Sunday, January 2, 2011

Loaves, Fishes and a Prayer for Better World in 2011

Photography by Benson Goh
Ask anyone about their holiday and inevitably the subject of travel comes up. Except for the how-long-I-was-stranded-at-the-airport-or-on-the-airplane stories, these are usually happy tales because they are about meals and spending time with loved ones. The conversation usually doesn't end without mention of some regret that time or distance keeps people from getting together more often.

As an aficionado of travel and aviation I love hearing these accounts. Listen, I'm the oddball who actually asks to see my friends' vacation photos. This post is about a gathering I've been blessed to be part of over the past fifteen years. It involves lots of people, complicated logistics, food, food, food, and travel, albeit by car and within the city limits of Stamford, Connecticut.

From left Bernadette and Benson Goh, Kyle and Lisa Urbino
The get-together is a nightly dinner at a place I know as Pacific House, but in fact it is officially called Shelter for the Homeless. This charitable organization works with men who are in need of temporary housing, meals, counseling or other assistance. Pacific House has cleverly arranged to provide a hot meal to its clients by enlisting at least 30 religious or community groups and making each responsible for preparing one dinner a month. Since my church, First Presbyterian Church of Stamford started back in the nineties, we've been assigned to cook the first Saturday night of every month and the number of men with whom we've shared a meal has ranged from a low of 40 some nights to a high of nearly 100.

Okay, so on the surface the goal is to help folks get a nutritious, delicious meal. But to those of us involved in the event, it has become so much more. Through the preparation of food we learn about each others' cultures and family rituals. Through the serving we get the opportunity to make connections and even practice rusty 2nd languages like French and Spanish. By joining the men at the table we've come to understand a bit about the circumstances of people who are often little more than an ignored part of the cityscape.

Photography by Benson Goh
If you were to ask any of us involved in this mission  if we want to be doing this, the immediate answer would be "no". The men served don't want to have to depend on charity to eat, who does? Those of us who cook would rather live in a world without hunger. That's not the world we live in. However, thinking of the meals shared with folks who were down-on-their-luck or battling demons, I know I've learned valuable lessons from them.

Photography by Benson Goh
Over the years supermarkets have donated food. Volunteers have turned up with steaks purchased with their own money. Cooks come armed with personal kitchen implements, bearing home-baked goods or veggies from their gardens. 

Last night for example, the owner of New Wave Seafood, decided that for the first day of the new year, nothing less than fresh fish would be appropriate, so he kicked in with salmon for 78. We cooked it two different ways. We also prepared spicy fried chicken, southeast Asian rice and peas, grilled garlic kale, mixed spinach and cranberry salad, peach upside down cake and apple spice cake along with ice cream. This was the feast loading down the tables as the first day of 2011 came to an end.  It was hearty, delicious, abundant and beautiful, an experience any diner would appreciate, any restaurant would have been proud to have hosted. Lord knows, I was astonished it came from the work of our hands.
Robin Mattice made apple spice cake

But this story is not to praise my church, though our members (Bobby Anderson, Robin Mattice, Elizabeth Wheeler and Diane Dischino) sure can cook! Some of the volunteer chefs worship elsewhere, like Lisa Urbano and her son Kyle, Chris Mayglothing and her son Joe. Benson and Bernadette Goh were visiting from Singapore. 

No, today I just want to share with you a holiday story  - complete with luscious photographs - of food and friendship. And to acknowledge that this kind of activity is being repeated around the globe by people who have figured out that each one of us can contribute to making the world a better place. One afternoon in the kitchen, one fish, one cake, one hungry mouth, one willing heart, one shared table at a time.

Happy New Year

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