Up until this year, I have had very little experiences with cooking, especially for big groups of people. In my first year as a Lasallian Volunteer in Concord, California, my community and I had been spoiled due to having Chef Jeff come in during the week to cook for us and leave leftovers for the weekend. When I was told I would be going into a community where I was expected to cook, I nearly fell off my chair. Me? Cook? <insert laughter> I was at best a lazy, once-in-a-blue-moon baker, but I did not know how to cook much less for at least nine people including myself. However, no matter my hesitations and worries about cooking, I was going to be cooking at the very least about once a week or so. I was sure that I would fail and would have to order emergency pizza for my community when all my food came out burnt. But with my cookbooks from various family members packed away in my carry-on luggage, I headed off to the Bronx with the hopes that I would make a decent chef and not burn down the newly renovated kitchen in the process.
My first meal would end up being meatloaf, mashed potatoes and veggies because I had done it at home with my mother and, therefore, had some familiarity with making the dish. When my time came, I ended up having to cook for about 15 people due to having extra guests. I went through my whole work day worried and even got out of work early to run home. I was a nervous wreck during the entire cooking process and only stopped to breathe when everything was done. There ended up being lots of extra meatloaf and I got a battle scar on my left arm from a very hot oven, but an edible meal was successfully made for 15 people. However, had it not been for the support, love and hunger of my community, I probably would have crashed and burned during that first meal. As I continued with my experiences of cooking, my community members jumped in when they could and taught me along the way. Always ask the person cooking that night if they want an extra pair of hands, even if you are exhausted, because it can make a world of a difference. Prep what you can the night before. If you are late, prayer can always be moved or go longer to accommodate. You always will have more food than you think. The crock pot is your friend, use it as often as possible. Dessert is not necessary, but highly encouraged. Clean as you go.
Unlike a recipe that calls for exact measurements, steps and general rules to follow to make a great meal, living in a community is unexpected and uncalculated. You go in hoping that you will get along with everyone and that you will create some semblance of a functional, cohesive group of people because you are told to be present within your community. What you think will be just another duty as assigned becomes the best part of your day. In my two years of service, nothing beats coming home to my community especially to the hustle and bustle of a kitchen where you know food is being made with tender love and care. But at the end of the day, the food does not matter, it is the people who choose to sit down at the table with you at the end of the day.
The Brother Michaels who tease you relentlessly because they know they can but are the first ones to ask you how your day went at work, who will also sneak out the back during clean up time to eat the rest of the dessert. The Brother Bills who make a great cleanup crew with you, are patient through every glass you break, and let you openly cry in front of them when you receive new information about your birth family. The Brother Eds, of which there is only one, who are always coming up with new ideas and openly welcoming new people into the community. The Brother Joes who watch TV with you no matter the show and offer to make more French toast for you when it all has been consumed before you could get some. The Jubilees who make you laugh, cry and love as a sister because there is no one else like them. The Theresas who have the big LV energy, are quick to laugh and sly with jokes but come with enormous hearts. The Ashleys who keep everyone together, listen to the problems of others, are fiercely protective of those closest to them, and have quick-witted tongues and mastery skills in the kitchen. We each bring our own sets of personalities, worries, likes/dislikes, etc. yet we all come around the table each evening Sunday through Thursday as one loud, obnoxious family. While the consumption of food is necessary to human survival, the family that is built around a dinner table is irreplaceable and uniquely created each year. Before you know it, the year is over and all you want is more night around the community dinner table.
Julia Mach is a second-year volunteer at Fordham Bedford Community Services in Bronx, New York, serving as the youth education coordinator. She is a 2018 graduate of Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, with a degree in English and secondary education.