I wrote this piece nearly ten years ago, shortly after we cooked for the rescue workers at Ground Zero. Nothing and everything has changed.
It was October 3rd, three weeks and one day after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers, that I first went to cook for the rescue workers.
It was self-interest that motivated me; the need to feel I was doing something… anything.
When my ex-husband had cancer, I helped the only way I knew how—by cooking. With food and diet I could give both of us a sense of control and power over this shocking and seemingly random horror that had come to our lives. I could contribute to his battle toward healthfulness with every morsel I cooked.
And so when the horrific events of September 11th came to pass, I had to cook. Not for myself or my family, but for the rescue workers who didn’t perish; the workers who were doing all they could to fight the ravages of the flying bombs. It was my effort to control this bizarre act that had tilted the world on a slippery slant. While I no longer could stand straight and tall on level ground, by feeding the rescue workers I would at least be contributing to the re-righting of the earth beneath my feet.
I was not alone in needing to do something to offset this brutal act of soullessness. The tremendous outpouring of money from all parts of the country, the cards, letters and philanthropic and patriotic acts came from the hundreds of thousands of others who also needed to try to level their ground.
But it is my way to try to help through cooking. To give that most elemental physical and emotional comfort that comes from satisfying hunger, soothing with gentle smells and tastes and textures.
After security clearances, strict instructions, wash-downs and many other precautionary measures, I was brought to the respite center aboard the day cruiser Spirit of New York, docked two blocks from Ground Zero. Firemen and EMTs, the police and national guardsmen, the nurses and exterminators and contractors trudged aboard, weary in their big muddy rubber boots after long shifts of witnessing, as one said, “things no human should ever see”.
The six other chefs and I scoured the galley kitchen to take stock of our ingredients. Donated frozen stews and pots of foie gras, big bags of cooked beans, blocks of ham, gargantuan boil-in-a-bags of white rice…bagels, sandwich bread, eggs and food service vats of cream cheese–we flung containers out onto the stainless steel counters and tried to think what we could do with them.
We turned on every oven, fired up the stoves, chopped and sliced and opened hermetically sealed buckets, bags and shrink-wrapped blocks of meat. We frantically searched for ladles and knives in a kitchen stocked with plastic cutlery. We sweated as we searched for the simplest cooking tools, as we absorbed the heat from too many ovens in such a narrow space. We were seven chefs, some renowned, in a ship’s galley kitchen built for three, and we bumped body parts and shared cutting boards, and mostly left our egos back at work.
Tiny skirmishes arose as one chef suggested we send out foie gras sandwiches—to “give them something special” and another fought for comfort foods. But then a runner—the young volunteers who carried our heavy containers of hot food out to the buffet lines—came in, her face gleaming from heat, exertion and awe, breathlessly announcing, “The Guys are asking for salad, and more potatoes, and they want to know what other vegetables we’ve got!” And we felt as she did, that nothing mattered more than giving The Guys (men and women) what they wanted.
We looked for lettuce and heated frozen lasagna and beef stew and potatoes and made a vat of rice and beans. We assembled sandwiches of cold cuts and hot melted cheese, ham and scrambled eggs. We sent it all flying out to the three buffet lines, working faster than I thought we could, until the runners told us it was time to slow down, that there was a lull in new workers streaming in.
It was during this first lull I tentatively made my way out of the kitchen. As I ventured toward the buffet line carrying the last of the beef stew, a haggard looking fellow, lost in his huge rubber pants and boots, dusty goggles draped around his neck, reached his arm out toward me.
“I just want you to know how much I appreciate this” he croaked from his parched throat. My eyes welled up and I stammered, embarrassed, “This doesn’t count. It isn’t anything–what you’re doing —-I mean, this isn’t anything to thank me for.”
As I turned away, humiliated to be thanked by this enormous little man, he touched my arm and said, “You have no idea what a warm meal means after an eight hour shift out there”.
I set the container of beef stew over the sterno and looked into his eyes. I saw devastation and a kind of sickness in his soul. And then those eyes, so large in his drawn face, showed me how simple and real a steaming, aromatic stew was amidst 2-foot wide steel beams melted and tangled by an inferno, amidst vermin skittering through wreckage, amidst the violence of the body parts and artifacts of lost lives.
With my sterile clean hands I got him a plate, and suggested he try the macaroni and cheese, and told him the chocolate chip cookies at the end of the buffet were well worth saving room for. I went back to the kitchen where I wanted to bake him a cake, a big frothy white birthday cake with sprinkles and his name on it, a clean fluffy tower of sweetness and light. I wanted to give him that first taste, the shock of sweet on your tongue, that moment of freedom from everything but innocent pleasure, and the forkful of cake would be like the smell of your mother’s blanket as you settle into her great big bed, clean and pure and comforting and so very familiar and safe.