By EMILY SHUMAKER
This year, I said yes to organizing a weekly dinner for 80-100 college students, with some Fredericksburg locals, families and friends sprinkled in. This event called “The Dining Room” takes place every Tuesday at the Center for Faith and Leadership. It provides a space for people to gather and have life-giving conversations around a table over a tasty meal.
I have always loved to cook, but I never thought I’d organize such an event, especially as a college student. When I thought about it, it seemed really daunting. However, the intrigue of the beauty of people surrounding a table and sharing a meal, and the promise of becoming stronger by saying yes to working with others, pulled me in. It has been one of the best experiences of my college career, expanding my way of thinking about community and teaching me practical skills for cooking and hosting.
Prior to 6 p.m. every Tuesday and in between classes and working, I am checking off my grocery lists that look something like “40 pounds of chicken breasts, 12 cups of flour, 16 cups of olive oil, 24 cups of rice…,” multiplying average recipes by 10 or more in order to make enough for a crowd, and converting measurements in cups, ounces and pounds. I am communicating with the teams, checking inventory to make sure we have everything we need, and doing my best to make sure we are ready to go by dinner time on Tuesday nights.
As the clock counts down to 6 p.m., and a line begins to form, the teams who have been preparing at the Center since that afternoon run from the kitchen to the dining room, carrying hot pans and serving utensils. They’re making sure the aluminum foil is off of the pans, that the condiments are out and that the timer for dessert has not gone off yet. Somebody claims the microphone and announces what is for dinner, as well as what is going on at the Center that week.
The moment that everybody begins to grab plates, claim a chair at a table, introduce themselves to somebody new and pour each other water from the pitchers set out on each table is the most beautiful moment each week.
Throughout the year, I have learned a lot. It is helpful to know that some things are better fresh than frozen, that almost everything needs a little extra salt, and that one oven can only cook so many things so fast. Now I know that dishes pile up faster than homework, that if you get too excited about cooking things really fast you might be welcoming people in with smoke rather than with the warm, homey scents of a home-cooked meal and you should almost always double (or triple!) the cooking time for recipes in bulk.
The most valuable things I have learned, though, are the smaller lessons: like relying on each other to get the job done, making last-minute judgement calls, the beauty of joining with others to accomplish tasks and build each other up while doing it.
Hopefully, after nearly two semesters of doing this, I look a little less harried and frantic as I run around on Tuesdays. It has expanded the way I think about community and increased my belief in myself. I know I have learned a lot… and cooking for myself is easy after getting used to setting the serving size to 80-100.