One of the first things that drew us to the church that we currently attend was its Wednesday night activities. I distinctly remember the first time we entered the building on a Wednesday, four children in tow, shyly uncertain about where we were to go. It wasn’t too difficult to find it out, judging by the sound of noisy chatter, the stream of people coming and going and the smell of food.
My first instinct when we peeked into the fellowship hall was to feel slightly overwhelmed. There were so many people, the room was buzzing like a beehive, and there was just so much activity. Being what you might call an introverted person, making my way into that room and finding a seat at one of the long tables was daunting. But the hubby led the way and we were soon pulled into the hive, welcomed heartily and directed by friendly strangers to the food line.
I soon discovered that this was not just an occasional thing, but that every week, a first rate dinner was provided for all these people before they dispersed to various Bible studies, classes and choirs. I remember wondering to myself who did all of the cooking and how on earth they managed it- I mean, making fettucine alfredo with grilled chicken for 250 people was no small thing, not to mention the full salad bar and homemade desserts that were provided. And surely the cleanup for such a meal must mean a lot of work for someone.
But as I looked around, I noticed various people bustling around with trays for refilling things, keeping drinks replenished, pushing garbage cans around the room to help with cleanup. I remember sitting next to a lady who was trying to get to know us, in between making sure that her many children were eating their dinners. At one point her older son came over and plopped himself down next to her, complaining in a bored voice that there was nothing to do.
Without batting an eyelid she told him that instead of complaining, he should go to the kitchen and offer to help with the dishes. And he did! I was pretty impressed by this and everything else that went on that evening to prove that many hands make light work.
Still, I thought there must be one person who headed up the majority of the cooking, and after a few weeks discovered that there was one woman, hired by the church to make up the menu, do the shopping and then cook all of that food, helped along the way by a dedicated group of volunteers. I was a bit in awe of this woman and all that she did, but have since had the privilege of getting to know her and have found nothing awful about her- just a friendly and cheerful woman, happy to serve and a fellow lover of the joy of cooking.
That was four years ago now, but I have continued to be impressed with the efforts of so many to provide this weekly blessing of a meal for the entire church body. It not only means many busy young moms get a night off from cooking, but also provides a very sweet time of fellowship with other church members that we otherwise wouldn’t have. After all, there’s nothing like a good meal to draw people together, and I have always viewed this meal as a real ministry to us members.
Imagine my surprise then, when about six weeks ago I received a phone call from the church, asking if I might be willing to take over this daunting task, this weekly cooking of a meal for 250 people. The call came in the middle of all of our moving craziness, and what with the prospect of renovations and other demands on my time, my immediate thought was how impossible it would be. However, I didn’t say no right off, but I asked for some time to consider. As a parting shot, he reminded me that it was a paid position.
It only took me a few moments consideration to realize how much I wanted to take the job, and not just for the money, although any increase to our current income would be a blessing. It suddenly came over me how much I missed cooking, how much I needed that stress relief (yes, cooking is a stress relief for me) and how bored I was already growing with the limited menu I was able to cook in our tiny trailer kitchen.
As I lay in bed that night, my mind was going a mile a minute, thinking of all the things I would like to try and how much fun it would be to learn to cook in that industrial sized kitchen.
I talked to the hubby and he said to go for it. I asked my kiddos what they thought, and I’m not sure why, but they were all super excited at the prospect. My oldest boy, sounding somewhat awed himself said,
“Oh wow, mom- seriously!? That means you would be the head chef of the entire church!”
Well, not exactly son.
I went ahead and agreed to take the job, starting at the beginning of the next school year. This gave me, so I thought, plenty of time to start planning and training and picking the former cook’s brain for information and tips on how she managed the task each week.
But before I could do much of that, I got another surprise call from the church, asking if I would be willing to start my job a bit earlier and oversee a last second dinner they were trying to pull together against the arrival of a prospective new pastor- in just three days time. I cautiously agreed, but was relieved when it was suggested that we simply order pizzas and all I would need to do was come up with salad and dessert. That, I was sure I could handle.
