Friday, November 8, 2013

Livin' the Good Life at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage - Food Coops

Oh, dear. Everyday I start a blog post and yet never actually post it. Day after week. I feel a tremendous weight to get it all right, to speak the definitive truth, to not lead anyone astray.

I'm probably quite clearly taking on more responsiblility than anyone expects me to take on. So today I'm just going to write about what's been going on (and those other posts on food dogma, trying to make the right decisions, living true to oneself, more favorite books, and an ecovillage update will just have to wait...)

When Kurt and I first came to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in 1999 we participated in a food cooperative. What's that, you ask? Well, it is a very, very cool concept. $5/per person per day and the willingness to cook a few meals were enough to gain membership. The funds went to purchase the ingredients, propane and cooking supplies. By the time we arrived there were enough folks so that each of us only had to cook one day a week. A cook shift consisted of dinner and then lunch the next day - you were responsible for making sure that there was enough for both meals. When it wasn't your cook day, you simply showed up and Voila! a fabulous meal awaited!

NOTE: in the early years Dancing Rabbit had only one food cooperative;. Now, including the Mercantile co-op, there are at least six:
  • Bobolink, which eats in Skyhouse and is vegan and locally-food-focused; 
  • Ironweed, which has it's own kitchen complete with chickens and a fabulous peach tree right outside the front door and a huge garden supporting their eating habits; 
  • The Magic School Bus, primarily for the crew helping build Dennis and Sharon's house; 
  • the Critter Collective which cooks it's meals in the newly constructed strawbale building and which is currently raising goats for milk and meat, chickens and muscovies for eggs, meat and profit, and has a miniature donkey to guard the herd; 
  • and Thistledown, the co-op "with all the kids," which also has a huge garden, both surrounding the house and down in the Osage Community Garden. 
The kitchen in the Community Building is not currently being used, but I imagine it will host another food co-op again soon. Not everyone eats in a co-op - some families and individuals choose to eat on their own.

Here at Dancing Rabbit we primarily used (and continue to use) whole foods, the cook would begin around 2:00 p.m.; more importantly, the cook always got the choose the music. At 6:30, everyone would show up and eat a (usually) delicious meal together, comparing notes of their days, brainstorming solutions to problems, consoling those who needed it, and generally just enjoying each others' company.

For me, the cooking part was absolutely terrifying. We arrived at the end of June, which meant that the intern/work exchanger season was in full swing. Between interns and members there were about 35 people here. We all ate together in the Outdoor Kitchen, at a table constructed of sawhorses and 20' long boards. Rachel's (or Tony's?) parents had given us a huge tablecloth so it at least looked fairly civilized.

 Our stove looked something like this, only not as clean or shiny. Imagine a black sooty front and a little more grime all around and you've got a more realistic picture. Oh. And no white tile. I can't even imagine white tile out in the OK...

The kicker, though, was that we cooked on an old-fashioned wood cook-stove. It was like being a character in Little House on the Prairie or Green Acres. The flat stove top had four plates (in place of "burners") which could be removed to increase the heat under a pan. It also had a small oven next to the firebox, and a stainless steel tank that held about 5 gallons of water, which heated up the washing up water while one cooked the meal. Ingenious! We learned where the hotspots were, where to place pans we just wanted to keep warm, and how to bake bread without completely incinerating it. Oh, did I mention that all meals were vegan, and were made with whole foods? Beans that had to be soaked before cooking, wheat that had to be ground into flour, veggies chopped, etc... Before I arrived I could cook for about four people, and had a vague idea of what vegan was. But vegan, for 35, on a wood stove using whole foods? Ack!

Fortunately, new folks got to help a more experienced cook the first few times around. Not only was this educational and fun, it also helped ensure that the meals cooked by newbies were edible. I still remember Jenn Corbin teaching me the words to "Tis a Gift to Be Simple" as we cooked out in the OK. I will always be grateful for her patience in helping me learn the systems.

We ate with the co-op for 1 1/2 years, until our house was finished enough to move in. We dropped out of the co-op and went back to cooking on our own. We loved the independence but found that we were a bit lonely, plus were missing out on all of the "dirt." Fortunately every Tuesday there was (and still is) a potluck with the neighboring communities (first just Sandhill Farm, now Red Earth Farms, too) and a Friday night bring-your-own-plate-but-eat-together Community Dinner.

Fast forward nine years. When we first opened the Mercantile Kurt and I continued to use the kitchen in our house. But as time went on, it seemed that whatever tool or ingredient we needed was always in the other place - I'd be making cupcakes in the Mercantile and the pans were in the house, or I'd be making an angel food cake at home and the pan was in the Mercantile (gee, Alline, do much baking?). So when the fridge in our house "shot craps" (as Kurt says) we decided to decommission the home kitchen and do all of our cooking in the Mercantile.

 Althea and Ben discuss the finer points of pizza, while Kurt waits for a drink order (photo taken from the dining room looking into the open Mercantile kitchen. Katherine's behind Ben's hat crafting dreamy pizza pies)

The Mercantile kitchen is a a home cook's dream come true. The commercial range is a Ferrari compared to the little teeny stove in our house. The Hobart mixer could mix cement and not bat an eye. And of course, there is every little ingredient I could dream of, just waiting to be put to use. Plus, since the kitchen is open to the dining room, it feels very social, and is fun to cook and talk. (The only downside - people can see when you drop stuff on the floor, which means that the 10-second rule no longer flies...)

When we opened the Mercantile we had work exchangers join us for meals during the summer months, but it was just me and Kurt in the winter. It seemed impossible to separate cafe food from food coop food, and I couldn't figure out what to charge (DR food coops charge anywhere from $5 - $8 a day, per person, which pays for the kitchen space, food, cookware, propane if it is used, etc.). To be honest, I was also a little territorial about my kitchen.

 A little salad Jayson whipped up

But now it's winter again - the crowds are gone, as are most of the Work Exchangers, and long story short; we've returned to the world of food co-ops. The guys who are renting rooms this winter are not only great cooks but made us an offer we could not refuse, and so here we are. It is divine. We gather at lunch and dinner, and it feels like a community. Because others are sharing the responsibility, cooking now seems less like a chore. Since it's me and four men, testosterone often runs high; I do sometimes have to bring the conversation back to civilization, but all in all they're pretty well behaved. I'm thinking of renaming the co-op  "The Barbarian Gourmands."

I'll keep you updated on how things are going. Thanks for reading!


 The Barbarians on their way to lunch at Zimmerman's. They may lock the door when they see us coming next time...