Food, Friends and AIDS: 21 Years and Counting

Food, Friends and AIDS: 21 Years and Counting

One Saturday each month, dedicated volunteers gather at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Palm Beach to cook, talk, laugh and feed clients of Palm Beach County's Comprehensive AIDS Program (CAP).

"The Dinners," as the meals have simply come to be known, are more than just a social event for the clients. It's a creative outlet for the volunteers, some of whom have cooked professionally, but all of whom have an intense interest in food - and assisting CAP as AIDS continues to claim members of the community.

The history of the dinners

2010 marks the 21st dinner season, a milestone that is sadly appreciated because of CAP's mission: AIDS and HIV prevention and education, and finding help for those who live with the disease.

CAP, and its medical arm, FoundCare, provide HIV testing and diagnosis, medical care, substance abuse and mental health counseling, a "drop-in" center for socializing, food vouchers, housing and medical transport assistance, and have offered these services since 1985. Palm Beach County is one of only four Florida counties with more than 5,000 AIDS/HIV cases.

The dinners started as a social event; a nice way for clients to get together over a meal. But thanks to the "foodie" volunteers, it has evolved into something of a gourmet event.

Prepping for dinner

Arrival time is 3 p.m., with Special Events Director Richard Durant pulling up to the church kitchen door. Food, flowers, paper goods and door prizes are unloaded by waiting volunteers. The "triage" process begins: items are sorted by those that go straight to the dining room (paper goods, flowers, balloons) and those that remain in the kitchen.

Kitchen items are then sorted by dry goods (spices, flour, oils, sugars, other non-refrigerated items) and those that must be kept cold or frozen. Sodas, punch mix, coffee and dessert cakes go to the " cold" kitchen, since they need little or no preparation. Everything else stays in the "hot" kitchen.

Meats or poultry are dealt with first, since the amount used to feed about 100-120 clients requires the most time. Copies of the night's menu are taped on pantry doors for easy reference, ovens are set, pans or pots are prepped and volunteers Mark, Tom, Bruce,, Brian, Dwayne, Russell, Chris, Frankie and others pitch in to open packages, prepare the meats and begin cooking.

Onions, garlic and vegetables used as flavoring agents or side dishes are readied and set aside. Along with discussions about everyone's jobs and love lives, there is constant chatter about checking the internal temperature of the whatever's in the oven, the merits of sliced versus diced celery in the salad, and calculating how many sticks of butter are needed per pan of mashed potatoes.

If a salad is served, it is usually the famous "trash-bag" salad, so-called because all the ingredients are placed in a large garbage bag and refrigerated until five mintues before service, when the salad is given a shake, placed in a large bowl, and dressing is added at one minute to service.???

By 4 o'clock, most major prep is done. If potatoes or rice are on the menu, they are cooking at this point. At one time, most vegetables served were boiled. Clearer nutritional heads have prevailed, and whenever possible, they are now roasted, steamed or grilled. Appetizers that need oven or burner space are lined up and ready by 5:15.

The big show: dinner service

By 5:30, the pace has picked up. There may be a little less calm discussion and a few more raised voices as the "cocktail" hour (6-7 p.m.) approaches. Appetizers are plated, the coffee is checked, water pitchers, ice and punch bowls are filled. Dining room decorations and table settings are completed.

Two different appetizers are normally served, and the first trays leave the kitchen at exactly 6 p.m., with refills scheduled for 6:30. Pans of the main course and side dishes are checked for temperature and are placed in the ovens to keep warm. Serving spoons, forks, tongs and towels for the line are gathered.

The commercial dishwasher, providing a dull background roar all afternoon (along with the huge exhaust fans above the ovens), is working steadily now, so cleanup later won't be so ominous. For the next hour, the main course is monitored, and any final work (such as slicing meats or mashing potatoes) is done.

At 6:55, the trash-bag salad gets its customary shake, then into the big silver bowl, to be dressed at 6:58. Towels and serving pieces go to the dining room, appetizer trays are removed and the serving table is set for dinner.

Pans of food come out of the ovens, still covered in foil. They go to the serving table in order: protein on either end, then the starch, then vegetable, then the salad bowl and bread in the middle. At 7 o'clock sharp, attention is called, announcements are made, grace is spoken, foil comes off the pans, and clients come on up for dinner.

During dinner service, desserts are cut and plated, and more coffee is prepared. Volunteers who have not tasted and snacked their way through the afternoon can join clients during dinner.

The end: cleaning up and planning the next one

After dessert is served and door prizes are awarded, heavy cleanup begins. A dumpster's worth of trash (all dinner service uses paper and plastic utensils) goes out, cleaning rags are collected for washing, the stove is scoured, sinks and work surfaces are soaped and the floor is washed. The dining area must be emptied of tables and chairs and vacuumed, and restored to its normal configuration, so the church can use it for their post-service gathering the next day.

During cleanup, volunteers discuss next month's menu. But no matter what food is served, there is always a big helping of fun served as well, alongside the memories of clients and volunteers who have passed through this church hall over two decades, and the hope that someday there will no longer be a need to feed anyone with AIDS/HIV.

Written by Mark Riegel, MD

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