The Food Scene at Dancing Rabbit

One of my favorite aspects of living at Dancing Rabbit was the food scene.  Not only was nearly everything I ate incredibly delicious, but it combined many of the best aspects of living in community alongside that: socializing, cooperative culture, and environmental activism.

What it Like to Eat at DR?

When I say food scene, perhaps I should be more specific about how food is produced, cooked, and consumed at DR.  There’s about 50 people there, so regularly getting everyone together for meals is a downright impossible endeavor.  Most people belong to kitchen co-ops, which range in membership from 4 to 9 people.  Some people eat by themselves, preparing their food on a hot plate or wood stove.

The diets also range widely from those who eat meat at some point every day (like the Milkweed Kitchen), to those that are mostly vegan but add in homemade cheese and yogurt or locally produced meats (like Ironweed).  Long time member Nathan, the only person there who maintains a notable degree of strictness in being vegan, told me that such habits have gone by the wayside in recent years.  As the founders, who were all strict vegans, left, so too did that particular tendency.  I saw him break that habit a couple of times, most noticeably when food would otherwise go to waste: if nobody wants the marrow from those chicken bones, Ill eat it…”  Sparrow, who eats with the Critters, said she was a vegan for years before coming to DR.  But, the process of raising her own chickens and goats changed that: [w]e give them a really good life and we raise them in an ethical manner… When we take their lives and butcher them, it feels really honorable to me now.  That feels really good to me.  I don’t even know where that comes from.  That was the big shift, was doing everything from start to finish with these animals.”  Another long time member,  Orestad, subsisted pretty much entirely on kale he grew himself mixed with hulled barley, and a beer or two in the evening.  This person was skinny but by no means malnourished, managing to survive quite nicely on a very simple carb-heavy diet.

I was going to put a photo of some delicious food from Thistledown here, but I don’t seem to have any handy.  It was just too yummy to stop eating long enough and take a picture!

Thistledown Kitchen, my eating scene, was definitely one of the heavier and heartier ones.  I probably gained about 15 pounds feasting on the delectible variety of meals prepared alternately between myself, Cob (who managed when he was younger to cook competitively in a competition judged by Julia Child), Vick (who was a professional chef in Las Vegas for 10 years before moving to DR), Brent (who kind of knew what he was doing) and a rotating cast of others who knew their way aroud the kitchen.  Some of the more memorable meals included my chickpea tikka masala, Cob’s rouladen (a german dish of pounded skirt steak smothered with grilled onions then rolled up and slow roasted in bacon-fat gravy), our combined efforts at bacon wrapped beef tenderloin with a gorgonzola cream sauce, Osito’s shepherd pie, and Vick’s carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.  The cherry on top was a fondue meal two weeks before my departure in which we had cheese, chocolate, and vegan fondues, with a smorgasboard of fruits, veggies, and baked goods to dip in them.  Nathan the vegan was a member of Thistledown, so in additon to the meat-heavy dishes I described there was always plenty of vegetables and plant proteins with every meal.

There were also mundane meals aplenty.  Taco nights, bean soups, lasagnas - all graced the table fairly regularly, though the inclusion of garden-fresh or preserved-by-us ingredients certainly enhanced the mood and the flavor of every dish.  Even the most simple salad was elevated by the simple fact that the chef had pulled the greens out of the ground on their way in the house to fix dinner.

In kitchen co-ops, the one who cooks also cleans, except that everyone clean their own plate.  For Thistledown, this meant that I was able to get my share of kitchen chores for the whole week done over the course of about 4 hours on the day I cooked.  This stands in stark contrast to the amount of time it would typically take me as an individual to eat homecooked meals when I was living by myself.  Of course, there were often generous souls passing through that volunteered to help in the kitchen both on the preparation and cleaning ends of the meal. 

Among those were Visitors, short-term guests brought in by the non-profit arm of the village as potential new members of the village.  The larger implications of their presence in the village I’ll reserve for a future post, one which includes my own passage through the program.  Visitors, though, rotated their way through each of the kitchens at DR in order to get an idea of what each was like and which ones they would be most interested in eating at were they to stay longer.  This meant, most times we hosted, a nearly tripling of eaters in the space normally comfy for just us.  Eaters sprawled out to the couches, the floor and the picnic table outdoors when the weather was nice.  Those who were used to eating more conventionally were astounded by the things DR cooks could do with tofu, beans, and vegetables.

