This past week I cooked supper for a homeless shelter. I had never done anything like this before and it semi-freaked me out. Cooking a meal for company gets me in a tizzy, but to cook a meal for 20-30 people, transport it into town, and then serve it and clean up afterwards? Whew! It about threatened to put me over the edge. (Well, okay, not really. I managed fine. But I was anxious. I’ll admit that much.)
Several years ago our town started a shelter for homeless people. This program differs from other, more common, programs in that it is the downtown churches that host the homeless, usually for a week at a time. The host church is in charge of providing the space, volunteers, and food for the guests, and last week it was our church’s turn to host. Usually people will work together to prepare different parts of the meal and then serve it. But me? Ho-ho-NO. I decided I could handle it all by myself with just—get this!—Yo-Yo Boy and Miss Beccaboo to help me out.
No wonder I get in a dither over these things; I’m forever totally over-estimating my capabilities.
But I had my reasons for being so stoic, my precious little reasons. The first was that I didn’t want to coordinate food with a whole bunch of people; many times it’s just easier to do things in my own crazy way, sink or swim, and I like being in charge. My other reason was slightly more noble: I wanted Yo-Yo and Miss Beccaboo to be central to the evening’s events because this little supper making/serving deal was to be a big part of our Christmas festivities ... because in our house we don’t do Christmas gifts.
Our decision to scrap the gifts came about when Yo-Yo was two years old. He had a huge pile of gifts that year, generously given to us by different family members, and I watched, fascinated, as my little blond-haired-though-still-mostly-bald baby grabbed and tore and shrieked and grabbed for more. There was a glint in his eyes that I hadn’t seen before, and, quite honestly, it alarmed me.
Around the same time one of my friends, a woman with children much older than mine, told me about how her youngest son turned into a greedy little brat come Christmas morning. No matter how much they emphasized that Christmas was not about getting gifts, they couldn’t seem to get the point through the kid’s tough skull.
Those two incidents (and probably some others that I don’t recall) clinched the deal for me: Christmas gifts would not be a part of our holiday tradition. We would focus on other things like playing games (a huge sacrifice for me since I hate playing games), buying chickens and pigs for needy families in underdeveloped nations (via MCC or Heifer International), decorating the tree, visiting with friends and family, reading good books, and, of course, baking lots and lots of Christmas cookies.
Naturally, my nice little decision to nix gifts hasn’t been as clear-cut as I make it sound. Life never really is. Friends and family members give us Christmas gifts and we’re not so hardcore that we tear off the red and green paper and rewrap them in pastel flower prints and make the kids wait till May to open them—no, no, no, we savor each gift that comes our way.
Then there was the whole issue of Santa Claus. No matter how many times I told my kids there was no Santa Claus (come ON kids, use your heads! do you REALLY think a fat old man could squeeze down our chimney? and even if he did, how would he get out of the stove, huh? he would TOTALLY burn to a crisp if he ever tried to pull such a stunt!), they insisted he was real. Finally we just gave up and played along.
On Christmas eve the kids hang up (thumbtack, really) stockings (they have morphed from Mr. Handsome’s white tube socks to old cloth bags to the official-looking decorative stockings that I scavenged from a thrift store) on the wall by the wood stove, set out a plate of cookies for Santa, and write him a letter before going to bed. Then Mr. Handsome and I eat the cookies, write a reply letter, and fill the stockings with candy and doo-dads. Come the twenty-fifth, we blast Christmas music, gorge on candy, eat a huge platter of cookies for breakfast, play games, and read seasonally-appropriate stories. Joy and sugar highs abound.
However, now that the kids are older it was time to illustrate the second part of our no-gifts equation: that we don’t only forgo our gifts, we give gifts to others. (I don’t count choosing geese and goats from a catalogue in my category of “felt” giving; it is way too far removed for the kids to truly grasp the concept.) So one morning last week I played some of these videos for them, and then I explained that this meal I had been working on was one of our Christmas gifts and that they were going to be a part of it by coming along to help serve the food and wash the mounds of dirty dishes. They were dubiously agreeable.
