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The Wandering and the Lost

The Wandering and the Lost

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Long Days at The Midnight Mission

There are many reasons to visit Los Angeles.

Perhaps, you hope to spot a movie star, shop along Rodeo Drive, or surf in Malibu. Then again, how about a chance to fry up several hundred pounds of frozen pollock?

Drop, count to ninety, drain. Repeat. Over and over, submerging mesh baskets into sizzling vats of vegetable shortening, until I’d produced a small mountain of golden, crispy fish. This was how I spent a morning in March of 2014, when helping cook lunch at The Midnight Mission, which is the largest, continuously-operating social service agency and homeless shelter in Los Angeles.

I was given the briefest of instructions on how to operate a Hobart Vulcan deep fryer by Rob Rice, who is executive chef in the Midnight Mission’s kitchen, where every day an average crowd of a thousand hungry people arrive for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (This adds up to nearly 100,000 meals a month, or over a million annually.) Once I’d gotten acquainted with the Vulcan, Rice flattened a few empty cardboard boxes onto the floor to absorb splatters of grease which erupted every time fish filets met hot oil. Printed on each box was advertising copy that in bright red lettering proclaimed the pollock to be “Beer-Battered!” The same might be said, I realized, for many of the homeless men and women who’d soon arrive to eat it.

As the hours passed—drop, count to ninety, drain—I chatted with a few of my fellow kitchen workers. Most of them are enrolled in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs run at the mission, and live with 250 other men in dormitory rooms on the building’s second floor. In a typical greeting, each man would tell me his name, recite how long he’d “used,” then proudly announce the duration of his sobriety.

Noe, who appeared in his late 30’s, was addicted to speed for most of his life, but sober for seven months. He wanted me to know he was adopted from an orphanage in India, by a single woman who lived in Beverly Hills. Hyperactive as a child, Noe was put on Ritalin in the second grade. “Was I born an addict, or was this learned behavior?” he asked me.

Before I could answer, I was shaking hands with Alex, who’d smoked crack cocaine for 35 years, but was 18 months clean. “I fell into fear,” was his harrowingly simple explanation for a decades-long drug habit.

These guys clearly respect Rob Rice, who oversees all meals, but is primarily responsible for food served to the 250 residents, as well as sixty people who are paid, full-time staff members of the Midnight Mission.

A lean, attractive 42-year-old, Rice is a marathon runner who teaches yoga on the weekends. In the past, he was a “Corporate Culinary Trainer” for Wolfgang Puck, training chefs for jobs in Puck’s restaurants such as Spago, Chinois and Postrio. Rice liked to surprise new hires with a “grocery bag test.” The chef was handed a sack full of unlikely items—maybe sardines, Kiwi, and chocolate—and told to make something as tasty as possible in the next 90 minutes.

Was I born an addict, or was this learned behavior?” he asked me.

“Rarely was anything created you’d call inspired, but even being able to make something edible under pressure like that told me something,” Rice said.

He also consulted with the actor, Mark Wahlberg, and his brothers, Donnie and Paul, as they opened a chain of “gourmet burger” restaurants called Wahlburgers. Rice’s career has had its share of ups, downs, and surprising twists of fate, which makes him sensitive to attitudes he occasionally sees among privileged volunteers who drop by the Midnight Mission.

“Sometimes they’ll turn up their noses, and say, ‘Well, the people who end up here have made a series of bad choices.’ Really? Let’s take the judgment out of it, shall we? We are all human. Everyone’s capable of good and bad. Some of us were just luckier to get away with more, without getting caught.”

Rice continued, “I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of the human condition. I don’t baby the guys who work here, but sometimes people need a couple of second chances before they can get it right.”

On the day we met, Rice was coaching a few of his workers through a recipe for glazed carrots and chickpeas. He planned to serve this the following day at a special buffet lunch in honor of Persian New Year, or Nowruz. “I should probably add some rose water, but I don’t have a lot of that lying around,” he observed.

02-midnightmissionWith an expected head count of 2,000 guests, Rice was assembling ingredients for chicken marinated in yogurt and Middle-Eastern spices; rice with saffron, currants, and apricots, and a mixed green salad. As he discussed recipes with Alex, Noe, and a few other guys, Rice offered impromptu lessons on the healthy benefits of turmeric, and ginger root. He explained why poultry’s dark and white meat are different in texture and flavor. And, he taught an easy way to peel shallots: “Blanche ‘em in a little hot water, and the papery skin will just slide off.”

Watching this shallot-peeling tip was a guy whose massive forearms and neck were inked with apocalyptic tattoos. He looked on with wide-eyed awe, as if Rice had done an incredible feat of magic. When I smiled at him, the tattooed guy grinned back, and said, “Hi, I’m Sam. I used to drink a liter of vodka every day, but now I’ve been clean for 64 days!”

Such refinements of cooking technique (rose water?) might seem effete, if not downright ridiculous, in the setting of a soup kitchen, yet Rice is trying to show these men how a real restaurant operates. Thanks to his past career, Rice has connections to dining spots all over Los Angeles; many have hired guys who used to work with him at the Midnight Mission. In Rice’s experience, restaurant work is often a first leg up for people with less-than-perfect criminal records, because kitchens are a meritocracy where knowledge trumps all.

I don’t baby the guys who work here, but sometimes people need a couple of second chances before they can get it right.”

“An executive chef shows up one day, and discovers one of his sous chefs has quit,” Rice explains. “He’ll go into the dishwashing pit, and ask if anyone there knows how to, say, roll ravioli. Some Mexican guy will shout, ‘I do!’ and he’ll be promoted from dishwasher to prep cook, just like that. This happens in kitchens all over L.A., every day. No one cares if you are a felon, or if you’ve been arrested. If you know how to roll ravioli, or French-Cut vegetables, that’s your opportunity to advance.”

Before he can teach these men how to cook, though, Rice must contend with unique health problems they face transitioning from life on the streets. For instance, in advanced cases of Hepatitis “C,” when a person’s liver stops functioning, their skin will take on a sickly hue. “Any time people are light green, that’s not good,” Rice said.

On a happier note, he firmly believes nutritious eating can ease some of the pain these guys feel as they “detox.”

“It’s a little like a conversion, or being ‘born again,’” Rob said. “It is one palette, one salad, at a time.”

Alex, of the 35-year crack-smoking habit, agrees. His cholesterol levels have gone down dramatically since he’s been on Rice’s diet. “Before I came here, my idea of fresh produce was opening a can of creamed corn,” he said. “Rob changed all that.”

In the process, Rice has to be endlessly flexible with his meal-planning. Perhaps as karmic payback for all those “grocery bag tests” he inflicted, Rice now contends with a chaotic food supply at The Midnight Mission: it’s feast one day, F.E.M.A. the next. Those chickpeas in his glazed carrot recipe come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “The beans aren’t whole, but cracked into pieces, so they can’t be sold. They’ll end up as a food drop to a refugee camp, or with me.”

The bigger challenge Rice faces this morning, however, is on the “feast” side. As frequently happens, a vegetable grower from California’s central valley has shown up this morning. This one arrived with dozens of wooden pallets, each piled with many crates of green beans. It is not only a massive quantity, but one that’s on the verge of spoiling. Green beans can last up to two weeks after being picked, Rice explains, but he guesses these will begin to grow mold in the next thirty-six hours.

In the space of a few short steps, there was a distinct change in atmosphere, as if I’d passed…through a portal between happiness and misery.

“Most of our clientele? You show them a cucumber and a zucchini, side-by-side, they wouldn’t know the difference. They’ve been raised on fast food, and when I say ‘raised,’ I mean eating at McDonald’s for three meals a day, practically their whole life. If food is not fried and heavy, they won’t touch it. It’s a very big problem, because unless I smother vegetables with cheese sauce, they won’t eat them. Not to mention, a lot of them don’t have many teeth left, so it’s hard for them to chew.”

Rice and I stared at the many pallets of green beans, stacked from floor to ceiling. It would require an ocean of cheese sauce to smother all of these.

The Midnight Mission is located in a part of Los Angeles tourists rarely see. I’ve probably been to Los Angeles fifty times in my life, but never ventured to these blocks just a short walk from the Staples Center, L.A.’s enormous sports and entertainment complex. This downtown district, which was nearly a ghost town for several decades, is currently enjoying a Renaissance, with elegantly-faded office buildings and boarded-up movie palaces from Hollywood’s heyday in the 1920’s and 30’s being refurbished and given new life. I felt happy and excited to be there, with a real sense of discovery.

03-midnightmissionMy merry mood, however, changed immediately as I headed east on Sixth, and crossed over Los Angeles Street. In the space of a few short steps, there was a distinct change in atmosphere, as if I’d passed over an invisible line dividing affluence and poverty, or through a portal between happiness and misery. Civic boosters and real estate brokers may have dubbed this neighborhood as Central City East, but everyone else calls it “Skid Row.”

The term dates back to the 17th century, when it referred to a muddy passageway through the woods along which felled timber was hauled. This artery, especially at its shore-line terminus, was the Broadway (or “main drag”) of a logging camp; most of the bars and brothels patronized by men working in such camps were built nearby. Functioning both as a latrine and boxing ring, inevitably blood, vomit, urine and shit would mix into the mud of Skid Row. By the end of the 19th century, the name was used for any locale—from San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, to the Bowery in Lower Manhattan—where men who were down on their luck would gather.

Today, Los Angeles contains the largest population of homeless people in the United States, an estimated 58,000 people. As a result, quite a lot of downtown is nearly impassable, so congested are its sidewalks with overloaded shopping carts, garbage bags full of who-knows-what, and mysterious bundles tied with rope. There’s laundry hung to dry on chain link fences, as well as buzzing swarms of flies drawn to the dirt and decay. All is jumbled and tumbled together, as if there’s been an earthquake, or terrible fire, and thousands of people have been unexpectedly dislocated, forced to grab whatever they could, and camp here, in the open.

