Two or three years ago, I found myself on a list of people who take turns cooking in a soup kitchen. And so, every few months, I do.
I can’t say I particularly look forward to it. But to beg off the list at this point would require a phone call to the organizer. I imagine the hypothetical exit interview: “So in what other ways do you help the homeless?” And then I imagine my lame stammer—so, when my number comes up, I again show up at the shelter.
As much as my turn behind the stove never seems to come at a good time, once I’m there, with my hands as two of the several helping to knead 30 pounds of ground beef into 10 meatloaves, it’s not so bad. Actually, it’s pretty gratifying, and it makes me appreciate the basic necessities that I and those around me take for granted. Which is the point, of course.
This month, as always, it was me and retirees: Two older women, whom I’ll call Betty and Wilma, and an older guy, Fred. I was a little rushed getting there—late, typically. And the trio—early, typically—were already in the swing of it when I arrived.
Things seemed to be progressing smoothly. Fred was at the huge can opener, cranking open cans of carrots and powdered potatoes in tins the size of paint cans. Betty was kneading eggs and breadcrumbs and parsley into the meat, with Wilma then shaping the meat mixture into neat loaves.
The two women complimented each other as they worked: Betty noted how perfectly oblong Wilma’s loaves were: “I can never quite get them right, not like Wilma!” Wilma commented on how nicely Betty had chopped the parsley before mixing it into the meat: “No stems! Good thing—because no one likes the stems.”
It all seemed pleasant enough. I joined Betty at the kneading—Damn! That meat was cold!—and, head down, leaned into it.
Meanwhile, the two women kept up the banter: Betty: “Wilma’s an old pro at this!” Wilma: “Betty knows just where to place the rolls and butter!”
After a short while, though, I slowly started to realize that there was something beneath the friendly chatter. The heavy silence between the platitudes started to gnaw at me, and I realized that the tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with a butter knife—which, at a soup kitchen—is flimsy and plastic. What else was going on here? Was there history between these two? Bad blood? What?
It came to a head when someone—no one said who or owned up to it—turned on the oven too early.
Typically, the 20 waiting meatloaves are placed in a cold oven that’s then turned to “bake,” and they cook for 2 hours. The kitchen’s cooking volunteers leave them in the hot oven for the serving volunteers, who arrive an hour or so after we leave and take it from there.
The issue this day, however, was that the oven was already hot—and we (okay, they) had too efficiently finished with the loaves too soon.
Betty [cranking the heavy oven door ajar and feeling the heat]: “Are the ovens on? I don’t think we should turn the ovens on just yet.”
Wilma: “Well, we always turn the ovens on before we leave.”
Betty: “We’re early today, which means it’ll cook for too long.” She looked pointedly at the rest of us, “Don’t you think the meatloaf will be in too long?”
Uh-oh. They were involving us in this debate. I shot a sideways glance at Fred. He seemed to be looking at something incredibly interesting on the ceiling. I smiled weakly, shrugged. I tried to appear nonthreatening.
Wilma: “Well, we always put the meatloaves in, and then turn the ovens on.”
Betty: “Let’s turn it down then.”
Wilma: “To what?”
Betty: “To Warm. Like 200.”
Wilma: “But isn’t that dangerous? I’m worried about bacteria. Won’t bacteria grow and spoil it? People will get sick!”
Betty: “Not if it’s turned up later, when the serving staff comes in, it’ll kill any bacteria.”
Wilma: “I don’t know…”
Clearly, this was a standoff. In this corner, Betty: She of the Warm oven. In the opposite corner, Wilma: Who wanted to turn the ovens on to Full and blast the bacteria before it bloomed.
This time it was Wilma who looked around, searching for an ally. Fred or I could easily side with one or the other and end the volley. But—while I’ve baked plenty of things in my life, even if they weren’t necessarily meatloaves—I froze. And while I’ve made plenty of tough calls in my life, most of them involving bigger issues than 20 loaves of meatloaf, something told me that this wasn’t a tussle to be in the middle of. In part, I wanted to avoid an uncomfortable conflict. But more to the point, after a stressful hour, I just wanted to leave.
In the end, I did end it. Sort of. I said, quickly, “Let me see if I can find someone!”
Then I took the stairs two at a time up to the administrative office, willing the presence of a sympathetic mediator who could end this stalemate and allow me to get back to my office. Thankfully, I found her—and the assistant director came down to take the matter into her own hands. I’m pretty sure I heard an audible sigh of relief across the room. That would be Fred.
Later on, I thought about how Wilma and Betty reminded me a bit of my black Lab mix, Maisy, who is the alpha female of my four dogs. Alpha, of course, is the first letter in the Greek alphabet, and in dog-speak it refers to the dominant dog to which other members of the pack are submissive; the others are beta dogs.
In our house, as alpha, Maisy rules with an iron paw. She gets fed first, she gets the best spot on the couch, and she occasionally metes out a growl to keep the others in line. But occasionally she goes a little overboard—she snarls with a little too much intent. This happens when she feels insecure or threatened in some way—and with Maisy, it can be hard to predict: Maybe there’s too much chaos in the house, maybe another dog is getting too much sugar from me, or maybe she’s threatened by another visiting female and feels unclear about just who is Top Dog.
Which brings me back to Betty and Wilma. Two women working side by side in a kitchen seems straightforward enough on the surface. But not for two strong alpha women who, over their 50-odd years of mixing, shaping and cooking their own meals, have built up some pretty strong ideas of what to do in a kitchen and how to do it.
I thought of the dog trainer’s motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” The problem wasn’t the women, who, truth be told, are very nice people. Rather, the problem was that there was no clear alpha. No one had been anointed Top Dog, and, much as they wanted to, the two were far too polite to overtly pull rank. That would have involved some snarling, growling and threatening body language.
People who volunteer in soup kitchens just aren’t prone to that sort of behavior.
Nor can they entirely control their innate tendencies, however.
Some behaviors are too entrenched and too instinctive; you can’t train them away. You can’t stop a badger from digging.
And you can’t get in the way of an alpha female. Or in this case, two.