The first thing that hits you is the smell of cigarette smoke. It’s not surprising—Austria is a smoking country—but when you step into the Gruft, the smell of it hangs thick in the air, the haze clouding the outer reaches of the small space.
The second thing is the men. The vast majority of the clients, many of whom are members of Vienna’s transient population, are male. The night we come, the only employees are men as well.
We’re here to help. There are five of us, and for the next four hours, we will peel and chop and slice and cook for 150 people. The Gruft is a charitable organization that works with Vienna’s homeless and transient. They provide a place to do laundry at little cost. They distribute winter-resistant sleeping bags, which can save the lives of people who sleep on the streets this time of year. At our location, they provide a hot meal.
In the center’s office, we divest ourselves of the thick, heavy outwear we’ve used to insulate ourselves against the bone-cutting chill. We also put our phones and wallets in a bag, to be put in a safe. The head of the soup kitchen is a tallish man in his mid-thirties, with a beard, a small nose ring, and a bandanna tied around his head. He’s polite, but not particularly friendly. It makes sense. After all, there’s a lot of work to be done.
The kitchen is small, but somehow we all fit. The five of us, encircle the center island and begin peeling and chopping the five kilos of onions we’ll need for this recipe, a potato goulash. In short order, our eyes are watering, and we all start trying to dab at our eyes with shirtsleeves without breaking pace. We’re supposed to serve dinner at seven o’clock, and the onions are only the start of our work. After the onions, we peel and wash and chop potatoes. Then, it’s carrots, then frankfurters, then the bulbous, whiskered celeriac that bears a strange resemblance, in my mind, to Cthulhu.
As we work, the employees work around us, fitting through the negative spaces. One man runs the high-speed dishwasher, while another starts setting up the plates and silverware to hand out during dinner. A third helps us keep our workspace clear, and it is he who draws my eye. He looks a bit like Popeye the Sailor, only thirty years on. Weathered and strong, with hands so calloused he can pull dishes out of the oven without a towel, he has tattoos up his arms, his neck, and his head. He’s the one who makes things easier for us: showing us the buckets where the vegetable scraps go, bringing no-slip pads for the cutting boards, making sure the counters al get wiped down.
At last, a little behind schedule, dinner is ready. We’re expecting a lot of people, and are advised to make sure the portions are the right size: not too small, but not so large that some people might not get to eat. The clients have begun forming a line, and we take to our stations. I’m at the goulash vat, wielding a ladle and preparing to dish up dinner. We’re all hoping that they like it, and feeling a bit guilty that it took a little longer than we had expected.
At this point, I’m starting to feel some empathy for my grade school lunch lady, Miss Bessie. She was always cranky, and I’m starting to understand why. After standing for several hours, my feet are sore and my back is tight; my right shoulder hurts from all the peeling and chopping, and I’m still ladling out goulash. Did I mention how hot that kitchen was? Still, it feels good to be doing something that has concrete results. Unlike trying to study, I can clearly see what I have accomplished: several kilos of onions chopped, potatoes peeled, soup made.
Of course, cooking for so many people, there are complaints: it’s too spicy, or not hot enough, or the potatoes are too firm. But a little before eight o’clock, we’ve finished serving the meal, and cleared away the last of the mess from our prep work. As we leave the kitchen to retrieve our things, a few of the clients start up a round of applause. I smile—we all do—and behave graciously, but personally I feel uncomfortable, undeserving. Of all the hours I have spent since I arrived in Vienna, about four have been spent doing good for other people. It hardly seems praiseworthy.
But when I step out into the night, the wind working its way through every crack in my armor, I reconsider. True, I haven’t done much, but it was still a hot meal on a cold night. It was nothing miraculous, but for one winter’s evening, it was pretty good.
To find out more about Gruft and its work, or to make a donation, visit Gruft.at.