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.

Zach Rubin, 2018