Food Service, by Caitlin Sellnow • Empty Mirror

credit: Orlova Mariaphoto by Orlova Maria, edited by EM

“There she is!” Pastor Alice crowed, “The queen!”

I looked up from the stack of recipes I was straightening. I was a little curious to meet Remington royalty but, really, I was more concerned with the tower of Swiss chard directly to my left.

It was vegetable day in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood. Every week, a local CSA donated its leftovers to the community. Bill Cunningham, a volunteer with a pickup truck, would deliver the goods to the sidewalk in front of the Guardian Angel Parish house. When he arrived at 9 a.m., about a dozen people would already be waiting for him – usually a few black women in long coats with low voices; a couple of women with delicate cross necklaces, speaking Spanish to each other; and one white man with a cane. As soon as Bill pulled up, they’d crowd onto the edge of the curb. He would lift dozens of black plastic trays full of produce from his truck bed and bring them to the sidewalk. Before he could even set them down, everyone would start reaching in and grabbing fistfuls of greens.

The “traditional” vegetables always went first, no matter what kind of shape they were in: limp broccoli, potatoes the size of shooting marbles and soft, puckered tomatoes. The less familiar, trendier fare was neglected. For weeks, stacks of Swiss chard — bundles of pristine greens with stems the colors of starburst candies — were left to wither in the sun.

By the time “the queen” arrived on the day I met her, the initial rush was over. The crates lining the sidewalk (except for the ones full of chard) were half-empty. What was left was attracting flies. Still, she didn’t seem to be in a hurry. She was a black woman who looked like she was in her 60’s, swathed in a long purple skirt. Her posture was sort of regally reclined – chest tilted back, and face tipped towards the sun. A bright scarf was wrapped around her hair and swirled into a knot at the back of her neck. When she heard Pastor Alice announce her, she smiled and waved with her whole arm. Pastor Alice introduced us to one another as “Caitlin, our new Lutheran volunteer” and “Miss Dorothy.”

I extended my hand and said nice to meet you.

Miss Dorothy took it. “Well it’s nice to meet you too darling!” Her voice had a raspy edge and a deep drawl.

Pastor Alice explained that Miss Dorothy wasn’t living in her own house at the moment because her roof had caved in. Maybe I could find a city grant or something to help get it fixed. I said I’d definitely see what I could do. Then I asked, “In the meantime, would you like some Swiss chard?”

I was about a month into my tenure as Remington’s “Community Builder” and, so far, vegetable day was my favorite day. I came to Baltimore with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps — a service program that places full time volunteers with urban non-profits for one to two years. I didn’t know much about community building (besides baking cupcakes for my a-Capella groupmates), or urban living (I’d never lived further than half a mile from the nearest cornfield), or practical skills in general (I was an English major). But I was eager to learn. I wanted to know how to be useful in the world outside my liberal-arts cocoon. Once I got to Remington though, no one seemed to know what to do with me. I sure didn’t know what to do with myself. I spent a lot of time alone in my office on the second floor of the parish house — clicking around and watching videos of kittens attacking inanimate objects.

Except on Tuesday mornings. The vegetables gave me concrete tasks: I could arrange crates into straight lines on both sides of the sidewalk; stack the empties in neat columns out of the way; hand out recycled plastic grocery bags. I liked watching people leave with greens spilling over their arms. It almost felt like helping.

Still, even on vegetable day, I didn’t exactly fit into the neighborhood — my Swiss chard initiative was making it obvious. To try to reduce our surplus, I printed recipes from Epicurious for chard sautés, pot pies and stews and tucked them underneath the crates. But the ladies who came for the vegetables didn’t trust the Swiss chard or my recipes. They already had preparations they liked for vegetables they knew. I heard them trading tips with each other: “The trick with eggplant is that you gotta salt it. You cut it up and salt it and let it sweat. Then you bread it and fry it up just like chicken.” and “My mother used to take tiny little potatoes like this and bake them in a pan with a whole box of salt.”

Miss Dorothy was no different. When I showed her a bundle of Swiss chard she wrinkled her nose. “What’s that?” she asked.

I was prepared for this. “Oh, that’s Swiss chard!” I said, “Anything you would use spinach for, you can replace it with this and make it even better!”

