Monday, January 16, 2012

Tofu Anarchy and the Culinary Smackdown

 Image from Oberlin Alumni Magazine. So Oberlin.

I loved a lot of things about Oberlin, the small college in northeast Ohio I attended in the late 1970s. But the Autumn of Tofu Anarchy was not one of them.

Like most Oberlin students of any era (we call ourselves “Obies"), I was young, impressionable, and idealistic. My high school years were awkward. I’d been desperate to go "away" to college and begin my “real life.” Upon arriving in the small town of the same name, surrounded by farm fields, I delighted in meeting smart, inquisitive, talented, creative people from all over the country, and all over the world. We stayed up late discussing what was important to us, and learning from others.

There were aspiring opera singers who devoted themselves to their craft, day and night, in the practice rooms of the “Con” (Oberlin’s music conservatory). A rich kid from NYC who used his 1000+ vintage jazz LP collection to decorate his dorm room in lieu of furniture. My first college boyfriend, a Grateful Dead head desperate to get out of the infirmary in time to see Jerry Garcia perform on campus at Finney Chapel, who requested I bring him clean underwear and help him walk to the gig. I don’t know what felt more awkward at age 18, being asked to perform this duty, or realizing said boyfriend’s dorm-room drawers were so filled with cassette tapes (top drawer for his Dead tapes, below for “other” music) that I had to go hunting for where a boy like that kept his, er, drawers.

There was more than music filling my ears at Oberlin. I was surrounded by more wide-ranging knowledge and worldly experience than I ever expected to encounter at that tender age. If I mentioned the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as the favorite thing I’d ever learned about physics, I could count on someone in the room knowing what it was without having to explain.

We were earnest. We were passionate. We were open. We were Obies. We were grateful to be part of an engaging community that “got” us, and where we could be ourselves.

The Autumn of Tofu Anarchy was a Harkness thing, Harkness being one of the six or seven dining co-ops on campus at that time. Oberlin has a long and proud history of dining and residence co-ops dating back to 1950. The idea is that instead of paying a food service staff, students perform the menu-planning, food-ordering, cooking, serving, and cleaning duties required to feed themselves, resulting in a price break, more decision-making power, and better food than in dorm cafeterias.

From Oberlin Alumni Magazine

There were always more students who wanted to eat in a co-op than there were openings, so access was determined via lottery. The first semester I was eligible to participate, I drew a high number, and by the time it came up, only one co-op had openings left: Harkness, the vegetarian co-op. That didn’t bother me a whit. I like vegetables, and I looked forward to healthier options than I could get at a regular dining hall.

But that particular fall semester, a group of Harkness folks decided we should run the co-op by anarchy instead of the tried-and-true co-op system of assigning jobs via lottery, with specific dates, times, and responsibilities attached. They urged the group to trust in our classmates’ willingness to volunteer for whatever needed to be done, free of the “tyranny” of assignments. And we would govern ourselves, not by voting on policies and procedures – with resulting “winners” and “losers” – but by achieving “consensus.” As I recall, there was even some brouhaha about how we began down the road to anarchy, when its proponents insisted that voting for or against it would be an inherent contradiction.

We were earnest. We were passionate. We were open. We were Obies. So we went along with anarchy. For a while.

At the beginning of the term, there was plenty of enthusiasm and volunteering. But as that idyllic Indian Summer yielded to the gray skies of a north Ohio fall and the demands of our classes closed in on us, the food turned as colorless as the surrounding landscape. Dinner after dinner of brown rice. Lots and lots of tofu. Sometimes nary a vegetable in sight. If we were lucky, someone actually made whole wheat bread. If we were luckier, the bread wasn't leaden. We had a whole lotta beige food going on.

Dinners, instead of being a respite from the day’s studies and a chance to enjoy the company of friends, turned into every-night meetings where we grappled with this anarchy thing and found ourselves farther and farther from consensus.

Vegetables did make a welcome reappearance for our Thanksgiving meal (we had classes the following Friday and Saturday as usual, so most students stayed on campus). It was the one meal of the year at Harkness that deviated from vegetarianism, with a turkey or two rounding out the spread, and a variety of holiday stuffings (one of which may or may not have been spiked with THC).

As we headed into the December home stretch of term papers and finals, caffeine and all-nighters, it was clear we couldn’t count on volunteerism to keep us well fed and healthy. Our experiment with anarchy had failed, and that was a consensus. We dragged ourselves home for holiday break, grateful for sleep and as much home-cooking as our mothers could dish up.