I still remember my first meal as a visitor to DR.  As a group, we slowly trickled in to the kitchen at Skyhouse, staring upward at the vaulted ceilings and inhaling the fumes which wafted over to greet us.  Sparrow ushered us in with a smile and asked us to join hands.  She and the other members of the co-op led us in an easy song for the occasion: 

“We give thanks for unknown blessings, already on the way

We give thanks for unknown blessings, already on the way

We give thanks for unknown blessings, already on the way

We give thanks, we give thanks, we give thanks”

Dinner was nettle-strone soup, the titular ingredient of which she had foraged earlier in the day.  Never had I considered making such a thing, though I knew nettles were edible and had tried them before, though found them too bitter.  This soup was wonderful, though.  Deliciously herbed but not too complicated, it invited us wearly travelers who had only just arrived into a space of comfort, camaraderie, and bliss, easing the strain of an unfamiliar setting.

Eating in Community

It was also common to venture outside of one’s home kitchen on occasion.  Co-ops typically had practices that allowed someone to invite guests over on the night they cooked. Vick took full advantage of this in Thistledown to bring through a wide cast from all corners of the village that I wouldn’t have interacted with as frequently otherwise, and in the process amplifying the latent side of eating communally as a means of socializing and building the cooperative culture of th village.

But there was also the more manifest side to these goals, seen in the twice-weekly meals held in common.  Tuesdays at DR were potluck days, where people would bring their dishes to the common house to share amongst the whole group.  This rotated such that DR held the potluck every other week and neighboring Sandhill held it every even week.  Fridays were community dinner, where instead of bringing a dish, you would just bring your own plate of food prepared by your co-op’s cook and eat alongside everyone.  Both meals had a wide variability of attendance, swelling in the summer with the presence of Visitors and other guests in a time where food burst from the gardens in amounts plentiful enough to eagerly share, and deflating in the cold months or on rainy days.

Food, across cultures, classes, and time, has been a way of building connection with others and reinforcing social norms.   The time and resources it takes to proffer food to your neighbor is a near universal symbol of reaching out to build connection.  So what makes DR special in this regard?  Well, not the fact that they eat meals together on occasion.  Rather, it is because meals are one means among many employed in building community, some of which I plan to cover in future posts.  Community meals alone do not make community, nor alone would plenary meetings, car sharing, or unique holiday celebrations.  But together they each are a piece of the bigger puzzle that forms the image of community.

Where Does the Food Come From?

Begining when I was a visitor in 2014, I did an informal survey of rabbits as I met and got to know them.  “If you had to give up all foods that can’t grow in Missouri, which would be the hardest to part with?” I asked.  There was a wide range of answers: avocados, olives, and chocolate were big for some, and lemons for others, while a hypothetical loss of bananas might have done severe psychological damage to one of Cob’s sons.  Across the board, though, rabbits were aware of where their food came from, including what does and doesn’t grow in Missouri.  Most could give a thoughtful response without too much straining to remember whether their food of choice was acclimated to the locale.  Mine?  Definitely orange juice.  

Im often asked whether the community is self-sustaining when it comes to food.  When my immediate answer is no,” the follow-up is inevtiably a variation on “well how much do they produce then?”  This is a more difficult question to answer, and to reasearch.  Brooke, the resident research specialitst who did her MA thesis auditing DRs consumption patterns in 2012 also cant give a clear cut answer.  She focused mainly on water, energy, and trash, and even those are difficult to make concrete statements about when youre trying to rustle exact numbers from 25 different households.  Those households all have different shopping patterens, too, with a range of people simply buying from the local Mennonite grocer, or on-farm grocery store run by Cob, and with some using food stamps and dumpster diving.  If I had to guess, unscientifically, Id say somewhere between 20-30% of the food at DR is grown on farm, with another 10% coming from neighboring communities like Red Earth and Sandhill, who produce much closer to 100% for themselves.  For communities where the amount produced on farm is close to 100%, its easier to see what food is brought in since its such a rarity.  When its almost 0%, such a number is recognizable by the absence of gardening.  But for the wide range in between, where DR sits, determining how much they produce is a lot of work to audit accurately.

