My grandmother, in all her 84-year-old glory, has always reveled in serving others. Whether it was her brisket at Rosh Hashanah, her chopped liver at Pesach, her hugs whenever — she’s a giver, not a taker. (For real. If we buy her something, she’ll likely return it. Or regift it.) So it’s no wonder she and my grandfather started to volunteer at a soup kitchen many years ago. I never quite knew what they did at said soup kitchen — I knew it was a shelter where the less fortunate came to eat — but I never really dug deeper whenever it came up in conversation, which it so often did:
“Oh, we met so-and-so at the soup kitchen.”
“Don’t throw that away. I’ll bring it to the soup kitchen.”
“We do it like this at the soup kitchen.”
What about the soup? I wondered. Did they make it? Serve it?
I wanted to find out. But really, I wanted to give back. I feel pretty fortunate myself lately — for all the traveling, the Happy Places, the new friends — and wanted to share the energy. I could also always use a lesson in patience and selflessness and doing it all with my grandma, who for the first time in 65 years is navigating life without my grandpa, would be the buttercream on the cupcake.
So, I called her up and told her I wanted to go with her to the soup kitchen the next time she went.
“Why?” she asked.
“Well, I’m curious what you do there. And I want to spend time with you, and help others.”
I could hear her smiling through the receiver.
She picked me up at 8:40a.m. and off we went, just three towns over from where I grew up in Oceanside, Long Island.
Before we even arrived, I felt as if I were in a different place. One minute we were driving down the main stretch in Long Beach, a town I knew best for its sandy beaches and boardwalk, or Gino’s Pizza and Nagahama sushi, and the next we’re on a desolate back-road unloading brown bags of day-old rolls and salads for those who can’t afford them.
Inside, though, the mood was cheerful and inspiring. I got an apron, some gloves and was introduced to all the lovely and chipper Monday volunteers as “Sara, Shirley’s granddaughter.”
Right away, we got to work. I started by individually bagging about 100 donated donuts — from jelly and glazed to Boston cream pie. Despite still having coffee taste in my mouth and a bit of a rumbling belly, I had no desire to eat one. I’m just not a donut-person (though, I haven’t tried a cronut yet), and they weren’t meant for me anyway.
Much of what the volunteers do is prepare one cooked meal for lunch — a soup, a salad, a main and a dessert — and then prepare and pack another for the guests, as they’re called, to take on the way out. (This was where the donuts came in. We had so many, in fact, we put two in each of the 25 pre-made bags. Double the pleasure!)
Usually, the volunteers prep and make the meals themselves: chopping veggies for salads, mashing tuna with mayo for sandwiches, and yes, making a soup. But they received an abundance of prepared foods on Monday — leftover cole slaw and potato salad from a shiva (mourning period for Jews), leftover pre-made Trader Joe’s sandwiches, leftover fresh-baked cookies and muffins from a local bakery, plus a huge tin tray of couscous with peas and another of lemon chicken and noodle kugel — so all we really had to do was reheat, slice and bag the items for the take-away meal.
For the soup, we just mixed some donated matzo balls with canned veggies and bags of noodles, which line the cupboard, into a vat of broth, and voila! Soup for the kitchen!
I was proud — Grandma Shirley and Grandpa Mert-proud — to see so many leftovers going to good use. They always taught us “Waste not, want not,” and “leftovers” were a typical meal-type when visiting their house growing up. In fact, it still is. (And now that I’m living la vida freelance, I’m all about making dinner last for lunch the next day. Did it last night, in fact!)
At 11:45, our guests started to appear at the door. Once the clock struck 12, we opened the kitchen for hot lunch, which we served — no questions asked.
I wanted to yell from the rooftop, “All who are hungry, come and eat!” as we say at the Passover table each year. But I stayed quiet in the kitchen, spooning potato salad as fast as I could so that nobody was waiting while others were already asking for seconds.
The journalist in me wanted to personally interact with those who came in. But the Me in me was shy, if not a bit scared. Scared of what they’d think of me in my flower cotton TopShop dress, Toms and modest, but still gold-and-diamond stud earrings; scared of how I’d react to them — the way they smelled, and ate and acted. And so I took a back seat, while others like my grandma and the vivacious Vicki (below) played hostess with the mostess.
I’m not sure if any of them expressed gratitude, but I can only imagine how hard it must be to accept handouts when you’re down and out. Pride is a funny thing.
By 12:25, the seats and tables were empty of the 28 or so people that had just occupied them. We had been there for three hours preparing — and would stay another half-hour to clean up — all for 25 minutes of service. This is actually one of the reasons why I don’t like to cook myself: You spend all that time chopping and slicing and marinating to eventually eat the dish in less time than it took to pre-heat the oven.
But it didn’t matter. Not this time. They could’ve come and gone in 5 minutes and I still would’ve worked longer and harder. Not just to spend the time with my grandma and all the lovely other volunteers who regularly give their time and service, but for the perspective and for the inspiration. Oh, and the soup. It really is good for the soul.