I walked in to the soup kitchen on Thursday morning to find Monica, the kitchen manager, almost in tears, in a state of awe. There were 10 or 11 boxes on the floor by the steam table, the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen, glistening and alive and gorgeous and colorful — lettuce, radishes, kale, chard, spring onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, scapes. Florence House was just awarded a grant worth $100 a week, which pays for a full membership in a farm collective share. The collective is local, in Portland and right outside. They train immigrant women to farm. For several minutes, Monica and Alison and I stood there beaming at each other and at the vegetables.
For lunch, we used up all the vegetables that were already there to make room for this incredible new stuff. I augmented a steam table pan of leftover fried rice with a medley of chopped carrots, onions, celery, and peppers, stuck it into the oven to heat, then made two big stir fries, one vegetarian, one with many pounds of donated Whole Foods organic chicken. When it was noon and time for lunch, Alison held down the serving while I did dishes and prepped radish greens. I hadn’t known radish greens were edible. They’re mildly peppery, a little like arugula.
Meanwhile, Monica was breaking down the shipment of farm-collective vegetables. Then, using a fish tub full of vegetable scraps, she made a stock for a spring onion and potato soup.
I am always so happy to be there, to feed homeless women such nourishing, well-cooked food. And it feels good to work so hard. I’m a writer who usually works in a chair at a desk. At the end of a three-hour shift of nonstop dishwashing, pot-scrubbing, chopping, serving, and cleaning, I feel tired and relaxed, as if my brain has had a real break. I imagine that it would be hard do this for a living. Volunteering is profoundly and essentially different from working for pay. It’s pure, and it’s egoless, and it allows for a rare, happy sense of being in the pocket, in the flow of life, without thinking about anything.
My sister Susan runs a yoga center in Amsterdam. She’s told me that just about anything can be yoga — it’s all in the state of mind. I didn’t understand what she meant, then, but I think I’m starting to now. In my rudimentary understanding of what my sister was talking about, it seems that the practice of yoga can create an impersonal, transcendent love.
I love the women at the center from some deep core in myself I haven’t had much experience with before. It gives me an odd and powerful joy to rinse their plates, to mop up milk or soy sauce spills from the dining room floor, to clean the tables where they’ve eaten. The more menial the task, the closer I feel to something rich and mysterious and new. It feels like a blessing, this work.
It’s not about me at all. I’m the one who’s grateful, to Monica of course, and to the women who volunteer alongside me, but mostly to the women who eat at the Florence House soup kitchen. The troubles they’ve been through, the pain they’ve experienced, the difficulties they struggle with, the things they lack and yearn for – those are deeply private, and I can’t know them. I can only look into their faces as they take their plates of food, or as they return their used plates to the dish window. I don’t know exactly what it is I am receiving from them. I can’t put it into words. It feels like a pure exchange of love. They always thank me. I always thank them back.
Soup Kitchen Stir Fry
From the fridge, take all the fish tubs of chopped or sliced vegetables and chop and slice up everything that hasn’t been prepped yet. Assemble your flavorings: the carafes of teriyaki and soy sauce and the jug of corn oil and the jar of roasted pureed garlic and the little thing of Five Spice powder.
When everything is ready to go, heat a giant drum pan over two burners. Pour in about a cup of oil. When it’s hot, throw in a wad of garlic and a heap of aromatics: onion, carrots, celery. Stir. After two minutes, add chopped peppers, cauliflower, mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini, and summer squash. Stir, sprinkle with soy sauce and Five Spice powder until it smells really good. Keep stirring. Add a heap of well-washed, minced farm-share radish greens. Stir like mad. The drum pan should be over half full.
When the stir fry is cooked but not overcooked, get someone to help you lift the pan to divide the contents between two deep steam table pans. In one of them, leave room for the chicken. Put the pans into heated steam table slots and cover them.
Return the drum pan to the heat. Add a cup of corn oil. Stir fry all the chopped chicken, adding teriyaki sauce at the end. When it’s cooked, add it to one of the vegetable stir fry pans and mix together.
Florence House also is home to a number of hard-working, well-trained service dogs, registered emotional-support companions. Make sure to leave enough chicken out of the teriyaki sauce for anyone with a dog who asks for it.