Comfort Food

11 Sep 2010, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in food

I wasn’t at work that day. I had a doctor’s appointment. When I first heard the news I made a joke, saying “It’s a good thing I didn’t commute in.” It sounded like someone had mismanaged a stunt plane. My office was in midtown, but I knew the train schedules would be a mess. It wasn’t until I turned on my car radio that the gravity of the situation hit me: People were jumping from the World Trade Center.

I backed out of my parking spot so fast I almost hit an oncoming car, and drove home with the pedal floored to see what in hell was happening. The rest played out before my eyes. The phone began to ring off the hook as relatives called from Australia and Scotland. Every time I answered the phone, my friends and family members burst into tears. They didn’t know I was home.

My first reaction was to try and find a way to get into the city. My beloved city. But I couldn’t get in, and I couldn’t phone in. So I sat like everyone else and watched the news until I was delirious with fatigue.

Wednesday night I saw a segment on the news — the James Beard House kitchen was up and running. I left a message for my friend Shelley Menaged, who organizes the kitchen volunteers for visiting chefs. I offered to do absolutely anything they needed help with, and packed my kitchen gear to take to work on Thursday.

When she called me back, she had just heard about the staff of Windows on the World, and had been without sleep for thirty-six hours. “I’m at my breaking point,” she said. “Can you come down tomorrow and keep me company?” At last, I could do something.

I was in no way prepared for what I would see. Watching it on television was slightly more bearable, but to see the streets of Manhattan empty — to cross Madison Avenue freely because there was no traffic to be seen — was the most chilling thing I’ve ever experienced. The silence was deafening.

It was worse downtown. By the time I got to the Beard House, I was choking on acrid smoke, and stood in shock as a convoy of Hummers came racing down 12th street. This was like a bad movie. Even so, it had less of an impact than what I would see in the hours to come.

The Beard House’s main focus through those few days was to provide meals for the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital (located across the street) and the policemen stationed nearby. Food was donated from practically every restaurant in town, and we were tripping over the supply of goods.

Every few hours someone would show up at the door with donations in hand; sometimes it was a shopping cart full of food, other times boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes. We threw ourselves into the task of organizing everything that came in, restocking the buffet to ensure the food was always hot, and keeping a general sense of calm and quiet about the place.

Since there were so many volunteers in the kitchen, I decided to head to the dining room. There I discovered what my role would be for the next eighteen hours: I would provide comfort, a friendly face, and a warm plate of food for those who came to eat and rest. For a distraction I would give them a brief tour, showing them Beard’s mirrored bedroom and his open shower, with a glass wall as its only shelter from the outdoors. They got a kick out of that.

I fondly remember Vic, a young doctor who felt guilty to be eating a decadent meal as he waited for patients who would never come. He loved to cook, and was thinking about changing careers. I wonder if he ever did.

I shared food stories with two detectives who would be guarding the President of the United States at sunup. The weather was horrible, and they were embarrassed their suits would be wrinkled. They took great pride in their work, and wanted to be at their best when protecting the man in charge of this crisis.

But the policemen broke my heart. Like handsome characters from Central Casting they paraded into the dining room, with uniforms soaked but faces warm and friendly. The television was on, and as they sat down to eat, Howard Lutnick’s heart-wrenching interview came on. The officers visibly blanched as they listened to his story, and I realized in watching their faces they were hearing it for the first time. We were seeing all of this unfold on television, but they were out there in the pouring rain, living it. In a way, it protected them from hearing stories like this. They had enough to contend with.

What affected me more than anything else, though, was the attitude of every person who walked through that front door to eat a hot meal. They were so grateful that people were kind enough to take care of them. They couldn’t believe they were eating soup from Le Cirque and sandwiches from Daniel, and thanked us profusely for what we were doing. I was speechless. I wanted to throw myself at their feet for what they were doing, and they were thanking us.

It then hit me that food is, in fact, life’s true comfort. A hot meal can lend solace when we truly need it, and providing such a meal can be the most effective way to show one’s caring for another human being. I feel fortunate that I was able to serve those men and women I will never see again, but with whom I feel eternally bonded.

I have never visited Ground Zero; I’m not sure I ever will. The faces I saw over the course of those eighteen hours told me all I needed to know.

This article originally appeared on the Atlasphere on September 9, 2004.