing the mental images that make a good work seem bad.
Because of the generosity of those same tiresome people who didn’t even realize how offensive they can be, more than 100 people received a massive plate of delicious gumbo, including The Bride, the Youngest One and me. Most even got seconds.
The rest was just noise.
P.S. Thank you Craig. It was delicious.