Flimsy and improvised as things at first appear, a closer look shows these living situations to be more or less permanent installations. Pieces of blown-out furniture (sofas, chairs, dining tables, bureaus), force pedestrians to walk in the street. Inside these outdoor “rooms,” people hang out, sprawled across filthy mattresses, sitting on plastic lawn chairs, or on upturned buckets that once held sheetrock compound. They are smoking and drinking beer; talking, laughing or dozing. This vista, of strangely relaxed despair, stretches for many blocks in all directions around The Midnight Mission, which was founded in 1914.

04-midnightmission“For nearly a century, we’ve been a beacon of light for those with no where else to turn,” said Ryan Navales, the mission’s Public Affairs Coordinator, who gave me a tour around the facility on my first morning there. “Downtown Los Angeles has long been a magnet for drifters, and people hoping for a lucky break. There’s been this persistent idea it might happen if they came west. Families drifted out here during the Great Depression. Farmers came when they were fleeing the Dust Bowl. Veterans poured in following World War I and II, Vietnam, and now Iraq and Afghanistan.”

A third of the homeless in Los Angeles have substance abuse problems, Navales estimated. “At Midnight Mission, our focus is on them. Booze is a bigger problem than drugs. It’s cheaper, and legal, so it’s much easier to get.” He then quickly corrected himself. “We shouldn’t talk about the homeless as if they are all the same. ‘Homeless’ is an adjective, not a noun. It’s a homeless man, a homeless woman, or a homeless child. There are 58,000 homeless individuals in Los Angeles, and 58,000 different stories of how they ended up this way.” (To put this number in context, Navales tells me 58,000 people would be a near-capacity crowd at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball park.)

Navales then shared his story. He comes from a small town called Pilgrim, in the Eastern High Sierra in Northern California. Though he made his living as a carpenter, he was also a “Microsoft-trained tech engineer,” with a three-bedroom house in Pasadena. But he developed a taste for alcohol, and soon graduated to heroin. “I had run amok, and was living on the streets. My family, and my parents, all reached their limits with me. I burned every bridge possible.”

For nearly a century, we’ve been a beacon of light for those with no where else to turn.”

Three years ago, a cousin dropped him off at the Midnight Mission; all that was left of his life was in one backpack. Fifty pounds heavier than he is now, Navales said it was even hard for him to walk, as he could only shuffle his feet along like an old man. “I was swollen up like a tick from all the alcohol in my system. I had a distended liver. I was pissing blood, and addicted to librium.”

He paused, his eyes having welled-up; Navales took a few deep breaths before continuing. “I recognized this might be my last chance. I grabbed on to what was available here, and I got busy getting sober. This place saved my ass. My life now is smaller than before, but it’s manageable.”

During our time together, Navales emphasized three things.

First, the Midnight Mission does not take any government money, but is completely funded by the donations of individuals, families and corporations. Lately, some of the biggest financial contributors are wealthy Iranians who live in the Pacific Palisades.

“They wanted to give back to the community, but there really aren’t many homeless or needy people in their neighborhood,” Navales explains, allowing himself a small grin at this understatement. (Pacific Palisades is one of the most affluent areas in the United States.) “So, three years ago, they decided to hold a Nowruz celebration here at the mission. We cook up traditional Persian food, and we close down Sixth Street, and set up tables for an open-air buffet. You’ll see what it’s like tomorrow; it’s really great!”

We are not a soup kitchen,” Adamson told me, his voice impatient. “We don’t serve soup. I want to banish that stereotype.”

Second, the mission is one of America’s largest organizers of 12-step meetings for the homeless. In the three days I spent there, I was frequently asked if I’m in the “program,” or if I am a “friend of Bill’s.” They were not inquiring about my kinship with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, but Bill. W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Finally, the Midnight Mission is both non-sectarian, and non-religious. “There is no praying here, and no church,” Navales said. “You don’t have to do anything to get help, except ask for it.”

This last point is something of an irony, given the Midnight Mission’s founder, Tom Liddecoat, was famously religious and a firm believer in the power of prayer.

I learned some of this history from Larry Adamson, who is president and CEO of the Midnight Mission, and only the fourth director in its 100 year history. As an ice-breaker when we first met in his office, I asked how it felt to run America’s largest soup kitchen. This proved an unfortunate blunder.

“We are not a soup kitchen,” Adamson told me, his voice impatient. “We don’t serve soup. I want to banish that stereotype. Our executive chef, Rob Rice, used to work for Wolfgang Puck, so we have some very well-fed homeless people, trust me.”

What’s more, because of many donations of fresh food, Adamson estimated the average cost of these excellent meals served at The Midnight Mission is less than 14 cents each. (Later, Rob Rice will claim it is closer to 11 cents.) “But, the unexpected arrival of food each day puts major demands on Rob,” Adamson explains. “When a truck load of broccoli shows up, he has to quickly decide what to do with it.”

I think of all those about-to-go-moldy green beans.

“Which, in a funny way, brings us back to our creation a century ago,” Adamson said.

05-midnightmissionThomas Liddecoat, or “Brother Tom,” was a broker for fruits and vegetables, who sold these perishable goods (this was before refrigeration was readily available) to “Mom and Pop” grocery stores operating along Main Street and Los Angeles Streets, two avenues that defined downtown L.A. at the beginning of the 20th century. In those years, the city’s population was growing rapidly, as was its homeless population. When Liddecoat saw how many WWI veterans, and other vagrants who were living on the edges of downtown, hungry and hopeless, he suddenly had an idea. After work, he could go back to his customers and retrieve whatever food they felt was about to spoil, and would soon throw out. Liddecoat brought this back to his house, where his wife, Mary, and he would cook it up, and serve it to homeless men—but only after they’d listened to one of Liddecoat’s sermons.

“Liddecoat was a lay preacher, of the Pentecostal faith,” Adamson recounted. “He was said to deliver a very fiery message! Not only heated, his talks were lengthy, too. By the time a meal was finally served it was usually quite late at night. Legend has it, then, people would say of Liddecoat’s operation, ‘Oh, that’s the place where you can go get dinner at midnight!’ Hoboes began to refer to the place as the ‘midnight mission’ and the name stuck.”

Intrigued by what Adamson told me, I did some more research about Liddecoat. Early accounts of his life are vague, and frequently a bit contradictory. Liddecoat eventually become quite a celebrity, and conducted many newspaper interviews. Whether because of unscrupulous journalists, or Liddecoat’s own burnishing of his past, certain stories about him which may or may not be true nonetheless became established facts over time.

06-midnightmissionBorn in 1864 in England, Liddecoat immigrated to the United States, and ended up in Colorado, he said, because his father caught “gold fever.” Later in life, Liddecoat was often quoted as saying he spent his teenage years being raised by American Indians, witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre of Lakota Indians in 1890, rode with Buffalo Bill, and wild venison was his favorite meat dish. He usually completed this portion of his biography by telling of a promise he made to God. In several printed stories, Liddecoat is quoted with words that are nearly identical: “One night, when the moon and stars were shining brightly, I rode on my horse to a secluded spot and promised God I would be His worker if He would let me prosper.”

At the turn of the century, after launching a successful business of selling fruit and produce in Colorado, Liddecoat came to Los Angeles, where he expanded into a wholesale operation. Apparently God saw fit to answer Liddecoat’s horseback prayer; by the time he opened a shelter for the homeless in 1917, situated at what he called “Hell’s Half Acre” on Los Angeles Street, Liddecoat was able to pay for it with $100,000 of his own money.

Soon, he was known for carrying around specially-printed tickets in his pocket, that he would pass out to homeless people. It promised, free of charge, “one meal, bath, bed, barber, laundry, doctor visit … and salvation!” Though listed first on this ticket, in those early days, meals were pretty much an afterthought, and prepared in ways that were haphazard, at best. Food at the mission was exposed to flies and cockroaches, as well as being handled by men who were afflicted with a variety of diseases, including syphilis and tuberculosis.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Brother Tom often replied when people complained about such unsanitary conditions.

When, in 1929, the Los Angeles health department and other city agencies forced the Midnight Mission to “clean up or close up,” Brother Tom was unbowed and only grudgingly put more sanitary practices into his operation. He argued if city government couldn’t be bothered to make any other provision for these men, it was hypocritical for such charges to be levied against his kitchen. Above all, Liddecoat did not want his men to feel coddled. On the contrary, he called them “jailbirds, hopheads and drunkards” to their faces, and insisted they were wholly accountable for all the bad decisions they’d made. He also never failed to remind his listeners of how much worse off they’d be without him.

If a man has food, lodging and a presentable exterior, he will not turn to crime.”

Despite, or maybe because of such tough love, the number of people showing up at the Midnight Mission continued to grow, and soon exceeded Liddecoat’s ability to pay for it himself. Seeking out deep-pocketed donors, among his earliest supporters were Harry Chandler, publisher of The Los Angeles Times, and Albert M. Johnson, an eccentric millionaire who was President of the National Life Insurance Company. Liddecoat frequently stepped into the pulpit on Sunday mornings at various L.A. churches, including Sister Aimee McPherson’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Being hailed as the savior of the unwanted by community leaders, he also took his show on the road as a chaplain for the United Fruit and Vegetable Association, raising awareness of the homelessness problem at produce conventions nationwide. “No man is safe and no citizen’s property is secure so long as any man is either hungry or unemployed,” he liked to say. “If a man has food, lodging and a presentable exterior, he will not turn to crime.”

As Liddecoat’s fame grew, he traveled widely across the United States, and even internationally, for the next three decades— often accompanied by his daughter, Mary. He seldom turned down a request for a photograph or interview and, with his well-rehearsed skill for telling heart-rending stories about the men of Hell’s Half-Acre, Liddecoat was always “good copy.” Appreciative members of the press returned the favor by bestowing upon him such grandiose nicknames as the “Bishop of the Underworld” and “Father of the Poor,” while the L.A. Realty Board dubbed him “the most useful citizen in L.A.”

Brother Tom Liddecoat died in 1942.

Rob Rice was looking glum. He stared at half a dozen stainless steel bins full of what appeared to be pink wads of already-chewed bubble gum, but was actually mechanically-separated chicken, or MSC. Like the broken chickpeas, MSC is F.E.M.A. food.

“I wish I didn’t have to use it, but we regularly get thousands of pounds donated to us. I can’t afford to buy anything else, so it’s actually our biggest source of protein.”

