I’m part of a co-op called Tank this year! After a semester abroad, the cooking, community, and Tank porch were a few parts of Oberlin I missed the most. Though I plan to write a few more blogs on co-ops this semester, the entire experience is difficult to describe in one fell swoop. Instead, a description of a cook shift was a good place to start.
Because I live in an apartment this year I am an eating-only member of Tank. Regardless of your choice to eat or live in the space, every co-oper devotes five hours of work in the kitchen. Those hours are made up of a mixture of cook shifts and crew shifts. The crew shifts involve a team of people cleaning up the kitchen and food service room, and cook shifts involve a team of students cooking either lunch or dinner. On Thursdays, for instance, I have a double shift from 4:20-6:20. As soon as I leave class at 4:20 I head over to Tank, put on an apron and a hairnet, wash my hands at the handwashing station and get ready to start cooking.
Though the idea of two straight hours of cooking can feel daunting in theory, as soon as I arrive at the kitchen any imagined stress disappears. The team of cooks you work with are the same every week, so after the first couple weeks of asking where the spatulas are all hidden and if anyone has a pen to re-write a recipe the chef groups fall into a comfortable groove. Favorite kitchen tasks are mentally noted, group camaraderie formed and someone usually remembers to bring a speaker so the silent sounds of onions being chopped and lentils being stirred don’t take over the space.
When I arrived at my cook shift last week I was already five minutes late and out of breath from rushing to get to Tank on time. Sionainn, our head cook who was specially trained to lead the kitchen and cooking group, encouraged me to catch my breath and introduced me to the meal that was already underway. That Thursday was Beaux’s birthday! (another fellow co-opper) so the aim of the meal was a lovely birthday feast. Because everyone was already focused on their cooking tasks Sionainn asked if I wanted to take on cookie making. Of course I said yes and looked over the recipe Sionainn had written out by hand in their school notebook. A crucial but initially surprising part of co-op cooking is the drastic shift in portion sizes in relation to regular kitchen cooking. In a group of five cooks at a time over the course of two hours, enough food to feed over 80 people needs to be made. Moreover, the meal needs to accommodate all those people’s dietary restrictions and ensure that all major food groups are represented. Lastly, food safety protocols are followed with extreme precision, resulting in food such as meat not often being allowed in the kitchen because rules surrounding the handling of raw meat at such a large scale grow too complicated.
With the cookie recipe in tow I took a massive bowl to the dry foods room where the majority of our bulk ingredients are stored. With a few measuring cups I began putting 12 cups of flour and 6 cups of cocoa powder in the bowl. No eggs had been delivered yet, so the cookies would have to be an eggless recipe--Sionainn had opted for a chocolate shortbread. I creamed large chunks of butter into an industrial style mixer after searching the kitchen for a paddle attachment and a “cage” that fits on the mixer’s front and ensures the safety of the machine.
Meanwhile corn was being shucked and broken in half, then boiled to become cooked. Soaked lentils were being mixed into an array of spices and caramelized onions. As the smells of a hearty dinner filled the kitchen Sionainn began listing off the other dishes currently in the oven or needing preparation. Flatbread needed to be watched so that it wouldn't burn in the oven. Someone volunteered to make the salad dressing and a box full of fresh kale was carried out of the walk-in freezer that keeps the corner of the kitchen perpetually cold. As everyone finished up dishes I went out to the food service room to make the save plates with another cook on my shift.
Save plates are a really important part of mealtimes at co-ops because they ensure that every meal is accessible to everyone in Tank. Lunch is served at 12:20 and dinner at 6:20, but if a meeting or commitment overlaps these times, anyone can sign up for a temporary or permanent meal on the work chart. For instance, on Tuesdays I work until 12:45 and have to walk from work to Tank. By the time I arrive, most of the food has already been eaten. At that point I go to the shelves of save plates to look for the one labeled with my name. The students on the cook shifts are also the ones preparing save plates each meal. In a team of two or three the work goes by quickly. After double-checking all the lists of names online, we write out each name, the date and the person’s marked dietary restrictions. Then, we put all the food on each plate and wrap them up so that if they need to be stored they can be put straight into the fridge at the front of the kitchen.
As the save plates were finished up on our shifts, Sionainn took the shortbread cookies out of the oven where they had been baking. To add a little bit of extra birthday energy I had shaped the cookies into hearts before placing them on the baking sheet. Perfectly baked and fresh out of the oven, we took the three sheets of cookies to the tasty things table in the food service room. There, baked goods and granola stay in large trays or tins until eaten. Usually the tasty things don’t last more than a day on the table, and more often than not they all disappear before the end of the meal.
The moments before the meal is served and everyone begins streaming in are some of my favorites. The energy is palpable as we shed our hair nets and aprons and prepare quick plates of food before pre-line and line begins. The head chef goes out to the front room to announce the content of the meal and calls the pre-line. Pre-line is an accessibility measure set in place by OSCA, the co-op consortium at Oberlin, that allows anyone with any accessibility need to get in line to grab food a little bit before the major hubbub of everyone in the food service room. In line everyone chatters and forms a single file. The co-op plates are used until they run out and ceramic bowls that are personally kept in Tank come off the shelves. The same applies to Tank cups and personal mugs and glassware with silly sayings scrawled across the front.
As everyone lines up, warmth filles the space and all the hard work put into cooking is enjoyed by the people you get to eat alongside, cook with, and work with daily. Every food in line is labeled with a name and ingredient list and a slew of condiments and additional sauces cover the table to the left that is usually gathered around as meals are piled onto plates. Before the air turns too cold in the fall everyone sits out on the wraparound porch to eat.
Though cooking feels like clockwork in a co-op, the food system is extremely complex. By working with so many people willing to take on responsibilities such as food buying and head cooking, the shifts of cooking and cleaning are able to run smoothly and consistently. I’m glad to be back at Tank and look forward to writing more about Oberlin co-ops this year.
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