There have been many times in my post-college years where life has batted me around to the point where nothing is more welcome than sound sleep and being well fed by others. Although I can no longer claim the idealism of my youth, at heart I’m still an Obie. Still earnest. Still passionate. Still open – even to tofu. And grateful to be part of an engaging (online) community that “gets” me and where I can be myself. My blogger friends – smart, inquisitive, talented, creative people from all over the country, and all over the world – share what is important to them, and I continue to learn.

Especially when it comes to this friendly little food blogging contest called the Culinary Smackdown. It’s a great incentive to stretch myself in my kitchen, and I always come away with new ideas and a lot of inspiration from the other contestants. Our last Smackdown winner, Anonymous Boxer, is hosting and judging this month’s Battle Tofu. As part of her “prize,” which is mainly bragging rights, Boxer chose this month’s theme. You can find her pre-battle warm-up post here. The deadline is Wednesday, 1/18/12, and two fine contenders are already up with their entries.

Lori of Fake Food Free, a Kentucky food blogger I've met recently online, drew inspiration from both her travels in Southeast Asia and Chef Ouita Mitchell's Windy Corner Market on the outskirts of Lexington, for this Tofu Po'Boy with Barbeque Cole Slaw.

Grumpy Granny, prior Smackdown winner for her entries last summer in Battle Eggplant, embraced the tofu for another entry that proves tofu can be appetizing: Tofu Pizza Italiano Two Ways.
Photo by Grumpy Granny

I'm off to press some tofu (I don't think we'd ever heard of such a thing back in the day) and I'll be back Wednesday with an entry that I promise will not be beige. And it will include vegetables. Boxer will decide the winner (who will be next month's host/judge/theme-picker). There are never any losers here at the Culinary Smackdown. And we manage to do it without anarchy.


Jenny said...

What a great story! I love the fact you've rekindled those Obie feelings through blogging. I felt similar things when I first started my blog.... I was amazed at what amazing, smart, cretive people I was able to connect with.
And I personally LOVE a big bowl of brown rice, tofu, garbanzo beans, fresh vegetables with tahini sauce. Hippie Heaven! :-) But beige food isn't good and I think that's the thing about tofu.... you have to combine with something else. But hell, 6 billion Asians can't be all wrong. And let me point out... they have ZERO colon cancer.


Looking forward to YOUR entry Eggy.

(p.s. I love your new profile pictuer. I am honored and I'm working on something for you...... stay tuned.... I want to make your Cindie happy too.)

Sharon Rudd said...

Boxer! You snuck in here and left a comment before I had my final draft up. You are one of my inspirations! I will stay tuned for whatever you are working on . . . if you could make Cindie happy too, that would be a blogospheric miracle, with everything she's going through.

xoxo, eggy

GrumpyGranny said...

I love that story, and I think now I will always think of you as another Obie-wan. LOL! Can't wait to see what you've done with the tofu!


moi said...

Anarchy in the college kitchen!! Love this post! What a great story. AND I read it while sitting at a sushi bar, laughing out loud so that I had to tell it to my chef. After my spicy tuna handroll and errands, it's home to tofu! Thanks for the noontime chuckle. Yer a cool cat, Eggy!

Jenny said...

the Smack Down has begun!! I have two contestants already in the 'ring'.

Sharon Rudd said...

GG and Moi, glad my story tickled you. Moi, did your sushi chef think it was funny too?

Boxer, yeah to the Smackdown "ring" being open! And you've extended the deadline to Thursday at 5:00 p.m. - is that Pacific time? Since I somehow got my days mixed up by being off work Monday for MLK Day, I am sorely tempted to . . . procrastinate :)

Looking forward to what everyone comes up with!

moi said...

He smiled and laughed, but I really don't think he understood half of what I read him :o)

Sharon Rudd said...

And Moi is up with her entry!

Jenny said...

Eggy - I'll wait for you. :-)

Aunty Belle said...

Ha! Hilarious--co-op anarchy---a good lesson to learn early.

This is a phrase I can taste: 'whole lotta beige food going on."

ooooh, mush.

I'se anxious to see the improvement ya make on basic beige.

@ Boxer

I love brown rice, garbanzos an' sauteed red pepper, green onions and sesame *seeds ( but will give the Tahini a try next time). (NO TOFU)

Jeff said...

This post really made me smile. I was engaged to an Obie for several years, and even had a chance to attend one of the reunions in 04. For someone who went to a monolithic state U, it was quite an experience to see such a close-knit family of students and alumni. I loved their passion and their quirkyness and their pride.