The music switches from soothing vocals to an upbeat tune reminiscent of a place a thousand miles south. Suddenly, voices rise and two dancers take the floor. They dance lively salsa in front of the dining room door. This could be a scene from Cuba, lovers in an outdoor patio, dancing the night away. Guess again. It’s happening in the middle of our modest community kitchen! The salsa dancing, joyful and energizing as it is, can be grating to those of us who are in the middle of cooking a meal for 50 people. We sneak around them, cookbooks and measuring cups in hand, shouting instructions over the music. Although I am responsible for the meal, I love the energy of dancing in the kitchen. The head cook, my friend and boss, as well as other community members who cook at night, can get disgruntled by this. Even so, the dancing can help the dish crew finish their task more quickly and happily.
Before the dancing became a meeting topic at our 40-member rural intentional community in Oregon, someone took it in their own hands to express their feeling creatively. A “No Salsa Dancing” sign, complete with a universal “no” red icon, was placed on both of the kitchen doors. At first, dancers did not heed the sign, but eventually, after a few meetings, dancing moved through the door and into the dining room. At that point, I even took advantage of the chance for a free lesson.
Salsa dancing was just one of the things that drew people to the community kitchen to socialize. Cooks on duty also played lovely music of their choice and often joined in singing. Music was one way that the kitchen served as a social and emotional outlet for community members. In community, I believe that the kitchen serves as a place for meeting social, emotional, and physical needs of community members as well as a spiritual connection to life cycles through the food that we eat and prepare.
Preparing fresh food is an essential piece in the middle of a greater cycle. Before food can be prepared we must engage in planting, cultivating, and harvesting plants and raising, nurturing, and killing animals. These plants and animals experience their entire life cycle before they enter the kitchen. After food preparation, we eat the food, nourish our bodies, and excrete the remains, which, combined with excess plant and animal parts, can be composted and turned into fertile soil. This soil is the essential ingredient needed for us to begin planting seeds once again. Even if we are not involved in each of these pieces, as someone who cooks and eats, we are connected to the entire cycle. In some communities, we even incorporate growing food, raising animals, composting waste, and building soil into our daily lives.
In my experience, the more that I am connected to growing food and participating in the different parts of the life cycle, the more I appreciate healthy food and feel physically nourished from it. I am a plant person, and when I lived in the community mentioned above, I participated in food plant growing, cooking, and composting. We also had many community members whose joy and gift lay in other aspects of community life such as management, building maintenance, or healing arts. For these people, the kitchen was the first point of connection to the physical nourishment of food. The large daily salad from our garden, served twice a day to all members, helped keep everyone healthy and appreciative of what we accomplished and how we valued health.
While physical nourishment may be an obvious need met by a community kitchen, some may overlook the emotional benefits of the kitchen in community. As it tends to be a social hub, it is a place where people may relax and chat while preparing, eating, or cleaning up a meal. In this community, we usually had three or four people preparing each meal. During weekend personal growth retreats, participants in the retreat workshops were assigned to assist in food preparation. They had a chance to switch their focus from intense interpersonal communication to voluntary labor. Some people, myself included, found kitchen time to be a great opportunity for deep discussion while hands are busy. More often than not, at this time, emotions ran high, and tears could fly, especially if onion chopping was involved. With the cooking and crying came connection in community. At times, the emotions grew out of the cooking experience, such as stress related to burnt food. Other times, the soothing music and quiet tone of the cooking team created a meditative environment.
When I lived in this community, all members were involved in food preparation and cleanup. It was the only task that was divided somewhat equally, with the exception of two people whose job was to work as a kitchen manager and assistant. The kitchen was the first place that I would go to find someone I was looking for. The kitchen is where we would plan to meet before our work crew headed to the garden, before a group went offsite on carpool, and on Friday mornings for chore time. It was in the kitchen that I would see members and guests that I rarely saw elsewhere. In this way, the kitchen was the central meeting place, the hub. I have yet to visit a community, be it a hundred members or one shared household, where the kitchen does not become the hub. At times, it may not seem to be the ideal physical location for a hub, but it is where people gather. For instance, my dear friends at Heart and Spoon (see “Cookin’ Dinner for the Revolution” in this issue) bought a community house together, knowing that the kitchen would be their hub. And the kitchen happens to be the smallest room in the house (besides the bathroom), yet remains the community hub, even when you just can’t get through the bodies to the other side.
I used to get frustrated when the kitchen was crowded and I found it difficult to get dinner ready on time. Why do people continue to enter the kitchen and leave another mess for me to clean? Why do people keep distracting me from keeping my eye on the oven? Yet more often than not, people came into the kitchen for some food and nourishment, and I could help them meet that need, and so they left me feeling helpful and fulfilled in my role as cook and nourisher. Before I became a mother, this was my chance to feel like a mother, caring for my family and friends by growing, preparing, and serving food.
Even though my community is different now, I still find much fulfillment from growing, preparing, and sharing food. Community and food are constantly connected. I find much joy in preparing meals for the folks who come to stay with us and help us on our farm, for friends and family who visit, and for friends to whom I travel. Dinner time, which happens close to the kitchen, is the one time of day when we are all together. In my community, local food and homesteading are encouraged and appreciated. Every meal we eat at home is full of connections that remind me of my community. For example, a recent meal included broccoli and potatoes from our garden, shiitake mushrooms that we grew on oak logs from our forest, cheese we made from the milk of our neighbors’ cow that we milk when they are away, and pork sausage from our friends’ pig that my son watched grow and graze. As I continue to strive towards creating community in my life, I have learned that one of the best ways for me to connect with others is through a shared appreciation for local food and a shared joy for growing food, and often that happens in a kitchen.
The kitchen is a place that we all need to go since we all need to eat. In some communities and families, it may be the only place where you see everyone at once or at all. The kitchen is a place where we can find social, physical, and emotional nourishment as well as a sense of connection to the greater biological life cycles on our planet. Even when the kitchen is mutable and changing, just as community changes, the place where food is prepared and served becomes the tie that keeps us together.
I was part of a portable and temporary community on wheels when I traveled with 40 “superheroes serving others” by bicycle through Arizona. I pulled a trailer behind my bike with up to 100 pounds of food, including a 40 pound bag of shredded coconut, generously donated to us. We set up our kitchen each day, in a new place, and proceeded to prepare three meals a day for our large group while also volunteering in the community and coming up with creative ways to add coconut to everything. At one point in our travels, we had a long day that included freeway riding. Five of our members who brought up the rear reached the freeway at dark and instead chose to camp alone, 20 miles from the rest of the group. This was the day that I had cooked beans in a pot and wrapped them tightly in my sleeping bag to cook as I pulled them in my trailer, so they would be ready at dinner. Luckily, they were ready, because we did not have much else for dinner, as the five folks in the rear had most of our ingredients. They did not have a stove, however, so they ate raw oats for dinner and breakfast. Thus, we had no breakfast but a few leftover beans, and we were in a food desert in the middle of the desert with only a gas station to feed us. Luckily, the food was reunited when those riders met us midday.
This experience reminded me that a kitchen, like community, when divided, cannot fully nourish us. When healthy and strong, kitchen is the heart of community.
Devon Bonady is a gardener, mother, and teacher who loves to cook local food, eat local food, and share it with her community. She is especially excited about native edible plants from the Pacific Northwest and the past and present culture and community that surround them.