She took the bundle from me — using just the tips of her fingers — and put it in her bag. She unconvincingly told me she’d try it. Really, she said, she was here for the eggplant. I asked if she wanted a recipe for Eggplant Parmesan. She chuckled and glanced sideways at Pastor Alice in a way that suggested I had made another rookie mistake. Miss Dorothy told me she didn’t need any recipes. Her favorite way to make eggplant was to poke it with a fork all over and microwave it until it was soft, then scoop out the flesh and mash it with chilies and mustard oil.

“It is spicy, though,” she said. “Do you like spicy?”

“Oh, I love spicy.”

She put her hand on my arm and threw her head back, showing her rows of missing teeth. “Good! Oh, darling I’m glad. That’s how it’s best. I’ll bring you some.”

I told her that sounded great. I figured we were having one of those polite conversations where we made promises to each other because it felt good to think we might keep them someday. Miss Dorothy though, was making plans.

I noticed a lot of free food in Remington. Homework Club on Monday included a full dinner. Pastor Alice hosted a community meal and compline on Thursday nights. The Goodness of The Heart food pantry dispensed bags of canned goods on Wednesday mornings from a window in the Guardian Angel fellowship hall. There was turkey on Thanksgiving, soup on Super Bowl Sunday, and a yearly health fair where attendees could get free condoms and hot dogs.

For the most part, these meals were made by what Pastor Alice Called “New Remington,” for the residents of “Old Remington. “Old Remington” was made up of people with deep roots in the neighborhood, and few choices. Many of them were part of the 29 percent of Remington residents living below the poverty line. Miss Dorothy, for example, grew up, got married, raised her two daughters and buried her husband all within the same ten-block radius. Now, she was living with a Pakistani woman she barely knew because she couldn’t afford to have her roof fixed. “New Remington” on the other hand, was made up of mostly white students and young professionals. They lived in the neighborhood “for now” because of the low rent and two nearby colleges. They were the ones who organized the events where Old Remington was invited to socialize, learn and eat.

I thought I understood why. I assumed that, since most of us were white and middle class, we were similarly raised “feeding the hungry” on autopilot. In grade school, my friends and I filled blue barrels with canned string beans and boxes of mac and cheese during food drives. Once a year or so, I’d take a church youth group trip to the local food bank, where I’d spend an afternoon making bologna sandwiches to put in brown bag lunches, for “needy” kids.

I didn’t ask myself why I did these things. I was taking part in a tradition so broad and ancient, it felt innate. In the Middle Ages, Muslims had a saying that went, “Any Muslim who gives clothing to the naked, God will clothe him with the greens of the Garden; any Muslim who gives food to a starving Muslim, God will give him food from the fruits of the garden.” The New Testament in the Christian Bible is full of stories of Jesus giving bread, fish, and wine to hungry people. Jesus equates serving the poor with serving God. His quote in Matthew 25:35 is a perennial Sunday school favorite: “For I was hungry and you fed me. For I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Even before that, the Roman government gave out fixed-price grain to poor citizens. There are references to the lines — thousands deep — as early as 158 B.C.

The provisions and the famines look a little different now, but the practice of feeding the hungry persists. Sociologists have coined the term “food desert” for urban areas that are more than half-a-mile away from grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Swaths of Remington fit that definition. While this isn’t a problem for New Remington residents — who can drive to Kroger whenever they want — Many members of Old Remington are stranded in the dessert. So, instead of sacks of grain, New Remington Residents hand out plates of spaghetti.

All of this made sense to me. What did not make sense was why Miss Dorothy would want to feed me eggplant.

After the vegetable rush was over the day I met Miss Dorothy, I put the empty crates behind the parish house fence and the leftover chard in front of it — for passersby and rats to take at their leisure. Then, I retreated into the parish house to spend the rest of the day alone in my office. Midafternoon though, a knock on the front door startled me. When I opened it, I found Miss Dorothy holding a tinfoil packet.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Eggplant,” she said. “Remember? I told you I’d bring you some.” She handed me the packet. It was still warm.

I told her I’d try it a little later. I didn’t intend to eat it. (I remembered Pastor Alice saying, as she unloaded the parish house dishwasher one day, that it was important to clean the dishes at high heat because a number of people in the neighborhood had “the virus.” I gave what I hoped came off as a knowing nod. It would be months before I figured out she meant hepatitis.) I accepted Miss Dorothy’s gift at the door and put it in the fridge.

Later that day though, my stomach started growling. The cheese sandwich and desiccated orange I had packed myself for lunch were not going to sustain me until the end of the day. I returned to the kitchen. I unpeeled the corner of the foil packet at one side. I stuck my finger in the cold grey mash and delivered a sample to the tip of my tongue. It was sweet, salty and so spicy it made the bridge of my nose tingle. I opened the utensil drawer and started digging — I was going to need a fork.

