Food For Many Friends
Coming back from the Copenhagen festival, where somehow the enormous camp kitchen (feeding 300 a meal) became my refuge among the political intensity, I knew I wanted to get involved in a voku project in Berlin. I have always loved voku culture here (volkskuche: people's kitchen), have intended to get more involved than just turning up & eating at the various vokus around town, but hadn't quite made it happen yet. But the Copenhagen experience of turning my mind to the problem of turning 20kg bags of dried pulses, 20kg bags of rice, 1kg tubs of spices, and crates and crates of vegetables into healthy, tasty food for enjoying together, and for fuelling the activity of the entire festival, was so invigorating- like a game of practical Tetris, of how long must this cook for/how many burners do we have/how do you drain a pot of simmering beans that weighs 30kg without burning anyone/protein carb ratios/deliciousness considerations that I came back determined, and found a voku in search of a co-ordinator, and put my name down, and got to it.
I've overseen two vokus now, and I love it. It's stressful for sure, and hard work, and I am so glad that my life in Berlin allows me the time to dedicate two days to each one, but I love it. My Wendy-complex thing about making sure all the Lost Queers of Neverland are healthy and well thrills to the sight of great groups of us sitting together and eating and talking. And it isn't just bringing people together to eat, it's bringing people together to cook- every voku attracts a handful of volunteers, and my job is to supply them with ingredients, instructions, tools, and time and space to sit together chopping veggies, peeling fruit, and talking.
So, as the co-ordinator, my first job is planning a menu. My first voku, this was my menu:
* Puerto Rican-ish beans, mostly following this recipe
* Tofu-based soy sour cream (3 blocks of tofu, a good glug of oil, juice of one lemon, splash of soy milk, salt, pepper, stick-blended til smooth & creamy)
* Fancy brown rice (brown rice cooked with carrots, turmeric, onion, garlic, and stock)
* Potato & Spinach salad
* Green salad with an AMAZING tahini dressing produced by somebody who blended an apple into it, which I have never seen done before but made for fantastic flavour & texture
* For dessert, a peach and mango crumble & an apple crumble.
Then I need to figure out shopping, which means figuring out quantities. This involves figuring out what's essential, and what's variable. I was planning to feed 40. Here's the quantities of the essentials that I bought:
* Beans: I bought 6kg, which when soaked & cooked was WAY TOO MUCH. Next time I will buy 3kg for 40!
* Rice: 3kg was a good quantity- we nearly ran out, but not quite.
* Tofu: 3 standard-sized tofu blocks, size of which I can't remember, was a good quantity but remember this was just for a dressing/side-dish. I'd get at least 8 blocks if it was the main protein.
* Onions: 2kg is a bare minimum for this quantity of cooking
* Garlic: 6 heads, again, a bare minimum- at least 4 full heads go into a cooked main dish for 40, and you want some left over for salad dressings & things.
* 1L of cooking oil
* 6 lemons
* So much more that I can't precisely remember!
The way the menu plan works is to pretty much decide on a protein & a carbohydrate, and then dumpster/skip/scrounge/see what can be had for a box-per-euro from the markets for the veggies & fruit portions. So we had potato-and-spinach salad rather than just potato salad cos I skipped a box of good spinach, we had mango, peach and apple crumbles because I got all of those fruits in large quantities out of a dumpster, and the green salad is made up of whatever looks good & cheap (generally it's pretty difficult to dumpster lettuce worth eating, so that gets bought, but tomatoes, cucumbers, salad onions, peppers/capsicums and so on are frequent dumpster scores).
The markets in Berlin around closing-time are full of people scrounging throw-outs for voku purposes. I do a lot of "swap half my box of tomatoes for half your box of peaches" type deals. Usually the only limit on how much food I dumpster or get for a euro-per-crate is how much I can carry home- 20kg is my limit with a backpack & a bicycle, but if I find myself a bike trailer and/or panniers I could go more. Another person with another backpack would also help!
I usually make two trips for food, one to the markets for the dumpster/scrounge/buy veggies portion, then another to actual shops for beans, tofu, brown rice, cooking oil & so forth. Both times I fill up my backpack with at least 20kg worth of food. It seems to have worked out pretty well that 2 x 20kg backpack-loads of food= enough food for voku (OK, I confess that I have always cooked too much and there is always left-overs, but that hasn't been a problem because I do voku at a living project where they are quite happy not to have to cook dinner the next day).
So usually I do the market-trip the day before voku and deliver that load, then do a super-market run and drop that off, then if there are beans to put on for soaking I do that. Then I get up the next morning & run around picking up tofu (which can only be had from the Asian grocery here), brown rice (which can only be had from the expensive Bio shop- Berlin you are so frustrating this way!), coconut milk or whatever else I couldn't find at the supermarket or market, then I arrive at the wagenplatz at about 1pm. The aim is to have dinner served by 6pm, but, um. I have never had it on before 7pm.
