Cookin' at the Goin' Home Cafe
Thirteen cooks. Three hundred hungry people, give or take a few. Four meals in just under 36 hours. These were the known parameters of our assignment at the Emergency Communities relief site in the Lower Ninth Ward.
What we didn't know is what we'd find in the way of ingredients, so our fearless leader Christine suggested that we think of the experience as an Iron Chef competition of sorts. What we didn't expect is a malfunctioning refrigerator/freezer truck and enormous amounts of expired meat and rotting perishables. Collectively, we agreed that we would completely disinfect the kitchen and washing areas before any cooking would commence, and that we'd have to cough up the bucks to replace the vast majority of the ingredients we'd need for dinner, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Clearly, the state of the facility put a wrench into menu planning and prep, but the group slated to cook that evening's dinner was really feeling the crunch, particularly in light of a promoted "BBQ" night involving a large grill setup. While Christine and Gerald shopped for our ingredients, we scrubbed the kitchen like banshees and began prepping what we could for the next day's meals.
Under normal circumstances in a fully operating commercial kitchen, chefs cooking for a group of this magnitude would do as much advance prep as humanly possible to make the job easier. But with a refrigerator on the fritz leaving all perishables in jeopardy, we couldn't take the chance.
In spite of all the drama, uncertainty and hand wringing, dinner -- which included grilled marinated pork chops, a cold veggie pasta salad with a soy-sesame dressing, and fruit salad -- went off smoothly. The food was ready at four, just in time to set up in the dining room and start serving to residents and volunteers buffet style.
While dinner proceeded, Jeff made a huge vat of marinara sauce for our team's lunch prep, and Mick and I got to work on raisin-oatmeal bars, crossing our fingers that the uneven oven would cooperate. Erik and Viviana were the washing ninjas, dealing with a never-ending mountain of dinner plates and commercial-sized pots and pans in a makeshift canopy.
Everyone worked nonstop, moving from one job to the next, looking for ways to keep things and ourselves sanitized, stay hydrated, all the while wondering if the refrigerator would be working the next day.
Ten hours later, we bid our goodbyes and piled back into the vans, exhausted, filthy and stinky. A few would go straight to bed and turn around first thing in the morning to cook breakfast.
When I finally crawled into bed, I thought about the day. No doubt did we prove that we were talented, quick on the draw and able to make good-tasting food from extremely limited resources and under difficult conditions. It was nothing short of a miracle, really, so why did I feel heavy and sad?
Entry on the second day was a bit easier, given that we had left our cleansing footprint on the site and were all pumped up to crank out three consecutive meals.
The breakfast crew reported that they had served about 200 people, and that we should expect similar numbers at lunch. In about two hours, we pulled together baked cheese-y pasta, chicken cacciatore, roasted broccoli, black-eyed peas and watermelon-tomato salad.
People were lined up at noon, many of them dirty from gutting houses, demolition and other kinds of construction. They were young and old, black and white, all with empty bellies and heavy hearts.
Later in the afternoon, Darrin, a resident who volunteers much of his time at EC, gave us a tour of the neighborhood, including a home he's helping a friend to rebuild as well as his house, which was under nine feet of water for about two months. He was in the house alone for a few days until he was rescued by boat.
At the end of the two days, I was feeling many emotions, as were my colleagues. Certainly four meals for 300-some people in less than 36 hours is not going to fix anyone's life. But hopefully it makes the residents of the Lower Ninth feel less forgotten.
It brings to mind something that chef Frank Brigsten said to us last night: "We need Americans to come see us, meet us and hear our stories."
And that is what we did with Darrin, who's trying to rebuild, and Harold, the guy with one tooth, and George, who stands in line with his mother, and the guy I like to call "Professor," who wanted some suggestions on writing his autobiography. These are the people of the Lower Ninth, and they must not be forgotten. And food is one of the most powerful ways to let them know you're right there, willing to listen.
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