And so, a few days later, armed with a shopping list, a blank check from the church and a Sam’s club card, I embarked on my new job. I had never actually been to a Sam’s club, being members of Costco ourselves, so I had to do a bit of exploring to figure out where everything was. I was also a bit at a loss to know how much food to buy. I had decided to make my favorite Caesar salad with the homemade croutons, but the number I had been given was anywhere from 200-300 people.
I decided it was better to be safe than sorry and by the time I checked out, my cart was heaping with romaine hearts and french bread.
When I got to the church, I thought it would be wise to start with dessert. I had decided on something simple for my first attempt- brownies, with a cream cheese swirl just to add a bit of interest. I had even decided (much to the hubby’s horror) to use a boxed mix. I got out the packages- sixteen in all, and stared down the enormous industrial mixer that I had no idea how to use. There was also, thankfully, a normal sized kitchen aid, so I decided to start the cream cheese filling in that while I tried to figure out the big mixer.
Before long, the cream cheese was whipping and soon I had all the brownie ingredients piled into a mixing bowl so large that I could barely wrap my arms around it. As I tried to wrestle it into place, pulling levers here and pushing buttons there, I heard a quiet voice behind me saying,
“Excuse me, but you seem to have some splattering over here.”
I whisked around and briefly registered the man who had entered the kitchen before a blob of cream cheese hit my face. Turns out, cream cheese filling for 300 takes up more room than usual in a kitchen aid. I hurried to turn off the machine, and grabbed up some paper towels, embarrassedly scrubbing the sticky white blobs all around me while the man kindly offered to help.
After splitting the cream cheese batch into two, he helped me get the big mixer bowl into place and I pushed the button, only to be greeted by a cloud of choking sugar and cocoa powder. More embarrassed scrubbing followed, but even with all that, I eventually managed to slide eight enormous pans of brownies into the oven, prettily marbled with cream cheese and sprinkled with fresh raspberries.
There was now nothing to do but make my salad dressing. My original recipe called for 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, amongst other things, but after multiplying it out for 300, I was a little horrified to realize that I would need to use the entire Sam’s club jumbo tub of mayo that I had purchased. As I dumped it into a bowl followed by lemon juice and enough garlic to choke a pig, my greatest difficulty was in believing that we would really need this much food, especially as I filled enormous bowl after enormous bowl with chopped romaine and stored it in the fridge.
Before long, other people began arriving to help, and I soon realized how much more there was to do. There were drinks to be made, tables to be set, all the dessert to be cut up and put on plates. Add to that the fact that I had undercooked most of the brownies and they had to be thrown back in the oven, and time was getting short. A few minutes before it was time to begin, the pizzas arrived- about seventy of them, and I started dressing the salad.
Then the people began to arrive. This being a somewhat different occasion than a normal Wednesday night dinner, we still had no idea how many would show up. But it was soon clear that 300 was an underestimation. I had a moment’s panic, looking at the enormous line of people stretching out the door and realizing that if we ran out of food it would be my fault. I started frantically chopping more lettuce and making more croutons.
Pizza after pizza disappeared, tray after tray of brownies vanished into the crowd that seemed only to grow, and I watched the clock, wondering if the food was going to last until 6:30.
Towards the end, I ran out of my homemade dressing and croutons and hoped the people still in line wouldn’t notice the change as I tossed more lettuce with a bottle of ranch and some boxed croutons I dug out of the back of the pantry.
But as crazy as the night was, I soon felt that I was in my element, running around making sure that we were well supplied with everything and seeing, with pleasure, just how many people had been served and were happily eating and enjoying each other’s company.
It brought back floods of memories of my dad, as I used to watch him making the rounds of the restaurants he managed or even hosting big parties at our house. And it was an unexpected joy for me to feel that that part of my dad was a part of me, and to put to use all that he had taught me over the years when I used to work for him.
At the end of the evening, eyeing the last little piece of pizza, the empty brownie pans and the half a romaine heart that was all that remained of the feast we had prepared, I felt tired, but satisfied. I know now that I have my work cut out for me, but I also now how much I am looking forward to the challenge and how thankful I am for the willing hands that have made these evenings what they are and I’m honored by the prospect of serving the church in this special way.