Empty boxes. Banana boxes, frozen entrée
boxes, Healthy Start cereal crates, waxed produce boxes. The bread
boxes, usually full and available for the taking, are also empty.
They are piled waist high and haphazard just to the left of the
entrance to the church, remnants from a week’s worth of meals,
now abandoned and awaiting a free pair of hands to take them to
On the counter of the narrow, galley-style kitchen, I find four
more boxes full of slightly rotting produce. I dig through softening
tomatoes, spotted zucchini, and wrinkling eggplant. My brain begins
to search for a formula for the day’s meal. Cauliflower plus
cream plus broth equals soup. Eggplant suggests ratatouille, or
perhaps curry. In the refrigerator I find four cooked turkey breasts
and a dozen bags of prepackaged salad. How, I wonder, does this
amount to lunch for sixty people who come hungry for so much more
than food? I sort out onions, cauliflower, green beans, tomatoes,
and eggplant and stack them in piles on the counter. I set potatoes
for peeling in a colander in the sink.
At the window from the hallway, Janice stands with her oxygen tank.
“Well,” I say. “Looks like we’ll have soup.”
“What’s in them boxes?” She peers in to the boxes
I start to carry into the hallway.
“Rotten tomatoes,” I say over my shoulder.
I set the counter with cutting boards and knives. Volunteers and
slightly sullen community service workers have started to arrive.
I set T.J. next to the soup burner so that he can cut directly into
the pot. I get Mary de-boning turkey and put Cindy in the children’s
room on salad detail so that her two year old can watch Barney while
she chops. I start to chop onions while my mind quickly calculates:
one steam table pan—green beans; two—soup; three—turkey
casserole; four—vegetable curry. We need one more. This isn’t
enough. The kitchen hums with sounds of chatter, chopping knives,
and clanking pans. Dan takes over the sink beginning to accumulate
stacks of used bowls and knives and pots. Potatoes are dropped into
a pan of steaming water. Turkey is layered with corn, tomatoes,
rice, and cheese. I no longer know whose hands are mine. By midmorning,
the counter is slick with vegetable peelings, turkey bones, and
Elaine, another cook at this soup kitchen, had a dream that she
was cooking a turkey in the roasting pan, and it turned into a ham.
“That’ll never be enough,” she thought, panicking
in her sleep. I once dreamed that I was making soup, but no matter
how much I made the pot was empty every time I looked in. I wonder
if these dreams of scarcity are about feeding those who come to
the community meal or if they are about feeding something that hungers
At 11:30, the fifth steam table pan of mashed potatoes is dropped
into its slot. The lids are lifted. People have begun to stream
in the doorway, coming in from a frosty morning. There is Richard
with his stooped back and careful shuffle. Tom, Nate, Michael, and
Chris come in before classes at the local college. Brian and Johnny
are just off shift. Cassie and Lara come with their children. Troll,
at this hour, is still sober. Janice is first in line. They fill
their plates and find metal chairs at the long tables of the warm
dining room. A woman comes in, but rather than heading into the
dining room with the others, she stands in the doorway, looking.
I don’t notice her at first. There is still much to do: the
counter needs to be cleared, dirty pots and bowls stacked, the sink
filled with soap and hot water. She doesn’t speak English.
I take quick birdlike glances around the room, thinking about balance
and flow, about portion size and numbers.
The woman gestures at the hallway where we usually have boxes of
bread. “Pan?” she asks tentatively. “Hoy, no hay,”
I say. But then I remember a package of waffles in the freezer.
I ask her to wait. There is a box next to the kitchen that is full
of produce. I hand her the waffles and gesture to the box full of
heads of lettuce, droopy green onions, and radishes, Cindy’s
leftovers from salad making and other remnants from the day’s
cooking. “Lechuga,” I say before returning to the dining
room to see if we are running low on forks.
A few minutes later, Mary catches my arm. “There’s
a woman in the hallway walking off with a whole box of produce,”
she says. I look. The woman has taken my gesture at heads of lettuce
as a full invitation. She has loaded up our remainders—the
cucumbers, lettuce, and peppers—into her box with the frozen
A whole box? Is there enough for tomorrow? The question catches
in my throat. The woman hesitates. She sees that las gringas
are talking about her. I hesitate too, and then hold up my hand
to tell her it is OK. “Esta bien,” I say. “Esta
Only a few diners are left finishing their meal. We carry the
remains back into the small kitchen—a scrape of casserole,
the watery broth at the bottom of a vegetable pan, a few sad lettuce
leaves, a gooey brownie. We wash dishes, the grey soapy water making
tiny waves up to our elbows. Each steam table pan is scrubbed shiny.
Each ceramic plate returned to a stack in the dining room. Each
table cloth wiped free of smears and crumbs. In a rhythm of time
and tide, the dining room empties and turns quiet. When everything
is clean, I walk toward the door, hand lotion slicking my hands
under my gloves and pass the heap of boxes, now topped off with
a bag of plastic recycling, cake containers streaked with frosting,
and several more pieces of implacable cardboard.
The stoop is dusted with snow. I take one last bag of trash to
the dumpster. Every meal leaves me with a restless question I cannot
ever finally answer. As I heave the trash into the metal dumpster
and walk home along the snowy street, I do not know if I can trust
it, this demanding abundance, this hunger in me. I wonder what is