Treasured time in a Costa Rican kitchen

I went to Costa Rica last month for my job as a church writer. Want to know my favorite part?

I got to work in a Costa Rican kitchen. I helped serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to 700 people!

No, really. Costa Rica is a beautiful, lush country, and there is much to say about the joys of visiting there. There is also much to say about having the privilege of participating on a mission team to Costa Rica.

But working with the food was really my favorite part.

My actual job was to join the mission team and write a story about a new spiritual weekend experience for youth and young adults in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. (You can read about it here.) So, I stuffed my laptop and Nikon into a backpack and hauled myself South.  

I was just one day into the trip when I realized an additional opportunity was before me, other than just being a reporter. This group of United Methodists wasn’t just helping to put on a big Christian concert. They were also helping to feed the hundreds of people who were coming to the concert.

A Costa Rican caterer had been hired to cook meals in a Catholic dining hall close to where the “Resurrection” spiritual weekend was held in a church. The mission team members were asked to help get the food out of the kitchen and into the hands of hungry concert participants.

Sign me up!

As always, I found it stimulating to watch seasoned cooks who know how to feed a lot of people at once. Huge piles of rice! Huge trays of mango and pineapple! Huge tubs of sausage or cheese or salad! The head cook who oversaw the operation must have nerves of steel.

It was not only interesting to watch the catering team work quickly and efficiently in the small, open, hot kitchen, without electric dishwashers or food processors or other tools existing in the typical U.S. kitchen. I was also interested in the menu, which was healthier than the typical youth-retreat diet in my home state.

Every meal included rice, beans, fresh fruit and salad, with small protein portions including chicken and fish. Everybody ate the same food, without desserts or seconds. It may have happened, but I didn’t hear anybody complain or say they wanted something else.

Best of all was joining the assembly line of team members who spooned out the beans and rice and other foods onto trays and delivered them to the tables. The diners poured through the doors by the hundreds, faster than we could possibly accommodate quickly. But we sure tried.

I just love being part of a food team like that. Working together … problem solving … stepping in to cover for other team members … learning how to do something new or more efficiently … working so fast your mind and body snaps into an invigorating sync … talking and laughing with other workers as the food passes by … then celebrating by sitting down together over a meal, over the same food you’ve been serving the last 90 minutes.

I worked on the food line with people I’ve known for 20 years, and I worked with people I had just met. When we were finished, I knew them better and we were all keepers of a shared experience.

Judy Russell, who worked with the catering team and joined us on the assembly line, explained it the best way:

“This is like the Body of Christ,” she said. “There are instructions flying around, but everything just flows because people are working together.”

Later, Judy told us the leftover food had been donated to a local agency that feeds hungry children.

I just love it.

Rice and beans … and fried plantains

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