I can now with confidence cook for an entire professional football team. Would I ever want to? Not really, but I now know interesting tid bits like: to make enough mashed potatoes for a group that size you would need three large sweaty men and one bathtub full of steaming hot water. But I digress. Here’s how I gained this precious knowledge…
Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, CA is an organization that delivers meals free of charge to those suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life threatening illnesses. The organization is run 80% by volunteers and 20% by staff. They do everything from cooking the meals to delivery.
I desperately wanted to volunteer for Project Angel Food so when I heard a friend from Google say that a group of Googlers were volunteering to help PAF as part of GoogleServe I invited myself along. At 8 am on a Monday morning we all convened in the Project Angel Food waiting room to sign standard waivers and then go through the orientation process. The orientation was short and sweet with a lot of emphasis on food safety since we were going to be preparing and packaging 1600 meals. INSIDER TIP: If you are going to be volunteering at Project Angel Food or any kitchen organization bring a baseball cap. Project Angel Food will let you tuck your hair into a hat instead of a sexy hairnet. I’m not saying all organizations will let you do this, but keep baseball cap in the car just in case.
After orientation we were herded into the non-profits large industrial kitchen and divided into groups. I was led over to a line of plastic bags and told that I would be packing the final lunches with two other guys.
At this point, feeling slightly smug, I pulled the coordinator aside. “I am an excellent cook. Perhaps you need my talents in the kitchen?” Yes, this was vain, but fact is I am a good cook and I thought she, possibly, would be overjoyed with gratitude that I had pointed out this hidden talent. Regardless of how many students from different Culinary Institutes were prepping in the kitchen I was a hidden gem with secret family recipes from the American South – this was her lucky day.
She looked at me with a smirk. “Okay. You want to cook.” She grinned, but did not seem overly excited. Didn’t she understand that I was a blossoming Rachel Ray? She led me over to the Chef. “She wants to cook,” chuckling she walked away.
The Chef gave me the once over. “You’re making mashed potatoes.” Mashed potatoes it is. Albeit not a glamorous dish, but a practical dish, an American dish, a food filled with history and culture. I imagined myself sitting on a stool in the corner peeling potatoes, dropping peeled spuds into a bucket, then dramatically looking over my shoulder at a massive pile of potatoes yet to be done and sighing plaintively. This was just like army movies and cartoons when someone gets punished. I was going to have a story. I could sit around in years to come a regale my friends with the tale of “My Morning of Potato Peeling.”
The Chef led me and two other people (other young culinary geniuses I supposed) over to what looked like a three foot long metal sink in which water was bubbling. The Chef handed one of my partners a bag of potato flakes larger than a 4 year old. “Mix this bag into the water,” the Chef said and then he walked off.
Not hard, I thought, certainly not a job for three people. Oh, how quickly the mighty fall! The other female volunteer and I stood at different ends of the metal sink stirring with whisks roughly the size of a man’s arm while the male volunteer in our group dumped gallon size containers of dried potato into the water. With each gallon the mixture got thicker and harder to stir until sweat dripped down our noses and my arms started to get stiff from the work. As my shoulders burned I started to hum “Row Row Row Your Boat” and began to mix the potatoes like I was paddling a kayak in open water. Twenty minutes later we were done, then I began the second batch.
After an hour of mixing potatoes I decided there would be no workout for me that afternoon and that maybe next time I should keep my mouth shut. I then helped the rest of the group package the meals for the remainder of the morning. I had cooked and now was exhausted and humbled. Packaging food, at this point, was fine with me.
So what did I learn? I learned that it takes a lot of love and hard work to feed 1,600 people. I’ve learned that cooking takes muscle, but is fun regardless. And… I also learned that if you add rosemary springs to lemonade it gives the drink a nice little added kick.