Since mid-March, however, when coronavirus insinuated itself into every facet of life, the men and handful of women who frequent Miriam’s Kitchen for the charity’s weekday breakfast and dinner services collect packaged meals in white tents set up in the courtyard of the church not far from the Watergate complex. They enter the temporary quarters no more than 10 at a time and scatter around the exterior of the stone church to eat, some close together, others yards apart. Thanks to the health advisories they received while waiting in line, printed in English and Spanish, they’re aware that distance equals safety.
The world has changed, but Miriam’s Kitchen, founded in 1983 with the mission of eradicating chronic homelessness, ensures that its beneficiaries experience orderliness and respect. Patrons are referred to as “guests,” and a chalkboard menu offers a preview of what they’ll find in the tents: “Banana pancakes” read the top line of a recent morning menu, which went on to flag scrambled eggs, sauteed potatoes and applesauce.
“Food starts the conversation,” creating “an element of trust” with people conditioned to having to watch their backs or go unnoticed on the street, says Scott Schenkelberg, president and CEO of the organization. Last year, Miriam’s Kitchen served more than 75,000 made-from-scratch meals at a cost of $1 apiece, thanks to food donations and volunteers.
While the food is dispensed in disposable paper containers for now, everything looks and tastes as if your favorite diner whipped it up. The fruit-fragrant pancakes are tender, the eggs are fluffy, the potatoes come well-seasoned with onions and black pepper. The applesauce is homey and the coffee rich as my daily fix from Compass, which recently shuttered its downtown locations. “Refills, anyone?” asks a staff member holding a fresh pot of java outside the sturdy tents. Not everyone is sticking around to eat outside the church. Dennis Barnick, 70, a Vietnam War veteran who took the bus to Miriam’s Kitchen from a men’s shelter, tells me he’s going to the nearby Whole Foods Market to heat up his meal in the store’s microwave.
“I’m thankful for a place like this,” said Jonathan Sehon, 33, an early-morning guest who came to Washington from Oklahoma four months earlier and heard about Miriam’s Kitchen “on the street.” Originally from Winchester, Va., the onetime rancher says he lives under a nearby bridge and visits Miriam’s Kitchen for both breakfast and dinner. He recently acquired a bike that he uses to reach showers at a facility in Arlington. (The temporary setup at Miriam’s Kitchen includes a mobile restroom equipped just with sinks.) “I used to walk all over,” says Sehon.
What about Miriam’s Kitchen appeals to him? “Everything: service and the food — the people,” he said as he was finishing breakfast, which he liberally doused with the hot sauce the kitchen provides in individual packets — and makes on-site.
Miriam’s Kitchen counts 1,800 annual volunteers, 25 on any given day, most of whom were asked to stay away for the near future. Currently, a skeleton crew of professional staff is involved in the care and feeding of guests twice a day. The group includes four chefs, a team headed by Cheryl Bell, who spent three decades as an executive assistant before switching careers at 47 to pursue her passion for food. A former culinary assistant at the late L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, she has a business on the side, Rise Above Bakery in Edgewater, Md., where she resides. Her co-workers are Paul Pelt and Huw Griffiths, the former chef and pastry chef, respectively, of the Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle, and Marcus May, who left a career in commercial construction for the kitchen life.
It’s a wonder their boss has time to eat herself. When she finishes up at Miriam’s Kitchen, Bell cooks for residents of two branches of Calvary Women’s Services, another nonprofit group with a similar mission.
Professionally trained cooks, brought on beginning in 2001, distinguish Miriam’s Kitchen from other free meal programs in the city. “We do what a home cook would do, or a nice restaurant,” says Schenkelberg, whose team bakes its own bread, makes its own salad dressings and takes the time to make everything: Asian stir-fries and curries, seafood cakes shaped with salmon and scallops, and the aforementioned jerk chicken, accessorized with rice and pigeon peas. The food is prepared with the guests’ health in mind; many recipients suffer from hypertension and diabetes, for instance. Meats tend to be lean, sugar is used sparingly, whole grains trump white. Bell is discerning about what she feeds company. She has taken passes on donations of powdered eggs and processed meat, for instance, and has a rule about any incoming gift: “It has to be whole or fresh,” she says.
Tucked away in the kitchen during the coronavirus scare, Bell misses interacting with her guests, many of whom are, like her, people of color. In ordinary times, she says, she likes to be a presence in the dining room and “let them know they matter.” Customers might be invisible outside all day, says the chef, but never in the embrace of “MK.”
Thoughtful cooking is a carrot (truly) that leads to other resources at Miriam’s Kitchen, which expanded its mission eight years ago to fight homelessness on multiple fronts. Guests can consult with health care and housing specialists, make phone calls, use a mailbox and take art classes.
I return for dinner and see many of the same faces I encountered at breakfast. Tonight’s chalkboard menu features baked pasta, mixed vegetables and garlic toast, and when my time comes to pick up a meal, I’m asked if I want vegetarian or meat. On the way out of the tent, a staff member offers a smile and a pump’s worth of hand sanitizer. As I look for a place to eat in the courtyard, I spot Sehon parked near a ledge and join him. He says a prayer, opens the container and digs in.
Dinner tastes like it was catered by a mindful Italian restaurant. The pasta is blended with several cheeses and a crumble of beef and venison seasoned with paprika and oregano (vegetarians get straight marinara sauce). Rounding out the container are colorful mixed vegetables — carrots, green beans, peas — and crisp toast slathered with garlic butter. Applesauce makes another appearance, and it’s a reassuring, cinnamon-laced one.
As Sehon and I part ways with a fist bump, he lets me know he’s found a place nearby to watch the news on TV — soundless, from the outside looking in, but with a full stomach.
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Miriam’s Kitchen 2401 Virginia Ave. NW. 202-452-8926. miriamskitchen.org. Open: Breakfast and dinner Monday through Friday. Prices: Free. (Monetary donations can be made through the website, using the “Donate” tab on the home page.) Accessibility: The food tent can be accessed via a concrete ramp, but mobile restrooms are not wheelchair-friendly.