On a cold Saturday morning this November, almost everyone on campus was sleeping. But stories below the slumbering students, aprons were being tied, produce was being washed, and bread was rising. I dressed quietly as to not wake my roommate and put on a coat and gloves for the short walk to Harkness Hall. I was a few minutes early to my cook shift, so I grabbed some granola from the tasty-things table and glanced at the front page of the Oberlin Review. Then I headed into the kitchen, washed my hands and put on a hair net. “Can you get out some apples?” the head cook asked. “We’re making pie.”
The Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, OSCA for short, feeds over five hundred students a day. The organization is almost seventy years old and nearly every aspect of its operation, from ordering food to managing finances to preserving OSCA history, is managed by students. When I came to Oberlin, I had no idea OSCA existed. Quickly that changed.
It was a little over a month into my first semester when a friend invited me to join her for dinner in Pyle co-op, one of the eight campus co-ops run by OSCA. Not knowing what to expect, I agreed. I met my friend that evening in a large hall with forty-foot-long wooden tables and warm red walls. All along the table, students were sitting, chatting, and waiting for food. My friend grabbed me a plate and a cup and (this was the point of no return for me) a piece of homemade chocolate cake. The next semester, I joined Pyle.
The first two weeks of the semester are a little chaotic for any co-op. During this time, people are elected at each meal to fill roles such as bread maker, kitchen coordinator, accessibility coordinator, food buyer, dining and loose ends coordinator, head cook and more. It was amazing to watch this process unfold. A group of a hundred college students, mostly strangers, were coming together to build something weird and complicated and wonderful. Something that only works because students work hard to make it happen.
Anyone who isn’t elected spends four to five hours a week cooking and cleaning. Having everyone contribute to the labor allows OSCA to offer dining at a significantly discounted rate. At first, I was worried about the commitment, but quickly I found that it was worth the time investment. Accustomed to spending most of my days hunched over textbooks, I hadn’t realized how much I missed having a designated time in my day to work with my hands.
We made some pretty good food that first semester in Pyle: lemon tarts, eggs with pancakes, flatbread with hummus and baba ghanoush, and even a soufflé. These works of head cook creativity helped make up for the occasional pot of burned lentils. Even though I really enjoyed the food when I was eating in campus dining services, it never reminded me of home in the same way OSCA meals do. To this day, I firmly believe Harkness co-op makes the best pizza in all of Oberlin.
I spent the following semesters switching between eating in the college dining halls and eating in co-ops. The terms I was particularly busy or on the OSCA waitlist, I took full advantage of the college meal plan. The weekend omelet bar and made to order smoothies were my particular favorites. But the times I did rejoin OSCA, I never failed to be impressed. When I fractured my hand, day-to-day tasks like holding a plate while serving myself were impossible. Every meal, my fellow co-opers stepped in to help me. I felt loved and supported. Almost a year later, I was on an understaffed cleaning crew late one Friday night. The person in charge of the crew made an announcement in the dining room asking for assistance and five people, who I’m sure had better things to do with their evening, came down to the kitchen to clean with us. This type of community-oriented care is what being a part of OSCA is all about.
I spent the rest of that November morning slicing apples. The person next to me washed and peeled, and we quickly fell into a rhythm. After two hours, my fingers were pruned and sticky, but the smell of cinnamon was wafting through the kitchen and I didn’t mind much. We had some extra time, so I turned the spare pie dough into cinnamon twists while other people started cleaning. Slowly, students drifted into the dining room to line up for lunch, some of them still in their pajamas. When everything was ready, I washed my hands, took off my apron, and grabbed a plate. Then, the head cooks stepped out to announce the meal. “Hello, Hark!” they exclaimed. “Today, we have rolls and tofu and roasted broccoli. There’s also rice for gluten free people. For dessert we have apple pie! Enjoy!”
That afternoon was the coldest yet. The wind whipped and it even hailed for a short time. But, as I walked to the library, I found I still felt warm; It’s hard to be cold when you’re full of apple pie.