Dear CulinaryCorps friends and supporters,
That’s how many hot plates of food our team helped cook last week at Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais, France. In terms of trip output, this is by far our organization’s all-time high.
Though if I’m being honest, it feels like a drop in the bucket. Half a drop, really.
I’m not undermining the amount of culinary muscle we gave to the RCK operation. Collectively, the six of us peeled hundreds of pounds of carrots, sliced a literal ton of onions, and made hummus and vegan aioli in batches big enough to bathe in. We even scaled up a sticky toffee pudding recipe to feed 1,300 as a way to use up a pallet of donated dates; a rare treat for the refugees facing yet another bone-chilling evening. All in, I’d call it a Herculean effort on our part.
The truth is, we pulled an oar for just four days. Refugee Community Kitchen has been rowing at full speed for four years.
Our “Herculean effort” is replicated seven days a week, 365 days a year, by an ever-changing roster of volunteers, most of whom are recent college graduates with no prior professional kitchen experience. The conditions are hard. The methods are inefficient. The work is unpaid. The funding is grassroots. Yet there they are, black-chef-coated and rosy-cheeked, cranking out thousands of meals in what is essentially an open-air warehouse of a kitchen. To date, nearly 18,000 RCK volunteers have made over 2.6 million meals. A truly jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring stat. So last week, at the end of just one of RCK’s typical 12-hours-a-day work weeks, our team came home depleted of warmth, of energy, of spirit.
But we came home.
To a roof, a shower, a meal of our choosing, a pillow, a promise of a better day. The mainly Kurdish refugees we served last week in both Calais and Dunkirk (as well as Brussels) do not have these luxuries, or any luxuries at all. There is no new home to go to. No old home to return to either.
They are stuck in a limbo so far from our own frames of reference it’s virtually impossible to understand the conditions without bearing witness.
Some journalists call it “sleeping rough,” since the thrice-weekly police raids rob these displaced humans of any shred of comfort. Tents, sleeping bags, tarps, and sanitation are all stripped away several times a week through police force. These men and boys, women and girls—and babies too—are left to sleep under bushes, in makeshift shelters, or on beds made of nothing more than woven branches. They come out of the fading light to the RCK meal distribution points, and they slip back into the surrounding woods as the sun sets. There is no real “camp” to speak of, no home base. The only constant is the one meal delivered by RCK to get them through the long night, and day, ahead.
Despite all this, there were still smiles.
I personally scooped out rice during a distribution in Dunkirk to the 550 refugees living in a nature preserve framed by a small lake, a pretty setting for such ugly circumstances. We stood outside in a muddy parking lot dishing out basmati rice, Afghani beans, chopped salad, and sticky toffee pudding, all served school-cafeteria style behind rickety folding tables. The line was mostly calm punctuated by brief bursts of chaos when a few brazen men would get caught “zig zagging” (a.k.a. cutting), angering those waiting patiently. With every scoop, I said hello softly. Smiled warmly. Without fail, I received the same response in return. Warm smile, kind greeting. My heart broke into 550 pieces.
Then I scooped too much rice.
Rice was literally the only thing I could give so I ladled generously as a sort of penance. There was a flow to the service that lulls you into a sad, shuffling routine so when one man unexpectedly reached across the table and gently plucked the spoon out of my hand, I froze. We didn’t discuss this happening during our orientation. Was this against protocol? But with a flick of the wrist he scraped half the rice on his plate back into the serving dish from where it came. He handed me back the spoon gesturing to the long line snaking behind him, and without one spoken word he said very loudly “I’ll take less so that all can eat.”
And in this simple gesture, I found a shred of hope in what is otherwise a hopeless situation.
Despite incomprehensible conditions sucking the humanity from their marrow, there is still grit, grace, generosity, and gratitude dwelling in the immeasurable depth that is the human spirit. Every smile I served is a story of despair and hope in equal measure. Every smile is an opportunity for us, as humans, to help.
Every smile is proof that even half drops can eventually fill the bucket. We all just need to commit to doing one small thing.
The thanks runs deep.
Of course, this trip could not have been realized without our amazing project partner Refugee Community Kitchen and our incredible team of chef-volunteers. As previous trip leaders, Aimee, Jeremy, Viviana, Jessica, and Dantee were each the epitome of the CulinaryCorps ambassador—professional, personable, knowledgeable, flexible and hardworking beyond comprehension. I consider it an honor to have cooked beside them all this week.
And the work we did, and the donations we made, would not have been possible without YOU, our supportive donors. I’d say the thanks comes from the bottom of my heart, but it’s deeper than that. The bottom of my soul is more like it. Your contributions not only helped with trip logistics but also purchased a whole host of donations including ingredients, kitchen equipment, and other basic supplies for the RCK kitchen. All of these things made it out in some way to that rickety folding table on that muddy lot.
In addition, we are ever thankful to our steadfast trip sponsors including Enprovera and G&B Packing Company who have been steadfastly contributing to help fund our work. Finally, our gratitude is immeasurable to both the Carroll and the Botta families for their incredible generosity year after year after year.
But this letter only conveys a small fraction of our experience.
For those of you who would like to see pictures of our trip, a photostream can be found HERE. If you prefer hard stats, our trip in numbers can be found HERE. If you’d like to read the recaps of individual CulinaryCorps team members, please click HERE. Their words are as powerful as their actions. And finally, for those of you who want to help in your own small way, please click HERE for a list of organizations in Calais desperate for volunteers, donations, or both this winter.
And while this year’s CulinaryCorps trip has come to an end, our journey has just begun. Throughout this year and next, our team will be working together to develop trips, events, and other programming to lend our continued support to this growing global crisis. Please stay tuned.
Yours in good food and service,
Christine Carroll and the 2019 CulinaryCorps Team
PS: The words in the header are the result of our “One Word” challenge at the end of the trip. Each chef-volunteer was tasked with picking one word that defined their trip experience. Small words that speak volumes.