Earlier Miss Beccaboo had helped me to cobble together the menu:
Me: I know I want to take baked corn. What else do you think I ought to make?
Miss B, almost without thinking: Sloppy joes, and green beans.
Me: Yes, that would be good. And I could make something with potatoes.
Miss B: And applesauce.
Me: And some sort of dessert.
But then the day before The Day, Harold, the coordinator from our church, told me that kids weren’t supposed to be present at the shelter because a number of the guests were sex offenders. “But I don’t think it would be a big deal if the older two came as long as they stayed in the kitchen and didn’t mingle with the guests,” he said.
Oh dear. Was I being foolish if I took my children? I mentioned to the kids that there was a rule that I hadn’t known about (I did not explain the reason for the rule—couldn't quite figure that one out), and they were upset—apparently they did want to do this project. After more thought I decided it would be okay to take the kids as long as Mr. Handsome was there to be their bodyguard and ensure that they felt needed and useful (in other words, were doing their work). Then Harold called back to say that he had rounded up a couple more volunteers and that it really would be okay if the kids came, so all was set. We were still on.
Thursday morning came. I panicked that I wouldn’t have enough food (I always do this—it's par for the course), so I turned two more pounds of burger into sloppy joes. I thawed and iced the cakes. In the afternoon I baked the potatoes and then smooshed them into a large crock pot. I heated up the sloppy joe meat and smooshed it into another large crock pot. I cooked the green beans, put them in yet another large crock pot, and drizzled browned butter over top. I made three large pans of baked corn. The kids brought jars of applesauce up from the basement. When Mr. Handsome came home, he loaded the crock pots and foil-covered pans into wash baskets; the kids cradled the cakes in their laps.
Harold met us at the door and gave us a tour of the makeshift shelter: three rooms had been filled with cots and blankets. While it felt right to see our Sunday school rooms transformed into something so basic and useful, it was also deeply disturbing. The people who would be sleeping in those beds did not have homes.
Then the guests came in and it was time to eat. I stationed myself behind the serving table and slapped burger meat into buns as fast as I could. Nelly, Harold’s wife, stood beside me dishing up the potatoes and green beans. The guests hesitated when they got to the corn, bending over to peer at it more closely and inquiring as to what in the world it was.
“That is baked corn,” I said, my bossy-mother instincts taking over. “It’s good. You’ll like it. You must try it.” I must have been pretty convincing because almost everyone obediently scooped a bit of corn onto their plates.
One man asked, “Is that an old Mennonite recipe?”
“Why, yes!” I exclaimed, totally surprised. He went on to tell me that back during the Civil War the Mennonites ate a lot of what they called corn pudding, something similar to my baked corn recipe.
Almost everyone came back for seconds, and some came back for thirds and fourths. They loved the potatoes and meat, but the thing they commented about the most was the corn. “That corn is good,” they said, mystified. I crowed triumphantly, “I told you you’d like it! Eat more, there’s still another pan back.” And they did. One woman even requested a bowl so she could fill it with corn for a snack later on.
And that, my dears, is what I call the ultimate compliment: when people, total strangers, mind you, taste the food just to be polite (or to get me off their backs) and then actually hoard it for later. How gratifying.
Baked corn, anyone? And, Merry Christmas.
Adapted from the Mennonite Community Cookbook by Mary Emma Showalter
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 cups corn (frozen, fresh, or canned)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, add the flour and stir well. Immediately (the pan is still on the burner and you don’t want the roux to scorch) whisk in the milk and stir till it bubbles and has thickened a bit. Add the salt, sugar, and corn and heat through. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly whisk in the beaten eggs (the corn is hot and can cook the eggs if you’re not careful—no one wants bits of scrambled eggs in their baked corn).
Pour the corn into a greased, square (8 x 8) glass pan. Grind a bit of black pepper over the top. Bake the corn in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until set, the top is puffy in spots and has a couple (little) cracks, and the edges are lightly browned. Serve immediately.
Yield: 4-6 side servings
About One Year Ago: Company Tizz, and other matters.