A Very Special Meal

Posted by in The Coffee Shop

Among these posts about expensive restaurant outings, delicious home-cooked meals and fancy cocktails, I must take a moment to talk about one of the most important and meaningful dinners I’ve had the honor to take part in. I didn’t have a dinner party, and I didn’t go out to the hottest restaurant in town. It didn’t even cost me a thing.

I had the honor to serve food to a few of the many Hurricane Katrina evacuees, here in Houston after the storm flooded their homes, killed their friends and loved ones, and washed away their lives as they knew it.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people filed before me for a hot meal. From all walks of life, these men, women and children exist in a microcosm inside the Reliant Arena. They eat, sleep, bathe, and try to maintain as normal a life as possible. Cots, rows and rows of them, each representing a human life, line the outer walls of the venue. The center corridor, wide and clear, remains empty except for the occasional group of kids tossing a football, their yelps and laughs echoing off the hard concrete floor. Most of the children cling to their parents, eyes either wide with curiosity, or heavy with fatigue. Others play in a makeshift playground area, filled with donated toys and games. Signs mark each segregated area: “Single Women,” “Single Men,” “Elderly,” etc. Long lines clog the clothing distribution area while others wait to speak to police officers at computers set up to assist in finding lost relatives. All sorts of emotions exist here, from the joyful glee of those happy to be alive, to the seething anger of those who hadn’t dealt with their losses. Fear, worry, and weariness punctuate everyone’s mood, as their future remains uncertain.

Gratitude outweighed the occasional outburst of anger. One young man stormed off after finding out we had no rice to go along with the beans. Still another dismissed the warm chicken sandwiches as “dog food.” But the majority of those served were gracious and kind. One mother of three made each of her children stop and put their hands on the foil-wrapped sandwiches. “What do you feel?” she asked. “It’s warm,” they replied. “That’s right, and we need to be thankful we’re getting a hot meal” she told them. Another parent, hearing her daughter ask for an extra piece of fried chicken, told me, “no, just give her one right now. She can come back for more, but if she gets two and doesn’t eat it all, that’s waste, and I won’t have that.” She looked at me, smiled, and said, “thank you so much.” Then she walked off with her daughter, teddy bear in tow, and they took their place among the other diners in the sprawling makeshift banquet area.

Serving food that nourishes the body is one thing, but this meal held special meaning. This meal nourished my soul, and it was served on foam plates with plastic cutlery and paper cups. I hope this food will help nourish their souls as well, to help them have the strength to go on another day, to start rebuilding their lives.