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MAY I HAVE SOME MORE, SIR? REALLY.

Byline: MARIEL GARZA

THEY do not serve gruel at the Los Angeles Mission. I just want to get that clear right away.

Not one of the 1,600 or so meals that the Skid Row shelter and kitchen serves each day contains that watery food-ish substance so often fed to orphans in Charles Dickens tales. There may be oatmeal or grits for breakfast, but never, ever gruel.

This is one of the things I learned Wednesday as I toured the downtown nonprofit operation as part of my penance for a slight slip of the pen.

It was just a little literary license in a past column. I never meant to insult the people engaged in the noble service of feeding, clothing, housing and educating the homeless men and women of Skid Row. I merely commented on a photo of our ubiquitous mayor serving "gruel" to the homeless.

Herb Smith, new president of the L.A. Mission, quickly fired off an e-mail to me pointing out that the mission's kitchens serve healthy, hearty meals, not gruel. Then he invited me down for a taste of the real fare served out in five meal shifts every weekday -- one breakfast, three lunches and one dinner.

How could I say no? As penance goes, it wasn't a bad deal.

That's how I ended up in the vast stainless-steel kitchen with L.A. Mission Senior Chef David Thomas a half an hour before dinner on Wednesday. I'm lucky that he is a man of good humor, considering he is about twice my size and the kitchen is filled with sharp implements.

"This is not a soup kitchen," he says. The slabs of beef for that night's meal and the vat of mashed potatoes testify to that.

It's important to him to whip up good meals for the students (former homeless people who are in the mission's 18-month program) and the mission's "friends and neighbors," which is mission-speak for the people who use various services but aren't in the program.

Thomas, who came by the kitchen as a mission student himself, has been not cooking gruel for about seven years. He draws up a menu for each week guided both by good taste and what's in stock. This is a charity organization, and much of its food is donated -- new, though, not used.

This week's menu includes grilled chicken with rice and gravy, pork chops, spaghetti, carnitas and the ribs he was marinating when I walked in.

His kitchen might be in the middle of Skid Row, but it's got an A grade from the county health inspectors. This is the best meal on Skid Row, I'm told.

But the real test is taste. So I sat down to eat with Smith and the mission's public-relations expert, Ayana Petteway. We all ate the same meal as everyone else did that evening. No special meals for a journalist or the mission's president. During a surprisingly tasty dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes (I avoid the green beans, but that's more about personal preference than quality), Smith fills me in on homelessness services, homelessness politics and how the two intersect in Los Angeles.

We chat about the lack of housing options, NIMBYism that keeps out homeless services from other areas, patient dumping, the pressures of a redeveloping downtown and the new challenges of laws regarding where convicted sex offenders live while I slurp down the smooth and creamy mashed potatoes. Homelessness is a hot topic right now in City Hall, which is no doubt part of the reason the mayor was ever serving (not gruel not gruel not gruel) to homeless people as part of a photo-op. But it still hasn't translated to any real action other than Skid Row sweeps.

Overall, it was a satisfying meal. I left that night with not only a taste of tender roast beef, but also a taste of the difficulties of serving Los Angeles' least favorite population.

HOW TO HELP

The L.A. Mission is a nonprofit, Christian-based center that survives solely on private donations to feed, clothe, house, provide health care to and generally help homeless men and women on Los Angeles' Skid Row. It also runs an 18-month residential rehabilitation and educational program for former homeless people.

If you'd like to help the L.A. Mission help others, you can donate food, toiletries, clothes, blankets, money and a variety of other goods. Find more information on the organization's Web site, www.losangelesmission.org, or call (213) 629-1227.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- color) Mariel Garza eats some crow -- actually a tasty meal of roast beef -- at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row.

(2) Chef David Thomas says, "This is not a soup kitchen," to which his slabs of beef and vat of mashed potatoes attest.

Mariel Garza/Daily News

Box:

HOW TO HELP (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 4, 2007
Words:810
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