This crowd will not eat dal. They want the chili.”

Rice spends a surprising amount of his food budget on flavorings to make this pink goop palatable. Each week, he uses ten pounds of coarse-ground black pepper, a similar amount of curry powder, oregano, and parsley, as well as 30 pounds of peeled garlic cloves. Listing all of this, lead him into an embittered rant on why MSC is “damn near toxic.”

07-midnightmissionPrior to the mid-20th century, he explained, a lot of meat scraps and tissue from cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys went to waste because processors had no efficient means of separating it from animal carcasses after the bulk of their meat was removed. Machines developed in the 1960s automated the process, however, which made this salvage of scraps faster and cheaper. Today, what remains of a picked-clean carcass is ground up, combining bone, bone marrow, skin, nerves, and blood vessels in addition to a miniscule amount of actual meat. What results is a substance with the consistency of cake batter, which can then be formed into meat “by-products” such as chicken nuggets, bologna, or hot dogs.

Before he can put it into spaghetti, chili or curry, Rice boils the MSC, then strains it to remove most of the excess fat. At his urging, I reluctantly reached into a pan of cooked chicken and put a teaspoon or so into my mouth. I was prepared for it to taste bad; to my surprise, though, it had little or no flavor whatsover. It was like chewing a bunch of rubber bands.

“I wish I could change the way people eat,” he said, “but these guys are very aware of their stomachs’ real estate. From 8 p.m, to 8 a.m., there is no food to be found in the mission. You and I are accustomed to going this long without eating. When so much is out of their control, though, and they’re trying to impose so many rules on themselves they’ve never known before, to have nothing to eat for that amount of time seems scary. They’d rather fill up on chili and cheese, because they think this will tide them over longer, and give them more energy.”

“A big bowl of dal [Indian lentils] and rice would taste better, fill them up more, be healthier, and cheaper to produce than chili made with mechanically-separated chicken,” he said. “But this crowd will not eat dal. They want the chili.”

Rice’s posture, normally so upright, had momentarily collapsed. His shoulders, and the corners of his mouth, were sagging downward.

“This place is dark. It demands a lot. A lot of people who come here suffer from mental illness, or have been the victims of really quite extreme abuse. I think the whole first month I worked here, I would go home crying practically every night.

“But you have to make a distinction between those who are lost, and those who are wandering,” Rice said. “If they’re lost, all you can do is show them unconditional love, and treat them as nicely as you can. For the wandering, though, it’s about letting them experience success once in a while.”

At this last thought, his mood brightened. Soon enough, he was again giving directions and orders to his kitchen staff. Owing to their limited attention spans, he’s learned it is best to assign each guy with one simple task at a time. This included me. Yesterday, I’d spent hours deep-frying pollock; now I was told to peel and dice Bermuda Onions. I worked at this for several hours, by which point I’d long since stopped weeping from the onion fumes, and could finish the job dry-eyed.

The Nowruz lunch was about to begin. There were probably 100 men and women standing just outside the kitchen, all wearing gaily colored T-shirts which announced, “Nowruz—The 2014 Iranian New Year’s Festival.”

08-midnightmissionA local bakery had donated several hundred lemon meringue pies. Each pie needed to be cut into eight pieces; each individual slice then put on to a plate. Rice demonstrated his preferred technique, severing the pie clean in half, then into quadrants, then eighths.

“Got it?” he asked.

“Got it,” I replied.

When I tried to communicate this method to a few of the Iranian women, however, the lesson didn’t go over too well. Either these ladies are perpetually on gluten-free diets, or they have chefs at their houses in the Pacific Palisades who do pie-cutting for them. For whatever reason, the prospect of making individual servings of all these pies was met with raised eyebrows and much clucking of tongues.

“They’ve got it under control,” Rice said, as he pulled me by the elbow. He wanted me to accompany him out to the loading dock of Midnight Mission to see something I might find surprising.

I think the whole first month I worked here, I would go home crying practically every night.”

As we walked there, he paused to inspect a delivery of cauliflower “cores.” At some distant vegetable processing plant, there is a machine which plunges a circular blade into the underside of a head of cauliflower. This apparatus, something like a hole punch, shears off all the florets, and what’s left behind is a central stalk about the size of a soda can. Crate after crate, containing hundreds (if not thousands) of these cores now awaited Rice’s attention.

“What’s most odd about this, of course, is that up to 70-percent of all the nutrients in cauliflower is found in its stalk,” he said.

The cauliflower was not the “surprise,” though. Instead, it’s still more pallets of food just arrived from L.A. Specialty, which is The Midnight Mission’s single largest donor of food. What’s come this morning is an astounding bounty of organic produce such as broccoli, snap peas, romaine lettuce, arugula, sweet peppers, fava beans, avocados, and portobello mushrooms.

“If I had a restaurant, and you sent me this, I’d have a menu for the next few nights,” Rice said.

L.A. Speciality is one of Southern California’s most esteemed purveyors of fresh fruits and produce. All the city’s finest restaurants order from them, and most of these customers have an arrangement whereby rather than throw away what they haven’t used, L.A. Specialty trucks will haul it away and bring it over to The Midnight Mission. As such, 100 years after Tom Liddecoat got the idea to cook meals from produce his customers didn’t sell, the same strategy is still at work. I can’t decide if this is wonderful, or awful.

There’s no time to ponder this, though, as Rice needs me to get busy on cutting carrots. A couple of other guys were washing and peeling them, while I was to work my way through tub after tub, slicing away. Rice ordered me to make a “French cut,” by holding the knife at a 45 degree angle so it sliced the carrot diagonally into an oval shape. The greater surface area on each oval slice, he said, would increase the amount of its natural sugars that caramelized as it was stir-fried. This was news to me.

I realized Rice was giving me a second chance.

After cutting for an hour or so, my wrists began to tingle a bit, then ache. My knife was starting to get dull. I didn’t know where a sharpening steel might be; I wasn’t even sure this kitchen had one. Because of a blunt blade, and my somewhat dulled wits, holding the knife at a 45-degree angle began to be rather a lot of work. Gradually, I shifted the knife upwards, and began to slice perpendicularly. This was much easier. I kept at it, slicing and slicing, with carrots and the color orange filling my vision. My mind wandering, I’d lost track of time, when I suddenly noticed Rice was standing at my side.

He picked up a carrot slice, which was perfectly round, not oval.

“What happened to my French Cut?”

09-midnightmissionI was about to complain about the numbing repetition of this task. Wasn’t there something more important for me to be doing? But, I thought better of it. What if I were down on my luck, in detox from many years of drug abuse, and this skill Rob was trying to teach me might be the very thing which could get me a job, and escape from Skid Row?

“I’m sorry, Rob,” I said.

He didn’t smile and say, “Oh, that’s O.K.” Instead, he glared at me for a few long seconds and, just before walking away, repeated his earlier instructions. “Keep the knife at a 45 degree angle, OK?”

I realized Rice was giving me a second chance. Whether or not I would use this as an opportunity to experience success was completely up to me.

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The Marvelously Askew Life of Alexis Soyer, the Chef who Invented Soup Kitchens

For nearly 200 years, London’s Reform Club has been a bastion of power, privilege, and liberal politics.

01-londonreformclubAmong its most famous members were J. M. Barrie, Henri Cartier Bresson, Winston Churchill, E. M. Forster, Henry James, Lord Palmerston, Andrew Carnegie, William Makepeace Thackeray, and H. G. Wells. These men—and it was an all-male club until 1981—gathered to enjoy their newspapers, tea, lamb chops, brandies, cigars and, doubtless, quite a bit of gossip, in a building of palatial splendor, designed by Sir Charles Barry who was a “starchitect” of the Victorian era.

In the spring of 2014, I spent a fascinating morning at The Reform Club, being shown about by Simon Blundell, who is librarian and resident historian there. After looking over an extensive library of 85,000 volumes (including a complete set of the Hansard books of parliamentary debate, dating back to 1780), and admiring several dining rooms, a billiards room, card room, and vast wine cellar, Blundell ended his tour by escorting me to the “Strangers” room.

An appropriate choice as, in the 19th century, when a member entertained a visitor like me, they weren’t allowed into any room in the club but this one. And here, hanging between tall windows facing out onto Pall Mall, was the thing I’d most come to see: a painting of a Frenchmen named Alexis Soyer, who was chef de cuisine when this building opened in 1841.

In this portrait, which was painted by his wife, Elizabeth Emma Jones, Soyer wears a luxurious brocade dressing gown, a silk scarf, and his sartorial signature: a red velvet beret tilted at a jaunty angle. He sits before a small dining table, a glass of red wine at the ready, about to begin eating one of his most famous dishes—Poulet à la Soyer, or chicken laced with truffles. Soyer holds up a drumstick with one hand, and points at it with the other, quite as if he can’t believe his good luck to be enjoying such a delectable dish. Smiling merrily, he appears a dining companion with whom you’d share a most memorable meal.

“Alexis Soyer was flamboyant,” Blundell said after we’d both looked at the painting. “You don’t dress like that if you are, well, retiring.”

(In the weeks before my visit, when reading about Soyer, I’d been pronouncing his name as SOY-ur. Blundell, mindful of the chef’s French origin, more correctly spoke it as Swah-YAY.)

I suggested to Blundell my hopeful fantasy that something of Soyer’s famous kitchen at The Reform Club, one of the most-publicized wonders of 19th century England, might still remain intact.

“Oh no,” he replied. “It’s been bashed about over the years. Really, all that remains of Soyer is this painting. There’s the history, too, of course.”

What a history it is!

Soyer holds up a drumstick with one hand, and points at it with the other, quite as if he can’t believe his good luck to be enjoying such a delectable dish.

Alexis Soyer was, most culinary experts agree, the greatest chef in the world in the 19th century. He was also an excellent singer and mimic, a famously witty raconteur, a tirelessly prolific inventor of labor-saving devices for the kitchen, and a shameless self-promoter. Soyer’s aggressive efforts to turn himself into a “brand,” set the template for our own pantheon of cooking stars such as Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse, and Bobby Flay. Nearly everything they’ve done, Alexis Soyer did first, and probably better.

