One of the biggest social differences between cohousing and traditional neighborhoods is our work program, which involves community dinners about 4-5 times a week.

These dinners are quite a time saver for our family since we don’t need to plan, shop, cook, or clean up after the meal. We sign up for the meals we want to eat in advance, and then just show up, eat, and clear our plates. At the end of the month, we get a bill for our share of the meals that we ate, which average between 3-6 dollars per meal. Eating together is where most of the community’s social interaction occurs, and is the crucial glue that binds us together.

Dinner cooks are given 4 hours of work credit per month for planning a menu, shopping, and doing about 2 hours of cooking. Since my cooking style typically doesn’t involve looking at a recipe, often acting on instinct, and balancing 12 things at once, I tend to roll my dinners out the door at the last minute. My wife jokes that I have a style similar to Indiana Jones, where I have a brush with disaster, but end up sliding under the door, only to grab my hat at the last minute. Therefore, I give myself some leeway by starting to cook about an hour earlier than most other head cooks.

I first became involved in cooking for large groups about 11 years ago when I moved into Michigan House in the student housing co-ops here in Ann Arbor. I had worked in various restaurants as a dishwasher, busser, host, and as a short-order cook for a number of restaurants. When I moved into the co-op house a few days before the term started, the work schedule hadn’t been drafted yet so I was asked to contribute some work to the house. On my first night there, I volunteered to cook a large pan of lasagna for the house, and really enjoyed the experience.

Earlier that spring, I had become a vegetarian, and felt strongly that nutritious and delicious vegetarian meals could easily satisfy a large group, so I cooked my meals meat-free. I wasn’t the only one, about a third of the house cooks were vegetarian, and only a small handful of the members really wanted to see meat on their plate at every meal.

There were some complaints by house members that they weren’t getting enough protein from the vegetarian meals, so I put more effort into highlighting ingredients with high protein content. Over the next two years, I gained a lot of experiences with cooking for 50 people, since my cooking shifts happened weekly. I had plenty of experiences with burning dishes, over-spicing, undercooking, or under-planning a meal with several components for 50 people who wanted to eat at the same time. The most difficult part has always been delivering all of the courses finished and warm by dinner time.

When we moved into cohousing, I knew that cooking for this crowd would be similar, and yet have some unique requirements such as a simplified menu for young and picky eaters, as well as a recognition that college students can be more adventurous eaters than older adults who might be more set in their ways. I eagerly signed up and cooked one of the first meals in our newly opened common house.

I recently talked with the meals billing people, who have managed the finances with a homegrown web-based system. My neighbor, Adi, dug out some statistics from the billing database. From early March of 2004 until the end of 2007, we had served 28,695 meals. It was recently discovered that Great Oak serves more dinners per week than any other cohousing community in the United States. I’d like to note that 39.9% of them were for the vegetarian option. However, that’s a bit inaccurate since some people sign up for the meat option when the meal is vegetarian, so I’d say that about half of the meals we’ve served have been vegetarian.

Nearly all of our meals are served with a vegetarian option, although there has been some controversy over this. We’ve ultimately settled on the agreement that you can serve anything you want, as long as your menu clearly describes what it is so that people can have an informed decision when they sign up. It makes me unhappy when we have spaghetti with meat balls and I’m simply served spaghetti without meat balls – particularly since we all pay the same price for the meal. Many cooks get around this by simply throwing tofu in as a replacement for meat, which doesn’t work all the time. I’m typically thrilled when the veggie option is something nice like avocado or roasted red peppers added to subs, or even better yet – a meal where one wouldn’t notice the absence of meat.

It takes some work, but it’s not really hard to come up with enough recipes. In recent years, the selection of great vegetarian-friendly cookbooks and food products have grown considerably.

I’m a software engineer during the day, so I crave the artistic opportunity that cooking for a crowd affords. I take pride in my work and enjoy the creative outlet, much like a performance. When I plan out my menus, I strive to pick meals that people will enjoy… and hopefully the omnivores won’t miss their meat. To save time, I prefer to plan out several meals at once since this takes a fair amount of creative energy. Typically this involves sitting down with a pile of my cookbooks, and browsing through when I’m a bit hungry, writing down recipe names and page numbers that look interesting. I like to sort them into categories such as side-dish, salad, desert, entree, etc.

I try hard to plan meals which take advantage of locally-grown produce so that I can patronize the farmer’s market. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible for most of the year since we have such a short growing season in Michigan. However, with some creativity I can continue to work in fresh produce as late as December, when onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash can still be found. I always try to select organic ingredients – when the price or stock allows – since growing food this way is better for the environment, our bodies, and nearly always tastes better. However, I do end up going to the grocery store often to pick up ingredients that I can’t get anywhere else. I always get interesting looks when I check out with 25 heads of broccoli.

I find it easiest – and most satisfying – to select dishes from cultures which eat predominantly vegetarian such as Middle Eastern, Indian, or Pacific Asian. This way the dish doesn’t feel like there’s something left out. One of the more popular dishes that I’ve made is Saag Paneer, where I bought fresh spinach from the farmer’s market, made my own paneer (a type of cheese) the night before, and then bought several orders of naan (flatbread) from local Indian restaurants.

So after a half-hour of brainstorming and writing down references to recipes, I then try to assemble these into themes for meals centered around the time of year. A fairly obvious fall meal which I’ve served for a few years is butternut squash soup with bread, a side salad and homemade applesauce with ice cream for dessert. I tend to do roasted vegetables and tempeh with fresh local greens in the summer. In early February, I made broccoli and tofu in garlic sauce, with brown rice and fortune cookies to help celebrate Chinese New Year.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over my years of cooking for a large group is that you can’t cook meals which require personal attention or details without pulling your hair out. Dishes like omelets or crepes require too much attention to detail for everyone that it’s impossible to get all the components out the door warm and assembled at the same time. I’ve done Vietnamese Summer Rolls with a spicy peanut sauce a couple times, they’re a very special treat, but they involve hand-rolling a bunch of raw ingredients, so these need to get started at the very beginning.

My family’s quickly learned which cooks we really like, which ones we can’t stand, and others who we look to see what they’re cooking before we sign up. It’s really annoying when people don’t fill out their menus in advance, so we’re typically reluctant to sign up for a meal unless we know what we’re getting. However, some cooks are good enough that it doesn’t matter what they’re going to make.

Ultimately, it comes back to the social rewards. Common meals are where I get to relax and spend time getting to know my neighbors, share experiences, and “get out of the house”. They can also be an attractive and easy option for inviting friends over to dinner – even on a weeknight since it means that we’ll be served a home-cooked meal without the work, or the messy clean up. And then on warm pleasant evenings we can take a walk around the flower filled grounds with our guests.

An RSS feed of what we’re serving for dinner each night for the next week can be found on our home page.