Not quite two years ago, as our local meat CSA was in the works, I gathered with a few people to discuss “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” the Ethicurean, CSAs, and local food in general. One person turned to me and asked how they could make time for the shopping and cooking required to get away from the fast-food, industrial-agricultural diet.
These were professional people, both parents working and raising kids. I am the work-at-home half of a double-income-no-kids household. I'd like to say that words of wisdom poured from my mouth, but I was flummoxed. At best, I could offer encouraging words about making gradual lifestyle changes.
The authors of “Dinner At Your Door: Tips and Recipes for Starting a Neighborhood Cooking Co-op” suggest a solution that applies not just to people interested in sustainable, local cooking, but also to mainstream eaters and inexperienced cooks — basically, anyone with busy lives who wants to eat more delicious, homemade meals. Their recommendation is to find like-minded households and start a dinner co-op, embracing core ideas of community.
The concept is that if four families split the workload of four nights of cooking, so that only one family cooks each night, then each family will benefit. The family whose turn it is to cook may expend extra effort on their co-op cooking night than they would when cooking for themselves, but each family will gain three days of luxury time and the benefit of homemade meals delivered to their doorstep.
The idea is appealing, but anyone who has participated in any kind of co-operative effort or group living situation knows that co-ops require a lot of effort, planning, flexibility, and the willingness to call it quits if things aren’t working out. The authors, who have organized several dinner co-ops, take a clear-eyed approach and repeatedly emphasize that people shouldn't expect a dinner co-op to be easy: A lot of effort must go into the formation and operation of a dinner co-op for the venture to succeed, and determination of compatibility and commitment early on will head off later problems.
How to start a dinner co-op
The first third of the book serves as a step-by-step guide with occasional testimonials from working co-operatives. A reader with little time to spare will appreciate their brevity. But don’t mistake brevity for simplicity. The authors make clear that a degree of flexibility, emphasis on personal compatibility, and up-front efforts at organization are critical.
Although the authors don't say it, the planning section is less a recipe than a guideline. With chapter titles like “Communication the Co-op Way” and “Co-op as an Art Form,” readers should not expect a plug-and-play method. A functional co-operative requires people skills, not just a checklist.
The authors do provide sample checklists and forms, but these merely emphasize important aspects of the co-op. There is no checklist for finding an awesome chef. The forms for objectionable ingredients, contact sheets, cooking styles, and schedules do provide a helpful starting point, and they are tucked in the back of the book for reference, out of the way of the guidelines and recipes. These forms are a solid basis for people who are new to co-operative efforts or new to dinner co-ops.
The one part of the book that I found confusing was the Temple-of-Hanoi-like container system. In a three-household co-op, the first household starts with three sets of containers, the second household starts with two sets, and the third household has one set. A quick sketch revealed that the method does work, and that it is best to be on the first night so you don't have to clean the containers until the following week.
If I were household three, I'd buy an extra set in case the first night's leftovers hadn't been consumed. This assumes that readers follow the book's recommendation to buy sets of Pyrex glass containers with plastic lids, specifically for use in the co-op. For a four-household co-op, there would be ten sets of large containers and ten sets of small containers, for a total of eighty containers.
The recommendation to buy Pyrex was one of the things that gave me pause about the book. The book's recipes are designed for certain Pyrex containers, so there is a practical element to the recommendation. Pyrex can be used for cooking and storage, for hot and cold dishes, and can be washed in a dishwasher, but so can CorningWare. But why buy all that plastic?
I favor CorningWare because it is what I have in my house, but there are many other types of cheap and expensive containers to be found in stores or on eBay. There's even a Berkeley community supported kitchen that uses mason jars for all of their deliveries.
The book aims for broad appeal, so it also advises openness to exceptions and flexibility in dealing with others. My reaction to the Pyrex recommendation was pretty mild compared to my thoughts about the idea that if someone couldn't meet their night's cooking commitment, it would be okay for them to drop off take-out pizza. I wouldn't join a co-op just to get pizza. I can buy my own pizza. Besides, Seattle isn't a great pizza town.
This is to say, I might be the difficult person in any dinner co-op. To be fair, the authors include alternatives to pizza for “cop-out” days.
The authors strongly advise members to provide feedback and to plan periodic reviews of the co-op's progress. There even is advice for how to bow out of the group, kick someone out, and get back into the group's good graces. If in doubt, the authors are there in book form to provide practical advice, encouragement, and upbeat examples of how a dinner co-op can survive problems.
The bulk of the book is devoted to recipes. At a glance, these recipes cover key areas, with enough options to avoid being dull. The sections for vegetable main dishes and soups each are divided into “Spring and Summer” and “Fall and Winter.” It would have been nice to have similar seasonal divisions for salads and main dishes. The recipes expect some adventurousness, with ingredients including curry, cilantro, ginger, arugula, and Swiss chard. There are a few mundane recipes: Cobb Sandwich, Tacos, and Roasted Beets, Carrots, and Shallots.
