How Bay Area Cooks Are Proving Love Is Thicker than Smoke

(Image credit: Aya Brackett)

When news that a series of fires had broke out in the middle of the night, almost simultaneously, in several counties to the north, many San Francisco Bay Area people took it in stride. It’s wildfire season, after all, and most of us are used to observing this play out in the wilderness, a very safe distance from our homes.

But it didn’t take long to shake off that nonchalance as the real picture set in: Beloved and beautiful communities all over the North Bay were in flames, and tens of thousands of people were fleeing for their lives. It was time to get serious. It was time to start cooking.

When the going gets tough, we cooks naturally reach for our aprons, sharpen our knives, and whip up a cauldron of chili big enough to feed an army (or a battalion of firefighters, in this case). In general, cooks tend to be generous people — we aren’t attracted to making enormous pots of soup or roasting a whole pig because we’re stingy. We have a strong sense of belonging and deep experience in the fact that the most important things in life are built in community, built together. And so we had to do something.

The stories of the culinary community stepping forward instantly started rolling in. By 9:30 a.m. on the first morning of the fire, Ceres Community Project, a nonprofit organization that feeds 150 North Bay families experiencing a serious health crisis, had already ramped up their operations to prep meals for first responders and people arriving at shelters. They continue this effort today by producing 400 to 500 meals a day on top of their normal operations (and expect this need to continue for at least a month).

A food truck organizer in San Francisco called Off the Grid snapped into action and mobilized several food trucks to the area and began fundraising so that there was 100% support for those trucks to feed people without charge.

Soon it became apparent that the avalanche of food donations, volunteers, locations, etc. was creating its own chaos, so SF Fights Fire sprang forth as an online organizing hub, bringing together cooks, supplies, and information on how to best package meals for distribution.

Sonoma Family Meal saw the need to serve people who were returning to homes without electricity or gas, refrigerators full of spoiled food, and empty grocery stores shelves. So they organized some of the top restaurants and chefs in the area to create free, ready-made meals that could quickly be picked up by returning residents through a drive-thru-like system. As of this writing, they think they’ve served over 16,000 meals but aren’t sure because “When you’ve got people who’ve lost everything waiting in line for a warm meal, keeping count isn’t really the point.”

No effort was too great or too small: People cooked up pots of pozole for a fundraiser at a Berkeley cafe, the local grocery chain Oliver’s offered free food to first responders, the Tri-Tip Trolley got on twitter with a desperate call for a Costco run for more supplies (they ended up serving 4,200 sandwiches to first responders over a period of eight days, at no charge). Wine bars and shops all over the greater Bay Area started featuring North Bay wines and donating proceeds to relief efforts. It’s impossible to list everything. In fact, the outpouring is so great, shelters and kitchens were having to turn away donations and offers for help.

It is important to note that this is not a Pollyanna account of a paradise removed from the complexities of human karmic actions. Yes, there has been some looting and price gouging going on. Yes, there will be agencies to investigate for negligence and people taking advantage. And questions are arising like what about undocumented workers, many who may be afraid to come forward to receive assistance? Will the experience of being an evacuee help people be more empathetic towards homelessness in general?

But the overwhelming picture is that of people showing up with their sleeves rolled up, ready to step into the chaos and get to work. A Berkeley firefighter whose team was called to Santa Rosa in the wee hours of the morning the fires broke out made an incredible video of what it was like to arrive in the middle of the firestorm. His team fought valiantly to save a neighborhood, and towards the end he talked about the place where you could see burnt-out homes on one side of the street and perfectly fine, nearly untouched homes on the other. He called it the Line of Sorrow. It’s our job as cooks, as human beings, to show up to that line and do what we do best: nourish, support, sustain.

It’s our job as cooks, as human beings, to show up to that line and do what we do best: nourish, support, sustain.

“It’s tempting to ask why, if you fed your neighbors during the time of the earthquake and fire, you didn’t do so before or after.” —Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

The true test of community will be if we can continue this support in the weeks and months to come, once all the hubbub dies down. Bay Area residents: Keep volunteering and keep supporting North Bay businesses, restaurants, wineries, and farms. Everyone else? Please come. There’s a lot of wine country that didn’t burn, many places are open, and we really need your friendly faces and, of course, your tourist dollars.

Disasters create and strengthen communities, and coming together to do difficult work is a noble and immediately gratifying thing to do. Much harder to sustain but even more important are some of the lessons learned in the process: that all human beings deserve shelter, nourishment, concern, belonging. May we always remember that instinct to step forward and help, even when something resembling normal life returns. May our memories of this time be long and may our resolve to be good neighbors robust. May we always remember that this — this outpouring of love, support, tenderness, empathy, energy — is who we really are.

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