photos by Matt Davis

"Last summer, we had to figure out what to do with 300 pounds of bear," says Steven Martin, morning chef at the Blanchet House of Hospitality, his words echoing out at me from a freezer in the dark basement at 5 am. "I had no idea what to do with it, so in the end, we made a stew."

In an hour and a half, Martin must provide a free breakfast to 300 people, most of them homeless or low income, relying solely on ingredients donated by the community, most of which he only laid eyes on yesterday afternoon. Welcome to the Forrest Gump-like existence of a chef at Blanchet, where you never know what you're gonna get.

Around us in the basement, pallets are piled with canned corn, refried beans, and tomatoes. Half a dozen freezers contain beef, chicken, even smoked salmon and ice cream. Upstairs, there's a cupboard full of donated pastries, and refrigerators stocked with food that needs to be used up more quickly. It seems like a lot of food, but much of it will be used by the end of the week. Feeding up to 1,000 people every day is no picnic.

WHAT'S YOUR BEEF?

Donations to Blanchet come in from all over Portland, and a driver heads out every week to pick things up. Zupan's, Trader Joe's, Safeway, Starbucks, Strohecker's, Pizza Schmizza, and Hotlips are all big donors. Then there are the donations that simply show up at the front door.

Last night, for example, the Oregon Convention Center dropped off 900 pounds of leftover cooked beef—looking through the three fridges it's currently stored in, it's hard to believe so much protein could even be cooked at one time, let alone left over. Now the challenge for Martin and his crew is to rearrange their menus and use the stuff before it goes bad.

Since anyone can show up and eat for free at Blanchet, today I plan to sit down with the regulars and sample all of it—cholesterol be damned.

This morning, guests will be eating biscuits and gravy, and Martin has filled two 40-gallon rectangular pans with the left-over beef, some chopped herbs, and about 80 cans of cream of mushroom soup—or "gravy"—which are bubbling away on Blanchet's 12-burner stove. Lunch on Wednesdays is always spaghetti, following a 10-year tradition, when the convention center beef will be incorporated into organic tomato sauce and served over noodles; and tonight, Martin's colleague Frank Howard will cube the beef and make it into a sumptuous stew, along with some chopped fresh bell peppers and mixed vegetables.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE

Considering Portland's reputation for surly restaurant service, Blanchet places an emphasis on greeting its "customers" warmly. Floor manager Richard G. has been working in food service all his life, and just before the first 40 diners come pouring in at 6:30 am, he reminds his dozen fellow servers that "the only difference between us and the people outside is that front door."

Richard—whose nickname is "Planet," because "I have a tendency to think everything revolves around me"—mingles with everyone, clearly enjoying the convivial atmosphere he and his staff have created. When things settle down a bit, he has time to tell me how he ended up here. After struggling with an alcohol and drug addiction, he found himself living in a $600-a-month room in the Joyce Hotel.

"I got used to the cockroaches and even the guy two flights above me who routinely pissed out of his window," he says. "But what sucked for me were the holidays. I had no family or friends, only my case of Pabst, a few joints, and enough for a combo meal at Burnside McDonald's on Christmas Day."

So 15 months ago he came into Blanchet, and has stayed on ever since as a volunteer. His nicknames progressed from "Pots 'n' Pans," through "Dumbass" and "Fucko" (because of "stupid mistakes [he] made on the floor"), and eventually, to Planet. Like most of the 29 men who live upstairs, he volunteers his time in exchange for a roof over his head and a commitment to stay sober. Those in the program are given random urine analyses and breath-tested each time they leave the house—anyone who drinks or gets high must pack their bags and go, immediately.

Last week, Planet's boss, Patrick Daley, who himself joined the Blanchet program as a volunteer four years ago, had to ask a 78-year-old volunteer nicknamed "Pops" to leave the program because he'd failed to report for a shift.

"It's the hardest part of my job," Daley admits.

