Stir-fry and sustainability: Dinner at Ann Arbor's co-ops

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Giancarlo Buonomo, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 29, 2014

Cooking is one of those life skills that, love it or hate it, you better learn how to do, because you’re going to end up doing it a lot. And for every person like Gordon Ramsay, for whom “cooking is like having the most massive hard-on plus Viagra sprinkled on top of it and it’s still there 12 hours later,” there is another for whom a nightly kitchen session makes them wonder what evil they did in a past life to deserve such a punishment.

College is typically the time when one finally undergoes a (sometimes literal) trial by fire and learns to scrape together a satisfying meal for him or herself and friends. In the end, it usually works out. But we’re talking about cooking for yourself and maybe three or four other friends.

How about cooking for fifteen other people? Or thirty?

While this may sound like a nightmare for some students at the University, for those who live in a co-op, it’s all in a night’s work. Having started as a Great Depression-era solution for cutting down room and board costs, the University's co-op system now contains eighteen houses. Co-ops might have a reputation for crunchiness and an accepting attitude toward a wide variety of controlled substances, but in reality they’re serious operations; in almost every house, big or small, members cook dinner for each other five nights a week. This raises some interesting questions. First: how exactly do co-op members manage to cook for so many people? And second: can a co-op have its own “food culture?”

To find answers, I went to three different co-ops and observed house members cook dinner for their entire house, talked with them and even sampled the night’s offering. It was, to say the least, a deliciously interesting time.

Debs

Situated at the corner of East University and Oakland, the Eugene V. Debs Cooperative has a reputation as a small, intimate house dedicated to sustainability. On their website, Debs describes itself as “a vegetarian, vegan friendly house that makes an effort to buy organic and local food and household goods from environmentally and socially conscious producers.”

“We buy all of our ingredients locally and organic,” says Kurt Mueller, Debs co-op president and University Alum. “We end up spending more money to do that, but we just have to do it.”

Having had little experience with vegetarian food or environmentally friendly cleaning products, I’m intrigued to say the least as I ascend the snowy stairs and enter the cozy red house.

The inside of Debs looks exactly as I had pictured a co-op might look. The walls are lined with years of accumulated knick knacks: concert posters, collages, street signs and enough Asian art to form a small shop. All around the living room, adjacent to the kitchen, members of the house lounge on the well worn couches and chat. The air smells of incense and tea. I feel like I’ve been transported back to Haight-Ashbury in 1968. In fact, I’m so overwhelmed by the neo-psychedelic environment that as I walk into the kitchen, I assume one of the cabinets is labeled “LSD AND POT,” only to realize it actually says “LIDS AND POTS.”

Debs, like most co-ops, has a system where each member must contribute a certain number of work-hours a week, and many house members choose to cook one night a week as part of that work. And although some house members are seasoned veterans behind Deb’s little electric stove, LSA senior Erin Barber is a newcomer to both Debs and co-op cooking.

“This is my first time,” Barber says.

Nevertheless, when I arrive at the kitchen, Barber is already hard at work grating a pile of peeled carrots. Barber is serving breakfast for dinner tonight — the grated carrots are for vegan carrot-cake pancakes, which will be accompanied by a tofu scramble. Barber is working solo right now; Debs usually has two cooks per meal, but Barber’s partner had to be somewhere else, so she peeled the carrots beforehand. Those peels were of course deposited in the large compost bucket right next to the stove, complete with a sign detailing exactly what can and cannot be deposited there (who knew that you shouldn’t compost limes?)

Debs is a medium-sized co-op (they have 23 members), but their kitchen is noticeably smaller, with a standard household sink and a four-burner electric stove.

“We are one of the very few co-ops that doesn’t have an industrial kitchen,” Mueller says.

Barber finishes grating the carrots and is joined by LSA sophomore Michael Stinavage, who graciously agrees to fill in for her absent partner. Together, they get going on those pancakes. First, they mix ground flax seeds, almond milk, maple syrup and a variety of spices in a large bowl, which now looks like the BFG has just finished eating a bowl of cereal out of it. Then, they add flour and that mound of shredded carrots. All the while, Debsters drift in and out of the kitchen, making tea and small talk.

