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December 10, 2014: Empty Platter

December 11, 2014

Empty Platter LayoutI have volunteered as a chef’s assistant for several months now for an organization that provides home cooked meals and a pantry supplies to needy families in the area.

When I started at my present job, I was still living on scraps as I had so numerous other bills. Food wasn’t as much as a priority as like…keeping my house and paying for gas for the car. The owners of my company suggested I try Open Table (the local food pantry assistance program) and thought I might benefit from their service. I hemmed and hawed for a couple of days when I finally came to the conclusion that my pride was deeply meshed with my stupidity, and it would be foolish to not take assistance from an organization that was specifically there to help people in exactly my condition at the time.

So I registered for the pantry service. One thing about a service like this is that there is always a little waiting around. You are given a random number that groups you in a queue according to that number. While waiting, I took in the whole environment. The first thing I noticed is that most of my fellow patrons seemed very appreciative to have the service, happy even…despite their obvious current setbacks. It was no wonder, as each Open Table volunteer…to a person was charming, sympathetic, and helpful. The volunteers themselves seemed happy to be there as well. I knew how hard it was for individuals like myself, but my heart went out most of all to the families. I wondered and worried about how many nights the parents had nothing to offer but the empty platter of hunger to their children.

As I waited, being a foodie, I could not help but be interested in the food they served (I never had the meals at Open Table as the pantry suited me fine, and I did not want to burden them any more than I had to.) I found the meals well-made, clearly geared for popular appeal, nutritious, well presented, and best of all…well received! I decided my first night that as soon as I didn’t need the pantry service I would pay them back a bit by volunteering where I thought I could do the most good…the kitchen.

So it has been for some months. And a more peasant kitchen experience I cannot imagine: there are a group of assistants, a group to clean, a group to serve and a lead chef. Everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed to do, often with being directed, and best of all they help each other, all with a pleasant chatter making the whole experience warm and fun. I was always capable of more, but I was happy prepping and cleaning. After all, to my mind I was paying back a debt. The notions that I was having fun, learning a bit, especially about cooking for a huge group of people, and keeping my knife skills sharp (yes…pun intended) were all bonuses.

I got a surprise the other night, when Jim, the lead chef this week told me, “We’re serving ham for the main course, but there will be a few people who cannot eat ham. I would like you to take these ingredients and make something pleasant for them.”

People tell me all the time about these cooking shows where they have challenges/eliminations like this. I’ve never seen any of them, but I imagine that this was like that…minus the TV cameras and lights…and fame…and money…and restaurant positions. On the plus side, I was doing it for coolest folks doing good works for the needy, and it was fun! I ended up making lightly breaded and fried Chicken Breasts, smothered in sautéed Mediterranean Vegetables. I left pleased. It was not my best dish ever (I usually plan way ahead of time) but I thought I did OK, considering the turn-around time.

I went back to work, but after a couple of minutes I had that “DOH” moment when it occurred to me that this would make a good blog article, so I went back down to try to get a shot of my dish. When I found it, the only thing that was left was the empty platter it was served on. At first I thought with a laugh, “Oh, it went over well” but then I remembered the reality: the staff packages the leftovers from the meal and gives them to people as they are leaving, the idea seeming to be to get every scrap of food into the hands of those that need it.

Looking down at that empty platter…something clicked…a switch was thrown. I don’t know if I can describe it, but I’ll try.

I’ve written before that making food is like another form of an expression of love. If I’ve cooked for you, the chances are pretty good (at least at the time of the meal) that I held you in such high regard as to give you the best of my creative industry. Friends and family…easy…cooking for them is pure joy. On the flip side, working in the French restaurant was not only hard work, but I never even saw a patron. The catering jobs I’ve done were smack down the middle. I enjoyed people I didn’t know…enjoying what I made.

So, I’ve cooked in a lot of different situations. Somehow, cooking at Open Table the other night was very different. I discovered that I had created something that could possibly stave off hunger for a few people, for a little while. Although I would never meet them, or talk to them about their troubles, I had been part of something that could make people’s lives (who need it the most) in the tiniest way…a little less painful. That empty platter of mine made someone else’s platter a bit more full. To me, that empty platter was the symbol of the highest expression of love to our fellow-men.

So. At this time of year we are focused on giving. If you truly want to practice “goodwill towards men” I urge you to donate to your local chapter of food and pantry assistance services like Open Table. There is almost certainly one in your town or close-by. Your money will be well-spent giving comfort to those who need it the most.

But you don’t have to listen to just me. People have been writing about the theme of caring for the poor (particularly at Christmas time) for some time. A popular traditional source is the carol by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) in “Good King Wenceslas”

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.”

If you are looking for another contempory source, here’s what Bill Murray has to say about it all. Trust him. He’s a changed man.

 

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2 comments

  1. Steve, you are so amazing. I know you will do so very well at whatever you choose. Your creativity and deep sense of caring for others is a winning combination. Stay well, eat well, and serve others well. Happy Christmas and a Blessed new Year. Much admiration, Kathy Avery


  2. Steve Vedder totally rocks..in every way.. Great man, friend and chef.

    An honour to be his friend.

    Sincerely, Kathy



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