It's amazing how quickly things can change over the span of only a few months. I intended to get this blog thing up and running this summer, but life kept me from exploring and writing as much as I wanted to. Throughout the summer, I was preparing for a new director at the archive where I used to work. In August, I moved in to a new apartment with great people, but when I wasn't working we were playing. Then, after months of hedging my bets at my former job, I decided to move from Knoxville, TN to Ames, IA to be with my boyfriend. After moving in November, I'm finally more or less settled in. I have a part-time job at the local food cooperative, and I'm hoping to spend my free time leisurely. Come next fall, I fear that graduate school will keep me from having much leisure time!
Thankfully, I've had time to catch up on some interesting journal articles and newspaper clippings that have been accumulating over the past months. I've been sitting on Laurie Woolever's New York Times article "Saving Time and Stress with Cooking Co-ops" since June, and I'm excited to talk about it. "A cooking co-op, or dinner swap, is simply an agreement by two or more individuals or households to provide prepared meals for each other, according to a schedule. The goal is to reduce the time spent in the kitchen while increasing the quality and variety of the food eaten." Woolever explains that you can share meals to be frozen, or freshly cooked, and that the cooperative can work in my different iterations-- small households/large households, people with or without children, etc. The important thing is to set ground rules for how you'll share, and to group with like food-minded people.
The efficiency of making one big meal and dividing it up, thus dirtying the kitchen only once or twice a week is so appealing to me. For those of us without a dishwasher, washing pot after dish after cup becomes onerous. Plus, I hate making a recipe that could feed 8 and, with every good intention of finishing it over the week, seeing it go to waste. I suppose you could freeze your own meals, but that takes away the true benefit of activities like the dinner cooperative-- fostering community. For people in a big city who may not know their neighbors well, or for someone trying to find a social niche in a new town, a dinner cooperative seems like a relatively pain-free way to get to know people. Whether your group sets up a small party with drinks and snacks each month to trade dinners, or you walk frozen dinners to the next-door neighbor, you're cultivating a sense of community. Even more than the idea of pinching pennies and trying new food, the community-building quality of activities like dinner cooperatives seems to be missing in many American cities, at least on a micro-level scale. You talk to people face to face, and their food can speak to you as well.
I realize that the idea of building social capital in only face-to-face interaction is very Robert Putnam of me, and that a community of dinner sharing may still perpetuate undesirable or irresponsible trends in food production and consumption. However, a dinner cooperative could help build the same kind of community I have experienced in shopping at the local farmers' market. Maybe your dinner cooperative could go to the market together, or you could have themed meals which must include a seasonal, local ingredient.
I'm not sure I'm ready to start my own dinner cooperative, but after some time settling in at my new job, I'll likely start a lunch cooperative with my co-workers. Until next time, be adventurous and eat well.