By Amy Giezentanner
I love food. It’s amazing stuff. I love to cook it, bake it, eat it, shop for it. Sometimes I even love to play with it. It’s a delight to share food with family and friends and I’m constantly amazed at how it builds communities and friendships.
It’s a blessing in life, this thing that sustains us. So much so that many of us take it for granted. We buy expensive groceries and eat in fancy restaurants that serve nothing but the finest. We’re such a fatted-calf society that it’s hard to imagine scrounging for food or worrying about where the next meal will come from. But there are people who live that way, people who can’t afford a fine meal or even a bag of groceries. For them, sustenance comes in the form of a helping hand at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. For them, food’s more about staying alive than it is about sharing blessings.
Can you imagine living like that? To know you can’t afford to bring home the proverbial bacon? I can’t. I’ve never had to scrounge or worry about my next meal. My biggest problem with food is curbing my indulgent cravings or mapping out which restaurants to visit on which nights. Not that anyone wants to be homeless and in need of food, but it’s a shame more of us don’t understand what it’s like. Maybe knowing how it feels to rely on the kindness of others would make us better appreciate the delicious world in which we live. Maybe comparing fine dining to shelter food would bring how fortunate we are into stark relief. Or maybe eating in a homeless shelter would just be an interesting experience comparable to fine dining. Could that really be possible? I set forth to find out a few weeks ago and while I can’t say they’re equal in terms of food quality, they ARE both worth experiencing.
I’m a diehard foodie and couldn’t wait to start the fine dining half of my research. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it, right? It was short notice and none of my friends were available that night so I chose to eat by myself at Bordino’s. You can’t go wrong with Italian, especially when Chef Chrissy is a classically-trained graduate of The Culinary Institute of America.
I called the restaurant for reservations and was told by a cheery voice, “You don’t need reservations for one person on a Tuesday night. Just come on in. You’ll be seated right away.” So I did, and I was.
I was greeted promptly at the hostess stand and ushered directly to my table in the spacious dining room. I expected it to be almost empty so early in the week, so I was surprised to find the room half full. It was a Tuesday night during a recession but business was still steady — a good sign that I’d enjoy my meal.
The menu at Bordino’s could be one of the reasons the place stays so busy; it caters to a variety of sensibilities. My front server, Tom Hatman, instructed me on its use, “This side is our seasonal menu. It has a variety of delicious spring and summer dishes, so it’ll change when the ingredients go out of season. The other side is our classic menu which features dishes our customers love and request throughout the year.”
There were many options, 18 entrees in total and a variety of “salads and smalls,” but I’ve always been a fan of the classics so it didn’t take long to make my decisions.
I chose a glass of Montinore Estate Gewürztraminer to get me started — my absolute favorite wine — and then placed the rest of my order. I’d planned to drink the wine with my appetizer but Tom dropped off some bread with the extra-virgin olive oil, roasted garlic and shaved cheese I’d requested. The whole thing was just too tempting and I couldn’t wait, so I dug into the bread and sipped my wine with anticipation.
I think most of us overlook the art of anticipation in fine dining, but it’s such an integral part of the experience. It extends our enjoyment and allows us to experience the expected before it actually happens. We think about it, dress for it, look for it, wait for it. And when it finally happens, if it happens as we hoped, it gives us the satisfaction of saying, “I knew it. I knew it would be a great night with great food, and it WAS.” It’s a feeling and a state of mind to be savored with the food. So I did.
I took my time and browsed the room. The crowd was growing and there were now only five tables left. I like to bump into people I know so I scanned the room for familiar faces. I didn’t see any friends, but a lady across from me looked like Liz Taylor. I stared just long enough to confirm it wasn’t her, only to do another double take the next time I glanced in her direction. I kept hoping someone I knew would walk in so I played this game until Tom came back to check on me. I asked him if it was normally that busy on a Tuesday night.
“A lot of our customers are repeat diners,” he said. “The Walton Arts Center brings in a crowd of people throughout the week. I recognize a lot of them tonight as season ticketholders. Are you going to the show?”
I assured him I wasn’t so we could both relax and not worry about getting me out in time. I planned to draw this out and eat to my heart’s content.
I ate slowly and was still hungry after the cheese and bread were gone. I couldn’t wait for my appetizer to arrive but when it finally did, I wasn’t certain I wanted to eat it. It was too pretty. My crunchy crab cake nestled on a plate with retro orange horseradish aioli and green basil oil. It was edible art, and I devoured it with pleasure. I could have eaten another helping, but I didn’t have the chance. Tom timed my entrée just right.
My main dish, Beef Tenderloin Rigatoni, was placed before me with matter-of-fact confidence. I’m easily turned off by over-solicitous or pompous servers, but the staff at Bordino’s had enough assurance in the quality of their food to make over-solicitousness unnecessary. As for pompous behavior, well, Tom just seemed too nice for that. He may have been a little nervous at one point, but no matter. He brought food, and he brought it well.
My pasta was scrumptious. The richness in the port wine cream sauce was offset just enough by the acid in the tomatoes to make it interesting without too much bite. I wish there had been more green beans in the dish, but the beans that were there were cooked a tad softer than al dente, just the way I like them. The tenderloin, my favorite part of the meal, was luscious and tender and rich. I could have polished it off but I wanted to save room for dessert, and I also wanted leftovers to take home. I stopped myself short of the whole dish so I could order something sweet: Bourbon Vanilla Bean Gelato.
