Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cooking At A Soup Kitchen

A few months back I trifled with the idea of getting a voluntary cooking job at a homeless centre. I was missing the cheffing, and thought it might make a change to the fake, plastic, celebrity-obsessed world of journalism, or at least what passes for its name these days.

There was a soup kitchen at the top of my road, and I figured they probably needed some help judging by the growing number of drunks and tramps who crowded the pavement every lunch-time.

I knew it would hardly be cordon bleu cooking, and I wasn’t on some sort of Jammy Oliver Feed Me Better crusade trying to get crack-heads to eat salads and Mexican bean wraps rather than nibbled pieces of fried chicken from bins.

In fact, I’m still not sure why I did it. I’m not really the sort for charity work. Only a few days before, I’d got into an argument with a bunch of chuggers. I’d seen them at the last minute and they’d got all my escape routes covered.

I won’t go into the details because I’m embarrassed by the whole affair, but it ended with an Aussie sporting a ridiculous purple goatee shouting back at me: “Take a chill pill, mate, before you get yourself a bloody heart attack or something!”

Maybe that’s what caused it? Maybe I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life? Not being a chugger, obviously. They’re only doing it for the commission hence the hard-sell tactics.

But maybe I wanted to help others rather than just concentrate on my own feelings? Maybe I thought it would make me feel better, knowing there were people worse off? Or maybe it was just the call of the onions again?

After walking past the centre a few times, I went in. I asked about a cooking job, and was told to meet Sister Harpiner at the foot of the stairs. She took me up to her dusty office, and I told her I’d worked in restaurants and would love to help out in the kitchen.

“That’s great, Lennie,” she said. “But we don’t want anyone too good...because the cook’s...well, we don’t want her to get used to having someone good around and get frustrated when you’re not there.”

“I’m not Gordon Ramsay,” I blushed, suddenly aware that I’d already said too much.

“Compared to me you will be,” she smiled.

I was told to return at 11am the next day. I was late again, but it was soon obvious the whole place was run on chaos. In fact, it seemed the last thing they needed was another pair of hands.

I told them why I was there, and a small search party was sent out to find Sister Harpiner, bellowing at the foot of each flight of stairs. I was quickly going off the idea and kept eyeing the stairway down, but there was always a grey-haired helper behind me, ferreting around in bin liners, and blocking off my escape.

After giving up the search at what felt like the tenth floor, I was taken down to the kitchen and introduced to the pot wash, a small, cheerful woman in her 50s. She introduced me to some of the other workers, and then went back to her foam.

There seemed to be a great emphasis on staff tea and biscuits. Every time I held up a half-nibbled Rich Tea in protest, they told me I was allowed two. Five biscuits later, I met the cook I’d be working for. She was a gnarled, unfriendly woman with bow legs and heavy make-up.

That day the homeless, as she called them, were having frozen, diced vegetables and chicken nuggets. Looking at the Kwik Save bags piled up in the corner, there was nothing to suggest it was different from any other day.

The food was cooked two hours beforehand, and left to pant in silver trays. It reminded me of school meals. Where was Jammy Oliver when you needed him? But there was no point in his brand launching a homeless meals crusade because tramps don’t own televisions. And no-one cares what tramps eat, do they?

The cook scowled at me several times as I looked around. Maybe she’d been told I was some sort of hotshot chef? She mumbled a few words and said there’d be a lot of potatoes that needed peeling. Then she looked across the kitchen and smiled slightly.

“You can open those,” she said, pointing to ten large tins of evaporated milk. “You do it like this...”

She showed me a hitlerite tin opener that looked like it should be on the Antique’s Roadshow. It had a massive spike that you slammed down into the top of each tin. She did the first two and then left me to it. I saw her smirking as I mangled the first one, then the second. I was looking around red-faced and about to ruin a third, when a middle-class woman rescued me.

“I did that to start with,” she said.

