Ultra-tasty story; tiny hint of ghost

You know how, in the competitions during the summer Olympics, the divers’ scores are often calculated on the basis of the difficult of the dives that they are attempting?

There are times when religion reporting is like that.

What we have here is a perfectly wonderful Boston Globe story about a gourmet chef who just happens to cook in a shelter for homeless and poor women. I only know about this story because of a hat tip from my wonderful daughter, Sarah. However, I am sure that if I had read this story without her insider knowledge, I still would have asked the same basic journalistic question.

But let’s start with the wonderful anecdotal lede and set-up for his personality piece:

Curry-seasoned haddock (for vegetarians, tofu) is perched on steamed greens in a balsamic vinaigrette, the greens in turn are set on a puree of Jerusalem artichokes and roasted garlic. The fish is garnished with sauteed baby turnips and Swiss chard stems. Accompanying the dish is quinoa pilaf with winter squash and Chinese long beans.

This is lunch at the Women’s Lunch Place, a day shelter for poor and homeless women, located in the basement of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Here, restaurant-quality food is served, free of charge, six days a week to all women (and their children) who want it. Many of the guests are among the city’s neediest, the chronic homeless; others are simply down on their luck. Besides free lunch and breakfast, there is help with legal and housing issues, financial assistance, a wellness program, hot showers, a nap room, even art classes. …

Enter the protagonist. This is where my mind started to lock in on the details. Is there a religion ghost?

“We’re here to provide a variety of services to women in an atmosphere of dignity and respect,” explains Lauren Reilly, director of development.

But the heart of the Women’s Lunch Place is lunch, and the heart of the kitchen is Josh Birdsall. The bearded, ponytailed, soft-spoken chef has been on the job since August, and by all accounts, he treats his dishes with the same care and respect as the shelter does its guests.

By 11 a.m., the kitchen is humming. Volunteers chop, prep, and cook under the watchful supervision of Birdsall, 27, who seems to be everywhere at once. The chef came here after stints at Whole Foods and Craigie Street Bistrot. He had worked in restaurants throughout college (his degree is in literature).

Now, what is the question that is in your mind? We learn that he works with an all-volunteer crew. He has trouble getting consistent food, since food-bank donations are at the heart of the menu. The budget is tight to nonexistent.

All together now: What is Birdsall doing at Women’s Lunch Place? It can’t be the paycheck. With the facts that are presented, it’s impossible not to ask the “why” question, isn’t it?

And then there is the matter of the ponytail and some of the interesting food choices.

Let’s just say that Eastern Orthodox men, for reasons linked to small-t traditions, tend to like ponytails and beards. Also, for reasons linked to large-T Traditions about fasting from meat and dairy products (think Great Lent), Orthodox cultures tend to produce lots of people who run restaurants that are open to vegetarian and even vegan options. Think about Greeks, Palestinians and the Russians.

As it turns out, this young man is a convert to Orthodoxy. I am not saying that there is a hole in the story because that connection wasn’t made. I am saying that the subject might have come up in the reporter had dug deeper on that totally logical question, “What are you doing here?”

As it is, the story does end this way:

The din of the dining room temporarily diminishes as everyone tucks in. Birdsall takes a moment to reflect on the contrast between cooking here and other kitchen jobs he’s held.

This kind of work, he says, brings its unique satisfaction. “I get to do food for people who really need it. There’s no promises, no pretensions,” he says. “Just good, simple, honest food — and it feeds people beyond just filling their bellies.”

And all the people gathered for lunch said: Amen.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    You know how, in the competitions during the summer Olympics, the divers’ scores are often calculated on the basis of the difficult of the dives that they are attempting?

    There are times when religion reporting is like that.

    That’s a great thought well worth keeping in mind. Overfocusing on religion in such stories is like the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Honestly.

    You didn’t read this story when you called it up and think to yourself: What is this chef doing at a shelter?

    Do you not think the WHY of his story is important?

    The WHY didn’t have to be religious — let alone Orthodox.

    That is not my point.

    My point is the basic question behind his story. That’s a journalism issue.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    In other words, in this kind of story, his motivation to help the poor is a round peg in a round hole. The peg is missing.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I agreed with you that stories should be evaluated on what they tried to do. But beyond that, some stories should be appreciated for being heart-warming without engaging the full intellectual machinery.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    The story is about a CHEF at a SHELTER. Why is he there?

  • Jerry

    Terry, all I can do at this point is quote from one of my all time favorite movies, They Might Be Giants:

    “The human heart can see what’s hidden to the eyes, and the heart knows things that the mind does not begin to understand.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So there was no need to cover the basic WWWWWH or the story, since your heart had already figured it out.

    OR, you heart does not CARE why a chef has given his talents and time to the poor.

    My heart (and my head) cares about the journalism and, then, the faith element.

  • Paleocelta

    The man’s motivation is not irrelevant, but central. It should have been covered.


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