The customers at the soup kitchen have a few eccentricities with their eating habits that make serving them a surreal experience. To understand, you need a little background. Each week we'll cook up a main entree, two sides, (usually a vegetable and a starch), and soup. When someone comes into the kitchen to eat, a plate and optional bowl of soup is brought out to them. In addition to this food, there is always a lettuce-based salad along with some soon-to-be-expired deli salads (potato, cole slaw, bean, etc), and a basket of bread. We also put out small bowls of peanut butter, jelly, butter/margarine, and a few squirt bottles of hot sauce. It took a few weeks to get accustomed to the various "needs" at the table and I've compiled a list of the more interesting ones.
- Ungodly amounts of dressing on the salad: As a kid I used to love Italian dressing. I'd easily go through a bottle every week or so, and then drink the leftover dressing at the bottom of the salad bowl. I thought I was a total dressing whore...until I started working at the kitchen. Our guests LOVE salad dressing. And by love, I mean they need the salad to be dripping wet before they'll eat. To give you an idea, a few weeks ago I was making a replacement salad. I poured two regular sized Dole bags into a bowl and emptied exactly half a bottle of ranch dressing. After mixing, I took it out to them. It came back 2 minutes later with a request that I add even more. With the excess water from the lettuce, it looked like someone had added salad to a a large bowl of strained clam chowder, and this still wasn't enough! Of course I obliged their request, but only because I was using the reduced fat ranch. I feel like a mom sometimes... I have to strike a fine balance between having them eat their veggies, but at the same time not take in too much fat. Reduced fat dressing is a nice compromise. Of course I tell everyone I use the full fat dressing. Sometimes you just need to lie.
- Lots of hot sauce: I love spicy food. I'm the idiot that always orders Thai or Chinese food to the full 4 chili peppers (and usually regrets it the next day). That said, there is a time and place for spicy food. You want to add some hot sauce to your meatloaf? Sounds good to me. Spice up that tuna casserole? I'm with you. Hot sauce on chocolate cake, pie, brownies, and oatmeal cookies (yes this happens)?!??! You lost me...At first I thought this was a test of manhood. Some customers trying to one-up others and prove their intestinal strength. Slowly it dawned on me THAT THEY LIKE IT. I struggle with this...I slightly comprehend hot sauce on chocolate desserts (Ever try a hot chocolate w/ powdered chili? It tastes surprisingly good.) But why would you ever want to douse an oatmeal cookie or a peach pie in Tabasco? The two squirt bottles usually need to be changed twice in the 90 minute serving period. We ran out of it one time, about 20 minutes into serving. It was not a pretty sight. Gus had to run out to the local store to get more to placate the customers.
- Saltines: We put them on the table to go with the soup. Personally, I think that's all they should go with. They have almost no taste, require you to drink lots of water to compensate for the dryness they cause, and I always associate them with feeling sick. (Saltines and ginger ale was a common treatment for an upset stomach for me.) Our guests enjoy eating them with the main entree. I've observed guests placing saltines between layers of lasagna, making an inverted meatloaf sandwich (meatloaf as bread and saltines as the "meat"), eating saltines with margarine and hot sauce. I haven't quite put my finger on this, but I've noticed the guests that do this do so in the early stages of service. Since we don't give out seconds so early, this could be a strategy to maximize caloric intake. Then again, there is always ample bread on the table, so maybe not. I'll just say it's a mystery to me, and if anyone has an ideas, let me know in the comments...
- Perfectly calibrated juice: For beverages we serve water, milk (as long as we have it), and "juice". Juice is a misnomer because it's really Country Time Lemonade. (Since all the guests call it juice, I'll stick with that nomenclature.) Our patrons need the juice to be ultra sweet, but not ultra, ultra sweet. In making a pitcher of the stuff, I'm supposed to add 8 capfuls of powder. Our customers require between 14 and 15 capfuls. When I say between 14 and 15, I really mean it. I've added a little more and a little less, but unless it falls explicitly in that range they always send it back with complaints of it being too sweet or not sweet enough. I find it tremendously strange that they could have such finely honed taste buds to be able to discern the impact of a few grams of powder, but they can. To add even more to this, the few weeks when we have generic lemonade powder, they can tell it "ain't the good stuff."