Back in July, while everyone else was out of town, a group of us headed out to Rockaway Beach. It was overcast and humid, the sky threatening rain. First stop: bagels from the deli, of course. There was a real old-New York feel to the place – the coffee was light and sweet, the regulars all knew one another, and the lady working the counter called everyone ‘honey’ or ‘doll’.
The sky cleared and it ended up being a picture-perfect beach day. After spending most of the afternoon in the water, we had one thing in mind: Rockaway Taco. Later, over beers on the boardwalk, everything felt right. It was Sunday afternoon, without the dread of Monday.
That was my first time in the Rockaways.
The second time? Yesterday.
Yesterday, while everyone else went back to work, back to “normal”, I headed to the Rockaways. It was a crystal clear Fall day. First stop: a commissary in Brooklyn. We made chili and cornbread, rice and beans. There was a distinct feel to the kitchen – the feeling only achieved when typically-independent chefs get together for a common goal.
We loaded the cars with food and drove into the war zone. The blue skies seemed to mock the scene down below. There are not pictures or words that can describe what we saw. Everywhere you looked, you saw something shocking, impossible, sad. Piles of everything: furniture, trash, sand, shoes. Cars upon cars. Most people in the area still do not have power, heat, hot water or access to much fresh food. Many houses are unlivable. There was a sense of urgency and dread, but also, gratefulness, humility.
We served lunch in the parking lot near the 95th street beach entrance. We had a steady stream of ‘customers’ all afternoon. Like my visit to the bagel shop back in July, I felt the same spirit yesterday. There were still a need for coffee, jokes, and a “thank you, honey” here and there. A lot of people asked where we were from and “oh, my sister lives out there”. I talked shop with one man, a former caterer who has been out of work for awhile due to a medical problem. He was with a young boy who told me he loved avocado, especially on chili.
They say food is the great equalizer. Even more fundamental than shelter or clothing, food is a requirement for every living thing. The clean up and rebuilding efforts are ongoing, and so are the need for food to fuel, nourish and humanize a most inhumane situation.
If you are looking for ways to give, there are countless organizations and relief efforts that need help. Please trust me when I say no contribution is too small. If you’d like to fund in food relief, please consider donating to Chefs for Sandy. We are a group of chefs and food people on a mission to provide hot meals for people who need it. We will prepare food until our funds run out. I am headed back to Brooklyn tomorrow to make beef stew destined for Red Hook and countless other affected areas.