Participating in organized altruism over the holidays in San Francisco isn’t a right – it’s a privilege.
I know this because last year my parents decided to visit me for Thanksgiving, and I wanted us to distribute food to the homeless. A week before their arrival I began calling soup kitchens and local churches, and quickly learned that my plan was too ambitious.
“We’re totally booked,” somebody from Glide Memorial told me, as if this volunteer opportunity was a table reservation at the House of Prime Rib. Numerous other churches and soup kitchens rejected me, and one man said, “sorry, but we save this opportunity for the people who serve food here year-round.”
I ended up taking my parents to the Empress of China for Thanksgiving, and we felt indulgent.
This year I’d like to think that I’ve made up for it. A friend from my neighborhood recently invited me to accompany his unaffiliated mobile soup kitchen on a project called Food for Thought. My experience with the group taught me that large-scale, delicious food sharing can be as easy, rewarding, and godless as ordering Chinese.
Turning off Mission St. and up Fair Ave. in Bernal Heights, my nostrils widened at the smell of cooking onions, carrots, celery, and bacon fat. As I entered my friend Craig Merchant’s carnation-pink quadruplex, he explained that this concoction was the mirepoix base for both chicken soup and a beef chili. He was planning to help feed more than 100 people in front of Glide Memorial in the Tenderloin.
Seven people reside in Craig’s building, and most had been helping him prepare for Food for Thought throughout the weekend. On Saturday, Craig and his neighbor Ali Darcy secured the fruits and veggies. They also picked up the non-produce items – four chickens, six pounds of ground turkey, and six pounds of bacon – at Smart & Final. The friends all chipped in for the $200 bill.
They roasted the chickens that night, and Sunday night the apartment was bustling with food prep and merriment. As Ali created a sign for the group, Craig’s roommate, Josh Barnett, stood apron-clad, vigorously chopping the bacon. The group’s unofficial motto: “Let the pig do the work.”
The bacon was eventually combined with the mirepoix, pinto beans, black beans, organic beef, tomatoes, roasted garlic, cinnamon, apple cider vinegar, honey, Godiva chocolate, and plenty of spices. Grabbing a giant ladle to stir the concoction, downstairs neighbor Mei Ling Hui noted that it resembled a paddle.
“It’s only been used in the kitchen, I promise,” said Craig, fulfilling his role as “Chief Inappropriate Humor Officer.” One of the group’s chefs, a fire-haired man named Kelly, is often referred to as “Chief Soup Officer.”
The Chief Soup Officer, the Chief Inappropriate Humor Officer, Ali, Josh, Mei Ling, and the rest of the crew are all pretty different people. They might not have been hanging out, cooking up delicious food for the hungry if it weren’t for one commonality: their love for Eric Bayer – the founder of Food for Thought – who passed away last year.
As far back as anybody can remember, Eric Bayer was making and distributing delicious food. Really, Food for Thought was an extension of what Eric did on a regular basis. After working all day as a social worker for the city of San Francisco, he would come home, sit out on the lawn, and talk to everybody. Then he’d cook up a big bowl of soup.
He'd load the soup onto a grocery cart, along with bowls, spoons, a cutting board, a camping stove, and a janky AM radio. Blasting soul music, he'd push the cart down to 24th Street in the Mission or take a bus to the Tenderloin to share the soup. His cart even had a dishwashing station because he couldn’t afford disposable containers. (“Social workers aren’t exactly rolling around naked in $100 bills,” the Chief Inappropriate Humor Officer explained.)
Even so, Eric would bring sour cream because he liked giving people the opportunity to make a healthy choice. He wasn’t exactly giving handouts, though. Eric made booklets out of construction paper and art supplies, and on each page, he inscribed a prompt, such as, “If I could have any superpower, it would be…” or “Something that reminds me of my grandmother is….” Soup partakers were required to contribute a thought. Everybody’s favorite response to the grandma prompt has become an oft-repeated legend: “The Rockford Files and gin.”
On Sunday night, group loaded their thought booklets, two pots of freshly-made chili, one pot of steaming chicken soup, and the rest of the supplies into the official Food for Thought vehicle, a 1976 VW camper van named Sweetpea that once transported George Harrison. (He was a friend of the former owner of the van, who was also the bassist for Paul Revere and the Raiders.) The current owner, Ali, was explaining this as we rolled up in front of Glide Memorial.
We hit Glide for two reasons. First, Glide is a major food distribution spot, but there’s no dinner on weekends. Second, Food for Thought doesn’t apply for permits. When the group appears affiliated with Glide, there’s less of a chance that police will interfere.
A group of six homeless people huddled against the side of the church and watched as the van pulled up. One man was wrapped in a blanket and a plastic bag to block wind. As the crew spilled out of the vehicle and popped the top, the sidewalk folks began to take interest.
“What’s all this?” one man crouched on a walker asked.
“We have some soup for you,” Craig said.
“Is that right?” he said, breaking into an enormous smile.
“What organization are you from?” asked a woman in an oversized “I am the California Dream” T-shirt. When she learned that our group wasn’t church-related or trying to get her into a program, and that we just wanted to share soup and hang out, she said, “That’s right on.”
As a plastic table materialized and the pots were placed atop small burners, an insta-party formed on the sidewalk. Ali cranked the soul tunes in Sweetpea, and some people danced to “Stand by Me” as the succulent aroma of chili wafted down the block.
Upon sampling the soup, one man said, “That chicken is no joke,” and in minutes, people were returning for second helpings. Some enthusiasts reported the good news back to friends and neighbors on adjacent streets. After learning of the feast, one man wheeled himself out of his SRO at full speed down the block, sockless. He was worried he’d miss it.
While serving the delicious soup and chili, I found myself getting upset whenever anybody walked by without requesting a bowl. They didn’t realize how good it was! When I told Craig about my frustration, he smiled. “That’s exactly how Eric felt when people passed on the food,” he said.
Occasionally, somebody would ask why the group provides meals. “Our friend Eric started this,” a volunteer would answer. “We lost him two years ago. We’re continuing his tradition.”
In October of 2009, Eric was diagnosed with metastasized lung and bone cancer. He deteriorated quickly, and never got another chance to share his soup. He died January 2, 2010, at age 34.
Since they lost Eric, his friends have come together to cook and distribute food as often as possible. Eric’s sister, Lisa, often flies in from New York to learn more about her brother’s life and to take part in Food for Thought (she’s a chef and the chili recipe is hers). “Eric left a big hole for a lot of people,” Lisa said. “In coming together, we try to fill that hole a little bit.”
Lisa came back this Thanksgiving, and the group convened once again to make soup and collect thoughts. When the books arrived back at Craig’s place after the holidays, the thought prompt, “I’d like to…” had a newly inscribed entry.
“I’d like to school the whole world – except you angels.”