VARIED CLIENTELE

Outside, people are lined up around the block. The building, which was taken over by Blanchet in 1952, was reportedly a "house of ill repute" and gambling den in the early part of the century, and it has a Depression-era look and feel from the street. The line of people stretching from the corner of NW 4th and Glisan clear up to Flanders is reminiscent of the soup lines one sees in black-and-white photos from the 1930s. However, plans are under way to build a new facility next door with off-street queuing soon.

Nobody gets turned away from Blanchet, and while the building is named after Oregon's first Catholic archbishop, there's no requirement to sit through a sermon before eating. Also, those who want seconds simply have to join the back of the line again, and can eat as much as they need.

"Running out of food would be unacceptable," says Martin. "So we always have a backup plan, just in case we get swamped."

Bob Powell arrives for breakfast in his wheelchair. Proudly attached to the chair is an American flag, bought at the Dollar Tree last week. He tells me the food is "always excellent," and that he's been eating here for 15 years.

"Lefty," whose nickname derives from the absence of his right arm, is kind enough to offer me one of his Pall Mall cigarettes after he's finished eating. He lives nearby in a rented single room, where he isn't allowed to cook, and describes the Blanchet as essential to his staying well nourished. He also loves the Mercury, he says, although he tends to stick to the music section because "the rest is really depressing."

George, a Korean War veteran whose nickname is "the Watchman," likes to eat breakfast and then stand outside Blanchet until lunchtime.

"I love these boys," he says. "Every single one of 'em. I enjoy them, they enjoy me, although one of these days they'll tell me to get going, I'm sure of it."

Later, a guy named Chico shows up for dinner, wearing a red carnival hat encircled with a feather boa. I'm told he used to be an Olympic boxer in Mexico, so I reserve judgment on his outfit.

REVIEWING THE FOOD

Knowing what a valuable social service Blanchet House provides for both its clientele and volunteers, it's easy to forget that it's first and foremost an eating establishment, and a surprisingly consistent one, at that.

I had my first breakfast there in February, after spending the "worst night of the year" on the streets ["Asleep on the Streets," Feature, Feb 21]. On that occasion, the greasy sausage I ate with oatmeal brought me to the verge of melodramatic tears of joy, so I was keen to see how today's breakfast would compare, without sleep deprivation and the shivers. The biscuits and gravy were hot and hearty, emergency comfort food. I also had a banana, a bagel with peanut butter, and some hot Starbucks coffee from Blanchet's 80-gallon pot. In short, it was a lot better than the food I normally serve myself at home.

For lunch, the spaghetti sauce was as good as you'd expect from ground steak mixed with organic tomatoes donated by Trader Joe's—in other words, pretty bloody good, thank you. There was also a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and carrots, and a fruit salad of bananas, strawberries, grapes, pineapple, and apple. I was surprised that the hot vegetables—a selection of broccoli and carrots—were not overdone, given the vast amounts of them being cooked; and a Starbucks chocolate muffin brought the meal to a pleasant conclusion.

By dinner I was flagging somewhat, thanks to the huge quantity of food I'd already consumed. Still, the beef stew was well seasoned, the meat tender and not tough, served over bread. It was also accompanied by more salad and fruit salad, and fortunately for me, a cinnamon swirl. I was worried I'd not be able to finish dessert, but cinnamon swirls are my favorite.

Most of Blanchet's visitors come for one or two meals each day, and in the future, I'd probably just drop in for lunch or breakfast, rather than stuffing myself stupid. But even if you can't finish what's on your plate, the slop buckets are taken off to Blanchet's farm in rural Oregon, where they go to feed pigs being raised by more men in recovery. So your conscience can remain clear.

Now you know: When the next Great Depression hits, and you're shit out of luck, Blanchet is the place to come for a balanced meal and some reassuring company, and who knows, maybe even your first slice of bear. Just be sure to chew it thoroughly.

Blanchet House of Hospitality, 340 NW Glisan. Donations: 503-226-3911.