Loving Kitchen Duty

By Cindy Leffell, New Haven, CT

Mention kitchen duty in the military and most people conjure images of dull, repetitive work.  Not me.  To my surprise, some of my happiest moments during my VFI-Sar El session were spent toiling in the kitchen. The work was plentiful and satisfying.  After all, what Jewish mother doesnt love to feed people?  But it was so much more.

On our first workday at the base, one very experienced Sar El volunteer made a beeline for the kitchen.  My first thought “ whats the attraction?  Here we are in the middle of the desert.  There must be more interesting things to see and work on.  Little did I know how wise she was! She knew what a great way this was to contribute to the base.

The young soldiers we worked with were a crazy, lovable crew. Ive been told this is the case in many IDF kitchens.  The cooks produced fresh meals each day, and to help them, we spent hours processing endless mounds of vegetables.  There were peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, kohlrabi, eggplant, carrots, onions, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.  We peeled, sliced, chopped, diced, shredded.  Logistics is critical to the success of the IDF, and food service is an essential part of that. The cooks work long hours to provide three daily meals for the soldiers and volunteers on the base.  Well, OK, so breakfast wasnt much of a meal, and our guys didnt always get up in time to get the food out before flag raising.  But lunch and dinner preparations were frenzied events, skillfully choreographed, and often set to a head-pounding backbeat of popular Israeli dance music.  Each day, as mealtime approached, the music cranked louder and louder, motivating the crew to finish their tasks.

The head chef, Eliran, was tall and decisive with a velvety voice. He expertly taught me to julienne vegetables, a skill I had never before mastered.  But one day in the middle of his instruction he had to pause for a dance break. The music just overtook him. Another cook, Barack, wiry and manic, joined in the dance party, never missing a beat even when stopping to stir a giant pot of carefully seasoned couscous. I caught their moves on my smartphone and have shared the video with dozens of friends and family members.  The clip was the best way to convey the ruach of this part of my Sar El experience. For those of us in our 50s and 60s, imagine the kitchen clean-up scene from The Big Chill to get a sense of the joy. 

There were quieter moments I remember as well.  One day I was working alongside a volunteer less than half my age.  Again, after hours of chopping vegetables, we gave our wrists a break to help make sandwiches.  A Tunisian-style tuna salad I had never tasted before but have now come to love.  The recipe is simple: tuna in oil, chopped egg, spicy pickles, paprika and other spices.  We sliced open warm rolls and stuffed them–yes with our bare but clean hands– full of the tasty mixture.  When we finished, we paused for a snack break and shared one. So delicious!

On the final day of our session we had only two hours of work duty.  There wasnt much time for folks to go to their usual posts around the base; so all six of us who remained through the full three weeks came together in the kitchen, in the heart of the base.  It was actually the only time we were all working together, and it was a great way to end a truly transformative experience.