Thanksgiving is the best holiday.
A celebration of the autumn bounty and togetherness... It's all so cozy and insular however that it can be easy to forget about those without a home, food, kith and kin.
Looking back on the past year, I am very thankful for the luxuries I've been afforded amongst friends, cooking meals, hosting events, and bringing people together. But there is a point when I have to question what else I could potentially be doing, bigger picture, to share with the community at large, outside of my social group.
Over the summer my friend Katie organized a volunteer "cooking club" one night to prepare a meal for the residents of the Downtown Women's Center in downtown Los Angeles. The DWC is an organization aiding the many needs of homeless women, serving as both a day center offering hot meals, showers, computers, phones, and case management, as well as 71 units of permanent supportive housing. The center has been a fixture in downtown since 1978 when founding director Jill Halverson offered a much needed respite to the man's world of Skid Row - its shelters, pantries and social services accessible only to men. Today, the DWC is nationally recognized as a prototype for programs striving to meet the unique needs of homeless women.
Preparing a meal that would feed 130 homeless and low income women that night was an amazing experience, and ever since I've been wanting to gather a group of my own to come to the center and cook a meal. And what better time than Thanksgiving to give back? Of all the food bloggers and culinarily-astute friends I have I didn't expect recruiting to be an issue.
Because budgets are tight and ingredients to cook for so many women can be costly, I submitted to Foodbuzz 24 x 24 and was so pleased that we were selected for their sponsorship. Now to organize a menu, and shop!
Collard greens. By the case. I suppose there's a first time for everything!
15 pounds of black-eyed peas: check.
Heaviest cart I've ever pushed! I panicked a little how I'd store the perishables until the next day in my little fridge... Move over beer, I've got 30 pounds of chicken to get in there! (Ah, it's amazing the things you can accomplish with determination and a little elbow grease).
Day of! Katie, the DWC's volunteer coordinator welcomes us to the kitchen, and gives the group a little background about the center.
Hairnets on! Aprons tied! Hands washed!
Kristin The Cuisinerd harnesses her inner cafeteria lady and perfects her hairnet.
Sweet Potato Fries
We only had two hours in the DWC kitchen to complete our prep work. Clock ticking, I delegated tasks and everyone manned their work stations with good-natured dedication.
Popular lifestyle blogger H.C. of L.A. and O.C. Foodventures shows off his Nutty Professor apron, and mad chicken tender-making knife skills.
Teal tackling the collards, while Christine volunteered for the arduous task of sorting the peas...
Robin, our resident chicken man. Michael opted for sweet potato duty.
Project Collard: Complete.
Cat's laugh could be heard throughout the kitchen, and Alexis came all the way from Iowa to peel yams!
Kristin couldn't believe that 30 bunches of collards and 15 cartons of vegetable stock would fit in her cauldron.
Just like at Spago...
I couldn't have asked for a more enthusiastic, fun, and spirited group. We prepped a meal for 130 women in 2 hours flat, had everything labeled and in the walk-in for the following day's lunch service.
Before we parted, Katie lead us to the front of the building where Made, a new cafe/gift boutique run by the DWC was having a holiday reception. The beautiful space was created to "break the cycle of poverty and chronic unemployment by helping low-income and homeless women discover their talents and develop their skills through job readiness training and product development opportunities." The shop sells gift-ready homemade goods by DWC residents, such as vintage teacup candles, beaded ornaments, repurposed journals, and succulent arrangements. The cafe proudly serves Groundwork Coffee and prepared foods by Tiara Cafe (both also native to downtown). All proceeds go directly back into the DWC for job training and skills-building workshops. It felt SO good to get some early holiday shopping done there versus the Black Friday circuit. Highly recommended!
According to Katie the meal was a hit with the women, receiving rave reviews. While I think our group was confident about creating a good menu, what made me the most proud was how many people (almost everyone, really) thanked and told me how much they couldn't wait to come back and do this again, and soon!
If you want to find out more about organizing your own group or how to get involved as an individual, visit the DWC's volunteer page at http://dwcweb.org/volunteer.htm. And of course, the center has many holiday needs right now as they're giving each woman a personalized gift this season. To learn more about that, visit http://dwcweb.org/holidays/index.htm.
I urge those outside of Los Angeles to find an organization in your community that would benefit from a home-cooked meal. Food is love, fit to be shared.