Ground Zero Gourmet: 9/11′s Secret Foodcourt
In the middle of the night, in the middle of September of 2001, in the middle of a burning pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center, I stared into a white dust cloud the color of nuclear winter. Paper memos still snowed down in slow motion, and were swept up again in a cool breeze or gust of hot air from inside the Pit. I hoped the whistles didn’t blow again, indicating that another building might fall. I stepped back and forth, the melted rubber soles of my donated work boots sticking to the ground. I finished the last bite of my steak sandwich, crumpling the Outback Steakhouse to-go foil wrapper in my right hand and vowed—then and there—to patronize Outback over any other restaurant.
This pledge wasn’t about their 2,000-calorie Bloomin’ Onions or corny Crocodile Dundee theme. I was born and raised in Brooklyn; we don’t do chain restaurants, but we do gratitude.
I was a police officer then. Like thousands of other first responders, I threw on pants and reported to the World Trade Center site on 9/11 as soon as my wife woke me up that morning. Two planes hit the Twin Towers. What that meant didn’t register on my 30-minute walk downtown, but by then the buildings had already fallen. I power-walked, through a mob of people running the opposite way down Varick Street, towards the giant dust cloud. Naively, I assumed everyone must have gotten out safely before the buildings collapsed.
I spotted another cop who I worked with nearly every day, covered in white dust with eyes red from crying. He was howling, “Shit’s all fucked up!” He had run in there with three other cops and was the only one who made it out. One of the funniest, most level headed guys I knew. We got him inside one of the ambulances lined up downtown waiting to transport survivors. I was there for 20-something hours on the 11th. There were dozens of ambulances parked there all night and no survivors to transport to the hospital. Shit was all fucked up.
When you’re a cop, one of the most important decisions you’ll make on every night tour is where to get dinner: The Dominican spot for pernil, Chicken Parm at the pizza joint, Hey, anybody wanna drive over to Chinatown for noodle soup? During this kind of emergency, there’s no time to think about eating. We were hungry to rescue someone, anyone; to not get sucked into a fire pit; to evade dangerous falling debris; to stay out of the path of unsteady nearby buildings.
I worked at Ground Zero as a member of the rescue/recovery team on 12 hour shifts in the Pit until the site closed on May, 30, 2002. I dug and sifted through concrete and rubble, searching for friends, co-workers, high school classmates, and thousands of other people who just showed up to the office that day. In nine months, we never had a single rescue, but our team made dozens of recoveries and thousands of partial recoveries.
I don’t want to focus on the terrible things I saw there. (I have a therapist, meditation practice, and prescription for that). I want to tell you about the people weren’t paid to be there, who came from all around the nation and world to do what they could. Let me tell you about Team Outback.
I don’t know how they got past the heavily-guarded checkpoints, but somehow, a group of the most wholesome All-American Americans did. They couldn’t have possibly been New Yorkers—their faces had bright, gummy smiles and optimistic expressions still un-beaten-down-by-life. They emerged from a smoke cloud, shouting up to our dirty bucket brigade on a perilously high debris pile.
“We have Outback here. Take one. Take two if you want!”
Ironworkers stopped cutting steel. Cops, firefighters, and volunteers stopped sifting and digging. Even tragedy tourists stopped sneaking photos with their disposable cameras.
A freshy-scrubbed blonde girl in her mid-20s—about my age then—handed me a wrapped cheeseburger and a steak sandwich, and then thanked me. In real life, cops don’t get thanked by civilians. Plus she was the one doing me a favor. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, maybe it was the absolute insanity that made up a day’s work at the site—actually hoping to find the remains of someone you were talking to a few days ago, or maybe it was the bottling of every emotion but rage in order to get the job done. At that moment, two un-dusty wrapped sandwiches and a thank you from a stranger in an Outback Steakhouse shirt made me feel like myself for a second. I felt normal. In the middle of the most abnormal circumstances I could imagine, I felt like having a sandwich.
The guys working rescue/recovery sat on bent steel, piles of rocks, mounds of dented filing cabinets, scarfing down Outback sandwiches with the enthusiasm of dudes about to lose their virginity. We laughed, talked baseball, called our wives if we had cell phone service. For a few beautiful minutes, we were somewhere else, eating steak and burgers and talking shit with the guys. The Outback volunteers came back again many times over the next few weeks. If anybody was our hero, it was the kids who maneuvered around the wreckage to hand-deliver sandwiches to a bunch of angry, dirty, and overtired grouches, again and again.
I’m a vegetarian chef now. After a couple of months working at Ground Zero, I was mindlessly eating a piece of chicken on the bone and something clicked in my mind. (I don’t remember which restaurant that came from, but thanks.) The flesh and bone reminded me too much of what we were finding at that point in the recovery: flesh and bone. How could I eat meat again? During the rest of my time on site, I ate mac and cheese, broccoli, salad, bread, pizza, veggies, and never mentioned it. A volunteer collecting trays inquired if I was a Seventh Day Adventist—she was the only one who noticed.
About a year ago, I was talking with some of the guys I worked with down at the site. I admitted I never told my wife details about what was happening at the site during our brief phone calls. After seeing the best and worst of people, I couldn’t. I just told her I was eating sandwiches from the Outback.
All the rescue/recovery guys seemed to go from fit to fat during the days of the Ground Zero Gourmet. Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca grill and other local restaurants sent meals to the site hours after the buildings went down. We chowed down on entrees from restaurants we could never afford to go to. Naomi Campbell (you wouldn’t believe how superhumanly beautiful she is in person) and Rudy Giuliani (you wouldn’t believe how shockingly normal looking he is in person) served me Thanksgiving dinner in a giant Salvation Army dining tent. Rupert Everett (or a guy who looked exactly like him) handed me a bottle of water after a grueling shift. The Rabbis who served as department chaplains brought a huge Jewish Deli spread twice a week. There were meals on boats and in church basements from The Salvation Army and The Red Cross. A group of New Orleans cops drove an 18-wheeler to the site and cooked us gumbo and jambalaya. Budweiser sent water by the truckload—in Budweiser water cans. (I wish I saved one.) The Port Authority gave their cops a hot buffet and pizza. Nino’s restaurant closed for business and the owner let charitable organizations use his space to feed us. Did I mention that all of this was free of charge?
When I brought up Outback Steakhouse sandwiches, the expressions in the room changed. Smiles overtook poker faces. The guys in this group have done a lot of remembering over the past 15 years. Much of it has been painful. But we remember the good stuff, too, and are grateful for those brave kids who trudged through hell to feed us sandwiches.
Eddie McNamara is an ex-cop, current cook and writer. He is the author of a Vegetarian cookbook called Toss Your Own Salad: The Meatless Cookbook from St. Martin’s Press. Like the fuck out of his Instagram