It Was a Good Dinner

Summer Nights & Scarcity
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Jim Forest via Flickr

In summer it is hard. Everybody goes away on vacations and those who can't go away are sending others away. Students have finished paying expenses for one year and are looking forward to paying expenses for another year at school. Nobody has any money, especially those who want to help, who are the most generous.

I don't know how we could make out if it were not for the free vegetables we are getting this summer. Free rolls and cakes too. We go on charging our coffee, sugar and milk, and a great supply of bread, 250 pounds a day. And of course we have to buy meat. Once in a while we can get a supply of fish from the Fulton Market, a barrelful at a time, and then the cleaning takes place in the back yard, and if it is fish with roe in it we fry up the roe and there is an afternoon tea-party with fish-roe sandwiches, everybody prowling around like cats, licking their chops.

It is fun cleaning the fish in the courtyard between the houses. A long table is brought out and everybody who can find a knife joins in. We have to cook the entire barrelful and everyone has to eat as much as he can. It would be dangerous to keep it, as our icebox never seems to get very cold. The difficulty is to get fat to fry the fish. It takes a lot of lard to fry a barrelful. But oh, the smell while it is cooking! It is enough to reconcile one to the other smells which hang over the backyard for a few days after.

Meat is a scarcity, however. Once this summer we had a ham which a kind friend brought in, and even slicing it very small it was hard to make it go round to one hundred and twenty-five people. None of the fellows who were cooking in the kitchen had any. I came up at the tail end of the dinner. Stanley Vishnewsky had finished the spiritual reading, "In the Footsteps of Saint Francis," and was sitting down to a meatless plate. The boys had saved a piece for me and there was applesauce and mashed potatoes besides. Oblivious to Stanley's lack I was digging in with great enjoyment.

And then there came a wail from the kitchen. "No meat for me? And I've been working all day! I don't see how everybody else rates meat, and not me. Those that hang around and do nothing get the best food, and me, I went on an errand and so I get left."

The querulous tones went on. The fellow came in, looking sadly at his plate; slammed it on the table and sat down. "I been smelling that all afternoon, too. I just wanted a piece of ham."

I offered him half of mine, Ed Kelleher, who used to be a house detective, and a gentle, holy soul he is, too, offered him his.

"I don't eat off nobody's plate," the hungry one said. "But I did want a piece of that ham.' A great tear rolled down his nose.

It is incidents like this that break your heart, sometimes. There is never enough food to go around. The pots are always being scraped so clean it is a wonder the enamel doesn’t come off. There never is anything in the Electrolux ice box we bought for fifty dollars from the baker around the corner, five dollars down and five dollars once in a while. He gives us a lot of free bread and rolls, too.

Meals are so important. The disciples knew Christ in the breaking of bread. We know Christ in each other in the breaking of bread. It is the closest we can ever come to each other, sitting down and eating together. It is unbelievably, poignantly intimate.

 

A good supper

LAST NIGHT WE had a very good supper. John Kernan and Duncan Chisholm have charge of the kitchen and Shorty is the sous-chef. They also have as assistants John Monaghan and Jim O'Hearn. They take charge of the lunch and dinner every day, and another staff, under Peter Clark, takes charge of the eight hundred on the bread line each morning. These hot days nobody wants anything but bread and coffee, and the bread is pumpernickel or rye, good and substantial.

I read some place, I think it was in one of these ten-cent-store children's books on "Wheat," that the gluten in wheat is the nearest thing to human flesh. And it was wheat that Christ chose when He left us His presence on our altars!

Lunch is always simple, a huge vegetable soup and bread. We make about twenty gallons, and it does a thorough job of heating the kitchen these broiling days.

Supper is more elaborate—sometimes we say "dinner." Last week, thanks to a Long Island farmer and the priest who sent him to us, we had a good vegetable supper—potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage. We had to buy the potatoes of him at seventy-five cents a bushel, but the rest came free. By Sunday we had run out of cabbage and carrots so we had potatoes and beets. As it was Sunday, we had got fifteen pounds of chopped meat, at fifteen cents a pound, and made a meat loaf. There was a goodly amount of bread mixed with it.

 

Gravies

JOHN IS A genius at making gravies. I doubt the Waldorf-Astoria has better gravies than we do. It was so good a meal, and everybody was so hungry, not having eaten all day, what with the heat, that I became consumed with anxiety as to whether the food was going to stretch for all. The back court seemed to be full of men and women and there were even some children. One woman had walked all the way down from Fifteenth Street with her two-year-old to have a hot meal. Her gas and electric had been turned off and she could not cook. She is on relief and never seems to catch up, she says.

Little Billy ran around the dining room disrupting things between bites, so we moved mother and child out to the kitchen to finish their meal so the line could go on. We can't seat more than twenty-five and there have to be six sittings. I had finished early and begun hovering over the pots on the stove. John kept counting the men on the line. "Thirty-six more to go," he groaned as he sliced down the last of the meat loaf. Soon he was putting the scraps in the gravy and began contemplating that.

"Get me the gravy-stretcher," he called to Shorty; and Shorty, always willing, began to scurry about the kitchen, proffering him one utensil after another. (I one day asked Shorty if he had any relatives, and he said mournfully, "I had a mother once.")

Finally it dawned on him that it was a bit more hot water John wanted to stretch the gravy with, and he brought it. Then a bowlful of boiled potatoes was discovered and they were peeled and dumped into the frying-pans. John believes in having things nice.

"Eighteen left to go," Monaghan said as he leaned out the window and looked. And then suddenly five more women, from the Salvation Army hotel on Rivington Street, came in and threw our calculations out again. (Women are always served first and the men step to one side to let them get by.)

"Eight more coming up," and by this time the mashed potatoes were gone and fried potatoes were being dished up.

Thank God there was still plenty of good gravy, and there were some chunks of meat in it too. Not a speck came back on the plates. They were all wiped clean with bits of bread.

And then the last one was served, and there was exactly one helping left! The dishes were being done as we went along, the pots were all cleaned, and there remained only the tables to swab off and the kitchen and dining room to sweep, and we were done.

The one helping was put away in the icebox (and Julia came in around ten and had not eaten since lunch); and then everyone went out of the hot house to the street, where all the neighbors sit in rows along the house-fronts and along the curb and there are card games going on all the long evening.

Down the street the children had turned on a fire hydrant and flung a barrel over it, a head­less barrel, and the water cascaded into the air thirty feet like a fountain. The sound was pleasant and so were the cheers of the children as they rushed through the deluge. Little boys paddled "boats" in the rushing curb-streams. Shopkeepers deflected the water onto their sidewalks and began sweeping, and mothers moved their baby carriages out of the flood. All the little boys and some of the little girls got their feet soaked.

Down the street came a singer with his accordion and the happy sound of Italian love songs accompanied the rushing sound of our sudden city streams.

John and Jim of the kitchen sat and rested and there was a look of happy content on their faces. They are both jobless, and are volunteers in the work of our Catholic Worker Community; there is war in the world and they are faced with conscription and little else in the way of security for the future. But it was a fine happy evening and it had been a very good meal.

[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]

Dorothy Day is a cofounder of the Catholic Worker, the author of The Long Loneliness and hundreds of newspaper articles and essays. Her cause is currently being considered for beatification.

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