The next vegetable day, Miss Dorothy asked how I liked the eggplant. I told her it was delicious. “Was it too spicy?” she wanted to know. I said I already told her I could handle spicy. She laughed as if I had said something sassy. I laughed as if I had done it on purpose.

She asked if I had ever tried fried crabs. I hadn’t, even though I knew Baltimore was known for crabs. When I took walks in the harbor-side tourist areas, I saw restaurants full of tourists gleefully smashing crustaceans with wooden mallets. But I couldn’t afford to partake myself. I was on a volunteer stipend. At our last house meeting, my roommates and I had had a serious discussion about whether we could afford to keep buying Doritos. I figured I’d have to wait until my parents came to visit to try Baltimore seafood. I explained this to Miss Dorothy. She smiled and assured me that wouldn’t be necessary. She would fry some crabs for me.

I said, “sure, sounds great.” Even after the eggplant, it didn’t occur to me that she might be serious.

Wednesday, I started my day at the food pantry. Every week, from 9 to 9:45 sharp, three white-haired members of the Church of the Guardian Angel handed out bags of shelf-stable foods to anyone with a zip code ending in 09. The food pantry crew had a tight, time-tested routine that didn’t have much room for new volunteers. I went because Pastor Alice thought I should get to know the people who came for the canned goods. But without anything to do, I felt bulky and in the way. Mostly, I wedged my hands in my pockets and watched. Afterwards, I joined Pastor Alice and the food pantry crew for Bible study in the parish house dining room. We had just cracked open our bibles when I heard a knock on the front door. I excused myself to answer it.

I opened the door to find Miss Dorothy standing in front of a shopping cart heaped with pots and pans. In the front compartment, there was a Ziploc bag full of soupy, sand-colored batter. I could just make out a couple of claws bobbing inside.

I stepped into the sun and closed the door behind me. “Um…I don’t think you can use the kitchen in there. They’re having Bible study right now…”

Miss Dorothy tilted her head, “Oh I don’t need a kitchen, honey. I have everything I need right here!”

She pulled a single propane camping burner out of her cart, followed by a pot, a slotted metal spoon and a gallon jug of canola oil. Before I could come up with a compelling reason why she should not deep-fry crabs on church property, the oil was already heating.

I pulled up a plastic patio chair. Where did you get these? I asked. The seafood place down the street, she said. What I meant was, “where did you get the money for them,” but I didn’t clarify.

Miss Dorothy fished two small crabs out of the batter by their legs and lowered them into the oil. They frothed and fizzed. Miss Dorothy turned them over with a slotted spoon. She announced that we would soon need plates and something to drink. I hesitated. I knew there were plates and silverware and a bottle of long-expired juice cocktail in the parish house kitchen, but I didn’t want to go back inside and get them.

I still wasn’t convinced I should let this go any further — I was worried Miss Dorothy had only brought me this opulent gift because she thought it would make me fix her roof faster, and also I didn’t think the aluminum pot with the wobbly plastic handle was up to food-service code, and also I wasn’t sure how Pastor Alice would feel about the well of hot grease bubbling underneath her office window. And most importantly, I thought I was supposed to be the one doing the serving in Remington. But instead, I was wasting space on the sidewalk, waiting for Miss Dorothy to serve me.

All I said to Miss Dorothy, though, was, “I don’t know…there might be some juice inside, but I think it’s expired?”

Miss Dorothy cocked her head and blinked at me.

I sighed and said I’d see what I could find.

Eventually, I did get my turn serving food in Remington. Pastor Alice first trusted me to ladle stew it onto people’s plates at community dinner, and later to cook it. I also coordinated turkey warming at Thanksgiving, and I picked up crates of frozen hotdogs from Costco for the health fair. But none of it made me feel as useful as I’d hoped.

I kept hearing stories that opened new kinds of need in front of me, like the mouths of caves: the man with the pockmarked face who helped manage the fellowship hall used to be a stock-trader — but he couldn’t do that and be an alcoholic at the same time; the trans woman, who brought her electric guitar to community dinner sometimes, who couldn’t go on hormone therapy because she couldn’t pass the psych evaluation; the twelve-year-old, who was selectively deaf to his homework club tutors, and lost his parents in a drive-by shooting when they were both 21.

