Dances with Onions

I thought I understood the politics of this war, until I chopped onions with our 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 carried their lives, their culture, their country in one rolling 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.

Carlos, my Spanish friend and attorney

When there’s a literal ton of onions to julienne, it’s best to focus on learning something from your new companions. For a variety of reasons, the World Central Kitchen logistics crew prefer to find sliced frozen onions, 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 tractor-trailer to deliver to WCK kitchens inside 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 sure that’s accurate. Fortunately there’s plenty of help, most of which aren’t professional cooks. Yesterday our contingent of Philadelphia chefs departed, today I believe I’m the only professional cook on the production side of our kitchen. About 8:00 am, the volunteers gathered around one of the six stainless steel tables, arranged cutting boards and knives then went to work. I spent a 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.

Yesterday a WCK teammate 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 at my first restaurant job. After lunch we switched to peeling and 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. My Italian friend and fellow Formula One fan, Francesco, peeled and chopped while he joyfully recapped Ferrari’s victory at this weekend’s Formula One race in Bahrain.

Knives to be sharpened, carrots to be peeled

My day ended early and I did not complain; 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, about a 35 minute ride back to my hotel.

Train Station, Przemysl, Poland

Anywhere Ukrainian refugees are found, the international media isn’t far behind. I’ve dodged crews from Brazil, Turkey, the US, Japan, Chile, Canada and who knows where else, and this station is packed with refugees. They contrast with the smartly dressed Poles 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. While on the expansive 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

Forty feet away, a duo of journalists with their zoom lenses nodded in my direction and the older one whispered to his young apprentice. I slowly turned and over my left shoulder a mom and her perhaps eight year-old daughter sat on a bench. Mom held her daughter tightly in her lap and they gently rocked back and forth. Their future was tenuous, their eyes puffy and red, their whimsical pink clothing dusty, the daughter’s Hello Kitty backpack covered in mud. 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 horrifying 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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