Oberlin Blogs

Pizza Night at Keep

January 29, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

Let me say first off that I love my co-op. I have eaten in Third World Co-op since my sophomore year and could not imagine being anywhere else (in fact, I've been meaning to write my Oberlin Story about it for months, but don't tell that to Lillie...). Let me also say that contrary to popular belief, Third World Co-op has no connection with Third World House. The former is an eating community located in the first floor of Baldwin while the latter is a dormitory (newly refurbished, might I add) on south campus. The only relation between the two is in name, a shared history at the time of their founding, and the handful of people who happen to eat in one and live in the other. That's not to say, though, that other co-ops don't have their particular quirks and charms too. There are nine eating co-ops in Oberlin, and each offers a wholly different experience. A couple are small, Third World and Kosher Halal included, where membership in any given semester usually peaks at around 35. I've even heard horror stories of a time when Third World boasted only 5 members, but I've never experienced anything like that. Anything below 20 and the co-op starts to get a little coarse around the edges in my opinion.

Then there are the larger co-ops. The "Big Four" (to use Yalta Conference-era nomenclature) consist of Pyle Inn, Old Barrows, Harkness, and Tank. And right after that comes Keep, incidentally also one of four dining co-ops open this Winter Term. Every year, all co-ops decide whether or not to close for Winter Term based on members' interest and practicality. Smaller co-ops like Third World usually shut down early, whereas bigger co-ops with a lot of members staying the month of January may keep their doors open and their fridges on. In a stunning move, Third World decided to stay open this year, the first time in three years that I've been privy to such a feat. Fairchild, Kosher, and Pyle also stayed open, though Pyle took on the role of a "special interest" Queer-only space for the month. All things considered, my decision for eating during Winter Term became quite easy: cooking and cleaning up for myself I deemed too time consuming, and eating at Campus Dining for astronomical meal prices was simply absurd. So a Winter Term co-op, nothing if not good food and good community on a budget (not to mention a flexible timetable), was just what the doctor ordered. And with Third World open, it was looking like a continuation of my usual semester eating glee.

However, like most good things, my neat fantasy eating world wasn't bound to last. Third World closed at the last minute due to an inadequate number of members. Apparently, you need at least five people for a Winter Term co-op and with Third World's usual membership of around 30 and few staying the month of January, I should have known what was coming well in advance. That left me with my second co-op option, Keep. I had eaten in Keep a few times in my years at Oberlin and have been pleased with the food. But Keep was my second choice largely because all the other co-ops had certain impediments attached: Fairchild is vegan (and I, simply, am not), Kosher requires an application, and the aforementioned Pyle was Queer-only for the month. But I was determined to make the most out of Keep.

As a co-op that routinely feeds around 80, Keep was a huge jump from my family-sized dining unit of 35. Over Winter Term, that number dropped to around 60, with about 45-50 showing up to eat at any given meal. Like I did when I first joined Third World, and despite three years of co-op cooking experience, I signed up for all crews (cleaning slots) for the first week, just to get my feet on the ground and get familiar with all of the various new equipment, people, food, and locations, of which there was no shortage. All of the non-leftover food, for example, is stored in a huge walk-in refrigerator located in the back of the co-op, in a nook within the dry foods room (think grains, beans, cereal, yams, and canned tomatoes). The idea of having so much food to necessitate a walk-in fridge was astounding enough. The refrigerator holds everything from meat and cheese to produce, a stark contrast to Third World where dairy and tofu are kept far away from zucchini and apples. The lay-out of the kitchen is entirely different too. Cooking and preparing food is done in a separate area from where dishes and pots are washed, and the kitchen is equipped with larger stoves, giant woks for stir-frys, and burgeoning shelves teeming with cookbooks. Most stark of all though is the dining area. Where Third World has a huge dining room with tables that we sit around to eat and share food, Keep's dining area spills into the front of the house that also doubles as its lounge, resulting in dishes cradled in hands, and people sitting on every manner of chair and floor.

At first, the differences really got to me, as I'm already pretty bad at handling too much change in the first place. But soon enough, I got used to them, and have even come to appreciate how Keep, and larger co-ops in general, tend to operate. I like the risk members take in cooking more opulent and creative dishes with greater flexibility in food buying, making food for scores more people, and the idea (at least in theory) that there will be more people helping to clean up at the end of the day. It was an especially useful lesson when I had my first foray into cooking at Keep, incidentally on Friday Pizza Night. In fact, I helped cook the first two Keep Pizza Nights during Winter Term, each incredibly different experiences in and of themselves.

