Last Sunday afternoon a semi-artic chill circled through downtown Kansas City and mounds of gray-swirled, week-old snow left the town feeling lonely and eerie. I circled around the desolate block of mainly industrial buildings again, trying to figure out where to park near the shelter.
Katie saw something else. When I opened the automatic side door to our minivan she said: "Mom, I think I saw a castle nearby. Is this a fairy tale place we're going to?"
I didn't want to dash my sweet child's romantic notions. But she also needed to know that we weren't headed into an opulent place. We were meeting three families and a kitchen crew to make dinner for a homeless shelter. We'd not seen any Disney movies about this adventure.
Coming into the shelter from the cold and quiet downtown street, we checked in at the front desk, took the elevator to the basement floor and walked into the kitchen. I'd been cautioned that it wasn't the cleanest of kitchens. Despite feeling a little dingy, it seemed to have the basics: plastic bins marked with the words "Utensils," a steel island with ingredients for a chicken gravy, stovetops where peas were thawing, a giant fryer/skillet where chicken breasts were sizzling, and two big sinks where the ingredients for a fresh lettuce salad and a side entree of oven-roasted potatoes could be washed.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon and we had until 5 to get a hot, balanced meal ready for 200 people. Perhaps doable. We got directions from Steve, the sweet, smiling volunteer from our group who coordinates lunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays during the month of January for the shelter. He's been doing this for years and seemed delighted to show us the ingredients we could put together for a chicken white sauce: two large packages of instant chicken gravy mix, large packages of grated cheese, a pound and a half of butter, a gallon and a half of milk and a bottle of tarragon. He couldn't find the garlic or other spices.
My friend, Debbie, and I didn't have the heart to tell Steve we weren't good at making gravy. We just never ever made the stuff. Steve suggested we could wait until all the chickens were done frying and then we could make our sauce right in that high-sided fryer/skillet. That did seem fun. When Steve said he didn't have an actual sauce recipe, I used my phone to find an easy white sauce and used the website's conversion tool to figure out 200 servings.
We went to a smaller sink to wash our hands and put on kitchen gloves. I cautioned my daughters about them needing to practice good health etiquette and not touch their faces. I guess I didn't specify touching things on the floor because Katie soon held up a penny she'd found. I told her to put the penny in the front of her apron, wash her hands again and put on new gloves. That was a five-minute process for a five-year-old.
We helped friends cut up lettuce and tomatoes for the salad. Steve had asked us to arrange the tomatoes around the lettuce to make it all look presentable. You could tell he took pride in his menus.
Katie asked to help cut up carrots but I instructed her that even though I brought a first-aid kit, she really just needed to be a less skilled helper. Her friends cut carrots and she placed them in the plastic bin, ready to be added to the peas for a side dish.
Once the chicken breasts were done, Debbie and I slowly added the ingredients to the browned remnants and grease remaining in the vast skillet. Debbie's husband reminded us the grease would make it tasty — his mother made a mean gravy. After more than 10 minutes with four of us stirring in this vast pot, Steve came over to taste and announced it was awesome, just not nearly enough. The goal was to pour it over the four enormous pans of chicken, top with more cheese and then keep warm in the oven. We added the last of the chicken gravy powder mixed with more water, more cheese and tarragon and increased the heat to return the mixture to its earlier thicker texture, without lumps.
Nearing 5 o'clock, the white sauce was ladled over the chickens in the pans. The meal did look good.
Next we volunteered to help on the serving line.
About half-way through the dinner serving hours, two other grade-school friends took over for Elizabeth and her friend who had been dishing up the hot vegetables.
Katie and her friend had run out of cookies to hand out so she asked to help serve cornbread. Katie relished her job, scooping up the tall, airy Tippins-recipe cornbread asking everyone if they wanted some. Most of the folks in line commented on her Minnie Mouse hat and she seemed to make them smile. Nearing 6:30 the food was not quite all gone, but Katie was diving into the last of three large pans of cornbread. She asked one man if he wanted cornbread. "No, but I'll give you a kiss instead," as he lowered to plant a kiss on her right gloved hand.
Later that evening Katie told me in school they had talked about wants and needs. The needs she said were shelter, clothing, food and love. She said the man who kissed her hand was giving love. And to me it seemed all the more pronounced since he was able to give back when he was there for two basic needs of shelter and food for himself.
The meal ended soon after. It was just one warm meal for the diners who's stood in line waiting, not knowing what was on the menu.
It's one meal we'll long remember. We helped clean up and then walked up the stairs. Katie, never shy, asked to hold the hand of another friend who normally wouldn't be holding hands with a Kindergartener. Then my daughters and I and our friends walked out into the cold winter's night.