The authors went to the trouble to suggest menu pairings, and in this respect they did a stellar job. Pairing suggestions refer to other recipes, or to simple additions, such as couscous or sliced sausages or simply “alongside grilled fish or meat.” I was impressed by the pairing suggestions. Where they do not list pairings, the recipes suggest spicing variants, such as the use of chili powders and cilantro in place of Old Bay Seasoning for a version of “Alex's Crab Corn Chowder.”
I did find myself muttering at some of their recipe choices, such as the addition of one-quarter cup of salt to water for boiling asparagus, two steps that rob fresh asparagus of its delicious, bitter flavor. Likely, the salt and boiling water is supposed to soften cardboard-like asparagus shipped from another hemisphere. Some of the recipes will appeal to people who don't cook a lot, while others will appeal to more advanced cooks. Either group will find frustration with a number of recipes. On the bright side, the recipes are keyed to feed a dozen people — there’s no need to figure out doubling or trebling of ingredients here.
A few of the recipes call for marinating overnight, which forces people to get into the mindset of planning for their night of cooking. The first recipe that I cooked, “Chardonnay Chicken with Dried Fruit and Olives,” tripped me up, because I didn't plan ahead, so the chicken wasn't marinated. The recipe was fine for casual cooking, but in a co-op the one hour of preparation and oven time would require a cook with free afternoon time or an agreement among the group to receive dishes around the 6:30 p.m. time frame. The recipes don’t forgive ad-hoc cooking approaches, though the dish was flavorful even without marinating. We found the addition of brown sugar and absence of black pepper to be confusing, turning the dish very sweet and not very spicy.
The majority of recipes use light seasoning or light amounts of herbs. This appears to have been a conscious decision, and we found ourselves wishing for more spicing or herbs in some of the recipes. Relying on natural flavors works best with fresh ingredients, but some of the recipes call for prepackaged or canned ingredients. Chili powders appear here and there. Are the authors taking a fresh flavor approach, or advocating adventurousness, or trying to do both? The answer seemed to be, “try this or that, or whatever pleases your fancy. We won’t tell you how to cook.”
Chicken and vegetables take center stage among the main dishes, with fish a close third. Chicken is ubiquitous as a meat dish and is less offensive to some than pork, beef, or lamb. Their emphasis on chicken is a practical consideration, and lovers of other meats should look elsewhere for recipes.
The “Vegetarian Main Dishes” were less appealing than the vegetable recipes in the sections titled “Salads,” “Soups,” “Grains and Rice,” “Vegetables.” People who like zucchini, Swiss chard, and eggplant will have different views.
Salads should be the easiest part of a meal. The salad section was my least favorite part of the recipes. While the other sections included elaborate and basic recipes, all of the salads seemed overly complex. I wanted one or two basic salad recipes that didn't have arugula or cilantro, which some people seem to fear. Instead of simple recipes, the authors present a table of salad ingredient combinations on page 72, and dressing options on page 73. I refer to this method as Salad Bingo.
The idea of Salad Bingo is that the cook will choose an ingredient from each of the six ingredient columns. This guarantees a unique combination each time. The approach is interesting, in that it certainly will push a beginning cook out of her safety zone. I imagine someone trying a combination of radicchio, red radishes, cherries, red onion, blue cheese and zucchini — certain to surprise others. This is how people learn, but it is a rough approach. Salad Bingo may appeal to adventurous cooks, but not to people looking for a step-by-step approach. In a way, Salad Bingo epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of the entire book.
Good results require hard work
While the idea of dinner co-operatives has some appeal, especially in the current economic climate, the catch-all nature probably will disinterest some people. Others may recoil at the idea of trusting strangers — or even friends — to cook for their family. Laying the groundwork for a successful co-op requires a lot of work and the desire to interact with new and familiar people, which means carving out more time from busy schedules. These people should be close enough to meet the authors’ five-minute delivery radius. The cooks will need a suitable stable of recipes, which they may seek in this book or elsewhere.
Eating local and being open to new food concepts get a soft mention, reaching out to locavoreans and food adventurers rather than advocating an ideology. The authors encourage readers to embrace farmers markets and local producers. This is great, especially if they can convince more people to start gardens, visit farmers markets regularly, and buy locally. They also try to introduce people to new ingredients. Neither approach is particularly strong, and likely will be ignored by people who aren't already adventurous cooks.
Their list of recommended books is as wilted as day-old, store-bought lettuce. While I agree with their inclusion of Barbara Kingsolver's “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and Bill Buford's “Heat,” I would have liked to see more books like Mark Bittman's “How to Cook Everything” or “Food Matters” and could have done without “Julie and Julia”.
So, would my wife and I start or participate in a dinner co-op? In our current situation, we don't need the extra time and sociability that a co-op provides, and we don't want the extra work. We regularly have friends over for homemade meals or dine with them, and we enjoy these informal arrangements. If we no longer had our flexible work schedules, or if we were to have children, then we would consider a dinner co-operative. I would look to "Dinner At Your Door"as a guide on starting such a co-op, but I wouldn't limit myself to using their recipes, or following their recipes to the letter.