Last Thursday, I started working in the soup kitchen at the women’s shelter, Florence House, here in Portland, Maine. I arrived 15 minutes early, at 10:15 in the morning, feeling nervous but glad to be there; I’d been meaning to do this for months, and here I was. A staff member led me back into a clean, well-appointed kitchen. As I signed my name in the register in the little office, I heard Nick Drake on the CD player, saw a Julia Child quote on a banner (“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients”), and smelled something good cooking on the stove. I almost burst into tears.

After I introduced myself to Monica, the kitchen supervisor, she put me to work. I assembled about 60 cheese sandwiches and toasted them in butter on the grill and set the container into the steam table, loosely covered, to await lunch service. Then I peeled and diced a box of carrots and stored them in the refrigerator. Local supermarkets had donated all the ingredients in the kitchen – Hannaford, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods.

From 12 to 1, I stood by the steam table and served two kinds of soup, both made from scratch (broccoli cheddar and tomato basil), along with the sandwiches I’d made, while Kim, my fellow new volunteer, served the salad she’d made, and Monica started the prep work for that night’s dinner.

Monica told us that the other volunteer on that day’s lunch shift, Diane, had just been given the Volunteer of the Year award. Diane spent the whole shift washing dishes in the corner. Every time I needed more, there she was, restocking soup bowls and sandwich plates by my elbow. She did this with immense cheer, unobtrusively; it was not hard to guess why she’d been awarded the honor. The soup kitchen, I could tell right away without having it spelled out for me, has a strong ethic of service, or “mission,” as they call it; it’s not religious, it’s not didactic, but it is humble and without ego or judgment.

I stood in my apron and dished up lunch for all the women who came shuffling up to the service window. Many of them didn’t make eye contact. Many of them looked as if they had been through terrible things, formidable struggles. Even so, they knew what they wanted in their lunch, and they were not shy about demanding it. Some of them said, “Not that sandwich, I want one that’s not so burned.” Some of them asked for seconds, even thirds. They all loved the broccoli cheddar soup.

One of the rules of the place that I agreed to observe when I volunteered was not to reveal identifying details about anyone there. This is not a writer’s favorite promise to make, especially because the singular details and specificity of people are a novelist’s bread and butter. Even so, I can see the usefulness of protecting the anonymity of women in a shelter. But as I stood there dishing up their lunches, I wanted to know all their stories, their histories. I would be lying if I pretended otherwise.

Soup Kitchen Three-Bean Chili

After lunch had been cleaned up, before my shift was over, Monica had me assemble what she called a “three-bean chili” (“It sounds more exciting than ‘vegetarian chili,’” she said. “They complain sometimes when there’s no meat”), for the next day’s lunch, in order to use up various assorted cans of beans she had rattling around the pantry. This chili turned out to be similar to the one I make myself on a cold night when I haven’t bought groceries and want something quick, easy, good, and nourishing.

Saute a chopped onion, a celery rib, and a bell pepper in olive oil with plenty of garlic, cumin, paprika, oregano, black pepper, and chili powder. Add a rinsed can of one each of the following beans: dark kidney, pinto, and black. Add a can of diced tomatoes, a bay leaf, and chicken broth as needed. Simmer for 15 minutes and dish into shallow bowls with plenty of grated cheddar, chopped raw onion, and sour cream.

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