Dances with Onions

I thought I understood the politics of this war, until I chopped onions with our next ambassador to Finland. I thought I spoke decent Spanish, until I worked next to an attorney from Barcelona. I thought I understood hospitality, until I served customers that packed their lives into one carry-on suitcase and walked for ten days to safety, and a bowl of beef stew. And I thought I’d never cut so many onions in one day.

My Spanish friend Carlos

When there’s a literal ton of onions to julienne, it’s best to focus on learning something from your new companions. The World Central Kitchen logistics crew prefer to find sliced frozen onions and for a variety of reasons, but that wasn’t possible. Finding fresh onions, however, wasn’t an issue. At our warehouse kitchen the onions arrived on pallets. David, our wise-cracking Polish truck driver, loaded onions, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, and other vegetables on his truck to deliver to our kitchens in the Ukraine. Then he joked about leaving us a few thousand pounds to chop. On this day we have a Ukrainian Sour Soup to make, I’ve heard 400 gallons worth and I’m not sure if that’s accurate. Fortunately there’s plenty of help, most of which aren’t professionals like myself. Yesterday our contingent of Philadelphia chefs departed, today I believe it’s just me on the production side of our kitchen. The volunteers gathered around one of the six stainless steel tables, arranged cutting boards and knives then went to work. I spent few minutes going to each table showing proper knife etiquette. A sliced thumb means one less pair of hands and today we need every pair.

with fellow Greenville, SC resident Steve Kris

Someone brought in a small set of sharpening stones and that’s been a huge help because our knives are taking a lot of abuse. We’ve set up a system where one group on the table peels and another group chops or slices. The onions were sliced in half, peeled then the slicers take the halves and make cuts as thin as possible. A woman from Italy asked me where I learned to slice onions so quickly and I shared a story of julienning fifteen to twenty pounds a day for my first real chef. After lunch we switched to peeling and rough chopping carrots. My friend Kate would drop carrots in the middle of the tables, 25 pounds at a time then pull the pan of finished carrots and dump those into a colander for a quick rinse before dropping them into a rolling bin. As soon as she removed the chopped carrots from the last table she started the process again. Me and Francesco peeled and chopped while he joyfully recapped Ferrari’s victory at this weekend’s Formula One race.

Knives to be sharpened, carrots to be peeled

My day ended early; the last three evenings were spent delivering goods to our tent in Mydeka followed by a very late dinner. I walked to downtown Przemysl and its gloriously beautiful train station and bought a ticket to Rzeszow Main Station.

train station of Przemysl

Anywhere Ukrainian refugees are found, our international media isn’t far behind. I’ve dodged crews from Brazil, Turkey, the US, Japan, and who knows where else. And this station is packed with refugees. They contrast with the smartly dressed Poles that are also waiting on a train. Interpreters and volunteers are helping the Ukrainians negotiate the trains and stairs and there’s plenty of food, drinks, and necessities for them. I’ve been told Ukrainians are fiercely proud people and this level of charity must be a tough thing to accept. On the platform I was overwhelmed by the hundreds of disheveled Ukrainians and I felt incredibly inadequate. They’ve lost so much and now they’re strangers in a somewhat strange land, desperate for some sort of good news from home, and hounded by journalists at every turn. The media plays a critical part in this crisis, and they tell a story that must be told. However, they are relentless.

Turn left to get to the war

Thirty feet away, a duo of journalists with their zoom lenses looked in my direction and the older one whispered to his young apprentice. Over my left shoulder a mom and her nine year old daughter sat on a bench. They held one another and gently rocked back and forth. Their eyes were puffy and red their clothes dusty, their future tenuous. As the older gentleman’s camera came up, I took two steps to my left, and spoiled his shot. And perhaps I bought these two ladies a tiny shred of dignity in this absolutely repulsive situation.


Donate to Sally Becker’s Save a Child Foundation. She’s doing good work here.



2 Responses

  1. John you are doing incredible work. Thank you for sharing. Praying for you daily. Blessings Lou O’Brien

  2. I cry every time I peel onions. Today I didn’t peel any onions, but still cried.

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