Dinner at Home

Friday, June 13, 2014

How Feeding Homeless Teens Helped Inspire Dinner at Home

If, or hopefully when, you read my newest book, Dinner at Home, you’ll encounter Hank Mellinger, a homeless twenty-something who, when we first meet him, is staying at a Charity called Haven, where he gets room, board, and training in how to be a professional cook. Two similar charities exist in Seattle, where the book is set, Fare Start, which teaches cooking skills to the homeless, and YouthCare, which provides shelter, food, clothing, and vocational training for homeless youth, an astoundingly (or maybe not) large number of whom identify as LGBT.

I volunteer for YouthCare, cooking lunches and dinners once or twice a month with a group of my friends—we call ourselves the “It Gets Better” group. There’s not many things I do that are as satisfying, rewarding, and inspirational as this service. It warms my heart to know that the food I made with my own hands is feeding kids who may not have anything else to eat the rest of the day. Their happiness at seeing what we made that day can bring tears to my eyes.

My experience with YouthCare is part of the reason I love my character Hank, in Dinner at Home so much. He’s like the kids I feed: streetwise, tough on the outside, but vulnerable too. They’re really barely more than children and they’ve been forced to grow up too fast and have seen too much. Hank is no different.

Here’s a little excerpt that shows you what Hank is all about—tough guy outside, but all heart on the inside:

“You really want to feed people this crap?” Hank Mellinger snapped at his new boss. Lined up in the kitchen of Haven, a charity that housed and fed the homeless of Seattle and provided chef training for some of its residents, were several industrial-sized boxes of generic mac and cheese mix. Alongside the boxes were sticks of no-name margarine and boxes of powdered milk.

His boss, E.J. Porter, an African-American woman with her hair braided tightly to her scalp and oval-rimmed frameless glasses, shook her head as she took in her latest charge.

“Hank. We have to face reality here. Now, as much as I would love to serve people mac and cheese with real cheddar, cream, and maybe roasted red peppers, we just can’t afford that kind of stuff on the measly funds we get from the state and what donors kick in. Hell, honey, we might as well do a b├ęchamel and throw some lobster in too.” She patted his shoulder. “It’s a nice dream, sweetie. Now you need to get cookin’. Lunch is only a couple hours away and I still need you to chop and prep the salad.” She pointed to the sorry pile of heads of iceberg lettuce in the sink.

Hank shook his head. “So because people are poor, they have to eat this fucking shit? Why can’t we get some fresh vegetables? Is it that pricey? This stuff gives ‘em nothin’. Artery-clogging crap that might fill up their bellies, but doesn’t do a thing to keep ‘em healthy. Fuck.”

E.J. moved in close to Hank, so close he could feel her breath and maybe even a bit of her spittle on his face. She spoke softly, but there was an intensity, perhaps even a fury to her words. “Look, Hank, you just got here. I have been trying to run this place for the last nine years. You have no idea what I go through just to get the food we have to work with. You have no idea how grateful some of these people are for this ‘shit’ as you call it. It tastes pretty good when the last meal you had came out of a dumpster, if you had anything at all. We work with what we get. Some days it’s healthier fare than others, but all of it’s food. For hungry people. And you might not think that’s something, but it is.

“Now, you are just starting here. We gave you a roof over your head, food to eat, and we’re trying to help you find a career path as a chef. Haven may not be Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, but we will get you ready to work in a kitchen. We’ll give you knife skills, teach you how to make simple sauces, stocks, and soups, we’ll make a real cook out of you. Maybe not a chef, but a cook.

“Now you need to watch your language, watch your attitude, and get to work.” E.J. stormed away.

BUY
from Dreamspinner Press in ebook or in paperback
Amazon Kindle

If you want to know more about YouthCare (and maybe even donate), here’s a little more information:

YouthCare History

For 40 years, YouthCare has been a leader in providing effective services to Seattle’s homeless youth.

In 1974, a group of concerned citizens started a three-bed shelter for homeless and runaway youth, the first in the Western United States.  Since then, we have grown to become a community-based agency with six sites serving the greater Seattle area. During that time, we have led the way in creating effective, innovative programs for homeless young people:


  • In 1989, YouthCare created one of the first transitional living programs in the Northwest. Straley House now houses Catalyst, one of the first low-barrier housing programs for homeless youth in the region.
  • In 1998, YouthCare opened ISIS House, the first transitional living program in Washington State to focus on the unique needs of homeless LGBTQ youth.
  • In 2003, YouthCare was one of the first agencies nationwide to contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to house a shelter/case management program serving the specialized needs of refugee youth.
  • In May 2010, YouthCare partnered with the City of Seattle, the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and others to open the Bridge Program, the first residential recovery program in the Northwest for sexually exploited children. Today, the program operates as a full continuum of services for sexually exploited youth and  young adults, and includes dedicated beds in both emergency shelter and transitional living programs.