Finally, what fascinates me about Soyer is that he was a gastrophilanthropist without peer, and essentially invented the idea of a soup kitchen. When the great potato famine of 1847 struck Ireland, he set off for Dublin, and fed his recipe for “famine soup” to many thousands of starving peasants each day. Years later, he would bring his groundbreaking ideas about what he called charitable cookery to soldiers fighting in the Crimean war, where Soyer served alongside Florence Nightingale.

When Alexis Soyer died, this is what Nightingale said. “His death is a great disaster. Others have studied cooking for the purpose of gourmandizing, that is of greed, and others for show, but none but he for the purpose of cooking large quantities of food in the most nutritious manner for large numbers of men. He has no successor.”

Who was this man? My visit to The Reform Club whet my appetite, but there was a lot more to learn. So, I ordered up a full meal of biographies and books about Soyer, and began to slowly devour them.

Alexis Bénoist Soyer was born in rue Cornillion, Meaux-en-Brie on February 4, 1810. If the final part of this town’s name looks familiar, it’s because Soyer’s hometown was also the birthplace of brie, what is undoubtedly France’s most famous type of cheese. Soyer was the third, and youngest, son of Emery Roch Alexis Soyer and Marie Madeleine Francoise Chamberlan, who together ran a small grocery store.

Soyer’s sous chefs were soon devoted to him, as countless others would be for the rest of his life.

While still a small child, Soyer showed a natural gift for music; he had a strong, clear singing voice, and a good ear for melody. Because his uncle was Grand Vicar of the local cathedral school, when he was only nine years old, Soyer was sent here to train as a chorister. Bored by the discipline, and endless practice drills, at the precocious age of 12, Soyer decided to leave home and join his brother Philippe, who was a chef in Paris. Quite by accident, then, he fell into a culinary career, and worked for the next four years at Chez Grignon, a venerable restaurant with twenty different dining rooms.

Soyer proved himself to be a quick study. Soon, he was a sufficiently accomplished cook to have a dozen chefs working under him at Douix, another well-known Parisian dining spot. Most of these men were older than he, and no doubt found it irritating to be ordered about by a 17-year-old. Yet, his charm and good-natured personality eventually won them over. Soyer’s sous chefs were soon devoted to him, as countless others would be for the rest of his life.

In his free time, he frequented the Theatre des Varieties, often seeing the same show many times. Soyer studied the actors’ and singers’ performances with hopes of one day appearing on stage himself. He would delight his friends and co-workers by spontaneously bursting forth with songs, or doing impersonations of famous comedians of the day. Though Philippe eventually persuaded his younger brother to abandon dreams of a life in the theater, Soyer never lost his enthusiasm for attracting attention to himself. He began dressing in elaborate costumes of his own design, and arranged impromptu concerts, as well as “sing-a-longs” at the most curious times and locales. Soyer’s true genius for creating headlines lay ahead, however, in England, to which he set off in 1831, again to join forces with Philippe, who was by then a personal chef to Adolphus Guelph, The Duke of Cambridge.

Soyer could not have picked a more auspicious time or place to move than London in the 1830’s. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was at the onset of its imperial century, a period of relative peace in Europe and around the world which became known as the Pax Britannica. With its victory over France, Britain now had no real international rival, and its Royal Navy proudly ruled the globe’s main maritime routes. Due to its “superpower” status, between 1815 and 1914, Britain annexed nearly ten million square miles of territory, and brought nearly 400 million people under its rule.

While British naval officers and merchants flexed their muscles around the world, back home these efforts created unimaginable wealth. This was largely spent on the construction of private castles and mansions, the likes of which had never been seen before. As lavishly-appointed homes required hospitality on a similarly grand scale, competition was keen among Britain’s aristocracy to retain the services of talented kitchen staff. In particular, no fashionable home was complete without its having a French chef de cuisine. A cook at the top of his game could ask for, and receive, not only a fantastic salary, but perks such as seeing his name printed on the menu.

Not short of ambition, or ego, Alexis Soyer found London very much to his taste. After only a short time working alongside his brother at The Duke of Cambridge’s, Soyer ventured off on his own to cook at several other stately homes, eventually landing a post at Aston Hall, a vast Georgian mansion set in a landscaped park in Shropshire. Accessible only by stagecoach, Aston Hall was regal, but rural, too. Society was limited, and newcomers were the source of keen interest. Soyer—cheerful, charming, and gregarious—was soon renowned, not only for his adorable French accent and delightfully risqué stories, but his generosity of spirit. Then, as now, most chefs jealously guarded their recipes and tricks of the trade; Soyer, however, was always willing to explain how to prepare one of his dishes. Soon, the neighboring estates were collecting his recipes, or begging to “borrow” Soyer for an evening to cook for one of their dinner parties. Soyer quickly began to develop an excellent reputation among the most powerful men and women in Britain.

While the term “gentleman’s club” currently has a tawdry connotation of half-naked women stomping about in high-heels, affluent men in mid-19th century England gathered in their private establishments to wine and dine, negotiate business, and hatch plots against, or on behalf of, those political leaders they either favored or despised.

A new crop of such gentleman’s clubs was established in London as a result of the Great Reform Act of 1832, a much-needed political reform intended to correct abuses in the election of MPs, or members of Parliament. Prior to this act, there was no consistency of criteria for what qualified as an election borough, or who was able to represent it in Parliament. Often enough, MPs were simply hand-picked by a wealthy patron. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was intended to end such cronyism by greatly increasing the number of districts which would be represented in Parliament, as well as nearly doubling the number of citizens who could vote. This watershed moment is now seen as the birth of truly representative democracy in Britain.

Inspired by the Farnese Palace…Sir Barry designed what is widely recognized as a masterpiece of Italianate architecture.

The Reform Club was not only named in honor of the 1832 legislation, but founded as a very symbol of Liberalism. Think of such gatherings as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or the Aspen Ideas Festival convened each year by Charlie Rose, and you have an idea of the sort of bullish optimism that attracted people to The Reform. Membership was relatively egalitarian, and welcomed individuals who came from a broader range of social and even religious backgrounds than was typical for clubs in London at this time. Not surprisingly, The Reform’s democratic attitude soon made it popular with Americans who wanted a “home away from home.”

“Around the time The Reform Club was built, many of the men’s clubs like it were devoted to gaming,” Blundell said, using a slightly archaic term for gambling. The Reform was not like this, he assured me. “It was a more serious-minded place.”

A popular one, too. In fact, the club found itself almost immediately oversubscribed. Membership quickly reached one thousand, among which were nearly 250 MPs. Needing more space and grander facilities for such large enrollment, a committee set about commissioning a new clubhouse, eventually selecting Sir Charles Barry to draw up the architectural plans. Inspired by the Farnese Palace, one of his favorite buildings in Rome, Sir Barry designed what is widely recognized as a masterpiece of Italianate architecture.

By this point in our visit together, Simon Blundell and I were standing in the club’s atrium, where an upper balcony, or loggia, surrounds a large square entry hall on the ground floor. It was Sir Barry’s intent that this courtyard be left open to the sky, as it is at the Farnese. “This might have worked in sunny Rome, but certainly not in London,” Blundell observed. Club members demanded Sir Barry enclose the courtyard, or “saloon” as its called, with a steel and wrought-iron skylight.

When the building was complete, The Reform’s development committee probably felt the problem of overcrowding was now solved. However, they’d not reckoned on the immense popularity of their executive chef. It soon became obvious the most famous aspect of The Reform Club was not any of the Neo-Classical flourishes of Sir Charles Barry, but a basement kitchen masterminded by Alexis Soyer.

When he accepted his new job at The Reform, Soyer was all of 27 years old—noteworthily young for a post of such visibility and responsibility. He was also recently married to Elizabeth Emma Jones who, like her husband, was someone who’d known great acclaim at an early age. (Jones first exhibited her paintings at the Royal Academy at age ten.)

All the various tasks…were arranged like members of a symphony orchestra within easy view of their conductor, Alexis Soyer.

Soyer threw himself into his work, and soon enough was cooking five meals a day, totaling hundreds, even thousands, of breakfasts, coffees, lunches, teas, dinners, and after-theater suppers for Reform Club members. On the morning of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838, Soyer had his first experience of mass cookery, when he made enough breakfast for 2,000 guests of the club who were in London to witness the young monarch’s ascension. What allowed this nearly fantastic output of food was Soyer’s altogether new degree of organization.

Working alongside Sir Barry while construction was underway, Soyer was given free rein to design the culinary space as he saw fit. His custom-built kitchen at The Reform Club was a marvel of ergonomics and cooking technology. Airy, spacious, and well-lit, it allowed for no confusion, shouting, or drama. Elevating the French ideal of mise-en-place (or “putting in place”) to previously-unknown heights, every type of meat, fish, poultry, fruit and vegetable had its ordained spot. There were cellars within cellars, and separate rooms for ale, wine, knives, and plates. All the various tasks—deboning, fileting, chopping, boiling, and baking—were arranged like members of a symphony orchestra within easy view of their conductor, Alexis Soyer, who sat in the middle of the kitchen, with a wooden spoon in his hand instead of a baton.

A massive boiler generated enough steam power to turn rotisserie spits and ventilating fans, operate dumb waiters, and heat the bain-maries. Marble slabs for the cleaning and fileting of fish were bathed with a shower of iced water to keep the seafood fresh. Roasting ovens—formerly a kind of bonfire, where chefs would be nearly singed as they cooked a joint—now had shields to redirect the heat into warming ovens. There were different types of stoves for stewing, steaming and broiling, and—for the first time—gas cooktops.

The invention of coal-extracted gas was initially brought to London’s Pall Mall in 1807, where it was primarily used for street lighting. It was Soyer’s innovation to deploy gas as a clean and quickly adjustable source of heat for stovetop cookery such as sautéing and frying. Cooking with gas, as any chef even today will agree, was nothing short of a culinary revolution.

Other innovations abounded, all sprung from Soyer’s boundless imagination. There were timed cooking clocks, plate warmers, knife-sharpening machines, and a special set of dishes with a double bottom containing silver sand which, heated beforehand, kept food warm until it was served. Cooled rooms, or larders, had weighted doors which were set at an imperceptible angle; a chef could exit, arms loaded, without pausing, as the door would close itself. Even pillars holding up the vast ceilings were outfitted to be useful, as whirling racks of spices and condiments were affixed to them. So clean and orderly was Soyer’s kitchen, he turned part of it over to a gallery space, in which he proudly displayed oil paintings done by his beloved Emma.

