Our community first began cooking together in Waveland, Mississippi in 2005 just after Hurricane Katrina. We made our separate ways to a disaster relief kitchen called The New Waveland Café, which was started by the Rainbow Family. We spent the next nine months living in a tent city while we cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily for an average of 400 hurricane survivors and volunteers. That December we moved our kitchen to St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, renamed it The Made with Love Café, and created a nonprofit, Emergency Communities.
We woke up each morning at 5:30 to crack eggs, fry bacon, mix pancake batter, and chop fruit salad. As we stood in our outdoor kitchen before dawn in January, our fingers throbbed and froze pealing boxes of oranges pre-soaked in bleach water to combat the post-Katrina toxins.
We cried together over vats of too-lumpy gravy, and prayed to about 17 higher powers that our spice cake (sans baking powder) might defy chemistry. We shared elated glances as we handed out fried chicken, bowls of cheesy grits, and mounds of fresh salad to people who’d eaten nothing but MREs and Vienna sausages for months.
It is true that we nourished thousands of survivors of Hurricane Katrina but, just as importantly, we created a safe space—inside a huge, dome-shaped dining room tent—where people could come together over red beans and rice or butterscotch pie to recreate their culture, ignite friendships, and rebuild faith in the idea that life could be worth living.
As we established that space for hurricane survivors, we inadvertently created a place for ourselves to become a family. Because each day was concentrated with intense experience, we built a rich history in only nine months. In that short time we grew to trust each so deeply that, when our kitchen closed, many of us moved forward as a team. We bought a house together in Eugene, Oregon and created The Heart and Spoon Community.
Nearly 10 years have stretched between our formation on the Gulf Coast and the present. A decade of new experiences has diluted those disaster relief memories so that they feel more like legends than reality. Most of the original founders of this community have moved out of the house and new people have become deeply invested in The Heart and Spoon. The overall personality of this community has mutated dramatically, though we’ve maintained one ongoing through-line: a combined commitment to human service and dinnertime.
Our full community is a rich a blend of current household members, past housemates, and a general barrage of friends and family who feel comfortable showing up at any time, usually unannounced, and who frequently stay for dinner.
Right now our in-house community holds 12 people: four single adults, four parents, and four kids (two five-year-olds and two seven-year-olds). The adults range in age from 20 to 38. This variance in age and lifestyle is one of my favorite elements of The Heart and Spoon, though the practice of merging our diverse group in a way that keeps us feeling like a family requires a lot of work and communication.
Maintaining a consistent dinnertime for the whole community is the primary way we connect. Between planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning, the entire routine can easily span from 4:30 until 9:00 every evening. Most of the time, we parents assume the responsibility of meal planning and preparation. Nearly everyone enjoys cooking, but the parents’ demand for a solid schedule causes us to initiate before others are usually ready. We feel that a timely dinner is mandatory to help the kids feel stable in a household that is otherwise prone to fluctuation.
As a rule, we Heart and Spooners don’t make a huge distinction between residents and regular guests. All visitors are encouraged to help out by cooking, cleaning, or playing with kids. Due to our eternally changing population of housemates and our ongoing stream of visitors, it’s become almost instinctual to view The Heart and Spoon as a home to whoever happens to be present at the time, whether or not they pay for a bedroom. The kids have been known to ask our regular visitors, “Do you live here?”
Generally this “open home” philosophy has positive results. Our informal approach helps visitors feel more accepted and more invested in the community. It isn’t uncommon for people who don’t actually live here to facilitate a meal, help with a household project, or host an event at our house.
White Bird is also a notable fixture in our community. White Bird is a 24-hour, collectively run crisis clinic in our town. Right now, half the adult population of our house works full-time at White Bird, and nearly everyone in our house has contributed to White Bird in some capacity. Because we’re accustomed to feeding large numbers, our home has become a common dining stop for CAHOOTS. CAHOOTS is White Bird’s mobile crisis unit. Their van is staffed by both a medic and a crisis worker. They respond, through police dispatch, to nonviolent 911 calls.
About three nights a week the CAHOOTS workers use our house as a dinner stop. Their presence in uniform, complete with police radio, is another regular reminder of our ongoing fusion of food and human service.
While it generally feels like an honor to live in a house that is home to so many, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. There are stints when our community is very aware that it’s valued and cherished by an astonishing number people, but for those of us who keep it going, the daily maintenance can become staggering and downright stifling.
Our commitment to a daily communal dinner is a titanic assignment. Though the amount of food is minuscule compared to my disaster relief experience, this obligation is far more difficult. Cooking all day for hurricane victims under a circus tent with dozens of garishly dressed hippies and anarchist punks felt kind of glamorous and badass.
Dedicating large portions of each day to feeding one’s own large family, along with the physical and emotional upkeep of the community, is not nearly as romantic and does not illicit a lot of recognition. It isn’t uncommon for me to feel exhausted and wonder…Why are we doing this? Immediately followed by the next question…What exactly are we doing?