Ice cream is too tempting to keep in my house. I won’t buy it at the store because I’ll eat the whole thing, but I will buy gourmet gelato when I dine out. The theory is that I won’t eat as much if I don’t have a tub of the stuff to go back to. When gelato’s as good as this was, though, it doesn’t matter. I contemplated ordering more but decided to put the bowl down before I licked it, and I asked Tom for the check.
My evening of fine dining had come to an end. I was sad to see it go but glad to experience it in the first place. Sharing the gift of food with friends is more satisfying than dining alone so it would have been nice if they could join me, but it was a good experience nonetheless. The food was delicious. The atmosphere was warm and comfortable. The staff was professional and efficient. I felt fortunate to eat like a queen.
That’s where my royal status ended, though. My next stop turned me into a pauper. My lunch at the Seven Hills Homeless Shelter was an eye-opener I won’t soon forget. The shelter, off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, serves lunch every Friday. You need neither reservations nor money to dine there. In fact, all you need is need.
I felt guilty eating there because I’m not homeless and I don’t have need of their services, so I slipped a donation into the “Donations” box on the desk when no one was looking. I wanted to make up for eating their resources. I wore no makeup or jewelry, and I didn’t even bother to fix my hair. I actually went there straight from the bakery where I work with my hair pinned up in a bandanna. I looked ragged for this lunch, quite unlike the “look-at-me” ensemble I spit-shined for my visit to Bordino’s.
Since I was trying hard to blend in I decided not to introduce myself. I thought maybe I could slip in and act like I knew what I was doing, but apparently I looked clueless. One of the Guest Services staff immediately asked me, “Have you been here before? You’ll need to sign in.”
I thought, “OK. No big deal. I’ll sign in. They probably just need it to keep a head count.” Wrong.
“Did you sign in?” she asked a few minutes later. “I’ll have a case worker out here to talk to you about your situation in about five minutes.”
Maybe my costume was a little too effective. I realized I had to ’fess up and tell them who I was, otherwise I’d be signed up for services and using precious resources I didn’t need. So, I introduced myself, and we both had an uncomfortable laugh.
“Would you mind waiting here a moment?” she asked. “I want to talk to the director to make sure he’s OK with this.”
She came back a few minutes later and gave me the go-ahead. I was free to eat and experience their services as long as I didn’t interview their clients or harass them in any way. The shelter was a safe haven. It was a home, and they wanted it to remain a place of comfort for those who needed it. I agreed to the terms and walked off to melt into the wallflowers.
There were people milling about the stark, white room, chatting with friends and urging children to behave. I chose a seat at a table full of people so I could listen without being obvious. Everyone was waiting with anticipation for the Food Angels, rotating volunteers who prepare the meals, to start serving. A line had even formed that snaked down the length of the long room. These people were hungry.
I have to admit I didn’t share the anticipation these folks showed. I was actually more concerned about their circumstances, why they were there, and that no one I knew would see me. How would I explain to them why I was there without drawing attention to myself? And why did I even care what they thought? Philosophically speaking, I’ve never thought there was shame in needing or asking for help, but I was finding that hard to embrace when faced with this simple faux circumstance. I could see dignity, humility and wariness on some of the faces as I glanced around the room and I felt ashamed of myself. If it’s true that most of us are one disaster away from financial ruin at any given moment, I could easily be in these folks’ shoes. For real. Waiting eagerly for a Food Angel to hand me a plate.
The line started to scrunch up as the Angels finished their setup. Lunch was about to start. A Guest Services staff member jetted to the front for an announcement, “The line is about to open. If you have a home, please move to the back of the line. Homeless go first.” I stayed planted in my seat and watched in fascination as the guests laughed and joked with each other, chatting it up with friends or meeting new people. Tensions seemed to ease as the promise of food became imminent. A guest, who may or may not have been homeless based on his position in line, offered a prayer of thanks for a good night of sleep and the food set before us. Then the feast began.
It was about 20 minutes into the service before the line was short enough for me to jump in. I’d watched the food go by and decided the bowls of chili looked good, but boy was I wrong. What I thought was chili was actually a murky stew. It looked suspect to me, but the accompanying salad was fresh and colorful. I grabbed a plate of goods and took a seat to survey my take. I decided to forgo the sandwich the Angels offered, so I ended up with stew, fresh salad, a cup of processed peaches and my childhood-favorite Little Debbie treat, Swiss Cake Rolls. I figured I could work my way through almost anything to get to that chocolate delight, so I dug in. I was surprised at the results.
The stew wasn’t all bad. It had only a mildly processed flavor with chunks of potatoes and beef to fill up hearty eaters. I can’t honestly call it great or even comforting, but it’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth. What the Food Angels and Seven Hills Homeless Shelter do is amazing. They nourish and give support to those in need by providing free food and a place to stay. They don’t stake a claim to fine dining or even homemade food. I’d say that, given their intended mission, they hit the nail on the head. The location was safe, dry and secure. The stew was filling and hot, the salad was as fresh and tasty as it looked, and the cup of peaches was a full serving of fruit. The Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll was just icing on the cake of this particular day that everyone, including myself, seemed to relish. It took me back to my childhood just long enough to forget where I was eating it. I hoped I wasn’t the only one in the room delighting in little food flashbacks.
Being able to savor our food is a gift. It transcends simple nourishment and delves into the art of sharing and caring. It can enhance our comfortable position in the world and bond us with friends and family, or it can provide momentary relief from the worries of life. It’s always necessary to survive, but if we’re lucky, it can inspire and uplift along the way by providing relief and a chance to refocus. A chance we all need from time to time, regardless of where we dine.