Last Sunday, my job was to make stuffing for 400 people. I said I’d do it because there’s a part of me that prefers to forget that it’s been 25 years since I was a caterer, and I assumed it would be as easy now as it was then.
Every year for the past nine years, Nashuva, the spiritual community led by my wife, Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a Thanksgiving meal at Hope Street Family Center downtown. Hope Street provides childcare, counseling and other social services to thousands of at-risk families. About 100 Nashuva volunteers from the Westside, the Valley and Silver Lake provide a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, along with arts-and-crafts projects for the children and care packages to take home.
So, on the prior Thursday evening, I went to Costco and bought 20 pounds of onions and 15 pounds each of carrots and celery. I filled my car with enough croutons to stuff a twin-sized mattress. At home, I reached far into our storage closet to find the industrial-sized pot I last used to photograph our infant son in, with his head poking over the rim. He’s 20 now.
Things started simply enough. I chopped the vegetables, sautéed them over two burners in two quarts of canola oil, added seasoning and broth. The kitchen smelled good, like Thanksgiving.
I tossed the croutons with some chopped chestnuts, then portioned it all out in large foil banquet pans. I ladled the hot broth over the croutons and began to mix. I used a big spatula, and the boiling-hot stuffing lifted up and — onto my hands. I screamed. The glutinous mass attached the heat to my skin like culinary napalm. I jumped away — and the whole tray tumbled onto the floor, splattered my ankles. I screamed again. I lurched for the sink, my feet slid in a mound of stuffing, and down I went.
I lay on the floor, burned, bruised. My dogs wandered in to lick the turkey dressing off my wrists, like jackals on the battlefield.
Eventually, I cleaned up, cut my losses and assembled the remaining pans. On Sunday morning, I cooked them, and by lunch they were beside the turkeys in the buffet line, just like I’d planned it.
Hundreds of moms, dads and kids came to the center at Hope Street, just south of Pico, that day. People sat down with their food and began to eat. Tania Benacerraf, director of the family preservation program at Hope Street, spoke about all the things the organization does, day in and day out, to help people raise their children in health and safety.
Over the years, as Nashuva and Hope Street collaborated on many projects, I’ve listened to the stories — of women escaping abuse; of fathers overcoming addiction; of people working two, or even three jobs to make a life for their children. I’m a very lucky person to be able to complain about my mishaps making stuffing.
We ate together at long tables in a large function room. On a patio outside, the children created spin-art and decorated picture frames.
Around this time of year, countless Americans stand where I stood that day: helping to serve Thanksgiving dinners in a homeless shelter, a halfway house or a soup kitchen, doing something small, even symbolic, to share this country’s enormous bounty with those less fortunate.
Nashuva’s Thanksgiving meals with Hope Street have spawned deeper ties between the two organizations. But there can be no pretending that by serving turkey and gravy we are somehow righting deep systemic wrongs. The morning after we volunteered, Congress is still debating a Farm Bill that plans to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a program so many of the hard-working moms and dads at Hope Street depend upon to feed their kids and help lift their families out of poverty. The morning after, Washington, D.C., is still treating the right to decent health care as a political game, rather than a national priority. The morning after, these people are still struggling, and I have a funny anecdote about stuffing.
But while the debates in D.C. all seem to diminish us as a nation, shared moments can still lift us up. We reach out to help some others, and they are kind enough to accept our need to help.
Perhaps we need to help because we know from experience that ours is a nation of enormous, almost unbelievable wealth. We have seen with our own eyes that we waste more food than those we serve can ever eat. We have been in private homes larger than all of Hope Street. We need to serve because something needs to change.
Just as the families of Hope Street were settling into the meal, my wife stood and offered a blessing in English, as Julie Drucker, a Nashuva member and organizer of the event together with Carol Taubman, translated Naomi’s prayer into Spanish.
“Sometimes life can be very difficult,” Naomi said. “And we struggle to make a living and take care of our families. Thanksgiving is a time to take hope in the future and to know that together we can help each other to make a better life. And we take a moment to give thanks to God for our lives, for our friends, for the gift of community and for being together here today.”
Amen — and Happy Thanksgiving.
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.