As we settle into our various states of quarantine, our relationship with food has been significantly reshaped…and the calls to cut our intake of meat have even become a matter of life and death for some. Tragically but not surprisingly, food banks have been overwhelmed, as many who live paycheck-to-paycheck have lost their only means of income.
And so journalist Stephen Henderson’s new book The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy (via Radius Book Group) arrives at a particularly relevant, even affectively poignant time. It was inspired by a week he spent in India, yes, working in a soup kitchen that feeds 20,000 people—which brought up the question of how a global network of philanthropy can and will step in where economic and governmental systems have perpetually failed at providing basic daily sustenance for what is, we can surely all agree, a shocking number of people here at home and all around the world.
The evocative story begins with Henderson growing up as the son of a Baptist preacher in Levittown, Long Island, which he describes as “the first mass-produced suburb in America”—and where his family was first introduced to the concept of generosity expressed via the proffering of essential provisions in 1963. Years later, as an adult of course, he was sent on assignment to cover India Fashion Week—and he paints vivid pictures through words of his transformational experiences there.
“Like too many people in America,” he confesses, “I tended to forget soup kitchens exist until Thanksgiving Day, which is really the only time charitable volunteers are not needed. Seeing how spontaneously people arrived to help cook, or donate food, all day, every day, at this charitable kitchen in India was a shock.”
The book then travels to small town Indiana in the wake of the 2008 recession, ponders whether Buddha-esque experiences of deprivation are the only true path to gaining a meaningful understanding of the Buddhist principles of nonattachment (something very much worth re-examining as this pandemic takes its economic toll), and concludes with a visit to the Paris grave of Alexis Soyer, the celebrated Victorian chef, who made great efforts to aid the indigent Irish of his time with the pamphlet The Poor Man’s Regenerator. It’s a mission that has remained exigent more than a century later.
Henderson concludes, “Too often, we’ll excuse ourselves from compassionate actions by thinking you must be a deeply religious, or selflessly noble person like Gandhi or Dorothy Day, to help feed the hungry. Learning to be gastrophilanthropic is just like anything else, though. You just jump in somewhere and start. Pretty quickly, you get better at it.”
(N.B. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to benefitting the Food Bank for New York City.)
The following paragraphs are from Chapter 2 of The 24-Hour Soup Kitchen: Soul-Stirring Lessons in Gastrophilanthropy
This kitchen at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib in Delhi was my world for the next five days. Every morning, I’d wake up early and head over to the langar barefoot, the soles of my feet black before I arrived at the cooking shed. There, I’d chug a few cups of very hot, very sweet chai tea. For the next fourteen hours, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., I worked harder physically than just about any other time in my life.
I rolled out many hundreds of chapatis, and I learned how to cook them over a wood-fired griddle. While stirring those copper “jacuzzis” full of beans, I also tended to the embers smoldering beneath them. Under a rippling tarpaulin, I sat outdoors surrounded by tall piles of potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, or ginger root. It was up to me to pick over, clean, and chop every last piece of produce I
could see. There was no one to help me; all other volunteers were busy doing something else. How is this possible? What if I hadn’t come to Delhi? Who’d chop the vegetables then, huh? But I had, and here I was.
I was starting to know hunger. I thought of my father often in these long days in Delhi. What would Dad have to say about an ever-rotating cadre of sadhus who wandered through the kitchen at all times of day and night? Usually they had their heads bowed, praying silently to themselves. However, at some inner prompting of their own, they sometimes felt the need to shout at the top of their lungs. Were these the prayers that were supposed to make the food taste so good and be calorie-free?
Hours would pass—and once an entire day—when I didn’t hear a single word of my native tongue; every interchange I had was done strictly through pantomime. There was one notable exception, though, and remembering it still makes me blush with shame.
It was lunchtime, and yet another group of six hundred had just rushed in to take their places on the concrete floor. I was carrying a heavy pot full of lentil stew, working my way down a line of hungry people, plopping a spoonful onto each outstretched tin plate. As I moved quickly, most of the diners became a blur. Sometimes, though, I would look up and see a face smiling at me, and feel a flood of happiness at what I was doing. Gradually, I began to allow myself the occasional human touch. I would squeeze an old woman’s shoulder encouragingly or tickle a child’s ear. I hoped that somehow this made the whole interchange a little more human.
I’d been doing this for a few hours one afternoon when another volunteer, a guy with a brilliantly turquoise turban, suddenly jerked on my elbow and pulled me aside. Speaking in plummy tones, his accent sounding like he’d just stepped off a wide green lawn
at Oxford or Cambridge, he said to me, “My friend, it’s all very dear these compassionate caresses I see you are giving, but any physical contact here is quite forbidden. Many of these people have cholera, leprosy, tuberculosis, or something far worse. And, have you even considered that you, too, might have germs of your own you could pass on to them? Now, go wash your hands, and then get back to work!”
The man pushed me toward a door in the kitchen, where there was a bathroom I didn’t know existed until this moment. Inside, I spotted the first and only piece of soap I saw in my entire time at the Sikh temple in Delhi. As I scrubbed my hands, I felt a choke of anger rising in my throat not for the guy who’d reprimanded me but for myself. I’d been indulging in Mother Teresa fantasies and gotten totally busted for it.
My hands clean, I went back to serving lentils. I didn’t touch anyone anymore. And after I’d brooded over this for a while, I eventually became glad that he pulled me aside with his reprimand. Squeezing someone’s elbow is easy. What’s much harder, I decided, was to focus compassion into the food and infuse this humblest of meals with love.
“Prayer alone will not bring me to God,” Parvinder Singh had told me earier. “Knowledge alone does nothing. It is the practice of what we have learned that is important.”
The rest of my week went by quickly. When it was time to go, I was sorry to leave the Gurdwara Bengla Sahib and India.
Sat Sri Akal. God is truth.