Over the Passover holiday, C's sister suffered a brain aneurysm and fell into a coma. I've met her sister. She seemed quite and stolid; someone you would lean on. C. told me this news when I returned to the kitchen from my travels and her eyes were filled with sorrow and pain. When I arrived for my next shift in the kitchen, C wasn't there. Her absence had nothing to do with her sister's condition but even so, every time I turned around and didn't see C, it was reminder of the fact that there was a tear in the fabric of C's life that filled her days with worry and kept her from sleep.
That day I worked with B, a young woman, newly married, who had started working in the kitchen a few months before. We worked quickly,wanting to keep the kitchen clear for M, who was using the kitchen to prepare a traditional meal in commemoration of the one year anniversary of her mother's death. When M, who is slight to begin with, did arrive she seemed slighter than ever, withdrawn and distracted. We kept having to redirect her, reminding her that she was feeding 200 friends and family members that night.
But these things are background. They are the set pieces. This is the plot. I had worked with B once before. At first she seemed lovely, but young. I tried not to be disturbed when she mentioned something about "those Arabs". Unfortunately, casual racism happens in the kitchen. Otherwise wonderful people say horrible things. I try my hardest to breathe deep, and to put things in a context; to weigh a person's words against the way they actually interact with the people around them. For the most part, I have found that while I find the statements uttered by my kitchen-mates disconcerting and disturbing, to say the absolute least, I have never once had reason to believe that they treat their fellow human beings with anything but respect.
We feed quite a few Arabs from our kitchen; the sheltered workshop employs any number of Israeli Arabs with special needs. Additionally, there A. and his boys. A is the handyman. He, and the young men who work with him fix what need to be fixed and maintain what needs to be maintained. I don't know him well- thank goodness the kitchen doesn't need fixing that often-but I quite like him. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eyes and I can't really imagine anyone having anything to dislike him for. Nor have I found that anyone does dislike him. Then again, he once extracted me from a malfunctioning elevator. I may be a bit prejudiced in my fondness for him.
Oh, but B, B couldn't. That day, standing next to me at service, she saw A and his boys coming, and her face twisted and she backed a way and she said to me: "I can't. I can't feed those Arabs." So I pushed her back and I said, "I'll do it". Why should they have to face her? But she was drawn forward as if by some horrible impulse, and a litany of hate came from her lips. "I want to poison them". She was almost shaking. I pushed her back again. A. was coming closer still. I didn't want him to hear. I didn't want him to know. I plastered my biggest brightest smile on my face, and turned to greet him. Now I was the one who was shaking. As cheerily as I could said, "What can I get you?" And still, B. hissed over my shoulder. "Don't talk to them why do you need to talk to them?" I fed A and his two assistants. I gave them double portions. I don't know what they heard and what they didn't. Then they left, and I thought it was done. But B turned to me and said, "I can't stand these people who come here with negative opinions, who hate this country, why would they come? They should just go home. We don't need them here." And then her eyes widened, realizing perhaps, that I was one of "those people", and she said, "I don't mean that personally, God forbid." I walked away. There was nothing else I could think of to do. What could I even say?
The rest of the day passed heavy and tired. I had expected to feel outraged; incensed. Instead, I was just deeply and profoundly sad. Almost unbearably so. For the first time, I looked around our shabby little kitchen and then out into the dining room at people whose lives I couldn't fathom, and I felt as if all the world's sorrow's- all the loss and the hate-were pressed and crammed into those small rooms. C's sister, M's mother and this black animus- all these were laden and imminent and the air was thick with disappointment and sadness. My kitchen was filled with broken things
I finished my shift. I even stayed late a bit to help M with a few things. Then I trudged home. Numbly, I sat myself down in front of my computer with a bowl of ice cream like the girl in the movies whose boyfriend dumped her for the cheerleader; like I was heartbroken. And maybe I was heartbroken. After all, what could be more heartbreaking than to witness someone so consumed by hate that they are unable to feed a hungry person standing right in front of them; that they cannot even allow someone else to politely do so; than to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone and not be able to find one word to heal? Food connects. It is an acknowledgment of our shared humanity. And that is what we do, those of us who feed people- we are the facilitators of one common human story. Hunger. Food. It's as simple as that. What happened that day was the breakdown of everything the kitchen should be.
The ice cream was sweet on my tongue. My heart remains heavy.
Coffee Ice Cream, for Sorrow
From The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
6 egg yolks, lightly whisked
1 1/2 cups half and half
2/3 cup sugar
a pinch of salt
3/4 cup coffee beans
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1) Pour the half and half, sugar, salt and coffee into a saucepan. Gently warm until steaming. Remove from heat and allow to steep for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, strain the mixture and return it to the pot.
2) Reheat the half and half until warm again. Whisk a little of the mixture into the egg yolks to temper them and then pour the yolks into the hot half and half. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the mixture becomes thick and coats the back of a spoon.
3. Remove from heat and stir in the heavy cream. Cover and refrigerate until chilled through.
4. Freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. When frozen, transfer to a container and store in the freezer.
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