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Co-op series: Big Spoon Dining Coop

This article was originally published on Feb. 16, 2015.

With butter bubbling in a pot, Hugo Alvarez’16 adds onions and garlic, letting it sizzle. Chopped zucchini, dotted with black pepper, waits on the counter, and his cooking partner Kyndall White’17 measures out rice from a bulging bag.

“That’s like my favorite sound,” he says. “If I could make my own cologne, it’d be onions and garlic.”

It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Thursday, and the two are tasked with cooking for the 20 members of Big Spoon Dining Co-Op, the College’s oldest and largest dining co-op.

Alvarez chops scallions, grilled bell peppers and sun-dried tomatoes while White makes salad with apples and carrots.

For Alvarez, cooking “is definitely cathartic. If I have a shitty day I’ll just make a crazy good dinner and feel a lot better.” White grew up cooking with her father, and enjoys learning in the co-op environment.

Cooks try to aim for three components to each meal, with at least a salad, and rarely meat.

Big Spoon was founded in 2010 by Clara Baker’13 and Kate Parsons’13. Though based off of the co-ops at Oberlin College, Big Spoon is “less industrialized and more based in personal contribution to decision making,” Erik Carlson’15, who has been a member for 4 semesters, says.

The Co-op shares the French House kitchen and dining room, sometimes sharing kitchen supplies.

Eventually, the entire mixture of vegetables and spices is added to the rice, which has been soaking up vegetable broth.

Every member is expected to contribute about 2-3 hours per week. White says it can be difficult to balance the hours, but weekly check-ins encourage responsibility. Four housekeepers are in charge of putting away clean plates and silverware, cleaning counters, organizing, and keeping inventory.

Bread is baked on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and there’s dessert on Mondays and Wednesdays. For Sam Kindler’17, breaking bread on Thursdays is one of the highlights of her week. “It’s such a feeling of accomplishment to take really basic ingredients – mostly just flour and water – and make something warm, delicious, and substantial,” she says. “That is a meditative process and I love it.”

One person manages finances. Spring semester dues fall around $150 per person, while it costs about $230 in the fall, because of the CSA (community supported agriculture). Big Spoon has had a long-term relationship with local farm Angelic Organics, though it may switch to another CSA because of rising costs.

Because of the added produce in the fall, the Co-op cans and preserves produce for later use, from the CSA or farmer’s market. Another position the co-op has had in the past is the forager, who keeps track of food suppliers to make sure purchases are in line with values.

First years are normally discouraged from joining campus Co-ops because the College requires them to stay on the most expensive Blue Tier plan. However, Nina Tran’18, the only first year, was able to change hers, though she would advocate for a sliding scale fee. Regardless, she’s glad she joined. “I get to sincerely befriend people that I would never in a million years interact with.”

Three people manage the schedule and membership, fielding applications, reaching out to the broader campus, acting as confidential mediators, and planning social events. There are a number of traditions, including a semi-formal in the fall and formal in the spring, a shared dinner with all of the co-ops (OEC, Vegan and Big Spoon) around Valentine’s Day, in addition to more casual get-togethers.

The dynamic of decision-making changes every semester, but generally meetings are held every Wednesday to discuss any pertinent issues and make changes. The co-op tries to use a consensus-based model, in which “If one person strongly disagrees with something we can’t go through with it,” describes Carlson, but it might not always be so formal.

As the time nears 6 p.m., Alvarez adds each zucchini slice one by one onto a grill, and White pours leftovers – beans, peppers and cheese – into a serving bowl. A line forms in the kitchen, and everyone sits around a massive table made from pushing three tables together. Kindler unveils her two loaves of apple bread. Per tradition, everyone claps for the cooks.

Across from the shelves of bowls, plates, cups and silverware, a dry erase board and poster sit on the wall. Each semester members decide on and sign Co-op expectations, reflecting the values. “Usually,” values are “based around mutual understanding, community, local organic ethical food, and compassion for each other,” as Carlson says.

Big Spoon’s intentionality about food is reflected in its purchasing. “As a group of 20 people, we have a more significant opportunity to make change than I would have as an individual,” says Osha Waterdu’15, who has been involved for four semesters.

Two people shop every week, normally on Sunday. The Co-op recently decided to buy dry goods from Kaufman’s, and produce from Basics Cooperative Natural Foods in Janesville.

During the meal, Ezzie Turner’15 speaks up, saying she doesn’t want the Co-op to buy Barilla pasta because the owner is homophobic. There is general agreement among the group.

The co-op avoids purchasing bananas and quinoa because of these products in particular “have significant impacts on farmers and workers in warmer climates,” according to Waterdu. “Americans buying quinoa drove up the price of what is considered a staple grain in the Andes, where it originates. This means that farmers growing quinoa couldn’t afford to eat their own crops.” As for the bananas, they are “largely monocropped and those who work in that industry typically are underpaid,” she says.

When everyone’s finished, plates are stacked and forks boil in vinegar on the stove. The dishwashers normally finish in about half an hour. Any leftovers are stored for the next meal.

Each semester brings a slightly different group, and revaluation of the way things are done. Alvarez has thought about including lunch in the Co-op system. “Coops can be an awesome vehicle to teach people about cooking and food in a social way.”

After this semester, more than half of its members will graduate, with more going abroad. Many members would like to see more Co-ops form at the College, so that more people can get involved.

In the meantime, Kindler emphasizes that Big Spoon is always open to hosting guests. “We eat at 6 every night – let me or anyone in the coop know if you’d like to come and check it out! We’d love to have you.”


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