Lets not get hung up on the number, though.  DR is not an explicity agricultural community, nor is the mission there in any way to live independently.  It is to live sustainably.  If they can bring in money through the non-profit, online work, and the modicum of local employment members have and then barter or trade for food, that leads down a path to sustainability wherein not all food needs to be produced at DR.  It’s also worth bringing back up that there’s a local grocery store on farm.  Cob runs it out of a shipping container, where he sells organic dry bulk goods.  Shortly before I moved away, too, he had an addition built that was to house fresh produce and expand the shipping container in to more of a farmer’s market the following spring.  The common focus among people there is moving in the direction of self-sustenance, and the need to recruit more people interested in agriculture and expand the infrastructure for it are palpable in pursuit of the sustainability part of the mission.

Eating Well, Like a Culinary Hippie

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve never eaten better than when I was at DR.  As someone who has been an ardent gardener in the past, I’m of the mind that there’s no better tasting food in the world than that first ripe tomato you pick from the vine of a plant you grew yourself.  Now, imagine that feeling added to every meal.  I didn’t do hardly any garden work during my stay, but watching others labor away to produce what would be going in to the evening’s meal certainly imbued it with the same psychosocial stimulus as my beloved first tomato.

What is an intentional community? (pt. 1)

As I mentioned in my previous post Dancing Rabbit (DR) is styled as an ecovillage, which falls under the larger umbrella term of being an intentional community (IC) defined here as a group of people who congregate for a common purpose and live in close geographic proximity to achieve this goal.  ICs can be religious, political, utopian, economic, and many or all of the above.  The US has a long and complex history of these sorts of arrangements, and it’s impossible to understand the significance of what an ecovillage is without knowing at least some of that history.  This is the first in a series of posts that addresses that history, which I describe using the metaphor of “wave” as each successive style of IC rises and falls in importance.

There are, I posit, four waves of Intentional Community building that have occurred in US history: 

  1. Early history to 1845 – Utopian communities, mostly religious, in tandem with early settlement of the United States and focused on right living based on biblical principles
  2. 1820s to 1930s – Religious revivalism and the rise of socialism lead to secular right living experiments
  3. 1960s-1970s – Countercultural movements and cultural strain lead to psycho-social communal association
  4. 1990s-present – Environmentalism and the increasing importance of identity-based “new” social movements lead to community-based forms of resistance to neoliberal capitalist culture

In American history, the early Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony as precursors to later IC formation - the trough of the wave in this metaphor.  They shared the common purpose of “right” living and built homogenous settlements in the pursuit of that life style.  The story commonly told to schoolchildren is one of British oppression of minority religions that were forced to migrate in order to find sanctuary for their highly orthodox practices.  While generally true, the social lives they created in forming new colonies has often been ignored in favor of stories about meeting the Natives who showed them how to grow corn and squash to survive the winter.  That aspect should not be the important one!  It only serves to further the narrative of peaceful European explorers who had the goal of meeting and learning from these strangers.  Nothing could be further from the truth for Puritan settlers who quite forcefully desired to segregate themselves from all other cultures who they saw as living flawed, unpious lives - including the Plymouth settlers who were the ones to sup with the Massasoit Indians in what became known as the first Thanksgiving.  Two books provide us with some account of the more important role puritanical religious settlements played in us history: “Wayward Puritans” by sociologist Kai Erickson and “The Wordy Shipmates” by historian Sarah Vowell.

For patterns we have that first of our Savior who, out of his good will in obedience to his father, becoming a part of this body and being knit with it in the bond of love, found such a native sensitivity of our infirmities and sorrows as he willingly yielded himself to death to ease the infirmities of the rest of his body, and so healed their sorrows...The like we shall find in the histories of the church, in all ages; the sweet sympathy of affections which was in the members of this body one towards another; their cheerfulness in serving and suffering together; how liberal they were without repining, harborers without grudging, and helpful without reproaching; and all from hence, because they had fervent love amongst them; which only makes the practice of mercy constant and easy.