Friday Pizza Night has a history that, unfortunately, I have very little expertise to comment on. I have only eaten at a handful of Pizza Nights, most, infamously in Harkness where it's considered less a simple weekly meal than it is a campus-wide ritual. As such, campus dining halls seat fewer, as students cram themselves into co-op basements, muscling for position as tray-sized pizzas come parading out of kitchens, and end up wrangled in dishes and hands. I myself, however, could care less about the jockeying for position. Some co-ops have a history of "lineless-ness" where swarms gather to feed wherever a tray lands, but in Third World, a line is almost always followed: trays are lined up along a table and people take what they want before moving down to the next dish. Making sure everyone is fed is something we tend to take seriously. As you might imagine, though, Third World does not do Friday Pizza Night. More things to know.

My first time cooking at Keep and my first venture into the world of cooking pizza went quite smoothly, despite a few minor set-backs. When I arrived, I was informed that the cheese grater (slash) all-purpose mixer was temporarily broken, so I would have to lug twenty pounds of cheese over to Pyle Inn (located in nearby Asia House) to do some grating. After figuring out the contraption, the operation was a success, and I heaved a ton of minced mozzarella back to Keep, just in time to throw it on the pizzas and put them in the oven. While I was gone, cooks had been busy creating the sauce and cooking up little pans of vegetables (eggplant, onion, broccoli, etc.) that would be used as toppings on different pizzas. Dough had been made the night before by the head cook and had been stretched along olive-oil stained trays, which would later result in large rectangular pies. After that, the usual steps were taken: sauce goes on dough, cheese goes on sauce (with the exception of the vegan pizza), and toppings go on cheese. Ten minutes in the oven and we had seven huge trays of pizza to slice up into little squares and serve to the hungry, swelling crowd in the dining room.

I must say that the second time I made pizza was a lot more climactic, mostly because I was more intimately involved with the process. Not to mention that with the exception of the cheese, almost every part of the pizza-making was done differently. I take it back, even the cheese was different--I put it through the grater at Keep this time--the old Hobart was back in business. I walked into the kitchen on my second effort and was greeted by John Siddall, current OSCA President, who was at the helm of the night's operation. Instead of making a huge vat of dough that would be stretched into trays, John had made dozens of circular dough clumps the night before, neatly lined up on dish towels and stored in stackable food containers. Each cook took one out and proceeded to make an actual circular pizza pie, complete with flour kneading and air tossing, if one was so adventurous. I learned that there is a certain art to pie-making, kneading from the center out, making sure that the middle isn't too thin, and being careful to leave a slightly raised border along the outside so there's some semblance of crust after it bakes.

Having never attempted anything like this before, I was conservative at first, making a few pies and then moving over to toppings where my assistance was needed. Like the week before, there were plenty to choose from--garlic, grilled onions, peppers--and some you might not expect--sundried tomatoes, feta cheese, and caramelized pears (for the dessert pizzas). There were two different kinds of tomato sauce and there was something about the pizza dough that made it incredibly tasty. The pizzas, instead of being dished out on trays, were actually sauced and topped on the backs of trays, then slid out with a pizza peel onto red clay bricks positioned in the oven. When the pizzas were finished cooking, they were taken out and placed on a large drying rack to cool down before being laid back into trays and sliced up into more recognizable eighths. By night's end, there were almost as many pizzas as there were people. We worked straight through the usual dining time of 6:20, continuing to make pizzas as demand outside dictated, and that demand didn't quit until close to 7:30. By then, a few of the dessert pizzas had come out, but there was hardly anyone left in the dining room. John sized up the last few pizza pies already made in the kitchen, poked a hole in the centers, and called it a day.

I left Keep that night with a bloated stomach and more than enough cheese to give my former lactose-intolerant self a week of grievous sickness. But walking back to my house, I crossed through Tappan Square, and the snow that had been falling all day left tresses of white lace along the ground. The plows had been out, and it was only as I reached the center of the square that I realized, amidst stockpiles of snow, that there were eight neat walking paths that divided Tappan, two lengthwise and two running diagonally. It was as if someone had taken a giant pizza cutter, and with great precision, made a big square pizza out of the white stuff. It wouldn't have been the first strange thing to be done with a pizza at Oberlin either.

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