She finished the rest of the tins and they obviously thought I’d done enough work for the day. I was sat down on a small plastic table opposite an old man called Amby, and given a biscuit. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and was reading the sports pages. He started discussing last night’s game, but I hadn’t seen it.

“You can’t sit back on 1-0. They’ve got all those millions on the pitch!” he kept saying.

The staff told me he could measure shirt collars on the clothes left outside the door just by glancing at them. He’d made his money as a tailor, and had decided to give something back by buying the building and turning it into a homeless centre, much to the annoyance of the neighbours.

An hour later they found Sister Harpiner. She took me upstairs and made me sign some forms. Occasionally helpers would bustle in, saying they’d lost something, or where were the keys, or what room were the scarves in? She told me about the place, and was sniffy about its sister centre up the road.

“There, they just have a bit of tea and toast,” she said. “Here - they have a hot meal.”

“Sets them up for the day,” I replied.

“And so it does, yes. And do you know how easy it is to become homeless, Lennie? Some lose their jobs and end up on the streets. Some go into hospital because they have mental problems, and come out after a few months and haven’t kept everything up to date, and have got behind with the rent, and before they know it, they’re turfed out.

“Or others split up with their wives and lose the house, and end up on the streets that way. We have a lot of drink and drug problems here, I don’t mind telling you. But we have one rule though - you must never lend them any money, we have the credit bureau for that.”

I went in the next day, and never went back. It was obvious the cook wasn’t going to let me do anything. And besides, I couldn’t even open tins. The only meal I cooked there was corned beef fritters (it’s below if you want it, but I really wouldn’t bother...)

A week later, I was walking past the centre, avoiding the drunks, and hoping no-one would see me. Sister Harpiner was just a few yards in front, getting into a hatchback. I hunched down, trying to shield my face with the cans I’d bought from the off licence.

“Oh, hello there,” she called out.

My pace quickened as I clattered the cans.

“Will you not be coming to join us?”

She called out again, and I finally got the key into the lock. It sends a cold, worthless shiver down your spine, trying to give a nun the slip.

Corned Beef Fritters

We served them with oven chips and value baked beans, but I suppose you could try something more healthy like a jacket potato and a green salad.

1 tin very poor-quality corned beef (you want the pink stuff)
1 caged egg
1 cup of value flour
Salt and pepper
2 tomatoes, sliced

Refrigerate the tin of corned beef for exactly one-and-a-half hours before opening. This helps carving and is essential to the neatness of the presentation. Slice the meat into 8mm-wide slices. Season lightly on both sides.

Make the batter by whisking the egg in the flour and adding enough milk to make a thick batter. Dip the meat slices in flour and coat them in the batter. Fry them in lard for a few minutes until they are on the brown side of golden. Serve immediately with the sliced tomato, and some ketchup.


thedrb said...

thanks Lennie, I'm up at 5am each morning and in the kitchen for 7am. This has just put everything into perspective for me.

Nicky said...

I'm doing some fundraising with a homeless charity to get enterprises underway like getting homeless people trained in catering so that they can get catering jobs in the real world. The difference between what they have been eating (subsisting on) and what they are preparing is one of the biggest challenges.

Lennie Nash said...

Dear DRB,

Ah cheffing hours! You've got to love it haven't you, or you'd go mad. My thoughts exactly, there's cooking and there's cooking, and you often get to work for dreadful bastards whatever the standard.

But, yes, the poor buggers at the homeless centre. They have such hard lives, it puts all my whinging into context.

Keep on cooking!


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Nicky,

Great to hear from you! That such a good cause. Good luck with it and let me know how it goes. Sadly, as I'm sure you know, a lot of homeless people live on fast food scraps and miss out on all the vitamins and minerals they need to ward off infections.

But you never realise how extreme poverty can stretch cooking skills though. I once saw a poor family in South America prepare an omelette. They beat the eggs until they were so frothy and light, they fed four people.

Good luck with it!