Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I had meant to write this last night, getting it ready to go up at the usual 6 a.m., all set for coffee-time reading. But I fell asleep on the sofa (or, more accurately, on the sofa and propped up on Craig's shoulder - I hope I didn't drool). Then I rolled over and went back to sleep with my head propped up on the arm of the sofa. Then I went to bed.

It was a looong day of proofreading a special Holiday Sweets cookie and candy section for Sunday's paper. On top of three photo shoots in a six-day period (for five stories, including eighteen recipes ... and if there's something to photograph, that's 'cause I did the schlep to the store and all the cooking, baking, and cleaning). I have one more holiday gift guide to finish; my first one, filled with ideas for kitchen mavens, comes on Tuesday.

And while it may sound like I'm whining, I don't mean to. Well ... I mean to a little! (Sometimes, you've just gotta vent, right?)

My full-time job is feeding my Tuesday pages and Sunday's Morsels column; two gift guides, Health and Living stories, the Holiday Sweets package ... that's all extra. Lately, it feels as though the only thing missing is the partridge in a pear tree. Are the holidays over yet?!?!? Getting everything ready for them, so that all my friends and readers can have beautiful meals and treats, is a tremendous investment of time and care.

But I'm going to stop whining now. Because in the midst of all the proofreading yesterday, I took time out to help serve the Thanksgiving lunch at the Martin Luther King Kitchen for the Poor. Jeremy and I did this last year, and it was such a meaningful experience that it was essential to me to do it again.

I ran in just at noon, not having been able to get out of work any sooner to help with prep. I arrived just as executive director Harvey Savage, Jr. was offering a warm welcome to the assembled group.

And by "assembled group," I mean the men and women and children who lined the entire perimeter of the large community room, the men and women and children who were lined up out the door. The men and women and children who weren't dressed in their finest holiday clothes, who didn't bring the pumpkin pie or the cranberry sauce, but instead came in old, somewhat disheveled clothing for the sustenance - both physical and spiritual - that the Kitchen was offering.

Miss Henrietta, left, and her staff and volunteers.
There seemed to be more need this year, more people seeking a hearty free meal that was made and served with love by Miss Henrietta and her regular core group of staff and volunteers. Miss Henrietta is a "no nonsense" woman. She has a heart as big as that community room that hosted so many guests; but when she calls out that she needs some strong young men to help take out the trash, several strong young men jump to attention and do as they're told.

When I had an opportunity to talk with Harvey about the number of people who'd come for lunch yesterday, he said that by 1 o'clock they'd already filled "seven or eight sheets" on the sign-in list. Each sheet holds twenty-five names, I think. (Don't quote me on that, but I know it's a lot.) The lunch was going to continue, still, for another half-hour. Harvey said that he does see more need this year; and he told me that more white people are coming in, too, to a place that is historically African-American but always welcoming to everyone.

There were older men and women, younger men and women, people who looked as though they might be wearing the only warm clothes they own. There was a young woman holding an adorable six-month-old baby on her hip. When I admired the baby and told her I missed that - having a little one - because mine is 24 years old and 6'3", she half-jokingly but half-seriously chided me for lying ... you know it has to be difficult for her, caring for a baby when her resources are undoubtedly very meager. When I saw her later, without her coat on, it looked as though she might be pregnant again; her abdomen didn't have the post-partum softness, but rather a firm bump.

One older woman came up to receive her boxed lunch and asked if she could have one to take home to her husband, who hadn't come with her. No, Miss Henrietta said; only one per person. It wasn't stated outright, but I'm guessing that this was to ensure that everyone who came in was able to eat, that there may have been calculations of the great need vs. the limits of the food supplies. As faith-centric as the Kitchen is, having been founded by Harvey's and Miss Henrietta's father, the late Rev. Harvey Savage, Sr., even they can't stretch a few fish and some loaves of bread to feed the 5,000.

As I helped to cut homemade sheet cakes that had been donated, I worked with a very nice young man whose name, unfortunately, I didn't get. (We were busy, filling boxes and plates and greeting people.) He was familiar with the work of the Cherry Street Mission, which offers food and shelter to the homeless community. He is active in his church. He clearly gives to, and supports, those in need to the best of his ability.

