The Man Who Came to Dinner

Ever try to stuff an entire In'n'Out Double Double Burger and a full order of those homemade fries (you know, the ones they serve in a towel) along with a whole vanilla milkshake into your mouth at once, while attempting to steer the car with your inner thighs in a mad dash to get to Tahoe before the bars close on a Friday night after work?

Yeah, me too.
However, that is not what is meant by Meals on Wheels.
Meals on Wheels, one of San Francisco's better-known social services, has been delivering meals to the homebound elderly for just about 30 years now. So Amy Kirk, Meals on Wheels' development associate, invited me to pay the organization a visit and sample some of the culinary creations it sends out every day.

It didn't sound like a greasy burger and fries. But I eagerly accepted.
Meals on Wheels makes its home in a converted greenhouse in Bayview-Hunters Point. Amy took me on a tour of the modest offices where the administrative staff does its thing -- fund-raising, screening new applicants for eligibility, and trying to find ways to decrease the number of names on the waiting list. I spotted a group of "fan" letters from some of the Meals on Wheels clients pinned to the side of a cubicle. One woman had written, "This is about a thousand times better than I had been eating (and often not eating). The food is so unexpectedly delicious."

My interest in chowtime crept up a notch.
Amy introduced me to Sima Sara Dahi, one of the MOW staff dietitians. Sima led me downstairs, draped me in a hairnet, and showed me where all the magic happens: a spotless, mostly stainless steel environment of kitchens, walk-in refrigerators, freezers, and prep rooms, in which Meals on Wheels cranks out about 1,500 meals a day.

The meals are made to a variety of specifications (low sodium, diabetic, mechanically softened) and delivered hot, cold, or frozen, depending on the client's needs. At the far end of the facility everything comes together in insulated Meals on Wheels packs to be loaded by the drivers for each day's routes. It's a highly organized and fairly seamless process for getting a good chunk of the local population fed.

But the question remained: How does the food taste?
Back upstairs, Sima led me into the MOW boardroom, where Amy rejoined us along with Richard Lipner, Meals on Wheels' executive director, and nutrition assistant Maria Alvira. Laid out on the large table was a buffet of 10 or so of the stand-ard Meals on Wheels entrees, along with a variety of salads and even some cookies for dessert.

First up was a Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. Yum.
Corned beef and cabbage. Yum yum.
And stuffed peppers. Triple yum.

As I was eyeing the tuna noodle casserole, we all turned to catch Sima with her fork, inspecting the underside of a large slice of turkey loaf. Sima, it seemed, had planned her monthly quality-control meal to coincide with my visit. In summary I'd give it all ... mmm ... 3 1/2 stars.

After our meal and back downstairs in the loading area, Amy and I waited for Toni Maher, a veteran Meals on Wheels driver and my host for the rest of the afternoon. Another longtime driver, Chuck, rolled in to meet me. Although Chuck is in a wheelchair, he's been one of Meals on Wheels' top delivery drivers for 11 years. He had also just returned from Sydney, Australia, where his team had won an international basketball championship.

Toni rushed in, her head covered by a large green ski hat, moving to load up the truck for her third route of the day. I tried to introduce myself, but she just swept me up -- along with two large bags of meals -- loaded us into her pickup, and took off.

"So what are you up for today?" she asked me. "You just want to watch? Or actually make some deliveries?"

"I'm up for anything," I answered.
Our route took us through the Mission, into Noe Valley, Glen Park, and Twin Peaks. Toni made a lot of the early deliveries without me. "This one's not very interesting," she'd say, grabbing a meal pack and rushing in and out again.

Then, at the very top of Castro Street, on the Diamond Heights side of town, we pulled up to an old Victorian home on a terribly steep stretch of road. "Why don't you come in for this one?" she asked.

Meals on Wheels Delivery 101 teaches you, first: Knock very loudly, then wait. And wait. And wait. A few minutes will go by -- picture a slow walk down a hallway -- before you hear the rustling at the chain and doorknob inside.

Toni raised her voice to introduce me to Ms. Wilcox before the two ladies made with their daily conversation about the plants that fill the small front sitting area, the plumbing problems Ms. Wilcox has had, and -- a consistent Meals on Wheels client theme -- Ms. Wilcox's health.

Ms. Wilcox liked to talk. And living alone at the age of 94 she had every reason to. Pulling ourselves away after a few minutes was no easy task. My guess was that Toni usually spends a bit more time with her each day, helping read the mail, or finishing a particularly tricky chore around the house. But today she had a guest in tow, so ... off we went.

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