It’s a little hard to imagine a kitchen would create such a sensation, yet curiosity was sufficiently strong that, in one year alone, more than fifteen thousand visitors queued up for a chance to gawk at this new spectacle at The Reform Club. For those who couldn’t make it to London, or wanted a souvenir from their visit, a large, four-color poster was designed and printed. This sold many thousands of copies, including to notable customers such as the Baron of Talleyrand and Guiseppe Verdi. For V.I.P.s like these, Soyer was always willing to give a private tour. Resplendent in a spotlessly-clean white apron, his signature red velvet cap cocked over one ear, Soyer guided nobility (and members of the press) about, as an endless stream of jokes and bon-mots flowed forth.

While pointing out a design feature, his spoon might dip into a pan or pot, and Soyer would offer his guest an amuse-bouche. Visitors would leave with their taste buds tingling. Doubtless, quite a few hastened to apply for membership, so they’d be able to savor more than this morsel of Soyer’s cooking. Indeed, it became an embarrassingly open secret that nearly as many people joined for its cuisine, as for any progressive political principles the club represented. Like it or not—and many Reformers didn’t—Soyer quickly became The Reform Club’s unofficial mascot.

Ever-mindful of the power of publicity, Soyer further increased his visibility through the outlandish, some might say atrocious, manner in which he chose to dress. He spent many hours, and untold amounts of money having gloves made to the tightest possible fit; his boots were always polished to a mirror-like sheen. Partial to wearing jackets with voluminous lapels made of watered silk in unusual colors like lavender, Soyer insisted this same silk be used for stripes down the seams of his trousers, and on exaggeratedly deep cuffs. All of his attire was fashioned on what tailors call a “bias cut,” in which fabric is rotated against its perpendicular grain, thereby giving garments an exaggerated drape and swagger. This preference for things slightly askew, what Soyer termed “à la zoug-zoug,” was even displayed on his personal calling card. It was diamond-shaped, and printed, bien sûr, on the bias.

One of The Reform’s members, author William Makepeace Thackeray, was amused enough by Soyer’s affectations to create a thinly-veiled caricature of him as a French cook named Alcide Mirobolant in Pendennis, Thackeray’s novel of 1850. (In French, mirobolant means “fabulous”). Soyer was obviously in on the joke, as he remained dear friends with Thackeray, even after he’d been publicly lampooned by him.

While pointing out a design feature, his spoon might dip into a pan or pot, and Soyer would offer his guest an amuse-bouche. Visitors would leave with their taste buds tingling.

Of course, nowhere was Soyer’s flamboyance more evident than in what he created in his kitchen. Consider this recipe for ortolans, the eating of which for many centuries has been a rite of passage for a French gourmet.

A tiny songbird, the ortolan weighs barely an ounce, and fits easily into the palm of a hand. Ortolans are captured alive with nets, then force-fed by being placed inside an enclosed box with millet where, as a reaction to darkness, they proceed to eat continuously. Once an ortolan acquires the desired degree of plumpness, the bird is plunged into a vat of Armagnac, France’s most beloved variety of brandy, where it drowns and is marinated at the same time. Roasted, an ortolan is eaten whole—bones and all. In Soyer’s version, an already decadent dish was taken a few steps further. For one dinner, he obtained twelve of the finest and largest truffles he could find. Since the bird was too small to stuff, Soyer did it the other way around, burying the bird inside the truffle. Ortolan-in-the-coffin is what he called this macabre delicacy.

He also was fond of culinary trompe l‘oeil. For instance, in fashionable dining at this time, the second course of a meal was often a joint of meat—sometimes beef, more often mutton—presented to diners whole, and carved table side. Soyer would occasionally fool his patrons by making faux joints out of sponge cake. They were cunningly shaped and iced to look like the real thing, but filled with fruits and ice cream, and surrounded by mock vegetables such as green currants for peas, and peeled apples in place of potatoes. “These dishes,” Soyer wrote, “have often caused the greatest hilarity at table.”

Simultaneously to creating such over-the-top recipes, however, Soyer also championed dishes which seem strikingly Spartan, not to mention more in line with our 21st century idea of what’s healthiest to eat. He was an early advocate of leafy greens and vegetables at a time when “meat and potatoes” was considered a well-rounded meal. Soyer was forever urging his Reform Club members to eat salads of green beans with lentils; or onions pickled with beet root; or celery, scallions, and radishes lightly drizzled with a simple mustard vinaigrette.

He may have cultivated his taste for fine clothes, and box seats at the theater, yet he never forgot what it was like to be poor child back in France.

A mixture of high and low came naturally to Soyer. He was equally comfortable holding court upstairs with The Reform’s aristocratic clientele, as he was joking with his kitchen staff in the basement. He may have cultivated his taste for fine clothes, and box seats at the theater (he could well afford such indulgences, as with the sale of his cookbooks, posters, various sauces and condiments sold under his name, and salary from The Reform Club, he was making 1,000 pounds a year, when even the most in-demand chefs in London were content to collect 200 annually), yet he never forgot what it was like to be poor child back in France. Soyer preferred to live, as one wag put it, at the point where vermin meets ermine.

Extreme luxury and wretched poverty came to a particularly pointed juxtaposition in the winter of 1846-7. Soyer had just pulled off the most exorbitant meal of his career—a fantastically complex, multi-course banquet at The Reform Club in honor of Ibrahim Pasha, a swashbuckling Egyptian prince, that concluded with dessert in the form of a three-foot-tall meringue cake shaped like a pyramid. Had he a mind to, Soyer could undoubtedly have topped even this menu, but why? Instead, Soyer swung his inner pendulum far in the opposite direction, setting himself the task to research the living conditions of London’s poorest citizens and what they were eating.

Horrified by the living conditions he found in the city’s slums, Soyer began firing off outraged letters to the editorial boards of various newspapers. “We found in many of the houses, five or six in a small room, entirely deprived of the common necessaries of life—no food, no fire, and hardly any garment to cover their persons, and that during the late severe frost,” he wrote in one letter. In another, Soyer described a mother and her children starving, having “not tasted a bit of food for twenty-four hours, the last of which consisted of apples partly decayed, and bits of bread given to her husband.”

While Soyer understood lack of money was the main problem, he also believed such poor fare resulted from ignorance, specifically lack of knowledge about proper nutrition and general rules of cookery. He’d already published two cookbooks aimed at the middle class reader—Delassements Culinaires in 1845, and The Gastronomic Regenerator in 1846. It was quite a departure then, for him to release his next book, in 1847, entitled Soyers Charitable Cookery: or, The Poor Man’s Regenerator. In this, he set out to offer faster, cheaper and more nutritious recipes for the “poor and laboring classes.”

What’s striking about these “poor man’s” recipes is they utilize culinary techniques—such as browning meat before putting it into a soup or stew—normally associated with more refined fare. “Twenty years’ experience and practice in the culinary arts has taught me that it requires more science to produce a good dish, at trifling expense, than a superior one with unlimited means,” Soyer explained.

Not content to devise new recipes, Soyer set out to design yet another radically new type of kitchen. For all the contraptions Soyer invented at The Reform, his most revolutionary ideas utilized new ways of manipulating heat. While the club’s ovens and cooktops were immovably massive, Soyer began to tinker with more portable versions on which he intended to prepare food for poor people living in impoverished districts of London. Donating proceeds from the sale of his cookbooks to finance this effort, he furthermore opened an exhibition space with pictures painted by Emma, his late wife, and called it Soyer’s Philanthropic Gallery.

He set up his first “soup kitchen” in the neighborhood of Spitalfields in East London, where many of the residents were French Protestant (or Huguenot). Once a thriving location for the hand-weaving of silk, most of Spitalfields’ workers were driven into poverty when cheap, machine-made silk flooded the market. On the first Saturday he cooked here, Soyer claimed to have prepared and served enough meat and pea soup in an hour and a half to feed 350 hungry children. So great was his enthusiasm—as well as, it must be surmised, his need for attention and admiration—Soyer insisted on serving his charity recipes to his fancy friends at The Reform.

This bold effort on behalf of an easily-overlooked group of people created a sensation. Could it truly be that the same man who’d kitted out the most famously lavish kitchen in all of Great Britain, was now feeding many hundreds of poor people each day? Imagine if a contemporary fashion designer like Ralph Lauren suddenly announced he’d come up with a new “haz mat” suit to be worn by doctors fighting infectious diseases. Worlds don’t collide like this too often.

One of the nobility who was most impressed was the Duchess of Sutherland, for whom Soyer once worked. She was now doing volunteer work as a member of the Poor Relief Committee. After she’d tasted his soup, and toured his kitchen in Spitalfields, the Duchess approached Lord Bessborough, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The two of them asked The Reform Club to grant their chef de cuisine a leave of absence so Soyer could bring his amazing ideas about charitable cookery to Dublin where, in the summer of 1846, for the second year in a row, blight had destroyed the Irish potato crop.

Contrary to popular belief, this pestilence didn’t only affect Ireland. It plagued all of Europe, where many poor people relied on eating potatoes when they weren’t able to buy anything else. What was different about Ireland, however, was nearly all the country’s citizens were so poor, they couldn’t ever afford to eat anything but potatoes. When blight caused the sudden disappearance of their sole form of sustenance, hundreds of thousands of Irish people were starving, or already dead. Adding to this suffering, the winter of 1846-47 was one of unusual severity. No one could recall the last time snow piled this high, or temperatures fell so low.

Could it truly be that the same man who’d kitted out the most famously lavish kitchen in all of Great Britain, was now feeding many hundreds of poor people each day?

Never content to leave well enough alone, Soyer constantly revisited and revised his inventions. If in Spitalfields he’d managed to feed 350 in an hour and a half, could he not feed 1,000 in an hour in Dublin? With this ambitious goal in mind, Soyer focussed all his gifts for efficiency, and knowledge of the most scientific methods of cookery, on to plans for a new type of soup kitchen. In a very short time, he’d managed to sketch a design, and have it produced by the leading engineering firm of Bramah, Prestage & Ball. Off to Ireland Soyer went, prepared to cook what he now called “famine soup.”

