Friday, December 19, 2008

Not at all like playing piano

I've always thought of food as a hobby. I enjoy everything about eating, especially in restaurants, where the atmosphere changes the entire mood and the way in which I enjoy my food. I list eating as one of my favorite activities, and food as one of my many interests, like reading or hopscotch. I enjoy talking about food, about flavors, about sensations, about my experiences eating and tasting and enjoying someone else's company.

In the midst of all my babbling about restaurants and banana amazingness and sweet potato fries, I rarely consider the fact that food is more than just something I simply enjoy. I actually need food to SURVIVE. I love food so much that I sometimes forget that it's actually kind of important in terms of keeping myself alive. It seems so bizarre to me, the concept that something I've always been so enchanted with is actually a basic necessity that I physically COULDN'T give up, even if I wanted to. I can't quit this hobby like I quit piano (six years of lessons and I could barely play a note); I'm probably going to need to stick with this one for life.

I had three hours to think about this concept yesterday as I labored lovingly over countless vegetables during my three-hour time slot volunteering with God's Love We Deliver in SoHo ( Contrary to popular belief (and much to my own relief), GLWD is NOT a religious organization. The purpose of the organization is simply to deliver nutritious meals to clients living with life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. The service is provided free of charge twice a day on weekdays. Every weekday of the year, according to the director. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Early next year, the director told us, they're expecting to serve their one millionth meal.

I volunteered with GLWD through my company as a corporate event, so several of my colleagues worked the same shift. We had signed up for meal preparation, and we arrived at 9 a.m., groggy but enthusiastic and ready to tackle those veggies with gusto. After a short orientation video and instructions regarding sanitation (how often to change our gloves and aprons, when to put on our attractive hair caps, etc.), we were led down to the kitchen to wash up and report to our stations for our 9 a.m. to noon shift.

The director had clearly noticed my excitement when he mentioned that there was a baking station, so in an apparent effort to teach me a lesson he sent my boss and one of my co-workers off to bake cakes. My boss knew I would be distressed about this and tried to drift toward the vegetable chopping station instead, but our director wasn't having it, which was actually kind of hilarious. "No no, dear, YOU'RE at the baking station," he exclaimed, guiding my boss gently to the baking area. Okay, man, I dig it. Veggie choppin' it is!

My first job was peeling onions and slicing them in half with a huge blade. I had always thought the tales about onions making people cry were exaggerations, but after several minutes my eyes were definitely stinging and had begun to water. Fortunately, a few changes of my powdery gloves seemed to solve the problem and the task went pretty quickly due to the large number of volunteers.

Next, we labeled some of the frozen meals, already packaged and frozen in their silvery containers. We wiped the frost from each lid and applied a label with the name of the product (lemon catfish) and cooking instructions. Our director had told us that Friday was Fish Day (as opposed to Chicken Day on Monday, Pork Day on Tuesday, Vegetarian Day on Wednesday, and something I can't recall on Thursdays), so I knew the meals would probably be going out the next day. I imagined that maybe tomorrow would be someone's first day receiving a meal, and it would be one I had labeled. Or perhaps next week someone would receive the meal featuring the onions I had hacked and shucked. I felt like I had created, or at least helped create, something that would be very important.

We loaded trays and trays back into the moving metal racks, then wiped down our area and returned to our vegetable station for fun with carrots.

At this point, I really went to town. We were peeling the carrots with a nifty two-way peeler the likes of which I'd never seen before (a good approximation: It looked almost like a razor, and it was much easier to grip. I soon became the fastest peeler in the land, and I felt pretty smug when one of the chefs told another volunteer to be sure to peel away all the skin because it would turn black when cooked, which sounded really unappetizing. I was definitely not leaving any skin, that much was certain!

As ribbons of carrot skin sprang faster and faster from the sharp edges of my peeler, however, my mind started to wander (always a dangerous occurence) and I realized that none of this was about me at all. I needed to peel these carrots correctly, not leaving any skin, because someone would be eating this as their meal. They couldn't send blackened carrots back to the kitchen with a stern message to an inept chef. I was creating the meal they were eating because they couldn't afford to procure their own food, or didn't have the strength to meet their friends at a cozy, warm restaurant decorated with Christmas lights as snow beat the windows. Peeling furiously, I thought about these people for whom the food I was making was their sustenance, and they would eat it without complaint. They would never have the opportunity to be indignant about undercooked potatoes or refuse pasta that was accidentally garnished with a single shimmering hair. Food wasn't their hobby; food was their lifeline.

I'm constantly surprised by the new dimensions and depths I discover about my relationship with food. I learn to cook new things and make new combinations. I recognize flavors. Different restaurants have a different quality and a different way of appealing to me, of creating a certain mood, of making me want to be there, to eat there. Certain dishes will always remind me of certain events or people (Ashley and her Wal-Mart cinnamon buns, all those brunches with L at Neptune Diner, Peach Noodle Kugel and all the amazing potlucks in my cozy college apartment, Andy forcing me to eat nutella while we panicked about finals, Janiene and me lingering at Salaam over Chicken B'Steeya and Coconut Chicken Curry). There are so many aspects to appreciating food, and GLWD reminded me that it's also important to recognize it at its most basic level. Beyond something that brings you closer to friends or creates new experiences and memories, food is something everyone shares. We all need it, we all consume it.

Yesterday, I gave the gift of one of my favorite things in the world, a good meal, to someone who appreciates food, REALLY appreciates food, more than I ever have or ever will. And that is a truly amazing feeling.

And just so this isn't a COMPLETE downer...please look for a cheery post about delicious cupcakes with pastel frosting coming soon.

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