After nearly a decade of wondering whether I’m just working way too hard to get a bunch of hippies to eat together, I’m finally zoning in to the truth. The reason it’s so taxing, and the reason we do it anyway, is because our dinners aren’t only dedicated to creating “family time” for our household. This community is a hub for numerous, overlapping cooperatives dedicated to revolutionary social change.
Our job at The Heart and Spoon is to hold a space that feels safe, fun, and nourishing for the people who work on the front lines of organized social transformation.
Though holding a space is a grueling process, the work is so subtle that we’ve spent years not even realizing that we’re doing it. It is subtle because it is based in daily routine, and it is arduous because it requires relentless consistency.
Holding a space is actually a work of art, like writing or painting. When you do it well, it appears effortless. I’m sure there are people who visit The Heart and Spoon who imagine that all this dinner-making and family gathering flows as easily as the flatulence from your drunken uncle.
In reality there are uncomfortable house meetings regarding food cost, hours of accounting, and lots of time invested in respecting individual food preferences.
There are evenings when we expect 15 people for dinner, and then find only us parents and kids in front of two baked chickens and a stockpot full of mashed potatoes. After three hours of food prep, we’re left to clean it all up ourselves, while also getting the kids ready for bed and packing their lunches for school the next day.
And of course there’s the frequently awkward, occasionally contentious, but primarily incessant communication involved in blending parents, children, and single individuals into a stable, intimate family.
Holding this space is like a marriage. It requires ongoing effort even when the work feels unwanted or superfluous. This type of labor embodies every hippie and anarchist’s greatest aversion: monotony. It means cleaning messes that come right back and cooking food that’s about to be eaten. Consistency is vital. Without the monotony, the magic doesn’t happen.
In February 2015 we were all given an unexpected, reality-based pop quiz, testing whether we could still work the magic.
We cook for holidays, birthdays, theme parties…any ol’ reason to spice up our lives. These gatherings usually leave us feeling proud of our community and generally inspired. But it wasn’t until we catered our first tragedy since Katrina that I felt my most solid reminder of our true purpose.
On February 14th, one of our solid, long-term community members disappeared while in a paranoid and delusional mental state.
Within 48 hours of Noah’s disappearance dozens of his friends and family members began gathering at The Heart and Spoon. For two weeks we met each night to have dinner, discuss search methods, work on media outreach, and share information from the day. People who lived out of town stayed at our house. People who weren’t available to search donated us boxes of food, coffee, and wine. We received letters, texts, Facebook messages, and financial contributions from people who couldn’t travel. We had long, intimate conversations with Noah’s childhood friends whom we’d previously never even heard of.
The weeks following his disappearance were surreal. Many evenings I sat at the table looking around at all the characters who’d woven the plot line of Noah’s life. His sister sat next to his best friend from kindergarten, who sat beside his ex-girlfriend, who ladled soup for one of his journalist buddies from the college newspaper. Across the table, Noah’s current sweetheart passed the salad bowl to his aunt and uncle.
People arrived from every nook and cranny of Noah’s history, and the most healing thing any of us could think of to do was to bake three quiches, roll enchiladas, chop radishes, and simmer pots of soup.
More than at any other time since our community’s formation, I’ve become acutely aware of the importance of a physical space where people can share ideas, make plans, and create a common culture. Life is unpredictable and it’s important for people to have a few fundamentals they can depend on.
At The Heart and Spoon, dinner happens at 7:00 and we have one dinnertime ritual: The Together Hug. It’s our non-dogmatic equivalent of a blessing. It doesn’t happen at any specific point in the meal. We usually make the kid plates first, and then the adults serve themselves. We attempt to have a Together Hug sometime after the last adult is served, but before the kids escape. Really it happens whenever we remember. At that point we all reach out to “hug” the friend on either side and we sing “1…2…3…TOGETHER HUG!”
It takes only a few seconds, but it’s a refreshing moment of solidarity. With all the ruckus of people retrieving condiments, filling last-minute water glasses, and cleaning spills, it’s good to have a moment for pause and appreciation of the group who has gathered around the table.
Due to our number, our diversity, and the nature of the people we attract, maintaining consistency at The Heart and Spoon will always be a challenge, but finally learning to define the service that our community provides has helped me significantly. I hope we can help more activists recognize that a healthy, vibrant, reliable home-base bestows a feeling of sustainability to the general effort. Whether we’re facing off tragedy, reveling in celebration, or scrubbing at the scum of the mundane, we’re still gonna keep on makin’ dinner.
Jesika Feather is a mother, writer, teacher, and community organizer who lives at The Heart and Spoon Community in Eugene, Oregon. She blogs about living communally and parenting at jesmamasmusings.blogspot.com.