- John Winthrop, from his sermon A Model of Christian Charity"

Both books (among scores of others) paint a picture of highly regulated life directed under a traditional religious figure.  Life was lived with purpose - the purpose of attaining a closer relationship with the Christian God.  Idleness was sin, as was greed.  Their “recreational” activities consisted heavily of writing, something Vowell points out as the reason why we have such good records of that time period.  Moreover, daily life was strictly regulated  under the aegis of a specific interpretation of the Christian Bible.  Right and wrong, and even daily routines, were highly prescribed among early white religious settlements in North America.  The quote from Winthrop above, who was one of the most prolific writers of the time, demonstrates this ethic.  Suffering was not suffering in the same right when done together, and became transcendental for those who shared it in building a colony as a duty to the Christian God.  Those folks chose to build a life together with a common purpose, much in the same way that ICs are built today.  

Erickson clues us in to this level of homogeneity by profiling some of the crises faced in the Massachussets Bay Colony.  One, termed the Anitonmian Crisis, was born out of a disagreement in theological interpretation so esoteric it would be unreconizable as a point of difference by most people who identify as Christian.  Another was the Quaker invasion, in which one, then a few more, Quakers landed in arriving ships at the Bay Colony with the intention of staying.  Like the Antinomian divide, there was little real difference between Quakers and the Puritans already living there.  But, the prospect of heterogenetity in both cases threatened their concept of “right” living and the reactions were swift and severe: the woman responsible for the stoking the Antionmian Crisis was expelled, and many of the Quakers saw limbs cut off before being forced out at as well.  This reached a fevered pitch in the Salem Witch Trials, Erickson notes, which was in a major part due to the recent revocation of the Bay Colonists exlusive jurisdiction to the area by the Crown and the increasing presence of people from other faiths migrating the territory.  Their way of “right” living under attack, the Puritans lashed out in an attempt to maintain group integrity.


A Hutterite Chior                Source: Wikimedia Commons

Religious communities are, and pretty much always have been, the most popular form of intentional community in the US, though few have such a sordidly violent story.  Shaker communities are perhaps the most famous of these after the early Pilgrims, though modern-day religious communities such as Kashi, in Florida, still attempt to build a common existence through spiritual exploration.  The most widespread of these today are the Hutterites, which share German heritage with the Mennonites and Amish, but with slightly different social norms among their communities (for example, they are allowed to wear patterened and colorful clothing).  The community typically contains a cottage industry and chores are a common responsibility rather than a household-level one. There are almost 500 Hutterite settlements, or colonies as they call them, and an estimated 42,000 of them in North America.  Among them, the common thread is a focus on "right” living akin to the early Massachussetts Bay settlers, whether it be from the Christian Bible or another relgious text.  The Amish are typically not considered intentional communities  because they don’t typically share in a cottage industry and their chores are a household-level responsbility.  While there is a common intention among those who identify as Amish, geographic clustering is more a byproduct of their attempts to isolate from the modern world  - or “English” in their parlance - than an exercise in building common social infrastructure.

If you wan to determine whether or not a specific community is an intentional community, you should draw meaning from both of the constituent words.  Cults are not religious ICs because the purpose is that of their leader’s rather than the group.  Religious congretations are not inherently ICs because they are not always in close geographic proximity.  Even when they are, the governance of everyday life does not always radiate from the church in to its consitutents’ lives.  The church is a place where one “goes to” be in community, where in an IC one is always in the community until they leave.

Bearing that in mind, there are many reasons a group of people act deliberately and intentionally to cluster themselves for a common goal. In the next post of this series I will address the second wave, those of secular “right” living communities that occured in tandem with the rise of socialism in the West.

What’s life like at Dancing Rabbit?

I’ve been asked this question a lot from friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers over the course of the last year.  I’m happy to answer, but there’s only so many hours in a day to tell each individual or small group my major take aways from living in an ecovillage for about 8 months.  So here’s an account that will hopefully answer some common questions and raise new ones.  Asking me questions is good!  I’m not bored at all by talking about it over and over because it is a deeply interesting topic, and those questions often prove useful for me in helping me reconsider my answers or explore new angles I hadn’t thought of previously.  This post is to be the first in a series, each relfecting on a salient topic about life at DR.  