He chose to construct his kitchen directly in front of the Royal Barracks in Dublin. A temporary structure, 48 feet long and about 40 wide, its exterior was made of canvas supported by wooden boards. At the center, on wheels, was a steam-boiler large enough to make 300 gallons of soup at a time. This was surrounded by tables for sous chefs to cut the vegetables and meat which went into each new batch. Along the tent’s perimeter were long tables, eighteen inches wide, their wooden tops perforated by large round holes. Into each, a white-enameled iron basin was placed, with a metal spoon attached to it by a chain. There were 100 of these bowls which, when filed, would each hold a quart of soup.

After gathering outside the tent, visitors moved forward through a series of switchbacking partitions (again, à la zoug-zoug!), until a bell rang, whereupon exactly 100 people would be let inside. Once seated, they were allotted precisely six minutes to eat their soup. Soyer insisted on this timing, as it allowed him to brag he’d succeeded in feeding 1,000 people an hour. Before exiting through a door at the tent’s opposite end, each guest was given a quarter pound of bread, or a biscuit. Bowls were quickly swabbed clean and refilled, while another 100 people were let in.

The longer he stayed in Ireland, Soyer saw more that shocked him.

Soyer planned to serve 5,000 rations a day, yet records show he often fed nearly twice that many. People lined up, many hundreds at a time, and waited for hour after hour, sometimes through the night. When the first bell rang each morning, there was tremendous commotion, and occasionally savage struggles would erupt, as people driven half-mad with hunger tried to cut into line.

His original goal was to get his kitchen up and running, and return to his job at The Reform in a matter of a couple of weeks. However, as frequently happens with pioneering efforts of great complexity, things took longer than Soyer imagined. The longer he stayed in Ireland, Soyer saw more that shocked him. He was aghast to learn many poor farmers would go fishing and then, instead of eating what they’d caught, would use the fish as fertilizer for their potato plants. That’s because they knew perfectly well how to prepare potatoes, but had no idea how to cook seafood.

After spending seven weeks among the poor and destitute of Dublin, it must have been quite a shock to return to his pampered clientele at The Reform. In his absence, Soyer was surprised to learn, the club decided to open its dining room to non-members on a daily basis, instead of twice a week, which meant more work for Soyer. “The club will become a mere restaurant,” he sniffed.

He wasn’t happy about other things, too. Despite his remarkable talent and international fame, Soyer knew he was still regarded as a lowly servant by many in the club. It’s not altogether surprising, then, he began to develop something of a bad attitude. While his antics and droll sense of humor continued to delight many members, others found him impertinent, and even insolent. In 1850, Soyer wrote his letter of resignation from The Reform Club, and it was accepted.

Never one to weep over spilt milk, he spent the next few years toying with other inventions and products. There were bottled mustards, chutneys, and cooking sauces to launch. Long before anyone had heard of “soft drinks,” Soyer created and marketed a beverage made of fruits, such as raspberry, quince, or apple, mixed with aerated water. He called it Soyer’s Nectar Soda Water. He created a device for hiding money in the heels of his dress boots, and an inflatable suit that could prevent drowning.

Of these, and many more schemes, by far Soyer’s most lucrative idea was what he called a “Magic Stove.” Once again, he astonished the culinary world with an early prototype of a camp stove, which could be easily assembled and used on any flat surface. Especially for a time in which everything was big, heavy, and over-engineered—think of the 19th century’s enthusiasm for locomotive trains, or steamships—part of this stove’s allure was it was so diminutive, it could be folded up and carried in one’s pocket!

Soyer’s “Magic Stove” debuted at the height of a Victorian vogue for dining al fresco. The chief amusement of such outdoor meals was the marked contrast between refinements of dining—silverware, crystal glasses, and linens—and a “wild” setting. Soon enough, a race was on to convene a picnic in the most unlikely setting possible. With his unquestioned mastery of publicity, Soyer managed to give a “Magic Stove” to The Marquis of Normanby, a peripatetic and highly eccentric figure, not unlike Phineas Fogg in Jules Vernes’ Around the World in Eighty Days. Normanby took his along on a trip to Egypt, where he had the audacity to cook a meal on top of the Pyramids at Giza—a fact Soyer wasn’t shy about sharing with his friends in the press.

From 1851 to 1855, Soyer toured Great Britain, promoting his latest sauces, cookbooks, and the Magic Stove. Once again, though, as it had with the Irish Potato Famine, a grimmer reality intruded on Soyer’s consciousness, when he became increasingly worried over the plight of British soldiers fighting in Crimea. (In March of 1854, France and Great Britain aligned themselves with Turkey which was already at war with Russia.)

While Vietnam is often cited as the first conflict to be broadcast on television, it was during the Crimean war, a century earlier, that newspaper accounts shocked the general public with excruciatingly gory details of warfare. Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph a decade earlier had created a smaller, more interconnected world. Daily dispatches from the battlefront, many of them telegraphed by Lord William Russell, were printed in The London Times, and they exposed the deplorable conditions of military hospitals on the Crimean Peninsula. Russell revealed how a staggering number of British soldiers were not only succumbing to wounds inflicted by their enemy, but being poisoned by the poor quality of food they ate while supposedly recuperating.

After reading these reports, a then-unknown nurse named Florence Nightingale was the first to act: she recruited a task force of thirty-eight other nurses and set out for the barracks in Scutari, Turkey (which is part of modern-day Istanbul). What she found was so awful, she termed it “a calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity.” Soyer, who due to his time in Dublin considered himself an expert at culinary relief efforts, volunteered to travel to the Crimea at his own expense.

His former patron, the Duchess of Sutherland, again interceded on his behalf by writing letters of introduction. Helping matters, too, was that Lord Panmure, who’d recently become Secretary of State for War, was an acquaintance from The Reform Club. Panmure agreed Soyer should be granted complete autonomy over the British soldiers’ diet.

Before his departure, he rejiggered his Magic Stove into “Soyer’s Field Stove” (a version of which proved so effective, the British Army was still using it 120 years later, up until the Gulf War.) Soyer took this portable stove with him to Turkey in March of 1855. With Nightingale’s blessing, he immediately commandeered all hospital kitchens, and instituted better ways of storing Army rations, improved cooking methods, and devised healthier recipes.

One of the first things Soyer altered was the how meat was distributed. Incredible though it may seem, prior to his arrival, weight was the only criteria considered in portion size; thus, one soldier might get a serving of filet, while another would dine on bone and gristle. Soyer immediately put a stop to this practice, insisting every man would receive an equal allotment of filleted meat, while bones were repurposed for soups and broths.

For many decades, Soyer was forgotten by history.

Soyer spent over two years in Crimea, during which time Florence Nightingale and he had countless adventures while they toured the front lines, as well as hospitals and sanatoriums. Unfortunately, Soyer was much more mindful of the soldiers’ health than he was his own. Eventually, he would suffer from typhoid, dysentery, fever, ulcers and certainly overwork. When he finally returned to Britain in 1857, Soyer was not a well man. Nonetheless, he managed to write a book about his Crimean experience, entitled A Culinary Campaign: Being Historical Reminiscences of the Late War, with the Plain Art of Cookery for Military and Civil Institutions, the Army, Navy, Public, Etc., Etc.

Alexis Soyer died the next year, on August 5, 1858, at the age of 48. His last few years of “charitable cookery” had left Soyer in debt. Creditors seized whatever of his assets they thought had value, and discarded the rest—including most of Soyer’s correspondence and personal diaries. For many decades, Soyer was forgotten by history.

His life, though, is too colorful and, well, too tasty to remain untold. Since his death, Soyer has been the subject of several different biographies. Among them are Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer by Ruth Cowen; The People’s Chef by Ruth Brandon; and Portrait of a Chef by Helen Morris.

At his old place of employ, The Reform Club, Soyer’s memory lives on, too. Several of his recipes are still on the menu, quite unchanged since the mid-19th century, though the same can’t be said of the chefs cooking them.

Food is the great equalizer.

Towards the end of my visit, I spoke to Lauren Barrett, a young assistant chef, whose arms were covered with tattoos. Soyer’s recipe for lamb cutlets, “Reform-style,” are still extremely popular, she said. For the record, they’re coated with plenty of bread crumbs, and drenched in a sauce in which floats chopped pieces of tongue, gherkins and hard-boiled egg.

Another perpetual favorite is Soyer’s sherry trifle. “It’s still the same old recipe, with just raspberries in it,” Barrett said. “I’m not allowed to do anything else to it.”

Eating such a rich dessert, I feel a trifle less guilty about my indulgence by telling myself I’m upholding the memory of Alexis Soyer, a great man who did a great many things for the poor.

On my way out of The Reform, I paused for one more look at his portrait in the Stranger’s Dining Room. Soyer’s welcoming facial expression seems to say, “Please, come join me! There’s plenty to eat!”

Seeing his happy gaze, I decide Alexis Soyer is the Father of Gastrophilanthropy because he understood that every human being has two main worries: a fear of being hungry, and the dread of being alone.

Food is the great equalizer. After all, no one is a stranger once you’ve shared a meal with them.

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People Don't Pay for Fat

People Don’t Pay for Fat

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You’ve seen pictures of her, I’m sure. She’s a dignified, older woman who always has on a broad-brimmed hat that’s decorated with silk flowers and ostrich feathers. She wears a floor-length dress, and carries a parasol to shield her skin from the sun.

Actually, come to think of it, this lady has no skin. She’s a living, breathing skeleton called La Calavera Catrina.

Christmas has Santa Claus; Easter, the bunny. Down Mexico way, when in late October everyone celebrates El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), La Catrina is mascot for families and friends who gather to celebrate memories of those who have died. She was my constant companion when I traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, to cook a Day of the Dead dinner for a group of homeless street kids, and transgendered sex workers.

