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Gravy: A Thanksgiving Tale

December 1, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

This post describes a Thanksgiving meal that I helped serve last Thursday.

Since July, Gail has been the chef every Wednesday and Thursday at a residential center for women that is described, at its website, as “a long-term residential chemical dependency treatment program for pregnant women and/or mothers of children under age 6, with a focus on keeping mothers with their children.” She has a supervisor who works on the other days, orders the food, and is in charge of the kitchen. Breakfast is put out at the end of each day for the next day — re-filling cereal containers and that sort of thing. The chef of the day comes in each morning, prepares lunch, serves it, cleans up, prepares dinner, serves it, cleans up, and leaves. The kitchen is just below ground level, with a couple of windows largely blocked by the refrigerators. There is a cut-out in the wall to the hallway, with a grate that can be rolled up, and with the steam table against the wall below the cut-out. At mealtime, the women line up in the hallway and are served through the cut-out, with the chef dishing out the food on the kitchen side from the steam table and then passing it through.

Because Thanksgiving is on a Thursday and Gail is the Thursday chef, Gail was responsible for cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the residents. It would be served at around 1:00 or 1:30, with hors d’oeuvres to be prepared by her supervisor and put out in the cafeteria about an hour before mealtime. The residents could invite guests — parents, older non-resident children, whoever. They had other options as well, such as attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting off-site in the early evening where dinner would also be served. This made it difficult to get an accurate headcount. The supervisor still has nightmares of the Thanksgiving when 75 people showed up and she ran out of food. But then there was the Thanksgiving when just a handful showed up.

The plan for last week was to serve 60. I agreed to help. Gail was in before 7:00 AM. The supervisor showed up too, though it wasn’t her workday, so she could handle the hors d’ouevres and provide general help, but it was Gail’s job to cook the meal itself. And I agreed to show up too, as needed. Gail called from the kitchen and told me to come at 11:30 AM. Both were busy working when I arrived. I was instructed by the supervisor to pull 8 Sara Lee pumpkin pies from the refrigerator, cut them into eighths, lay out small paper plates on big trays, put the pie pieces on the plates, and put the trays high up out of the way on top of the stored boxes of food. That way, the other work in the kitchen could continue and the trays could be pulled down when needed, to be carried out to the cafeteria for the diners to help themselves to pieces.

I diligently set to work. The mood of my fellow staff was relaxed. No one was panicking as meal time approached. I followed suit and was relaxed too. After the pie cutting, I assisted in various small ways, like holding the door open whenever the supervisor had to dash back and forth to move things to the cafeteria. Gail sliced the turkey (some processed turkey roll really, which she added the herbs and spices to), put it in a tray for the steam table, and did similarly with the other dinner items.

Let me describe them. First, more on the steam table. It has three long sections, running from the cut-out in the wall towards the server, who stands at the steam table on the far side from the wall. Three long trays can fill these openings, which is the usual setup, suitable for a main course, a starch, and a vegetable. Ordinarily the food can be prepared in these trays and then taken straight from the oven to the steam table. But on Thursday six items were to be squeezed in, so they had to be transferred from the pans they were cooked in to half-sized pans. Each opening in the steam table would accommodate two of these, a pan towards the wall and a pan towards the server. Gail had to pull the big pans from the oven, dish some of the food out, put the pans back, cover the serving pans with plastic wrap, and drop them in the slots, with a huge amount of food left in the oven to stay warm for the anticipated 60 guests.

My job would be to help Gail serve. She set it up so she would stand on the right and serve the first 4 items, while I handled the last two on the left. On the right back, by the wall, near to the diners as they stood across the wall by the cut-out, was the sliced turkey. Right front was mashed potatoes. Center rear was stuffing. Center front was mashed sweet potato with melted marshmallows (in three colors — brown, orange, and white). And at my station, left front was mixed vegetables, left rear was gravy.

Before mealtime, Gail took me into the cafeteria as part of a brief tour and I met three of the women, each with a baby. Later, I met a fourth woman, who came to the kitchen door to talk about something. (The door is kept locked, so they don’t have free access into the kitchen. They need to knock.) But not too many women seemed to be around, a sign that this was going to be one of those low attendance Thanksgivings, not the run-out-of-food type. (And anyway, there was so much food that running out didn’t seem possible.)

1:30. Dinner was served. I discovered that my job wasn’t so simple. We were using paper plates that were about the smallest diameter that comes under the heading of dinner plates. By the time Gail got turkey, potato, and stuffing on, there wasn’t much room for sweet potato or vegetables. On the other hand, lots of women seemed happy to pass on one or both of these items. The challenge then became how to pour the gravy on without having it spill over the side of the plate. The mounds of mashed potato and stuffing that Gail put on the plates typically went right to the edge. Any gravy I poured on that landed on the outside of the peaks would roll down to the edge and then off. I could wipe it with my gloved hand, but then I’d have to go to the sink rinse it off. What seems like the most trivial of jobs had me fully engaged. Gail would serve, the women would tell her what they wanted, talk to children or other women, and not be paying attention to me when I would ask the crucial questions: Do they want gravy? If so, on what? Turkey? Mashed Potatoes? Stuffing? I didn’t want to presume anything.

The women would come in ones or twos, or one occasion a three. There was the occasional male guest thrown in, and some small children, with sporadic long breaks between diners. I was in the rhythm, completely focused on the task at hand.

Then the woman arrived whom I had met in the kitchen an hour earlier. She looked different when we met, poised, comfortable, perhaps a staff member I thought at first rather than a resident. But a resident she was. And she arrived at the steam table along with a man who looked like he’d seen a lot in his life, an African-American, maybe around 40, with a pronouncedly jutted jaw, wiry, short several of his teeth. Gail asked her what she wanted, but she didn’t respond. Soon tears were rolling down her face. She had moved to the center of the steam table, approaching my station, but wasn’t really paying attention. I poured gravy and gave her the plate. Another resident, who was one of the initial people served, had come back to try the sweet potatoes, which she had chosen to pass up at first. She put her hand on the shoulder of the tearful woman, took the plate from her, and took her away to comfort her.

It was at that point that the broader dimensions of the meal were brought home to me. This was Thanksgiving dinner, a much more bountiful meal than they usually get at the facility, but at a facility where they surely never anticipated or wished to spend Thanksgiving. It was a painful day. I would get to go out to dinner later for our own Thanksgiving meal. This was it. This was their Thanksgiving celebration. I was focused on pouring the gravy just right. They had other things on their minds.

After the two women walked off, the man was still there, so Gail started the process of dishing food onto his plate. He then began a monologue, the principal theme of which was that change has to start on the inside and work its way from the inside out. He talked softly, was not easy to understand, but spoke a truth worthy of respect. He would interrupt his monologue every so often to say “Isn’t that right?”. It was hard to know how to answer, since it sounded right, but I didn’t presume to have anything like his life experience, didn’t presume to have learned the life lessons he did, didn’t want to patronize him by nodding a meaningless assent. So I honored him simply by listening. And there I was, holding his plate of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing, listening intently, looking him in the eye, waiting for a pause in the monologue.

He paused. And I knew just what to say.

“Do you want gravy?”

He did.

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