He told me, "This place has been here 50 years, and this is my first time doing this" - serving the Thanksgiving meal. "I feel ashamed." And he hung his head, feeling genuine embarrassment for not having been a part of this effort in previous years.

Then he waved at someone across the room, telling me, "I went to school with him." They'd started out life together, but one was serving the meal and the other was benefiting from it. The young man could have ignored his former classmate, but instead acknowledged him. They didn't speak, that I know of, to find out how life had treated them differently, how each had ended up on different sides of the serving table. It was undoubtedly difficult for both of them to have this moment of recognition.

The picture at the top of this post is of the "to go" container that each guest at the Kitchen received yesterday. There was no special china, no freshly polished silverware; the first task I was set to was the distribution of plastic forks that had been wrapped in paper napkins. People sat at the long tables eating what might be their only holiday meal out of styrofoam.

There were no second helpings. There was no choice in what was served, with the exception of serving one box with no ham to a man who doesn't eat pork. One man asked if he could have a different type of bread, rather than the roll; but in the noise and commotion of feeding such a long line of people, those in the kitchen didn't hear him. Something as simple as being able to choose what was on his plate was denied him.

And yet, prayers of thanks were offered before the meal. Throughout the service, people praised the Lord for having brought them to the Kitchen, for having brought them food either to eat when hungry or to serve to those in need. Invariably, each person who came up to the table said "Thank you," regardless of age or life situation. Everyone was polite. Every single one. There was true thanks giving.

The picture above shows a generous meal prepared and served with love; both ham and turkey are hiding under that bread roll. But it is admittedly a meager meal, without the bounty that many of us will enjoy today. There is no buffet of pound cakes and pies, no fresh salad, no sweet potato casserole with little burnished marshmallows. These are donated items, items bought on sale, canned vegetables and cranberry sauce.

There is truly, genuinely nothing wrong with this wholesome, substantial meal; I took a "to go" box for my own lunch, sharing in the bounty only after ensuring that it could be spared. Each of the staff and volunteers sampled the meal, a true community dinner. Harvey joked that if I didn't take mine he'd be eating it. You know I would never, ever take food from someone in need. But I am not too proud, or too important, or in possession of too sophisticated a palate (Cheetos lover that I am, ha!) that I wouldn't share in this generous food, too.

I go to many, many events where I get to dress up and sample a specially selected wine with each course; and there are multiple courses, served by professional waitstaff in elegant surroundings like country clubs. Oysters and foie gras and truffles have made appearances in the dinners I've been invited to.

One of the hazards of my job, if you can call it that, is that I get paid to eat. And I get paid to eat food prepared by some of the top chefs in the city, the country, the world.

But it was far more important to have shared in the Kitchen's Thanksgiving lunch yesterday, because part of my mission as Food Editor is to tell the story of food: holidays, nutrition, health, fun, silliness, trends, and need. Especially need.

I'm told fairly regularly by editors that I don't write for the "social action page." Recipes are the focus, a detente that has been grudgingly achieved as I feel important parts of the food world are left out.

It's difficult to go to the Kitchen, as much as I enjoy seeing my friends there and doing what little bit I can to help given the chaos of my schedule. And it's not difficult only because of being confronted with the realities of hunger in a country filled with so much abundance.

It's difficult because the experience is heartwarming and heartbreaking, joyous and sad, infuriating and frustrating, comforting and disturbing, all at once. There is so much laughter, so much focus on blessings and the Lord's generosity. And there's so much sadness, such a feeling of inadequacy because you can't fix it, you can't solve it, you can't wish the pain away for the Kitchen's guests. There's a muddle of confused emotions.

I think everyone should spend the day before Thanksgiving at a breakfast program, a homeless shelter's dinner, or a church's giveaway of food boxes. Because while so many of us are complaining that there's no room in the refrigerator for the turkey and the green bean casserole and the salad ingredients and the cider and all the other plentiful items we'll be gorging on at our own holiday celebrations, there are people who have nothing - no assurance of a bed, of warmth, or of another meal - who still say "thank you" when you give them so little in a styrofoam box that's accompanied by a plastic fork.

And so, my Thanksgiving today is about much more than timing the side dishes to be ready when the turkey is. And I do hope that yours will be, as well.

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