drink to your health?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a meal I’d made for my weekly vegetarian dining co-op. A reader asked how we went about setting up the co-op, because he wanted to create a similar group that would focus on local, sustainable foods. Since he lived in the area, we invited him and his wife to dinner on March 18. He modestly replied, “I’m in a band with an Irish flavor and we’re kind of busy that weekend.” (Kind of busy? He’s in The Larkin Brigade, and they’re gigging all over the place. Check out their video.)

So I’ve written up some tips from our dining group that I hope will be helpful to him and to anyone who wants to start a co-op of their own.

Our co-op’s creation myth. The origins of our co-op are shrouded in mystery. Well, not really. They just seem mysterious to me since I wasn’t a member then. Basically, some students who had belonged to veggie dining co-ops in college wanted to keep up the tradition, so they gathered fellow alumni and vegetarian friends. Ours is a splinter group from that original gang. Many members have come and gone over the years, but the meals continue.

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How we plan our schedule. We’ve found that having 10 members works really well for us. We meet weekly, which means each member cooks once every 10 weeks. (Even if two members live in the same household, they each have to be responsible for one of the weeks.)

So every 10 weeks, we e-mail a list of the next 10 Sundays, and each of us chooses “our” date, then forwards the list along. It’s first come, first served, though sometimes people do end up swapping. There are also a few times a year when we just don’t meet — if, say, a lot of members will be away.

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Of course, some members can’t come every week. One of our members, Edrie, is on the road with her group The Army of Broken Toys more and more, another often works night shifts as a nurse, and a certain unnamed member is sometimes home madly writing columns at the last minute. But every now and then all 10 of us make it. It’s a nice feeling.

We try hard to have dinner ready either when everyone arrives or at least within a half-hour or so of their getting there. It’s a school night, after all.

What we cook. We all feel committed to eating vegetarian meals, even though not all of us are vegetarians. There are people like me who eat meat once in a while but don’t cook it that often, as well as strict vegetarians who are very careful about what they eat, e.g., no Worcestershire sauce (due to the presence of anchovies), no marshmallows (due to the presence of gelatin), etc.

We strive to serve a home-cooked meal, ideally with at least three courses, sometimes four. So that means some combination of soup, salad, appetizer, entree, and dessert. (We always manage to have dessert.) Everyone generally does a nice job cooking something healthy and delicious, but occasionally — maybe once or twice a year — we get take-out (usually Indian or Chinese food) or we just go out to eat instead.

Some people come up with inventive ways to provide dinner. One member didn’t like to cook but had a neighbor who was a great cook, so he would pay her to make lasagna. He was a talented sculptor who did a lot of work for churches. We would have dinner in his studio, surrounded by multiple half-finished versions of Jesus on the cross.

We do try hard to avoid truly unhealthy food. Nobody serves prepackaged food, and we generally stay away from things like corn syrup. I was once about to lecture one of the members about the evils of corn syrup after finding several bottles of it on her shelves when she explained that she uses it only to make fake blood for her performance art videos.

Why we don’t just have a weekly potluck. Yes, our set-up means one must cook for 10 people, but only once every 10 weeks, so it doesn’t seem that bad. As one member put it, “It’s surprisingly easy to cook for 10 people and it’s really nice when someone cooks for you every week.” Another pointed out that it’s nice to have control over the menu and coordinate courses — and besides, “having to cook every week for a potluck would be a giant pain in the ass.”

At first it takes a little bit of figuring out how much food to make for 10 people. The Moosewood restaurant has a cookbook called The Moosewood Cooks for a Crowd that I’ve found helpful.

How much we spend. I usually spend $80 or so when I cook for 10, but that includes the cost of spices and condiments I’ll use for more than that one meal. We don’t have a limit — in either direction — on what anyone should spend. Buying quality produce costs money, but we don’t spend money on really pricey items like meat. Sometimes we’ll indulge in nice cheeses or wines.

High days and holy days. Our co-op celebrates certain holidays. Some years we’ll have a Passover seder, and on Easter we always have a mini movie marathon. The last time I went to the movie marathon the theme was pastels and the hostess/curator showed Soldier of Orange, a WWII thriller which for some reason includes a scene where Rutger Hauer does a passionate tango with a man who was once his friend but is now his enemy; A Touch of Pink, a cross-cultural coming-out story in which Kyle MacLachlan plays the spirit of Cary Grant; and Purple Rain. The hostess served all pastel foods, one course between each set of movies.

I’ve hosted a Salute to Asparagus night, featuring asparagus in all the courses except for dessert (a nice cherry klafouti) and another member served a vegetarian take on British pub food one cold night last fall, up to and including Yorkshire Pudding (a form of shallow, unambitious popovers) and Spotted Dick (a boiled pudding studded with raisins, also known as Spotted Dog). And we always celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arr!

Why we’ve been doing this for so many years. Edrie says, “My favorite thing is that people mostly experiment and cook things they have never cooked before. I think the only thing I haven’t liked in the six years I’ve been in it was tofu turkey tetrazzini.”

Other people enjoy the combination of a chance to socialize and to eat a vegetarian meal — especially one cooked by someone else. Needless to say, having been friends for so long we all have seen each other through various ups and downs: births and deaths, marriages and divorces, new jobs and layoffs. For myself, I find that it’s really healthy to spend Sunday evening eating with friends instead of fretting about all the work I didn’t get done over the weekend (a phenomenon I call “Sunday Night Fever”). After all, isn’t that what Monday morning is for?

Next week: The True Tale of Doubling a Recipe to Feed Ten People and My Split Pea Soup Vendetta … stay tuned!