It’s easy to see why this nonprofit has won so many awards-it’s organized, fun and the food is five-star!
By Jane Hess Collins
The first clue that Miriam’s Kitchen, located inside the Western Presbyterian Church, is serious about serving fresh food is their herb garden of parsley, basil and rosemary on Virginia Avenue. Inside, the kitchen was an organized beehive of activity, like a scene from “Iron Chef,” except we were all working together to prepare dinner for the District’s homeless.
John Murphy, the assistant director of kitchen operations and supreme multi-tasker, had things well under control. Friendly and deeply committed to his homeless customers, Murphy told me how concerned they were about the debt ceiling debate and its effect on them. Otherwise this young chef was laser-focused on getting the meals ready by 5 o’clock. I had barely donned my apron and ball cap before he listed my tasks to me in rapid-fire order. First, I was to carry several crates of fruit up a short flight of stairs into the walk-in refrigerator, then fold up the cafeteria table that held the crates (at 98 degrees outside, walking into the fridge was my favorite part of the afternoon).
Next he gave me a huge vat and several commercial-sized cookie sheets covered with dozens of cooked pork bones and told me how to prepare a pork and vegetable stock. In his same brisk manner he explained the nutritional value of animal bones, how to get the most flavor out of them and where I could find the peppercorns in the cavernous refrigerator. As I counted bay leaves and broke rosemary twigs, I could hear Murphy manage, educate and encourage each of the 13 volunteers with the same detail and attention he paid to me. All the while he checked our food preparation and gently nudged us toward our 5 o’clock showtime.
The kitchen was small and warm, and there was a fair amount of “excuse me’s” going on while we sliced, diced and stirred around each other. Thankfully my work station was directly beneath the shelf of plastic gloves, which I kept replacing whenever I wiped off my sweaty forehead. On the wall in front of me was a framed New York Times article about First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Miriam’s Kitchen and her passion for healthy food. Talk about incentive!
A few minutes before dinnertime, Murphy called me away from chopping celery for my stock pot and dispatched me to the serving line. A promotion! Five of us volunteers were shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing ball caps and plastic gloves, looking and feeling like the high school cafeterias servers from back in the day. We only had a minute to check out the night’s menu before the dinner service began, and there were too many people around for me to sneak in a bite.
Miriam’s Kitchen believes in offering options, and the 135 dinner guests that evening had their choice of lamb or pork pita sandwiches, zucchini with other mixed vegetables, oregano rice, lettuce and onion, and some to-die for cupcakes that deserved a television show of their own. High school cafeteria food was never like this.
My tasks were to grab a tray, place pita bread on it, greet the guest and ask whether he wanted homemade pesto or mushroom gravy. It was easier said than done, at least for me. The line of hungry people moved quickly and soon I felt like Lucille Ball in that famous candy episode. My “Pesto or mushroom gravy?” question turned into “Pesto or basil?” and “Mushroom or gravy?” It took the other volunteer servers to keep me on track.
By 6 p.m. dinner was over and the clients were gone. Both the Miriam’s Kitchen staff and the volunteers labeled and put away the leftover food, cleaned the kitchen, tore down and stored the portable tables and chairs, and swept and mopped the floors. It was done so quickly that I forgot how much I hated to clean.
Miriam’s Kitchen serves over 4,000 homeless men and women (24% are veterans) each year through their meal programs, case management and diverse art therapies. Their most immediate gifts in kind needs (according to a handwritten note by the volunteer sign-in log) are ground coffee, sleeping bags and hotel-sized toiletries. There’s always a need for volunteers, especially during the evening meal.
Just don’t come hungry. It’s too tempting and the food is too good.
Jane Hess Collins helps and encourages people to give back through her volunteering, writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. You can follow Get Out and Give Back on Facebook, Twitter and her website.