There’s no one story of what Dancing Rabbit (DR) is.  The rabbits will tell you this themselves.  Sure, there’s the mission statment, convenants, guidelines, and social norms they must all abide by.  But at the same time, everyone is there for a different reason.  I’ve yet to find a common thread among them in my conversations and interviews other than a vague notion of wanting to make a change in their own lives and have that change the world.  I’m working to develop and narrow what that means in terms of ecovillage life as activism, because most of them see living there as a form of activism, though not always in the sense that the rest of us see it.

First, what is an ecovillage?  Gilman and Gilman (1991) served us what has become the most oft-cited definition: "human-scale full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”  Consequently, ecovillages can be rural, urban or suburban because they are experiments in the social side of sustainability instead of the production of material goods (though the two inevitably go hand in hand).  DR is a village of about 45 adults and 10 children living in about 30 dwelling units.  Their goal is to grow to 500-1,000 people, something that very solidly fits the bill of a human-scale full-featured place.

Like most other ecovillages, they are an attempt - an experiement - at living sustainably.  Such a concept, narrowed by capitalist greenwashing for general audiences, permeates through every aspect of life, from the (mostly) vegetarian diets to amount of water one uses to wash dishes, from careful selection of where food comes from that they put in their mouths to the careful depositing as it comes out the other end, every act of consumption that could be derived through a carbon-based energy source is carefully considered and minimized.  Recycling outweighs trash, and compost outweighs the other two.  Solar panels and wind turbines dot the landscape, producing clean energy that is fed back to the grid in times of surplus.  

No one in the village, I heard many rabbits claim, lives entirely sustainbly.  Rather, the emphasis is usually placed on the notion that the village is an experiement.  Moreover, it’s a testing ground for new ideas.  Technocentric solutions like ultra-effecient air source heat pumps can be found alongside antecendant natural building techniques.  My neighbor had a strawbale house with such a heat pump, and a sound booth with highly sophisticated recording eqiupment across the room from a wood-burning stove.

Second, DR is rural.  Very rural.  Like, the county only has a population of 5,000 and the nearest pharmacy, hardware store, and bank are all 15 miles away.  Nonetheless, the folks in the village eke out a living on 280 acres bought on the cheap in 1997.  None of the original founders of the village remain, though their legacy continues through the land trust that manages the operational side of the village.  I’ll say more about the economics of the village and the founders economic legacy in a future post, but suffice it to say that the village very nearly stands on its own.  They trade with neighbors, build their homes, and import hundreds of people a year to see whats been done.

In being so removed, they open up a space interested others can “go to” and see what sustainable living can imply.  This “go to” is troubling in some regards, since it similarly implies that sustainbility must be sought away from the city, which is simply not true. Rather its better to see this rural-ness a lending a uniqueness to the ecovillage experience that is DR.  They can eschew building codes, which on one hand allows for the implimentation of some some very interesting concepts, but on another hand makes for shoddy and often dangerous electrial or propane installations.  Some of the prettiest buildings I’ve ever seen are there, because they were built without regard for prim neighborhood association standards or conventional valuations of real estate.  There is another post forthcoming in which I will dicuss the polycephalous approach to home building there, which is split between natural building and high-efficiency conventional building - both of which need not inherently take place in the rural setting of DR.

I met dozens of visitors, guests, and tourists in my 8 months, though the number of people that came through was in the hundreds.  Everyone has a reason to go: the locals from the county come to see about the “wierdos” their neighbors have told them about; hippies, natural builders, communitarians, wanderers, professionals, academics, programmers, and people from all walks of life found something they wanted to experience in the village that is a dot on the vast open spaces of northeast Missouri.  I certainly did, and learned more and experienced more than I thought I ever would.  I swam naked in a pond in broad daylight in front of others and felt the persisent shame about my body that always lingered in the back of my mind melt away.   I ate better food than ever before in my life, built a lot of picnic benches out of reclaimed wood, learned more about the flora of Missouri than I knew up to that point, and played my first-ever game of Dungeons and Dragons.  Yet, the only way to know DR is to live at DR, and member Tereza (whos lived there for 15 years!) told me that it usually takes someone a couple years to fully grasp things like village governance structure or the cliques of social life.

Life was never boring.  I have a lot to reflect on and share, and in the coming weeks I hope to put it all up on here for everyone to see.  In the mean time, feel free to ask about something specific in the comments below.  If its big enough, I might even give it its own post!

Zach Rubin, 2018