This came about when a mutual friend put me in touch with Rev. David Kalke, who is a bishop in something called the Ecumenical Catholic Church. The E.C.C. has nothing whatsoever to do with the Vatican, or the Pope. In fact, Kalke’s work often pits him directly against the Roman Catholic church which, in Guadalajara at least, tends to more diligently address needs of wealthy and powerful people, rather than the poor. Relentless, at times exhausting, in his advocacy for the underprivileged, Kalke is one of the bravest and most progressively political people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. He may drive a smuggled red Mini-Cooper car and have a peculiar weakness for hoary old jokes, but Rev. David Kalke is a saint.

He’s also no fool. When we talked on the phone a month or so before I traveled down Guadalajara, Kalke told me he was delighted to help me arrange una fiesta, but he wanted me to be realistic about the difficulties we might face in getting a crowd to show up. “I work with a community of outcasts,” he explained. “These kids are not used to anyone doing anything nice for them, much less arranging a party in their honor. I’m sure many of them will be suspicious of what we’re doing. They may even imagine it is some sort of trick by the police. I don’t think we have to be too terribly concerned about violence, but it’s always good to be cautious. I’m willing to take the risk, if you are. Why don’t you think it over, and call me back?”

“These kids are not used to anyone doing anything nice for them. They may even imagine it is some sort of trick by the police.”

I puzzled this over. Not surprisingly, I was terribly concerned about what Kalke said we didn’t need to be terribly concerned about. But, I decided if he was game, I was, too.

Guadalajara is the second largest city in Mexico, and has a population of eight million people—about the same as New York City’s. Capitol of the state of Jalisco, this region was settled by Spaniards in the 1540’s, or only a few decades after Hernán Cortés first conquered Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor. What would eventually be called Guadalajara was an area found to be extremely rich in both silver and gold. It also had a robust water supply; surprising, as it is surrounded by desert. (The name Guadalajara derives from an Arabic word that means “water from rocks.”) Tequila is the main source of income for Jalisco today.

As we drove into town from the airport, Kalke told me about the first time he conducted a eucharist ceremony in Guadalajara. Shortly before that morning’s services were to begin, he was dismayed to discover there was no communion wine. He instructed an old man who was the church’s caretaker to hurry off to the market and buy some “vino.” Unfortunately, Kalke was unaware that in the local dialect of Spanish, “vino” can mean wine, but is more typically used to mean tequila. He was already standing at the altar, when the caretaker brought him a chalice brimming with potent juice from the blue agave plant. Nervous, flustered, and unwilling to turn the eucharist into “Margaritaville,” Kalke made a stupid decision to down the entire chalice in one sip, while ordering the caretaker to go find some vino tinto.

“I don’t remember much of the service after that,” he says, with a sly grin.

Kalke grew up on a farm in rural Iowa. He must come from tough stock; his mother is 101, and still healthy. After college, he spent several years in Chile, which was then roiled by the bloody aftermath of a United States-backed coup in 1973, which deposed President Salvador Allende. “There were human rights violations going on in Chile that no one has ever heard of,” Kalke says.

He came back to America, and tried to raise awareness of the dire political situation in Chile by going on a cross-country speaking tour, under the auspices of the International Association Against Torture. As a result of this work, he began to think about liberation theology. He attended both Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and the Hamma School of Theology, an institution for the training of Lutheran ministers, in Canton, Ohio. After graduating from Hamma, Kalke focussed on work with refugees and solidarity efforts, spending a great deal of his time traveling in Central and South America.

I get the impression he enjoyed being a thorn in the side of his bourgeoise congregants more than they enjoyed being poked.

When I ask his definition of “liberation theology,” Kalke considers the question for a moment before he replies, “You are involved in a political process and this reflects on your actions, theologically. You are in the streets, working with people who’ve been kidnapped, battered, or ‘disappeared.’ You’re not sitting in your office, smoking a pipe, and writing books about ‘The Historical Jesus.’”

Kalke clearly relishes being in the streets. I also get the impression he enjoyed being a thorn in the side of his bourgeoise congregants more than they enjoyed being poked. Recounting his decades of parish ministry, Kalke acknowledges his activism tended to wear out his welcome with congregations. His career ended in San Bernadino, California where, true to form, he was fired for focusing too much of his energies on building a community center to minister to gang members.

He moved to Guadalajara in 2009, ostensibly to retire. Soon enough, though, he’d started a social service agency called Comunidad de los Martines (The Community of the Martins—named for St. Martin of Tours, Martin Luther, St. Martin of Porres, and Martin Luther King, Jr.)

By now, we’ve arrived in downtown Guadalajara. Kalke takes me to see Plaza Tapatia, a multi-tiered park, with fountains and covered arcades, which is directly behind the imposingly grand Catholic Cathedral. Plaza Tapatia is hub to most of the city’s sex trade. As we walk about, Kalke explains there are an estimated 3,000 female prostitutes in Guadalajara, and 500 transgendered sex workers (or individuals who were born male, but identify and dress as women.)

Many of their customers are older, white, American men who’ve come to Mexico to retire, or have traveled here as sex tourists.

“I suppose I could have been one of them,” Kalke says.

Seeing how blatantly these assignations are arranged—there are many chubby gringos talking to slim-hipped young girls and boys—is startling. The cost of living in Mexico is cheap, but it’s outrageous how little these prostitutes are paid for intimate acts. Oral sex earns anywhere between 50 to 100 pesos ($4 to $8 U.S. dollars), while the fee for vaginal or anal sex “soars” up to somewhere around 250 pesos ($20 U.S. dollars). Transgendered prostitutes, I’m surprised to learn, get paid more than do “real” women.

One of Kalke’s goals is to unionize the sex workers, as they are in Argentina and Holland. Some might question if this is a worthwhile effort for a priest; nothing seems to make Kalke happier, though, than to challenge conventional thinking.

After our brief tour of central Guadalajara, Kalke drives us about twenty minutes away to Polanco, the part of town where he lives. Polanco is a poor district, settled maybe 45 years ago by squatters who simply laid claim to the land. Most of his neighbors do not have title to their property or houses.

Kalke opened a coffee shop here, Cafe Los Martines, which operates as a “safe space” for local kids, where they can hang out and be shielded from gangs, or other dangerous temptations. There is a rack with sexual literature and a box, always in need of refilling, where he gives away free condoms. At the cafe, I meet Carla and Yvonne, two young women who Kalke says will assist me for the next couple days. (I also was accompanied on this trip by two pals from New York—Mark Ledzian and Katie Daley—and I’d arranged to bring down my niece, Amy, as well as Mia, a friend of her’s from San Francisco.) Carla is a student in culinary school; Yvonne is a single mother. Neither speaks any English or, if they do, they’re too shy to attempt its usage. My Spanish will be given quite a work-out.

The cafe’s kitchen has a small oven, with only one rack inside; two of its four burners on the cooktop are not functional. Kalke has brought a four-cup food processor from his own kitchen, as well as a couple of lasagna pans. I am disheartened by the prospect of cooking enough food for 150 people with this equipment, but do my best to hide my fears.

There is a rack with sexual literature and a box, always in need of refilling, where he gives away free condoms.

“Is everything what you expected?” Kalke asks.

“No, it’s better!” I boldly lie. “This will be terrific!”

The next two days race by. Shopping in the markets, in Spanish, while trying to convert things from pounds and cups into the metric system is my first challenge. (I have to keep repeating to myself, “1 kilo equals 2.2 pounds.”) Kalke, in his well-meaning way, frustrates my plans at nearly every turn.

To save time, for instance, he’d “pre-ordered” a lot of things based on a tentative menu we’d discussed a few weeks earlier. I’d specifically asked him not to shop for me, as every chef, if at all possible, wants to choose the ingredients they’re going to cook. Now, I am horrified to see how much he’s bought. There are monstrous mesh bags holding at least 50 onions, each the size of a grapefruit; dozens of heads of garlic; bunches of cilantro that resemble shrubbery; and woven baskets spilling over with tomatoes, avocados and tomatillos. Not to mention, clear plastic bags full of chicken, pork and beef that are so heavy, I can barely lift them. By my hurried calculations (“1 kilo equals …”) there is almost a pound of protein for each guest who will attend. Then, there’s rice, salad and apple cobbler.

Kalke refuses to hear me. Poor people in Guadalajara eat very simply, he says, and are accustomed to having little more for dinner each night than a glass of milk, and a piece of bread. If this is going to be a fiesta, we need to really give these folks something to enjoy! “Everything will get eaten, Stephen,” he says. “What’s not consumed at the party will either go to a school for the blind, or to my neighbors, who’ve never seen a feast like you are going to make!” I want to believe him, but I am certain this is way too much food, and it is going to take an incredible amount of work to prepare it in a tiny kitchen, with two burners at my disposal.

Thank you, Amy, Mia, Katie and Mark—oh yes, and Carla and Yvonne, tambien!

We all worked like demons. Jet lag, knife wounds, steamy temperatures, buzzing flies, upset stomachs—nothing could stop us. I felt a little unhinged at times, my mood swinging from euphoria (“these meatballs are incredibly delicious!”) to dark and all-consuming despair (“this goddamn fucking oven!”)

Late on the first afternoon, Kalke showed up again with Pedro Chavez, who is his primary contact with Guadalajara’s sex workers. Chavez is 35-years-old, quite tall, and amply built, if going slightly soft at his waist. He is training to be a lawyer, but also owns a small mortuary and funeral home in Compostela, which is a flyspeck of a village about an hour and half bus ride outside of Guadalajara.

“We’ve had trans get murdered, and they’re from out of state. Their families, even if we are able to get in contact with them, refuse to come claim the body,” he says.

Chavez suggests we head over to Doña Diabla, a gay bar downtown where our party will take place on the following evening.

Inside the bar, I see billboard-sized photographs of María Félix. She was Mexico’s biggest movie star in the 1940’s; “Doña Diabla” (Madam Devil) is her best-known and best-loved film. Along one wall is a painted mural where a variety of large hands are shown waving, holding cigarettes, or making the peace symbol. Several of the fingers have their flesh eaten away, with bare bones showing through. This death in life theme is also evident on an altar that’s been set up near the bar’s entrance, on which are placed memento mori such as candles, flowers, and skulls made from sugar candy, as well as photographs of several transgendered sex workers who died, or were killed, in the past few years.

