Ian: “Hey Diana can I use the coffee table to surf down the stairs?”
Jacob:” Hey Diana can we build a blanket fort in the loft for the weekend?”
Nigel: “So after my 10th cup of coffee today I stopped counting.”
Sally: “Who wrote the passive aggressive message on top of the drier using questionable language in permanent marker?”
Meet my housemates… there’s about 23 of these jokers. When they’re not trying to surf down the stairs on a coffee table, they’re tackling philosophy, history, ancient Greek, etc. Well, not all of them – we do have a baby who likes chewing on books rather than reading them, and a few older residents who have regular old jobs, like me. But the rest are students at the small liberal arts college, Gutenberg, which Clayton and I manage the residents program for. Although everyone else in the house lives either in the girl’s or the guy’s dorm hall, Clayton and I have our own apartment on the third floor.
Photo taken by Elizabeth
When we took the job a year and a half ago I was nervous and some of the students were rather concerned too. While I worried about not having my own kitchen, they worried I would make them eat “healthy stuff” and ban cookies. They were right to be concerned, and I was right to be nervous.
I traded my sunny little ground level kitchen for something commercial, old, and rather dark and cold. My heart sank deeper and deeper in those first few months. As I struggled to make the kitchen my own, the students viewed my changes suspiciously – we removed the sugar and flour from the staples and tossed all the vegetable oil. I told them I would not support such unhealthy eating habits. Our job description is to fix anything that is broken in the house, organize the meal’s program, plan events, and provide emotional support for the students.
Providing healthy, balanced meals and avoiding inflammatory foods became my goal. I had four student volunteers cooking dinner once a week. I became the fifth cook as well as the person shopping for all the ingredients and overseeing all the cooks and their menus. On the weekends everyone is on their own, but as a house we have dinner five nights a week. I discouraged desserts and never failed to mention in a conversation how detrimental they can be for health.
The students began sending us emails asking me to respectfully reconsider my decision to remove flour and sugar from the staples. They must not understand, I thought. So I replied with articles and links to various studies about why sugar and white bleached flour is bad for their health. I got annoyed and frustrated with some of them and began avoiding the residents that were the most outspoken about it.
Then one evening as I walked in the kitchen I noticed something was different. It felt warm and cheery… with the delicious smell of fresh baked cookies lingering in the air. Half of the residents were playing board games and chatting away cheerfully at the table. We couldn’t afford to buy expensive alternative flours and more natural sweeteners on the meal’s program, so I took the flour and sugar but replaced it with nothing but threats about how bad these ingredients were for them. Although most of them are college students with tight food budgets, they saved pocket change and pooled enough cash to make fresh cookies for their game night. I stood there watching and suddenly realized why baking was so important to them. It facilitated fellowship and community. It brought the kitchen to life.
My cheeks began burning and I waved shyly and turned to leave. Then, one of the students spoke up, “Hey Diana wanna play?”
Now, the meals are made completely from scratch, and all of our meat comes from the local butcher shop, where they source regional farms a high quality ingredients. Likewise, I did not decide to bring the vegetable oil back. Instead, I started getting pork fat from the local butcher shop, and once a term we render seven or eight pounds of clarified lard.
A week later though, we re-instituted flour and sugar as kitchen staples. And as I struggled to be less rigid about some of the food groups we used, the students tried to meet me half way. I asked the cooks to only make desserts for special occasions and birthdays, and I consistently bought flour and sugar as a staple for the bakers who enjoyed making breads and cookies for game nights. All the cooks began providing gluten-free and dairy-free options for residents who wanted to avoid them. I stopped telling people certain foods will kill them.
I discovered that most of my cooks love food and cared about it just as much as I did. While I am doing a masters in nutrition and health, they are buried in mathematics, science, and sociology. As a Gutenberg graduate myself, I know how demanding their program can be both emotionally and physically. So instead of deciding they didn’t care, I had to remind myself that when I was in the program, unlike these guys who try to prepare gourmet meals from scratch half the time, I was eating ramen all day. I needed to put things into perspective, and walking into the kitchen that night watching them all together offered me that new perspective, for which I will be forever grateful.
( Since we all come from such various backgrounds there are lots of conversation about meaning, truth, love, faith, grace, duty, personal responsibility, narrative, etc happening in the kitchen while we are cooking and after.)
The kitchen has never truly become MY kitchen. Instead it has become OUR kitchen. Its the place we watch the baby throw food on the floor and squeal while we all make stupid faces at her. Its the place I have cried my heart out in the middle of the night when life was harder than I thought I could handle. It’s the place were I’ve learned to accept that everyone is on their own journey and I can’t drag people along on mine. So these days I don’t volunteer information about nutrition and health unless I am being asked. And they do ask me questions about their diet, weird gut pains, and, well, it does get weirder than that too.
(This is our sweet baby girl. We snapped a few pictures of her as she was taking her first few steps.)
Have I made a difference in the way my housemates view food? Maybe… most of them do avoid vegetable oil and some eat less bleached white flour. But relationships don’t depend on that anymore. They are my friends, not just residents. We share our good days and bad days. We try to accept, challenge, and keep each other accountable. If I am having a rough day, Jen will give me a hug, Thomas will offer to help me cook dinner, James will cut all the onions in the world for me, baby will make me laugh, Abby will leave a pomegranate on my steps, Nigel will try to offer me coffee, Larissa will give me a back rub. The list goes on more or less forever (and we can leave the evil twin version of this list for another post!). After discovering I’m dairy intolerant, I thought it would be too hard for all the cooks to make me special meals that are gluten and dairy free. None of them complained, even though this added another layer of difficulty to their already volunteer position. My housemate’s constant love and care humbles me everyday.
(This is my housemate Nigel enjoying his first cup of coffee in the morning and yes he is wearing a red onesie.)
p.s. Today was a typical day in our house. During a challenge Thomas drank a about a cup of extra virgin coconut oil. The name on my fridge shelf turned from Diana into Poison Ivy. Clayton (a.k.a. Papa Bear) is still sick. It was Meredith’s birthday, and since I was too busy to bake a her a flourless chocolate cake I bought a conventional one from the store. Oh, and Nigel rubbed garlic all over his face after a bunch of us convinced him it would helps his facial hair grow faster. Did I say I love these guys?
(I don’t even know what is happening here. I don’t ask 😉