an alternative christmas

Story by Monisha Saldanha

It was the night before Christmas and my family went to My Brother’s Table in Lynn to help feed the down and out. Seventeen relatives – cousins, grandmother, nephew, aunts, uncle, parents – convened in my parent’s home in the Boston suburb of Lynnfield, Massachusetts. I myself had flown in from London where I have lived for the past 7 years. Instead of giving each other presents to demonstrate love and appreciation, we would spend time together, both in our own home cooking laborious multi-course meals and at the soup kitchen, feeding people who weren’t so lucky to have a family Christmas of their own. Most of us had served in a soup kitchen before, and so I asked my family what they found interesting about the experience.

“I was surprised by how picky some of the people were about how they took their coffee,” said twenty nine year old Anand Babu, the husband of my twenty seven year old cousin Nicole, “Maybe not everyone but about 20% of the people were really specific about what they wanted.” I had noticed the same thing. I was on duty handing out the salad. The choice of dressing was one they undertook seriously, with some people coming back to ask for more (and yet more) dressing or refusing salad altogether since we didn’t have their preferred dressing. They are customers of the kitchen the same way I am a customer when I go out to a restaurant, so in this sense, it shouldn’t be surprising that they want to eat their food the way they like it, rather than just accept whatever is handed to them.

“I felt like they ignored me because I was really young. They just walked past me,” said my eleven year old cousin Andrew Kamath, who was on the bread and butter station. He had lined up a row of bread and butter three deep – he had a system – and felt a bit frustrated that he wasn’t able to hand out the bread and butter as quickly as he was stacking it up. “But this is sounding a bit negative, most them were really polite. Because I was giving them bread, which is like giving them life.”

My Brother’s Place is a wet kitchen which means you don’t have to be sober to be served. “I only think that one guy over there is drunk, that’s pretty surprising,” said 22 year old cousin Carrie Kamath. “But maybe it’s just that his English isn’t that good. I can’t really tell.” He came over on his way out to wish us all a final “Merry Christmas” and I have to say, I couldn’t tell either.

If I ever make my fortune, I will donate a piano to My Brother’s Table. They had a wonky upright one that was missing some of its keys, one of its legs, and was terribly out of tune. One of the patrons managed to pick out a tune and when he finished he got a round of applause from some other patrons who were listening carefully. Andrew and I tried to play a few songs, but I found it difficult to play when I couldn’t be sure what notes I was hitting. We didn’t get any applause.

I noticed that the majority of patrons were men. I don’t know whether this is because fewer women live rough, but it did affect the atmosphere in the kitchen. “Wow!” said one youngish African American man. “Is that your sister?” he asked of my cousin Kristen Kamath. “No, there’s my sister down there,” I pointed down the counter to where my thirty-one year old sister Reba Saldanha was doling out peas to go with the ricotta lasagne, “This is my cousin. We’re all family.

“Wow,” he said again, “You have one good looking family. I bet there is a line of guys out there waiting to get in. I might go outside and wait myself. You are worth waiting for. Wow! You have a good Christmas. Wow!” He moved down the counter (for bread, lasagne, peas, dessert, milk/juice and tea/coffee) and I could hear his “Wows” repeated as he encountered the rest of my family.

His friend came over later to ask me, “Where are you from, China?”
I said, “No, my family is originally from India.”
He said, “You can tell.”
I didn’t say what I thought, which was “If you could tell I am ethnically Indian, why did you guess Chinese?” But still, sweet that he was taking an interest. “I tried to just greet everyone with a smile, wish them a Merry Christmas, and hope that they enjoyed their meal. You don’t know where people are coming from, you don’t have to be homeless to eat at a soup kitchen,” said sister Reba Saldanha.

We arrived at 4:30PM and spent the first hour prepping the food: putting out desserts donated by Trader Joes supermarket onto trays, setting out the cutlery (plastic not metal knives), cutting up the bread and butter into small chunks, pouring gallons of milk and juice into large catering coolers. We served about 170 people from 5:30PM when the dining room opened to 7:15PM when we locked the doors. It took us just 15 minutes to wipe down the tables, put up the chairs, and clean up the catering station. We were on our way home by 7:30PM to enjoy a massive dinner of our own that cousin Nicole had prepared that afternoon.

At home we relaxed with glasses of wine (our kitchen is definitely a wet kitchen) and shared memories of the evening. We’ve spent many Christmases together but never in this way. And who knows, maybe we’ve started a new tradition. There is something to be said about participating in what you could call the true spirit of Christmas – giving instead of receiving, helping those who need help, and spending time rather than money on each other.

About the author: Monisha Saldanha works on Jamie Oliver's web team. “It’s the best job ever, combining my love of food and the internet. Couldn’t ask for more!” she says.

For more information on My Brothers Place (perhaps to donate your time, your money, or a piano) please call +1 781 595 3224


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