meatballs en masse
first you multiply. then you forage. then you start rolling.
it’s meatballs en masse, the roadmap:
ten pounds of steer. quarter acre tomatoes, chopped, pureed. bag of onions. eggs by the half dozen. breadcrumbs, a handful or two. dried crinkled leaves, ones wearing the nametag sweet basil. garlic, don’t forget the garlic. we decidedly did not.
the garlic, the onions, bathing in oil of olives, that was the point. we didn’t want just to feed our friends at the shelter with a mere plate of food. we wanted to feed them all afternoon with the sounds and the smells of somebody cooking. somebody cooking for them.
we wanted them in on each act of the production, as they stood in the alley, huddled on the stairs, waiting for the man with the key to please let them in from the cold. very cold.
we made meatballs for forty. started hours ahead. we wanted to slow cook. with two hours to go we had a flotilla of balls, all adrift in an ocean of thick, red, tomatoey sauce.
there is an alchemy to cooking on slow that does not happen when you wham-bam the dinner. an alchemy especially rare at a soup kitchen.
but we carved out a whole afternoon for this slow dance, me and my 13-year-old. we chopped, and we poured. we stirred and we seasoned. we wanted a feast for our friends.
and they are our friends. t-bird and papi. robert and eddy. the elegant man in the soup kitchen line with his navy blue blazer and shiny brass buttons. the lady who religiously wraps her plate in cellophane before she puts on the food.
they are, some of them, full of hope. papi, for instance, has a dream that he and his sweet potato pies will some day shove mrs. smith and her apples off the grocery store shelf. and just last night t-bird mentioned how he wanted my friend sherry’s chicken wings-and-sausage-and-meatball recipe, cuz it was going to be the first thing he cooked when he got his apartment. some times they tell you month after month, sometimes for more than a year, that their apartment is coming, any day now.
so every third sunday of the month, we feed them. feed the hungry. feed their tummies, yes. but even more, feed their soul. slow cook for them. put tulips on each table. offer brown bags and a basket brimming with brownies and oranges, strawberries in the deep core of winter. take leftovers and turn it into lunch for the next day.
as my friend elizabeth mentioned last night, it had been a very long day squatting at a sandwich shop from 7 in the morning, an hour after they’re kicked out of the shelter, ‘til 7 at night, when they are allowed back in. “i thought i would lose my mind. i had nowhere to go,” she told me, piling her plate with spaghetti, forgoing all but one of the meatballs. she came back for brownies and pound cake and raspberries three times.
for a very long time i have cared about feeding the hungry. i once criss-crossed america, trying to find out why so many, in so many places, were so hungry. from potato farmers in maine, to salmon fishermen tucked into pacific coast towns in northern california, to old wizened folk in chinatown in the city by the bay. from iowa farmers to out-of-work steelworkers in the sooty hills of west pennsylvania. from the rio grande valley to the high plains of the navajo reservation. from the bare-bottomed children of cottonwood, mississippi, to the big-eyed ones right here in chicago. children going to bed at night with a pain in their bellies. mamas and papas going to the same bed, with the same pain, worried sick. not knowing where in the world they’d find food for tomorrow.
and so, one measly sunday a month, me and my boys we slow cook. the little one, now old enough to scoop, always begs to dish out dessert. then he fills a plate, wanders into the dining room, takes a seat, strikes up a conversation.
there is nothing like watching your children learn what it means to slow cook, to deep feed the hungry.
feed vt. 1. to give food to 2. to provide something necessary for the growth, operation, etc. of 3. to gratify.
some of us spend much of our lives feeding. to consider the act of feeding, the gestalt of it, not merely the chopping and stirring and spooning of x, y and z onto a plate, is to have something to ponder. please, pull up a chair. pour out your thoughts on the transitive verb, to feed, in all of its unspoken definitions…
fred,this is beautiful. reading it makes me appreciate even more the lessons of soup kitchen. thank you for “feeding” my brain.
Matthew 25:35, 40: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, a stranger and you welcomed me …”. It goes on … The King will say, “As you have done it for the least of the brothers, you have done it for Me.”God Himself must be pleased. You are teaching your sons (and the rest of us at this bountiful table) well.
A feast for the senses–I can smell the meatballs cooking. The onions, the tomato sauce. Not to mention chocolate from the brownies baking. This is soul food in many ways.
BAM,As usual, my mind spins with the seemingly endless energy you put forth in our world. You are an amazing woman! We are all nourished by your being. I wonder if it is truly possible to feed others in a ” slow cooked manner” if we have not first experienced our own hunger. Hunger for food, hunger for justice, hunger for a last word or embrace with a loved one….it doesn’t matter. But to look into the face of a stranger and truly empathize and be present requires a ticket whose price was paid in advance. I thank you for turning your hunger into meatballs en masse with an extra helping of beauty for all who want and encouraging me to remember those who hunger in a new way.Thanks
GINand the 5 year old sitting and chatting with the folks at the table is another important way to feed the hungry to let them know they are not invisible. this was beautifully and so caringly written.
I love this: the smells, the intention, the heart, that it’s part of your life. And the word flotilla.