Contact

For general inquiries, including program information and donation options: info@youthcare.org or (206) 694-4500

Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Note: This blog post originally appeared on The Novel Approach.

Food, Memories, and Love

It might just be me, but I believe one of the most powerful ways you can show someone you love them is through feeding them. Growing up, the maternal side of my family was Sicilian. And let me tell you, the Sicilians believe in three things: love, family, and food. You simply did not turn down food when you visited my relatives (and you always sat around the kitchen table when you visited, never the living room).

My mom, who passed away from cancer in 2007, was a product of her Italian roots. Her best food was the simple Sicilian peasant fare she grew up and learned to cook from the aunts and grandmother who raised her. One of her best recipes, and the one she was known for, was her spaghetti sauce and meatballs. To this day, I make her all-day-simmer sauce on lazy Sundays. The smell of it brings her memory back to me more powerfully than any photograph and, yes, that aroma often brings a tear to my eye.

I could not write my “romance with recipes” Dinner at Home, without including that recipe. I share it with you below. I also would like to share a little excerpt from the book, in which my main character, Ollie, remembers making meatballs with his own Italian mom. The excerpt reminds me of the special times I shared with my mother, almost always in the kitchen.

Ollie and Meatballs (an excerpt from Dinner at Home)

“Go ahead, you do it.”

Ollie looks up at his mother, her warm smile, her dark hair and green eyes as she stares down at the five-year-old, expectantly. 

“Like this?” Ollie asks and he upends the jug of milk over a couple of slices of white bread his mother has placed in the sink.

“Rub it in. Get the bread all nice and wet,” his mother says.

“Like it’s getting a bath?” Ollie asks.

His mother laughs. “Like it’s getting a bath.”

Once the bread is thoroughly wet, Ollie picks it up and holds it, dripping, over a bowl of equal parts ground beef, veal, and pork. 

“Now grind it all up,” his mother says. And Ollie squeezes the bread, squeezing and twisting it until it drops in damp crumbs to the meat.

“Very good.” His mom pats his head. “What comes next?”

“The eggs?”

“That’s right.” His mom hands him the first egg and Ollie awkwardly cracks it against the side of the glass bowl. Some of the white runs down the outside of the bowl. “That’s okay,” his mom says when he looks up at her, lower lip out and eyes wide. “You’ll get it right with this one.” And she hands him another egg.

He does, cracking the egg and opening it over the meat and bread mixture so the yolk breaks when it hits. He looks down at the mixture, then back to Mom. “What’s next?”

“You know what’s next.”

“Garlic?”

“Lots of garlic.” She has already chopped the cloves fine and she gestures for him to cup his hands. When he does so, she delivers the pungent smelling stuff into his palms and tells him to scatter it around.
They add dried basil, oregano, onion powder, and salt and pepper. “Now get your hands in there and mix it all up.” She rubs his back as he combines everything, giggling at the wet mushiness of the mixture. She giggles too.

“Now the best part!” Ollie says. “Meatballs.”

His mother pulls a chair from the kitchen table and sets little Ollie on it so he can work more easily. She rolls up her sleeves and says, “Let’s get to work.”

Ollie awakened from the dream with a smile. One of his favorite childhood memories was helping his Sicilian mother make her spaghetti sauce and meatballs every Sunday. He did it throughout his life. He could now make her simmer-all-day-thick, rich, and delicious sauce with his eyes closed. Even though he used all the same ingredients in all the same proportions, it never tasted quite the same. Good, but just not quite the same. There was no substitute for a mother’s love.

Mom’s Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs
(Serves 4-6)

1 29-oz. can tomato puree
1 12-oz. can tomato paste
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoon pepper
1-1/2 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon each oregano, basil, and onion powder
2 handfuls grated Romano or Parmesan cheese (half a cup?)
7 cups water or 1-2 cups red wine with the remainder water (I usually use wine)

Note: Most all of the above ingredients can just be eyeballed. Mix everything in a big pot, add meatballs and pork and simmer for at least four hours. Highly recommended: brown some pork (ribs, chops, whatever’s cheap, a little less than a pound in the pan you’re going to cook the sauce in. Just caramelize it. Once it’s done, pull out, deglaze with a splash of red wine, and begin making your sauce.)

Meatballs
1 lb. ground beef (or beef and pork, or turkey)
1 egg
1 slice bread
¼ cup milk
Salt, pepper, garlic powder, parsley, onion powder, basil, oregano (just eyeball all of this)

Take a slice of bread, wet with milk, crumble into meat, and add seasonings and egg. Mix with hands, form into balls, brown in hot fry pan on stove in a little olive oil, and drop into the sauce.

Read another excerpt

BUY
from Dreamspinner Press in ebook or in paperback
Amazon Kindle


Bookmark and Share