With the small kitchen comes a flexible and Macgyver-esque approach toward cooking. The recipe makes six pancakes, but tonight, forty-two are needed, which makes for some awkward guesstimation when multiplying, say, three-fourths of a tablespoon of vinegar times seven. Then, there’s a momentary panic when Stinavage discovers that there’s no gluten-free flour left, a necessity to make pancakes for allergenic Debsters. Thinking quickly, he grinds up some oats to make a “flour,” which he adds to some of the reserved almond-milk mixture. He hands me some of the resulting batter, which although cat food-like in appearance, has an appealing oatmeal cookie-dough-like taste.

While the extensive improvisation might look like sloppiness to some, Debsters insist that a relaxed atmosphere, even in the kitchen, is a co-op essential.

“The good times in the co-ops are when people just sporadically make stuff,” says recent alum Jay Lonski, who lived in Debs for two years.

“Everything is pretty happy go-lucky as far as dinner goes,” Stinavage adds.

And while there might be some last minute spice substitutions, Debsters are clearly committed to providing nutritious and satisfying meals without meat.

“There’s a stigma against being vegan or vegetarian that there’s not enough to eat or that there’s not enough diversity,” Stinavage says.

The batter is ready, so Barber and Stinavage heat up a portable griddle, grease it with vegan butter, and start pouring out the batter. Because the griddle can only accommodate three or four at a time, the cooked pancakes are transferred to a platter in the oven. Stinavage snags one of the cooked flapjacks and hands me a piece, which I pop into my mouth. It tastes just like carrot cake.

Nakamura

The John Nakamura Cooperative House is, in many ways, the exact opposite of Debs — at least to an outsider like me. I’d only been to Nakamura once before, to a Halloween party my freshman year. I enter again, this time without a costume, under the watchful eye of a pterodactyl perched on the roof. The house is bigger than Debs (29 members), and dimly lit inside. Every surface appears to be a canvas for the artistically inclined, most noticeably the basement dining room, where an entire wall is taken up by a huge mural depicting Meso-American gods and tropical lushness. Hunter Thompson would have felt at home here.

Nakamura, while undeniably “alternative,” doesn’t have the organic or vegetarian focus of Debs. In fact, they proclaim on their website that they “are more carnivorous than most houses.” Thus, dinner at Nakamura could resemble dinner at any campus apartment, but on a larger scale. Tonight: chicken and vegetable stir fry, plus tofu for the few vegetarians.

The Nakamura kitchen and dining room are in the basement, set off from the living areas. As I walk into the kitchen, past the huge dining room table (actually 5 tables put end to end), I’m greeted by the two cooks for the night: fourth year Rackham student Aaron Sciore and LSA sophomore Tyler Whittico. Sciore and Whittico have cooked for the house many times before, so this dish should be easy.

“I’ve made it for myself a bunch of times,” Sciore says.

Sciore puts on some music that can only be described as psychedelic techno, and together they get to work. Whittico was thawing two big bags of frozen chicken breasts in the sink, and now is cleaving them into dozens of sea scallop-looking cubes. He moves like a professional, which he is; he works as a chef in the morning at a restaurant on Main Street. Meanwhile, Sciore is busy collecting a kaleidoscope of vegetables (broccoli, peppers, onion and peas), chopping scallions, and mixing up his “special sauce,” a heady mixture of sriracha, brown sugar and soy sauce.

Nakamura’s kitchen and cupboards look like an exaggerated version of any college house — bagels, coffee, bananas and peanut butter are everywhere. Thus, for food steward Sarah Caruso, shopping is a biweekly quest she must embark on, armed with $850.

“I am not used to spending that much money,” she laughs.

Like most co-ops, Nakamura has a system where food in the house is divided between GUFF (free for anyone to use), and non-GUFF ( people’s personal purchases or food requested by cooks for a specific meal). GUFF is a ubiquitous term in co-ops, yet no one is quite sure where it came from. General Unspecified Free Food, perhaps?

But Nakamura is different from a co-op like Debs in two ways. First, is the relative “normalness” of the food.

“We have a meat-eating culture that’s probably the biggest in the co-ops,” says LSA sophomore Yasmine Zein-Phillipson.

