Cooking Dinner for the Homeless at the Mustard Seed

Although it’s been a very long time since I was a scout, I still try to do good deeds. Last night, nine dedicated CMassers did a good deed.

Owing to employee pressure, Critical Mass started doing charity work some months ago. So far, it’s entailed a head-shaving fundraiser, an auction, and a couple of food drives (I think — some of the beginning of this year is a bit blurry). We’re getting into Habitat for Humanity, though we haven’t done anything with it yet.

One thing we have done a few times, and this is a regular activity for us, is to make dinner one night at month at the Mustard Seed Street Ministry kitchen, for Calgary’s financially inhibited. We donate the majority of the food for that meal, and the labour to create it. Last night was my first crack at the kitchen.

We headed over at 4:00 to the “Seed” (as it’s referred to by its staff) to start preparation. We had to chop and cook everything we had with us. Mercy, the Bistro manager and our head chef, headed over early to get started. Within a few minutes of arriving, we were mercilessly chopping celery, broccoli, bok choy (I was “Bok Choy Boy”), onions (luckily, they had a machine which did most of the work, but we had to peel and quarter them first), and carrots (I was on peeling detail).

Early into the cutting process, I started to notice a strong stinging sensation in my right hand. I noticed, much to my chagrin, that the knife I was using was literally scraping skin off my forefinger. Most knives are thin metal plates with either plastic or wood wrapped around (or tacked to the side of) the handle. This knife had a serious user interface problem — the wood was too short, and left an 1/8 inch strip jutting out the top. Although not as sharp as the blade (which was pretty darn sharp, let me tell you), it was enough to peel off some skin. I donned a surgical glove for the remainder of the evening.

Part way through the chopping, I was asked to help out with another task. While four of us cut veggies, three others were chopping fruit. We were making fruit salad for dessert. A lot of fruit salad. About 50 pounds of it, as near as I can tell. It had to be mixed in a very large pot, and I somehow landed the task of stirring the mass of fruit.

With my arm.

I was up to my elbow in melon and strawberries. It was a peculiar sensation, to say the least. It would have probably been a lot more pleasant if the fruit were warmer, but it was still chilled from refrigeration. My fingers were numb after a few minutes. That said, it felt like I was doing a remake of the kitchen scene from “9 1/2 Weeks”.

We were making a stupidly large amount of food. The Seed is well-equipped for such a meal, though, complete with a huge array of pots of varying sizes (ranging from gigantic to titanic), scoops that can take about over a litre of contents at once, massive ovens that cooked eight huge pans of rice, an immense grill we used for stir frying the veggies, and a … uh … I’m not sure what to call it … a square caldron we used for cooking the sweet and sour chicken.

Although I don’t have a complete recipe, here’s the one we used to make the sweet and sour chicken:

80 lb Cubed, cooked meat (chicken)
15 lb Onions
15 Garlic cloves, crushed
4×100 oz Pineapple
2 L Soy sauce
3 cups Brown sugar
3 cups Vinegar
20 L Water

It all fit into that one cauldron.

Add to that 50 lbs of fruit salad, three very large pots (each about 50 lbs) of vegetables, and at least 40 lbs of rice … that’s a lot of food. Aside from the vegetables, it was mostly cooked by 6:30, at which time the staff (including volunteers and ourselves) got to eat. Despite the mass quantities of food, it was still quite tasty. And the rice turned out much better than I thought was possible in an oven (better than any rice I’ve ever made).

Then the rush started. Heather, Steve, Bill, Therese, and Eryn took the frontline for serving, Carla helped dispense coffee and tea, Mercy cooked the vegetables, and Jen and I did the grunt labour of keeping the serving trays full and the vegetables flowing to the grill to be cooked.

The four and a half hours disappeared, and soon it was 8:30, which is when the kitchen closes. There wasn’t much left — a little for lunch, but that was about it. At that point, we were free to leave. All we had to do was cut, cook, and serve. Other staff were responsible for cleaning up after our mess. (And we made a pretty decent one, although it was hard to tell by the end — the Seed staff are very quick at cleaning up.)

As we began to shut up the kitchen, signifying the end of dinner, one of the Seed’s patrons stuck his head in through one of the serving windows, to say thanks for dinner. He said something like this:

“Y’know the movie ‘Angels in the Outfield’? Well, we got Angels in the kitchen!”

We had served about 500 people, although we have yet to receive an exact number. We were feeling really good about ourselves. Until we went outside, that is.

There were about a hundred people who hadn’t been able to get in. A hundred people who wouldn’t get dinner. It was sobering to realize that for all those you do help, there are always more in need. It just emphasized that what we are doing is in no way trivial.

It’s also in no way easy. I was sore. I was physically exhausted. And my feet were ready to declare themselves a separate and distinct society from the rest of my body. But it was very rewarding. I opted to skip a movie last night, and instead curled up in a chair at home to rest.

I will help at the Seed again, that much is for certain. Just not until my feet stop pounding.

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