Friday, December 3, 2010

Repost from DC Foodies Do Good: Volunteering with DC Foodies Do Good at Miriam's Kitchen

The following is a post by DC Foodies Do Good volunteer Elizabeth F. Stewart (bio below). and was originally posted on the DC Foodies Do Good Blog. on December 1st.

“Special eggs” were on the breakfast menu yesterday at Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, DC. The eggs were called “special” because they were scrambled with green peppers, onions and cheddar cheese; but, they were actually “special” because, along with plain scrambled eggs, they were offered as an option. Miriam’s Kitchen guests probably have few options within their personal control. At least at breakfast yesterday, this diverse group of 200+ homeless men and women had some simple options: “one waffle or two; syrup, regular or sugar-free; and/or berry sauce; grits and/or home fries; plain eggs or special eggs.” It felt good that I could offer them those options, serving a choice of eggs when I volunteered at Miriam’s Kitchen yesterday with the service-and-social group, DC Foodies Do Good (DCFDG).
Everyone has personal reasons for wanting to volunteer. I hadn’t volunteered in a kitchen before, but I always felt I “should.” For many of us, especially people who consider themselves “foodies,” food can be a source of fun, the center of social activities and family life, and an art. But, like many people, in addition to those positive associations, I have negative emotional associations with eating and weight, body image and food-related health issues. I thought I might gain some perspective by volunteering to serve people with a heightened hierarchy of food needs, i.e. people who are at risk for hunger.
Honestly, I had no illusions about altruism being my motive for volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen. I was being selfish. They have a full schedule of volunteers for months ahead. They don’t need me as much as I need them. Plus, I wanted to meet the group’s co-founder, nutritionist/editor Robyn Webb, who inspires me professionally. And, I was curious to see who else who would show up at dawn to cook for strangers. This group is called DC Foodies Do Good, and the guests at Miriam’s Kitchen benefitted from our efforts, but I have to say, this Foodie came to Do Good for Me.
In the restaurant industry for many years on the business side, I’ve never worked in a kitchen. In fact, as much as I know about food, I rarely cook for myself. So, I was nervous about being in over my head and surrounded by the culinary talent of serious “foodies.” I was worried that the best I could expect was escaping with all my fingers intact. So, I was hoping to be assigned very simple tasks. I was nervous like a kid on her first day in a new school.
But, from registration to hanging up my red apron on the way out, DC Foodies Do Good and Miriam’s Kitchen made it easy. I registered online and found simple directions and instructions. When I arrived in the warm, well-lit parking garage, I was greeted warmly by Robyn and issued my official DC Foodies Do Good tee shirt and baseball cap. Everyone was warm and friendly while the pace was brisk and businesslike, as the chef called out countdowns to mealtime to help the crew pace themselves. The regulars, including Robyn, were fairly sure of routine procedures. I overheard the chef remark to her that, when she is there, he is confident that she knows what to do, so he can get her started, move on to help the new people, and not have to worry about her tasks getting done.
So, with Robyn and her cohort actually cooking with confidence, stirring huge pans of golden scrambled eggs, he could concentrate on showing me and another newbie how we should slice their tub of grapefruit and oranges, which he explained were sourced from Costco’s imperfect-produce reject bin (his term was “dumpster diving”). The fruit was at peak ripeness, but only one piece was even remotely imperfect inside. Their Facebook page states: “All of our food is made with fresh ingredients that include whole grains, prime meats, and organic fruit and vegetables.” They are very resourceful.
While slicing, standing still at a counter with controlled, speedy activity all around us, we concentrated on not cutting ourselves while breaking down the fruit in the big bin. I had a moment to get acquainted with another newbie, a very pleasant, interesting woman who was there for her own reasons as well. She told me about being in transition with her family and career, and using the experience of volunteering there to help her accept her lack of control over some trying life circumstances. Then I knew I wasn’t the only Foodie there to Do Good For Me.
