A good meal can be bittersweet.
It can call up a memory of a faraway mother or a wife, of family laughter and love so clear, so sharp that it hurts to take the last bite and see the vision dissolve.
For some Skid Row residents eating a holiday meal at the Weingart Center Cafe on Sunday, every bite brought the sweet gratitude and stinging embarrassment that comes with dependence. But the same food, prepared with love and skill, brought reassurance and comfort.
The gourmet turkey dinner was prepared by the French chefs of the Club Culinaire Francais de Californie for about 1,100 homeless people who were offered tuberculosis screening afterward.
From 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday the chefs and waiters served the guests what many said was the best meal they'd had in weeks. For some, it was the best ever.
The meal was good enough to make Gary Hackett, 23, think of his mother.
"At home, they don't really know I'm here," said Hackett, who grew up in West Covina. "But eating this made me miss my mom's peach cobbler, and greens, and, oh . . . I'd better stop now," he said with a small smile, his voice trailing off.
"When I came down here three weeks ago, I didn't have anything but me," Hackett said. But he has a job interview today, and is hopeful. Wearing neatly creased khaki pants and a mustard-colored short-sleeved silk shirt, Hackett seems an unlikely Skid Row resident.
But many of the cafe's dinner guests, regardless of how they looked, said they never thought that they would be on Skid Row for a holiday meal--no matter how delicious.
"I think God put me down here for a reason," Hackett said. "I wouldn't really, not in my heart, appreciate what people did for me, until now.
"My mom taught me right from wrong. But . . . coming down here, I don't know. I just fell."
As he talked in front of the cafe, a woman walked by, slowly pushing a laden shopping cart.
"See? Stuff like that just tears me up," he said.
The holiday meal was the fourth annual feast given by the chefs at the Weingart cafe at 566 S. San Pedro St. The chefs, from some of California's most celebrated restaurants, brought with them 80 turkeys, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, French vegetable soup and chocolate mousse.
The importance of a good meal seemed understood by all the white-aproned, toque-wearing chefs in the cafe.
"Eating is an everyday pleasure," said club Vice President Pascal Ohlat, owner of Pascal's restaurant in Newport Beach. "If everything goes wrong at work or with the family, at the end of the day a meal of good food is a comfort. Of the pleasures in life there are eating, loving and sharing. And today is a little bit of each.
Bernadette Millet, owner of Bernadette's in Santa Barbara, said: "You see, to us good food is the most important thing in the world."
The dinner guests were invited from the adjacent Weingart Center and neighboring agencies including the Homeless Outreach Project, Salvation Army, Golden West, Para Los Ninos, Las Familias del Pueblo and the Downtown Women's Center.
"For these people to come down here and share what they have is kind and noble, and the food is very good," said one dinner guest. "I just wish I could've been a donor rather than the one being donated to.
"When I look around this room, I see myself and a hundred people in here who thought that not in a million years would they ever come to this. But it speaks well of (the chefs) to try to come down here and to share."
After the meal, guests were encouraged to take free tuberculosis tests provided by the Weingart Health Partnership on the cafe's back patio.
The partnership, a consortium of physicians in private, public and corporate practice, is an annual participant in the holiday meal. Last year, doctors distributed hygiene kits with toothpaste, deodorant, soap. But an ever-increasing incidence of tuberculosis among the homeless led the partnership to set up a screening table this year.
"The homeless population is at greater risk of contracting tuberculosis for several reasons; mainly because typically they live in close quarters, their general health conditions are not good and some are HIV-positive," said Dr. Jacque Sokolov.
People who return to find the results of the screening will be given another meal coupon for the cafe, Sokolov said. Public health nurses will be at the cafe Tuesday to assess those who took the tests.
Weingart Center President Maxene Johnston arrived at the dinner just off a plane from Seattle, going through the room greeting in Spanish staff and the men who made up most of the dinner guests. " Hola, hola, " she said before realizing her mistake. "Oh, that's right! They speak French!"
Johnston said the meal "is a very equalizing experience for all of us. Often people who volunteer in organizations never have the benefit of rubbing shoulders, bumping into and looking eye to eye with the people they help."