Fighting kitchen-phobia at the Food Bank of Delaware

    On November 24, I host Thanksgiving for the first time. Am I scared? Nah. Don’t get me wrong. This time last year, I would be running around like a chicken (turkey?) with its head cut off.

    Now I am surprisingly eager to do it. Granted, I will be cooking for three low-maintenance people and only one neurotic guest (me), but it is still a big task. What has helped prepare me? The Food Network? The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook? Nope. It was the Food Bank of Delaware.

    The FBD is a statewide nonprofit providing quality meals and resources to those in need. It offers a culinary school, mobile pantry, and nutritional education programs for all ages. Currently, the Holiday Food Drive runs through December 23. The FBD, in short, does a lot of good stuff. What I never expected was for it to cure my kitchen-phobia.

    I was not always unfriendly with the kitchen. When I was 10 years old, I actually wanted to be a chef. All it took was one cooking class and a half-way decent batch of Chex Muddy Buddy Mix. Plus, Piper Halliwell on the WB’s “Charmed”—like, my favorite character—was a chef. That was all the evidence I needed. Culinary arts was my destiny.

    Then—oops!—I became a writer. What happened? I guess I grew interested in other things, and cooking was more fad than fate. By the time college rolled around, Emerson’s dining hall did all the food prep. When I got an apartment, fish sticks were the fanciest item on the weekly menu. (Even that was ambitious—what with the preheating, ketchup-bottle-opening, and such.) Many nights, by the time I got off the train from work, I was too famished to take more than 15 minutes to cook anything. Dinner recipe directions were:

    1) Cut through Trader Joe’s.

    2) Snag a free sample to curtail starvation.

    3) Walk home and make a big hasty sandwich. Tuna sandwich, peanut butter sandwich, yogurt sandwich, whatever. Add a side salad (i.e., carrots).

    There it was. Hasty sandwiches were my destiny.

    I had to fight this culinary curse. I had to re-light the fire on my stove and under my underfed bum. Easier said than done. My famous WTF Salad—simple potato-and-green-bean salad—is so named from repeatedly asking “What the #*@!?” on the first attempt to make it. (Note to self: Rename salad when you have kids.) My pancakes came “medium rare,” and the pasta “al dentalsurgery.” Even my cherry pie was the pits—literally, full of them—with a lumpy crust. (Second note: Nalgene bottle = poor substitute for rolling pin.) The best I could do was an egg sandwich. Even that was made with more profanity than love.

    Do you have cooking troubles? What funny or surprising disasters came off your stove?

    Tell us in the comments below.

    Enter the Food Bank. My friend Rich told me about it last October at the Central Perk on Main Street. Over coffee and muffins (both delightfully prepared by someone else), we were not talking about food. Rather, he recommended the FBD as a volunteer opportunity. Their Newark kitchen was nearby and always looking for people to help prepare meals. Why didn’t I try it?

    Me. In a kitchen. Making food. For children. It is a recipe for disaster.

    Or was it a recipe for success? Maybe it was time to learn my way around a kitchen. One week later, I’m in the FBD kitchen at 7:15 a.m., putting on a hair net and plastic gloves. Time to rock and roll. What’s on the menu, guys? Risotto? Fillets?

    First, we make sandwiches. No joke—one hundred hasty sandwiches. This is not your casual PB&J. Kitchen Supervisor Francesca Rodriguez gives us the lowdown. Line up the bread on a tray—one slice, five down, four across. Add cheese. Give two slices each. Now we do the meat, turkey or salami. Slap two slices down. Top it off with another slice of bread. Now cut sandwiches in half, two rectangles. Put a condiment pack on each. Hook up the bag machine. Air blows a sandwich bag open. Put the sandwich in, rip it off, and place it to the side. The next person twists the bag, snaps it down on the twisty-tie apparatus, and places it in the crate. Repeat. I think to myself, Kate Plus 8 should make lunch this way…

    Does it sound dull? It’s not. It’s really quite interesting. The FBD kitchen is filled with a wide range of volunteers—men, women, grandparents, students, and staff from local businesses. You can learn a lot about a person over a sandwich. You can learn more over a hundred.