Meanwhile the kitchen was filling with the wonderful, homey breakfast aroma of real batter sizzling in a real waffle iron, turning out hundreds of lovely, perfectly browned, small waffles. Also contributing to the dreamy kitchen scents were syrup warming, cream biscuits baking and eggs scrambling. Finished with the citrus slicing, my partner and I were tasked with numerically ordering bins of plastic cards that would be assigned to guests as they arrived. Then we moved across the kitchen, past the central shelving holding great cooking sheets of the fresh baked biscuits and bins of the golden waffles, to broad, deep stainless steel sinks, where we peeled and cut sweet potatoes that would be roasted for tomorrow’s home fries. We heard the chef call, “5 minutes!” and were asked to move to the front counter, where the steam tables were set with pans of hot waffles, syrups, berry compote, home fries (big hand-cut chunks of mixed white and sweet potatoes, sautéed with herbs), stone-cut grits and the two kinds of eggs. On the side were the biscuits and fruit. Truly, a nicer breakfast spread couldn’t be found at a high-end country B&B. Just beyond the door near us, we could hear another volunteer describing the menu to the room, waiter-style, but louder, to be audible above the low babble of the assembled, “Today we have waffles and syrup or berry sauce, regular scrambled eggs and special scrambled eggs…”
We donned our plastic gloves and one of the regular sous chefs told us how to serve the food on the compartmented trays, and what to expect from the guests. “Like anyone else, these folks can be particular. You’ll get someone who is very specific about how you put the food on their tray; some people don’t want their eggs to touch their waffles. Some people won’t want the sweet potatoes, so you can offer them grits instead. We have the regular eggs and the special eggs, with the peppers, onions and cheese, so you have to ask them which they want.” And, with that advice, the pass-through panel raised, suddenly revealing a lively, full dining room and a long line in front of us. It was service time.
I raised my egg-wielding ice-cream scoop to get ready for action. “Good morning, Sir, would you care for plain, scrambled or special eggs today? The special eggs have green peppers, onions and cheese in them. Regular for you today? Yes, Sir!” I tried to be extra friendly, polite and respectful without coming off like a chirpy airhead, as I scooped eggs onto the trays of over 200 people. After several egg pan refills at the steamtable, somehow they all ran out almost exactly when the line ended, although the portions did get a tad skimpier toward the end.
I was struck by many thoughts while serving, but the recurrent one was, “I hope that if I am ever in their shoes, I can find a safe, caring place like this to eat and keep warm, and that I will carry myself with as much good grace as they do.” Most people we served were low-key, but warm and friendly, some joking around with us. Some were very quiet, not being sociable. Some appeared to have been outside in the elements for extended periods with weathered complexions and worn clothing; some appeared well-heeled and -groomed, dressed for a professional office job. I worried about where they all would spend time between meals, and if this hearty, carb-loaded, delicious-looking breakfast at 8:00 would tide them over until the dinner service at 4:45.
All the guests being served, trays were already being collected for washing, and I moved back to the sinks , where I found Robyn washing them. Another volunteer cleared the remaining food, Robyn washed, I rinsed and passed the trays onto a drying rack, where they were towel-dried and stacked by another volunteer. This chore gave me a chance to chat with Robyn, which I had looked forward to. An accomplished blogger and entrepreneur, Robyn is also the co-creator of Eat, Write, Retreat, the exciting May, 2011 food blogger conference in DC, which I am attending with a client. So, I wanted to learn more from her about the event and to compare notes on various other professional topics we have in common. I also had a moment to chat with the volunteer drying the trays, a retired military foodservice manager, who sought out DCFDG because she feels at home in a big kitchen and wanted to be meet other food people. On my way out I got to chat briefly with Jasmine, one of DCFDG’s organizers.
My selfish goals for volunteering were all met. And 200+ people had a healthy hot breakfast before braving the cold December day ahead. Win-win.
I highly recommend volunteering with DCFDG. They are very organized yet flexible, professional yet friendly; they offer outstanding volunteer and social opportunities that are unique and interesting. I look forward to my next volunteer session, and to attending some of the social events! Their next service opportunity will be serving lunch at DC’s Ronald McDonald House on Sunday, December 12.
About the author:
Elizabeth F. Stewart is director of E.F.Stewart Communications and specializes in social media and brand management. She has a strong background in art direction and graphic design for publications, advertising and identity. Her clients include creative professionals, restaurants, and organizations devoted to the arts and human rights.

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