Some sociologists have criticized food charities for treating a symptom of poverty and ignoring the cause. In 2014, Graham Riches and Tina Silvasti published a survey of food systems in twelve of the world’s wealthiest countries called “First World Hunger Revisited.” It was an update of a study Riches first published in 1997. The conclusion — both times — was that food charity is part of a cycle of hunger. They figure that all the food pantries, kitchens and shelters in the United States (63,000 in the Feeding America network alone) offer us the convenient feeling of helping without the trouble of engaging. Instead of asking why people can’t afford their own groceries, or how else they’re struggling, we can just shower them with boxes of mac and cheese.

I haven’t let “First World Hunger Revisited” destroy all my faith in food providers. I have heard food-bank managers advocate passionately for better food policy, and I watched the members of New Remington serve meals to their neighbors with care and purpose. But I also can’t ignore the Business Relationships entirely, because it was right about me. I knew I was supposed to be doing more than just serving food in Remington. I was supposed to be making the community stronger somehow — and free hotdogs alone weren’t going to do it. But I couldn’t even figure out how to talk to people about their problems, let alone fix them. I was still hoping that maybe, if I kept my hands busy enough opening cans and passing plates and sorting chard, I wouldn’t have to think about everything I couldn’t do. I might have kept trying to distract myself that way if it hadn’t been for Miss Dorothy.

She probably wasn’t trying to change my perception of food and service when she mashed that eggplant for me. She probably wasn’t interested in mentoring me at all. Probably, she wanted to cook for me for the same reasons I enjoy making meals for my friends — It makes me feel good to make people happy and, also, I like showing off a little. Nevertheless, I did learn a lot from her.

Miss Dorothy fed me a few more meals after the crabs. One week she roasted a chicken for community dinner. Another time, she fried shrimp and egg patties in the parish house kitchen, just for the two of us. She would always savor her portion for an hour, while I’d be scraping dregs of sauce off my plate within 20 minutes. At first, I’d be anxious to get back to my office and look up more Swiss chard recipes. But eventually, I relaxed into sharing food and stories with Miss Dorothy. She told me about her family. Her late husband (“Mr. Montenez, darling!”) is the reason she learned to cook Spanish food. One of her daughters lives across town now and the other one, Maria, lives in a row house across the street from the Parish House. She came for the vegetables on Tuesdays too.

After I ate with Miss Dorothy, I connected with other Remington residents through food. I didn’t know how to ask Miss Anne about her grandson who was in rehab, but I did know how to ask her favorite ways to cook collards (Low and slow. It takes all day, but it’s worth it). And I never figured out what a “community builder” was supposed to do, exactly, but I did know how to hold hands with the people sitting next to me at community dinner and say the grace that Pastor Alice taught us: “God is great, God is good, God lives in our neighborhood!” I still wasn’t sure how to fix Remington, but at least I found a way to join it.

Maybe I would have figured all this out without Miss Dorothy — I’m glad I didn’t have to, though. She told me once that, if she ever gets her roof fixed, she wants to make a giant meal on her front lawn and invite the whole neighborhood. We were both community builders. But unlike me, Miss Dorothy was a natural.

On the parish house steps, Miss Dorothy lifted the crabs out of the pot with her slotted spoon. She laid one on my plate and one on hers. (If the food pantry crew noticed me slip into the kitchen, and then back out with plates and forks, they didn’t say anything.) After a few minutes, when it was cool enough, she popped a whole claw into her mouth. She crunched it under her jaw and spit the broken shell pieces back onto her plate.

I picked my crab up with the tips of my fingers, looking for an entry point. Eventually, I wiggled my fork through a joint and pried it open, then pulled a sliver of meat out with my hands. I continued to pick at my crab — my fingertips stinging from the shell edges and the Old Bay seasoning. Miss Dorothy made fun of the way I picked the claws apart, like I was scared of them. I laughed with her and kept picking.

For a moment, I stopped worrying about the cost of the meal, and what Pastor Alice would say when she found us, and the fact that I had no idea how to fix Miss Dorothy’s roof. I just settled into the tableau: cracked concrete, the matted parish house lawn, Miss Dorothy, the radiant heat of a vat of oil, and me. When Miss Dorothy said she’d be a while yet. I said, “Take your time.”

About Caitlin Sellnow

Caitlin Sellnow’s book reviews have appeared on the TriQuarterly Review website, and she has contributed to Living Lutheran magazine. She received an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. By day, she works in nonprofit marketing in Chicago, Illinois.

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