    (Names of volunteers have been changed.)

    Martha, for example, retired from Avon and generously volunteers at a different place each day. Tuesday is Food Bank Day. Tuesday’s posse also includes Annie, a mother of two who shares the latest on “Dancing with the Stars;” Esther, a woman twice my age who works twice as fast; and Paul, who jokes about firing Esther for being too slow. Helen always turns the heel of the bread so that it faces the inside of the sandwich. “Kids hate it if they get that slice.” It’s true. My sister used to call it “the butt” of the bread.

    I’ll never forget Pedro, a guy who regaled me with hilarious stories from his days as a bartender at a swanky tavern. While we cut and condiment-slapped sandwiches, he spoke ardently of everything from Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger (“It TASTES like actual meat, you know?”) and the Enron “E” sign (“It went for $44,000!”), to the rules at his condominium (“How can you not store anything on your porch?”) I got my news, entertainment, and editorial all at once.

    Other volunteers are shy. I have also worked in silence. Oddly, that’s interesting too. The repetition leaves room for thought. I find comfort in the rhythm. Before you know it, you’re meditating on a sandwich. Solace found in sliced cheese—who knew? When it gets too quiet, Franchesca turns on the radio.

    After sandwiches comes the hot meal. This could be chicken, spaghetti or veggie sliders. The volunteers line up. Scoop, pass it on. Repeat. The trays cycle through a wrapping machine, are stacked into fives then loaded in coolers. At this point, everyone is more awake and chatty. Jokes and small talk make the time fly. By 11 a.m., we helped to feed hundreds of kids.

    Though I have never actually cooked a hot meal at the FBD, I’ve noticed how simple a good dish can be. It’s the little things. Pineapple chunks in rice? Never thought of that. Sometimes you have to see someone else cooking chicken without running around like one, to know it really is possible. Chicken drumsticks don’t take that long. They’re not that hard if you time things right. I’ve seen that it is better to take the time and get the right tools, whether it’s a pot holder or a rolling pin. It was partly the shortcutting that got me cut, burned, or just ticked off with so many meals.

    Franchesca just recently took over after graduating from the FBD culinary school. Why did she choose to stay? “I know this kitchen,” she says. Do the volunteers, especially awkward cooks like myself, mess it up? “Volunteers are veeery helpful. Sometimes I feel lost without them!” Likewise.

    She doesn’t entertain us with a “bam!” “yum-O!” or “bon appétit!”—but she does say “thank you.”

    She doesn’t show us how to stuff a turkey or make crème brulée—but she showed us our way around a kitchen. That is exactly what I needed.

    So what’s on the menu this Thanksgiving? One hundred turkey sandwiches. Kidding! (That is the back-up.)

    A whole turkey may be too much, so I’ll try a breast. Mashed potatoes (without that WTF ingredient) will be good. Green bean casserole, steamed peas, Pillsbury rolls, and maybe something with pineapple. Pumpkin pie leaves no chance of pits, and Perkins will take care of the chocolate crème. Am I finally a chef? No—just a happily recovered kitchen-phobe. My destiny must be to write about it.  

    You may not feel grateful for the chance to host Thanksgiving. It’s understandable. Your guests may be much harder to please. Try this easy alternative recipe. It will definitely please someone.

    Ingredients

    1 Turkey Roasting Pan
    1 Seasoned Stuffing Mix
    1 Canned Vegetable
    1 Cranberry Sauce
    Apple Juice

    Directions:

    1. Purchase all, some, or one of the ingredients at your local supermarket.

    2. Drop them off at the FBD in Newark or Milford.

    3. Help feed a family in need this holiday.

    Best wishes, happy cooking, and a happier Thanksgiving!

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