Today I experienced a meal that embodied the feeling of being in a co-op. The co-op system has finally returned to Oberlin! At the height of COVID, the co-ops were not able to run regularly and were all shut down. Now, reopened with COVID policies in place, I realize that Oberlin never felt normal without co-op living and dining. This semester I am living in lovely Tank. About 40 other people live here. We all do chores, cook, and eat together. The Co-op system, called OSCA, is run by students, so while it feels a bit like living in a dorm because of roommates and communal bathrooms, the actual living space is really a huge old mansion with stained glass windows and big wooden banisters.
Today, lunch was cancelled. That means that not enough people were able to sign up to cook lunch. Cancelled meals are a rarity, but we are still in the beginning stages of finding our footing and creating finalized charts that lay out when each co-op member can clean or cook. When meals are cancelled, most people head to other co-ops around Oberlin to grab a meal and see friends (or make new ones!). Today, I was one of the few stragglers who didn’t check their emails quickly enough to realize that Tank lunch was cancelled. I rushed down to the kitchen because I was scheduled on the lunch cook shift only to find a couple pots steaming on the stove. Two people from Tank were cooking rice and lentils and seemed to be making lunch for themselves. With no other plans for lunch, I decided to do the same. The three of us struck up a conversation in the kitchen. While discussing recipes from home, our majors, and personal affinities for chocolate milk, I accidentally chopped up far too much onion. From the industrial walk-in freezer I grabbed tomatoes, carrots, and green bell peppers to add to my dish. Then, with a bit of help I lugged a can of tomato sauce, a four gallon tub of olive oil and a massive sack of salt out of the dry foods room. Soon, the kitchen was filled with smells of curry, oregano, and ginger as we all added spices and flavor to our dishes. The smells must have made their way through the house because a small collection of people gathered in the kitchen. At this point, we had all cooked extra food, half expecting a few hungry peers to come searching for lunch. We placed the pots of rice, potatoes, lentils and veggies out. The small group that had gathered all grabbed plates. Then, in an unspoken yet completely natural way, we all sat down to eat together. Though I had only just met all these people about a week and a half ago, we shared a meal like old friends. We talked about gratitude for the food, devised plans for free things we could find for the co-op on Craigslist, and told silly stories from childhood. It all felt extremely co-op.
If you're wondering what a co-op is really like, I consider today to be a fair summary. Though cooking and cleaning can sometimes feel difficult with a busy college schedule, those tasks are always done together, with the people you live and eat with every day by your side. When one co-op member is feeling unwell, they reach out to the rest of Tank, and someone is always willing to step in to help. After cleaning, cooking, and delegating chores there is always a moment to share cider on the porch, or bake cookies in the kitchen. In the end, the sense of community and togetherness that seems to tie Tank together is always what I think of first when asked what co-op living is like.
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