As Kalke and I look at this together, he says, “Pedro was concerned I would disapprove of having figures of the devil on a Day of the Dead altar.” He then shakes his head, incredulously. “I would think, by now, Pedro would know I’m no fan of doctrinal purity.”

Chavez offers to take me on a tour of neighborhoods in Guadalajara, other than Plaza Tapatia, where transgendered prostitutes (Chavez refers to them, simply, as “trans”) ply their trade. He knows of at least thirty different locales around town, including storefronts that appear to be hair salons, but are actually brothels.

He hails a taxi, and as we ride, Chavez tells me clients sometimes become enraged when they discover they’ve ended up with something different than a “real” woman. “We’ve had trans get murdered, and they’re from out of state. Their families, even if we are able to get in contact with them, refuse to come claim the body,” he says.

Later, Kalke tells me that in several of these sad cases, Chavez has arranged for a prostitute’s funeral and burial, at his own expense, from his Compostela funeral home.

You might think it improbable a client could be this clueless about what he is purchasing. However, here’s a couple facts to keep in mind. First, the client is often drunk. Very drunk. Mexico’s is a culture, like Japan’s, where excessive consumption of alcohol is seen as a proof of masculinity, but where the ability to “hold your liquor” is not all that important. (An old joke has it that men in the U.S. will drink until they fall; Mexican men drink until they crawl.) Secondly, Mexican women tend to wear a lot of make-up. One routinely sees cashiers or waitresses who are wearing three shades of eyeshadow, heavy mascara, false eyelashes, and thick lipstick. As such, the heavily made-up trans do not look all that different from other women.

We eventually end up at the Posada San Juan, a hotel where rooms on the upper floors can be had for what a posted sign declared the “Happy Time Rate” of 150 pesos for three hours ($12 U.S. dollars), though rooms are also rented for considerably shorter amounts of time. Twenty minutes, say, or even ten. Chavez wants me to know this is a “respectable sex hotel, not some trashy place,” which is why he keeps a small office here, from where he distributes free condoms and lubricant, as well as literature about safe sex, and AIDS transmission. He also conducts “rapid” HIV tests; of several hundred given during the month of September in this office, Chavez told me 7% of the individuals tested HIV positive.

As we chat, girls drift in and out of Chavez’ office to say hello, or to grab condoms. Blessed with the compassion (and patience) of a high school guidance counselor, Chavez remembers key facts about each—what state they come from, how old they are, how long ago they got breast implants—so they feel noticed and cared for. It is chilly outside (maybe 55 degrees Farenheit), but most of the girls are dressed in low-cut blouses to highlight their cleavage, and skirts so short, you can see the lower half of their buttocks. They teeter about on high-heeled shoes.

Maybelline, who is 20, tells Chavez about spending a night in jail. Jasmine is wearing a bright fuschia shade of lipstick; when she smiles, I see braces on her teeth. I’m guessing she is 17. At 37, Fanny has a slightly tougher attitude, and is dressed like she’s just stepped off the beach at Acapulco. Fanny has on a turquoise sweater, a white mini-skirt, and a pair of platform sandals with a wedged heel made from coiled rope.

Men in the U.S. will drink until they fall; Mexican men drink until they crawl.

On the whole, I am impressed with how attractive these girls are. If I saw one of them on the subway in New York, I would not know they were transgendered. When I ask Chavez if most have had an operation to surgically remove their penises, he appears shocked.

“No! Why would they? That is their money maker!”

I’d mistakenly assumed these prostitutes were the passive sexual partner. Pedro explains, however, that up to 80 percent of men who hire a trans want to be anally penetrated. A lot of these clients are Roman Catholic, married, and deeply homophobic. The idea of having sex with a man is repellent to them; being fucked by a woman is not.

I ask what is the average age most of the girls start, and how long can they do this work?

“Trans usually begin at about age 15, and by the time they are 22 or 23, many of them have gotten fat.” Pedro gives his own belly an affectionate rub. “People don’t pay for fat!”

The following morning, Amy, Mia, Katie, Mark, and I were back in the cafe kitchen, working for a second day. We cooked until 5:30 p.m., when we loaded up Kalke’s van to take all the food over to Doña Diabla.

Since we were last there, the nightclub has been transformed. There are many tables set up with vases full of marigolds, the traditional flower for Day of the Dead parties. There are the votive candles I insisted we needed, and papel picado, or Mexican cut-paper streamers, which hang from the ceiling. Everything looked great; I was thrilled.

I tried to put on a brave face, but I was sad and disappointed. It was hard not to feel the last two days had been wasted effort.

Only problem was, at 8:30 p.m., when the party was supposed to begin, there were, at most, 10 people present. At 9:00 p.m, maybe 15. At 9:45 p.m., 30.

The evening is a disaster. Pedro kept moaning that he had a “confirmed” list of 150 guests who were “definitely” coming. Yeah, right. And I’m Pancho Villa.

It’s not like Kalke hadn’t warned me. He’s been upfront from the very beginning about the challenges we were facing in throwing a party for people who life had not treated too well.

I tried to put on a brave face, but I was sad and disappointed. It was hard not to feel the last two days had been wasted effort.

That’s when I saw a group of 10 or 12 young men, who I decided looked suspiciously rough and tough. Several are wearing baseball caps with the John Deere tractor logo on them. They are skinny, and their jeans are dirty and frayed. I can’t quite figure out what they are doing at this dinner. To me, they look like the sort of kid who’s itching for trouble, who might pick a fight, and then beat up a gay, or transgendered, person. Oh great! On top of everything else, now we are going to have the violence Kalke wasn’t terribly concerned about.

I rushed off to find him, and asked Kalke what was going on these guys.

“They are farm boys, who’ve grown up poor, most of them way out in the countryside,” he explained. “Often, they are the eldest son, and their parents say to them, you need to go to Guadalajara, make some money, and send it home to help us out. These young men find themselves in the center of a city with as many people as New York. They are poor, uneducated, and without any job skills. They’re living on the street and hungry. When they run out of money, the only thing they have left to sell is their bodies.”

Hearing this, my impressions changed instantly. No. This can’t be. These boys are babies; some of them look like they are barely fourteen years old! I’d judged them as troublemakers, only to realize the trouble was in my mind. I made a decision, right then and there. Even if this is all who showed up, I’d do everything I could to make sure these 30 people—and these farm boys—would have a night to remember.

Despite the late hour, Kalke and Chavez were keeping their hopes alive. Neither wanted to serve the food until more people arrived. Instead, we’d let the show begin.

The show! This had been another sore point for me. When Kalke told me our fiesta was going to feature performances by three different drag queens, and each was going to do a set of five songs, I was worried this was too lengthy an entertainment. Though I raised my concerns repeatedly, Kalke always swatted them away.

I’d expected the drag queens to be lip-syncing to Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. However, Mexico has its own pantheon of pop divas, like Gloria Trevi, Belinda, and Thalia; it’s their music which was recycled into camp humor. The first singer was especially wild. Dressed all in leather, with boots that had six inch heels, she raced about the club tirelessly, and at one point hopped up on the bar, threading her way through all the beer bottles and shot glasses of tequila littered there. While she sang, more and more people kept appearing. I now understood those present were calling friends on their cell phones, telling them the party was fun, and they should get themselves over to Doña Diabla.

When the show was finally over around 10:30 p.m., the crowd had tripled in size, to maybe 125. Nearly every seat in the bar was now full; Chavez and Kalke determine it’s time to eat.

Amy, Mia, Katie and I were all positioned behind a buffet table. In front of us were the mountains of food we’d cooked. Kalke said a short prayer, and the word “amen” was like a gun being fired before a marathon run. Guests came charging at us from all directions! There was no protocol about lining up in a queue, or any order whatsoever. It was complete bedlam. We frantically scooped up chicken, meatballs, pork, rice and salad, as plates were shoved at us from every angle and all directions. Buen Provecho, I kept saying, over and over. People were eating like they’d never seen food before. Only after everyone had been helped to at least two plates each, did the chaos begin to subside. Only then did I allow myself to exhale.

People are circulating between tables; everyone is laughing and flirting. Over by the wall, I see one table has been taken over by a large group of trans, all sitting together. There’s maybe 40 girls, if not more. They are being watched over by Giovanni, a guy who I’d seen the evening before, working as the night clerk at the Posada San Juan, which is the “respectable” sex hotel where Pedro Chavez has his office. Giovanni is seated at one end of the table, and from what I observe of his demeanor, he is acting as if he’s a combination of Daddy Warbucks and Professor Henry Higgins. He’s gesturing to one girl to put a napkin in her lap while she eats; to another, to lower her voice a bit. The girls seem to want his attention, to please him, and gain his favor. I thought it was all very sweet, really.

When I point this out to Kalke, once more he tells me appearances can be deceiving. “I’m not sure sometimes if Giovanni is a good shepherd to his flock, or if he’s running a brothel, and acting as their pimp.” He then looked at me, and laughed. “But, if it all made sense, we wouldn’t call it the underworld, right?”

The party went on well past midnight, with still more guests arriving. Though I’d forgotten all about it, Amy and Mia were vigilant enough to put out the apple cobbler, and squirt generous dollops of whipped cream on each serving. Even after all the food we’d already dished out, they seemed to be doing a good business getting rid of the dessert.

At some point, in the early morning hours, there was a special “award” ceremony, in which Kalke asked all five of us Americans to step forward to receive special recognition. It is exactly the sort of moment I’d begged him to spare us. I’d wanted our actions to be anonymous, I said, and instead we were being handed certificates with gold foil stickers and ribbons, as well as gifts. Mine is a figurine of La Calavera Catrina; about sixteen inches high, and made out of metal. She’s a bony and ugly old hag, but it’s love at first sight.

I’m still clutching this skeleton doll in my hand, when a DJ amped up the music, and a couple of the trans pulled me into their circle on the dance floor. I boogied for a while with Fanny, and then with Jasmine. In the room’s flashing lights, her braces were glittering like sparklers. I look up at one point to see Rev. David Kalke smiling at me. He makes a two thumbs-up sign.

It was the Day of the Dead, and I was happy to be alive.

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