I like to think that as I do more I will get better at calculating time-requirements over time. Dinner has been delayed by, the first time, the long cooking-time of a large quantity of brown rice, and the second time by the long cooking-time of curry-for-40. Lesson learnt: LARGE QUANTITIES OF FOOD TAKE LONG TIMES TO COOK, and strength of the burner matters! It can take over an hour for a large saucepan of rice or curry to come to a boil, and it needs to boil before it starts cooking, so add another hour onto that at least, and remember to get your rice & your curry on before 4pm if you want to serve at 6!
So at 1pm I am scurrying around setting up the cooking-space for when my volunteers arrive. I set up a compost bucket, veggie-washing stations (large saucepans or buckets filled with water for washing dumpster-scunge off veggies), chopping boards & knives. Whenever my volunteers arrive (it can be variable!), the first one ALWAYS gets the job of chopping the onions & garlic, because they will take a long time but need to be done before I can start cooking the hot dishes. Then everyone else gets to wash, sort, chop the ingredients. This usually takes HOURS. Like, way longer than you'd imagine. But it's fun & social, if also occasionally gross (depending on how well a bag of dumpstered veggies has held up to transport & overnight storage. Sometimes there is slimy badness).
Ah, and when I did the beans-from-dried-beans, I got those on cooking before I even started assigning volunteer jobs, because I knew they'd take forever. That 6kg of beans took about 3 hours of cooking after an all-night soak- not bad, actually.
So the order goes like this:
1. If there are dried beans, put them on to cook
2. Chop LOADS of onions & garlic
3. Wash & chop the rest of the veggies for cooked dishes
4. Get the cooked main dishes cooking- which means, get the onions & garlic cooking at least, even if the rest of the veg is still being prepped
5. And the rice on- I liked putting the rice on an outside burner so that it could be watched by people while they were making salad, and I'm running around inside the kitchen looking after a few cooked dishes.
5. So by now the extra hands are prepping the salad veggies & dressing
6. And dessert fruit is being washed & prepped
7. While the cooked dishes are still cooking (it takes forever, I told you) and I remember about side-dishes and dressings
8. So salad is made, dessert crumbles are ready to go into the oven, side-dishes are prepped, rice is finished, but cooked dishes are STILL cooking (and people are looking hungry) so...
9. Send somebody over to set up the serving-space with stacks of plates, bowls, knives & forks
10. Have somebody set up the washing-up station with a big tub of hot, soapy water & a drying rack
11. And somebody else writes up the menu with basic important ingredients (all of my dishes have been vegan but I list if they have soy or wheat or nuts in them)
12. Then HOPEFULLY the main dishes are finally cooked, and all the food can be carried over
12. And I remember that I need to put out a donation jar to recoup the cost of the shopping and
13. Finally, dinner is served
14. Except that I am usually still keeping an eye on dessert, and bring that over about halfway through dinner.
Then, finally, it is time for sitting & eating & drinking beer & soaking up a feeling of accomplishment.
Having only done two voku, I'm clearly not an expert on the topic. I'm still muddling my way through things like quantity calculations. I'm also pretty ambitious, and tend to be overly focused on deliciousness & variety over convenience or cheapness. If this was a fund-raising voku I might have to be a bit less focused on things like buying brown rice (which is healthier & tastier but for some reason also about 3x more expensive in Berlin than white rice), and it's possible that if I was doing it every week I might be more interested in basic, nutritious food (like the classic dahl + rice + salad voku menu) than going on some culinary adventure every single time. I know that if this was a regular gig that I was coordinating (which may well happen) I'd do longer-term planning and do things like borrow a friend with a car to buy bulk quantities of onions, oil, rice, spices, pulses & other basic stock foods- which would make it both cheaper & also less hassle for me than running around acquiring everything from scratch every two weeks.
For the sake of record-keeping, here is my menu for this past week, with basic notes:
* Tofu palak "paneer" (basic spinach curry with pre-fried pieces of tofu pretending to be paneer)
* Seitan + potato + cauliflower curry, following spice/gravy guides for a generally 'meaty' curry- I cooked the seitan at my place the night before (see what I mean about making things more difficult for myself than they need to be?) then pre-fried it before adding it to the curry
* Fancy brown rice again, as above
* Tofu-based soy raita, pretty much the tofu sour cream recipe above only with more lemon juice & a whole bunch of mint added
* Salad with a tahini garlic dressing
* Stewed peaches/nectarines/apricots with tapioca-coconut pudding for dessert.
Given that it turns out that I love doing this ('organisational masochist' says one friend, but I prefer to think of it as the Wendy groove of making sure all the Lost Queers are fed and healthy and happy enough for their big adventures) it seems likely that I will take it on as a regular thing once I'm long-term settled here. I have ambitions already to move from the vat-cooking-for-many model to more creative and intensive individual-items-for-many world (samosas for 50! Lasagnes for 60! WOOO!). If I do that I'll blog it, because the internet is definitely in need of more feeding-the-hungry-crowds resources.