“Chicken, please,” he says.
Miriam’s — as the regulars call the charity — is in Western Presbyterian Church at 24th Street and Virginia Avenue NW in Foggy Bottom. Today’s dinner offerings are half a roasted chicken (black bean burger for the vegetarians), along with mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, flatbread and garden salad. There’s homemade apple sauce, too, along with coffee, tea, water or apple cider. Dessert is a selection of lemon pound cake, strawberry shortcake and cookies.
“It’s all about elevated comfort food,” Bell tells me.
Comfort is not a reliable part of the lives of these men and women. Most are experiencing homelessness. Many live on the streets. Some who have found housing — with the help of Miriam’s Kitchen — have trouble affording groceries.
A few return to Miriam’s for breakfast or dinner simply because the people there — the staff, the volunteers, the other guests — have become family.
Today is special. It’s GuestFest, a celebration of having endured nearly two years of the pandemic, with all the complications that entailed.
Before covid, Miriam’s served sit-down breakfast and dinner inside, in a dining room. When the pandemic struck, Miriam’s began providing meals-to-go outside. It erected a rest room trailer that has only recently been removed. To maintain social distancing, the dozen volunteers who once helped prepare and serve the meals were reduced to just two.
That has meant a lot of work for Bell and her executive sous chef, Marcus May. Their days run from 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. They get a break on Fridays, like today, when the charity contracts with local restaurants to provide the food. That’s also a way to help small businesses get through the pandemic. Today’s sumptuous meal came from the Queen Vic on H Street NE.
“Mr. Ford, do you want chicken or veggie?” Bell asks an older gentleman. She knows many of the guests by name.
“Veggie,” he answers.
“I should know that,” she says.
Mr. Ford carries a crutch that’s fashioned from a cane, or perhaps a cane that’s fashioned from a crutch.
“Can I have a salad, too?” he says.
“All that’s down there,” May says, directing him to other tables adorned with food. There’s also a table where guests can choose winter coats. Drawstring bags contain gloves, hand warmers, a scarf, a water bottle and other winter necessities.
“Thank you,” Mr. Ford says.
He takes the plastic clamshell that holds his meal and carries it out of the courtyard to a patio outside where he’s parked his bicycle.
“These people have nothing,” he tells me, nodding at the other Miriam’s Kitchen guests, some eating their dinner, others waiting in line to be served. “And what they had, they lost. These are the people that time forgot.”
It’s a diverse group. There are all ages, from old men leaning on canes to young couples who lean on each other for support. They carry backpacks and duffels and plastic bags. The bags groan with possessions: too many for the bags, not nearly enough for a life.
Chef Bell learned about Miriam’s Kitchen when she worked in corporate real estate and her company volunteered here.
“I fell in love with it,” she said of the nonprofit.
Bell had studied at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md., and volunteered in the culinary ministry at her church, Providence St. John Baptist in Upper Marlboro, Md.
In 2015, she left her corporate job to work at Miriam’s Kitchen.
“I say I traded a suit and pumps for a chef’s jacket and Crocs.” (Her Crocs have illustrations of fried eggs on top.)
A logo on a GuestFest banner neatly illustrates what Miriam’s Kitchen tries to do. It shows the jagged lines of an EKG joining a knife and fork on one side with a house on the other. A meal can be a gateway to a home. Miriam’s earns the trust of its guests, who may come by for dinner for years before accepting help in other areas of their lives.
After 90 minutes, the line of guests has slowed to a trickle. Those who want seconds are invited back. And Chef Bell has added another question to her “Chicken or veggie?” mantra: “You want two?”
“Yes, please,” says a man pulling a rolling suitcase. He takes the two proffered meals, kneels, unzips his bag and carefully places them inside.
If he’s hungry come Monday morning, Chef Bell and Miriam’s Kitchen will be there for him.
You can help
Miriam’s Kitchen is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising campaign. We hope to raise $250,000 by Jan. 7. You can help us reach that goal by visiting posthelpinghand.com and making a donation.
To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.