November 23, 2006

Giving thanks by giving back

Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action. (W.J. Cameron)

We''ve talked about it for years.

Dispensing with the stress of of who is hosting, what's on the menu, and what to do with all of that leftover turkey.

Heading instead to the local food bank or a homeless shelter or some organization helping others and offering our services for the day.

When we talked to Daniel and discovered he was again working with the local chapter of Loaves and Fishes, opening the restaurant and preparing a traditional Thanksgiving feast to feed the homeless, we knew that this was the year we were going to do it. A chance to spend the afternoon playing in a commercial kitchen AND contribute to the community in the process? What a deal!

Service was scheduled from 2-6 PM, so we showed up promptly at 1 and rolled up our sleeves to get to work. Tracy finished up the last of a dozen pumpkin pies while Heather tackled the mashed potatoes, John prepped turkey parts for the gravy, and Daniel and I assembled a plantain gratin -- plan B if we ran out of sweet potatoes.

But with 2 - 18 pound turkeys, two large vats each of potatoes and stuffing, a gallon of cranberry chutney, 10 dozen rolls and several pounds of veggies for sauteeing --- plus extra containers with several servings of vegetarian options for each of the sides -- we weren't likely to run out.

From the gratin I moved to the vegetable saute station under Daniel's expert direction, while John whipped a half gallon of cream for topping the pies.

While we spent the majority of our afternoon in the kitchen -- other volunteers waited the tables in the dining room -- we familiarized ourselves with the menu options in case there was a rush and we needed to switch gears. Our dining room volunteers offered each guest a beverage: milk, coke, diet coke, sprite, iced tea, coffee or water. They could then select from white meat, dark meat or vegetarian, and servers inquired about nut or other food alergies. Children (and there were a few) could choose vanilla ice cream in place of the pie for dessert.

After climing over one another creating the first few plates the process princess in me and the professional chef in Daniel kicked in and we created a makeshift line that worked pretty well right and left-handed alike.

Roll on a pie plate in the oven. Check.

Potatoes at 12:00, dressing at 3. Turkey over the top, and a ladel of dressing over the entire ensamble. Check.

One step to the right, add sweet potatoes at 6. The sauteed vegetables -- 3 carrots, a quarter cup or so of cabbage and a broccolini spear -- at 9. Check.

Pull the roll from the oven and add it to the center of the plate. Check.

Hand the enitre ensamble to Heather, who added the cranberry sauce before delivering to the table.

In the end we served 18 dinners over the course of 4 hours -- we might have seen a larger turnout if public transportation had been an option, but it doesn't run in Contra Costa County on Thanksgiving.

The biggest surprise for both of us was the amount of food waste. While some of our early guests requested seconds -- not sure where or when their next meal might be -- most plates came back largely untouched. I think back to the stories my parents told about the depression -- how grateful hungry families were for whatever the soup kitchen served -- and I don't know how to parse the waste I witnessed. I just know it bothers me.

In spite of the food waste, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was fun to play in a real restaurant kitchen. And both interesting and educational to work with Daniel and his team. And uptimately reaching out and helping other human beings -- that's what Thanksgiving's about to me.

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