Second, the rigor of the dinner schedule. Sunday through Thursday, dinner is always supposed to be ready at 7:00 p.m. Tonight, Sciore and Whittico are on track. Almost two gallons of rice, cooked the night before, are now frying in a huge wok of peanut oil. To this, Sciore adds beaten eggs, and then that cornucopia of vegetables. The chicken and tofu cubes sizzle in different pans, having been glazed with the sauce. By now, dinner is almost complete, and the wok resembles one of those steam trays at Panda Express. Sciore and Whittico quickly divide the wok’s contents in half, add chicken to one and tofu to another and ring the dinner bell.

“We got done early,” Sciore says.

Within the minute, over a dozen members amble into the dining room, pile their plates high, and sit down. I do the same, but before anyone starts eating, there’s a big round of applause for the cooks.

Lester

I must admit that I was half-dreading my visit to the Muriel Lester Cooperative at the corner of Oakland and Arbor. Lester is officially a vegetarian house, but unlike Debs, Lester allows no meat in the house and the communal meals are usually vegan. As a carnivore since birth, I’ve been inclined to agree with Anthony Bourdain that “vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans ... are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.” But I also heard they had Zingerman's bread — how bad could it be?

Lester is certainly the opposite of a hostile environment. The house is small but immaculately clean, with a palpable sense of, I don’t know, gemütlichkeit. I arrive ten minutes late, and house secretary Helen DeMarsh is well into her dinner preparation.

“This is a highly experimental dish,” she says.

This experiment is a ratatouille of sorts. She coated the bottom of a baking pan with tomato paste, green lentils and onions, and now is layering on slices of fennel, sweet potato, zucchini and beet, forming an almost polka-dotted pattern on top, which she then dusts with spices. Rounding out the meal will be brown rice and peanut butter cookies. Even with so many ingredients for one meal, DeMarsh manages to keep it both vegan and gluten-free and avoids having to make alternatives.

“It’s way easier to make just one thing,” DeMarsh says.

Unlike Nakamura, where the cooks coordinate their meals with the food steward, Lester’s cooks typically make do with the (extensive) pantry.

“We just buy food and the cooks use what food we have to make dinner,” says Lester co-op president and LSA senior Sara Boer.

And what goes in the pantry is the responsibility of food steward Katy Hollobaugh. Every week, she takes a house poll of what vegetables are wanted, and then has a local produce purveyor deliver them to the house. Other items, like beans or sugar, are ordered in bulk through the Student Buyers Association. But there’s one item that Lester usually doesn’t order at all; because most chocolate is produced using unethical labor practices, Lester won’t use house funds to purchase it.

“If somebody buys chocolate for the house with their own money, they have to label it ‘slave chocolate,' ” Hollobaugh says.

On the flip side, Lester has an absolute dream of a deal worked out with Zingerman's Deli; every Friday, a house member drives to Zingerman's to pick up free bread leftover from the day before. The waiting list for this deal is years in the making, and one missed pick-up would move Lester back to the bottom, so god help whoever misses their shift.

“You’re probably going to be banished from the house,” Hollobaugh says with a laugh.

Art and Design senior Anya Klapischak is kind enough to show me Lester’s food stocks. First, she pulls open that mythical drawer which, sure enough, is filled with a half dozen types of tantalizing bread. I consider grabbing the largest loaf and making a break for it. She then leads me to the recently renovated basement, where Lesters sanctum sanctorum of dry goods is located. Stored in large plastic buckets, I find at least a dozen varieties of beans, rice, flour and a mustard-colored powder called “nooch,” which is shorthand for nutritional yeast.

“It all looks sort of primitive,” Klapischak says.

All this looking at food is making us hungry, so we go upstairs, where DeMarsh has pulled the “gangster ratatouille” out of the oven. Some house members couldn’t make dinner tonight, so she quickly composes plates for them, which she wraps and places in the fridge. Then, she rings the bell, and everyone cuts a hunk out the pan and sits down at the dining room table, less than half the size of Nakamura’s.

While I tuck into the zesty casserole and nibble my cookie, two thoughts come to me. First, my fears of vegan food were (mostly) unfounded; while I wouldn’t want to eat like this at every meal, I certainly would like to do it more often. Second, there’s something more than just bulk cooking here. I don’t know if it’s the chocolate or the bread or the nooch or the lack of animal products, but here at Lester, I finally understand that a co-op is more than just a bunch of people living together in a big house; each one has its own culture, its own vibe, its own indescribable spirit that, as I discovered in the past week, is expressed through its food.