Posted March 31, 2009 in MH Edmonton AB:
A Pot of Stew

by Tom Kluger.

When I arrived in Edmonton on April 1, yes, April Fool’s Day, I was told I was going to be the new stew cook for the soup kitchen.

This was no joke.

I was hesitant at first, as my culinary skill for the most part consisted of boiling water and adding it to instant noodles. Soon my anxiety level almost came to a boil as well. But then I discovered, to my relief, that cooking stew is not that difficult after all.

The real lesson I would learn through cooking stew was not about cooking.

One busy day about a month after I arrived, I was cooking a fresh pot of stew as usual, trying to remember all that Patrick, our local director, had taught me: put in the potatoes first, then carrots, then onions, as they don’t burn very easily. Put the pasta in last, since it’s quick to burn.

Although I make the stew in very large quantities—an eighty-quart pot full of it—the principles are pretty simple. Use lots of fresh vegetables and lots of seasoning and add plenty of meat and pasta. Then almost everyone is sure to walk away satisfied.

The stew is cooked on a large propane burner called a "fast cooker." It shoots up a pretty impressive pillar of blue flame when you turn it to maximum. To turn it off, you must turn the knob past the maximum position. When it reaches the off position, the knob gives a little click, one which I usually listen for. Usually.

On that fateful day, things were busy, and I was a bit tired. I just wanted to eat lunch.

So I hurriedly turned the cooker off, or so I thought, and sat down and began to eat. As I contentedly ate my lunch, I was enjoying the accolades of the volunteers who told me what a good stew cook I was becoming. My ego was being as nicely fed as my stomach.

Then somebody rushed to me to tell me that the pot was boiling over, and indeed it was. The stew was bubbling over the sides of the pot and sticking to them, falling on the floor, and going up in flames in the burner itself. It was a lovely mess indeed!

I turned off the cooker and frantically started stirring what was left in the pot. This was not a good idea. I was merely bringing the "burnt offerings" encrusted on the bottom into the good part of the stew, giving the whole thing a burnt taste.

I was to learn several months later that adding sugar can mask the burnt taste, but that was too late to help me that day.

This stew was served out, and I was now working in the dining room. There I heard a few of our patrons grumbling about the stew. Not too many complained out loud. Most of the poor and homeless we serve are touchingly grateful for what they receive from us, be it food or clothes.

We call the poor we serve "Christophers," meaning "Christ-bearers," and we are in Marian Centre to serve Christ in the poor. It was my job to take care of the food end of this service, and that day I had failed at it.

I was feeling pretty glum. Daniel, one of my fellow men staff at the time, told me not to worry about it, these things happen. He said it with a laugh and tried to cheer me up, but it didn’t help very much.

Patrick, too, tried to console me, telling me that the next time it happened, I shouldn’t stir the pot. But I was in a funk and not in the mood to feel better.

It was a warm, sunny May day, and when the weather is warm, some of those we serve like to eat outside. So I went out into our courtyard to collect any bowls left there. I collected a few and then stopped to talk with two men sitting on our lawn.

One of them casually mentioned that the stew had a bit of a funny flavor. I told him that I was the stew cook and that I accidentally burnt it. I offered him my apologies.

Looking at me very calmly, he said, "You know what? I’m not perfect either. That’s okay."

What Patrick and Daniel could not do for me, this man did: it was Christ in him who was telling me I was forgiven my mistake.

I immediately cheered up and realized that it was not really such a big deal. Making mistakes and living and learning are just part of life.

And I learned that day that the poor serve me in many ways better than I serve them.


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