One Star

by Dave Hurlbert

“Dear Martin de Porres House of Hospitality,”
the note read, “the soup you served today was
simply a waste of good vegetables.”

I'd made the soup. It was my first attempt. I'd followed the typed instructions that called for bags of paprika, cups of salt, boxes of pasta, and nicely chopped vegetables. They have to be small enough to fit into small-necked bottles: our guests often order their soup to go.

They're picky about what they eat, and what they take away to their shelters, or their cars, or the street. I figured I was too, cooking that soup. Tasting it every few minutes, and wondering whether there might be too much pepper.

The recipe yields about 400 servings. You make it in gigantic aluminum pots, three or four at a time, stirring them constantly with a three-foot-long paddle.

To me, this work seems an exotic, medieval penance for being an avid at-home chef, one who reads Gourmet Magazine and re-creates dishes that call for truffle oil. A new volunteer once asked the director if she could bring in her Cuisinart. It would make chopping so much easier and faster.

“That's not how we do it at Martin's” was the smiling response.

No, it is certainly not. The stainless steel French Cuisinart blade gets between you and the food. At Martin's, you start by chopping up onions, bags of them, one by one. After a while, you progress to zucchini and green beans, then tomatoes and cauliflower fleurettes.

The cook gathers these teensy chopped bits and swirls them into the great pots at the stove, standing on a little stool, paddling the ingredients around, being careful not to sweat into the soup. When it's done, about an hour later, you lift the pots down (it takes two strong men), cut the thick mush with water and soy sauce, and start serving.

I think I understand the philosophy of the place. It's actually quite beautiful: you put yourself into the food that you serve to honored guests. The preparation is a blessing. There are saintly servers and saintly guests at Martin's who partake of this blessing, easily and happily. For some reason, I'm left out. It's still a learning experience.

The other volunteers all seem to enjoy the work. They play music, joke, and gossip as they chop, just like a family preparing a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for friends. They move about the kitchen as if it were their own, effortlessly, with a natural grace. Many of them work for the entire day, around seven hours, from chopping to mopping, something I attempted only once. That Saturday I went home aching and exhausted. The others all went out together for a beer.

Where in the world do these people find that kind of energy? Why are they so maddeningly happy? Why aren't I? Why can't I move balletically while I work? Why do I end up looking so deranged and unhappy when I'm done?

I drive home on these afternoons, chain-smoking. "I did good today," I say. I play classical music on the car radio and think of ways to get out of cooking dinner that night for my partner, Scott. I know he'll ask, as soon as I've returned home, “How was it?” I know I'll tell him, “It was fine. I did some good work. I made the soup today. Maybe there was too much pepper in it.” And then I don't talk for a little while.

Dave Hurlbert is a member of St. Gregory's and a volunteer at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality in San Francisco.


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