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.


Yours truly in the EC kitchen (Courtney Knapp)

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.


The dining room of the Goin' Home Cafe. (Kim O'Donnel)

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.


My Culinary Corps colleagues at the end of our two-day EC stint. (Kim O'Donnel)

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.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 6, 2007; 8:30 AM ET New Orleans
Previous: The Forgotten Lower Ninth | Next: Waiting for Oysters in Pass Christian

Comments

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thanks Kim, it is really important work you are doing and good to have a first hand account of the situation on the ground.

Posted by: SS,MD | June 6, 2007 10:40 AM

Great Job. Thanks for sharing with us.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 6, 2007 11:11 AM

Thanks, Kim.
Reading this left a lump in my throat. I heard a snip on NPR the other day about NPR and other media receiving comments from people who are "tired" of hearing about New Orleans and who think the story is old. You have made clear it is not old, it is still very real and very much a living story of human suffering and of human caring.

Please let us know how we-- regular people, not cooks or chefs -- can help.

Thanks.

Posted by: Thank you | June 6, 2007 12:44 PM

If you want to help Culinary Corps continue its work, you can donate money at http://www.firstgiving.org/culinarycorps
It's all online and quite easy.
If you'd like to do something other than give money, come on down for a visit. That's what all the locals are telling us. They're so thrilled that we cared enough to come see them and listen to their stories, as I mentioned in today's post, as it helps them to feel less forgotten. Thanks for your note.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 6, 2007 5:10 PM

I had to write a poem for you, Kim

brandishing a weapon
a rolling pin
a slotted metal spoon
a scrub brush

weary in thought and speech
bleached kitchen whites
now smeared with grime
smelling of honest sweat

deep compassion burning
you toil with earnest desire
to see your own shining humanity
to share your life-affirming gifts

a sea of struggling comrades
on the front lines
where no one dares saute onions
you strain off steaming pots of pasta

flagrantly as to suppress complaint
a wry joke ambles forth
your cheerful voice is heard above the fray
eyes shooting green sparks

The notion is engraved in your heart
so profoundly do you feel it,
you put aside the trivial, for the true work.

"Nothing is more precious than peace. Nothing brings more happiness. Peace is the most basic starting point for the advancement of humankind." - The New Human Revolution

Posted by: karla | June 6, 2007 5:56 PM

great stuff, Kim

Posted by: Anonymous | June 7, 2007 10:43 AM

Thank you for keeping the people of the Ninth Ward in the spotlight. Bush and his cronies never gave a damn and I keep wondering if the rest of the country truly understands the devastation that Katrina brought on these people.

Posted by: Paula Parrish | June 9, 2007 11:17 AM

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