The Proof Is in the Pudding
It’s very strange to think of food co-ops as part of the good old days. To me, the good old days happened back in my mother’s youth—and she was born over 100 years ago.
When I came of age in the 1960s, the world was being reinvented by kids like me. At least we thought we were more clever than anyone had ever been before. We thought our ideas were new. We thought we could bring about world peace, end poverty, eradicate injustice, feed the hungry and take back the means of production from the corporate blue meanies.
In New Haven, as in most places, the food co-op started small. The lesbian-and-straight-feminist collective where I lived joined forces with the mixed-female-and-male-straight commune around the corner plus some alternative culture strays, and turned the basement of the Unitarian Church into a food store on Saturday mornings.
A few members—that would not include me—hit the produce wholesalers at the crack of dawn and loaded whatever was available into VW vans and Datsun pickups. They trucked it back to the church, probably playing “Keep On Truckin’” on their eight-tracks, and the rest of us would pile into our VWs and old beaters to pick up the cheap eats.
Huge sacks of brown rice, shiny purple eggplants, bushel baskets of small, sour apples, tubs of tofu, the co-op offered up a cornucopia of fresh off the farm vittles. Back at the collective, we had all the right cookbooks: Diet For a Small Planet, the Whole Earth Cook Book, Adele Davis’ Let’s Cook It Right. Soaking beans adorned our counters, the house was fragrant with garlic and onion, cooks experimented with saffron and fennel.
This was all new to me. I was nine or ten years old before my brother married a woman who introduced our family to oregano. My mother fed us like the Irishwoman she was: boiled potatoes and green vegetables with the life cooked out of them. In the collective, broccoli was served almost raw—or completely raw in salads. Potatoes lost out to rice. Pasta, not canned Franco American, was actually tossed at the ceiling to test its readiness for homemade spaghetti sauce. I was big on dishwashing, a huge task, but easier for me than attempts to be creative at the stove.
While we made messes of our kitchen, the straights were doing the same a block away. The men were learning to cook. They were the beginning of the gentle male phenomenon and made a point of recognizing their feminine sides. Now and then a woman left the straight commune to join the dykes. Eventually, the guys took over the co-op and somehow obtained a store front, eventually moving into a big old grocery store where, after a few years of unsuccessful competition with for-profit grocers, and probably burnt out from lefty political struggles filled with guilt and angst, they shut down, just as our collectives did.
I’d been so busy being radical in this new world that was so different from the gay bars that I never noticed we weren’t reinventing any wheels at all. Co-ops have been around a very long time, at least since the 19th century. There was an inherent flaw in the counter culture co-ops of the 1970s: we wanted to make good food available to all, but for the most part, only we disaffected middle class college grads actually belonged to co-ops.
Eventually, I got a job in retail food, managing small stores for a middling large company, and learned what it took to make money selling groceries. No one was idealistic there, even those of us who once had ideals about taking the profit out feeding the world; we worked to get paid and took our pay to the bars. We hired our gay friends and helped one another out at work. We partied together and sometimes stole one another’s lovers. We worked our asses off for the man selling highly processed foods while we abandoned the co-ops, run by a different breed of men.
Today, the food counter culture takes the form of foodies, gay and straight, who make a hobby of their love of food and food preparation, and locavores, people who are committed to eating locally grown foods. The first place I ever took my sweetheart (an unintentional introduction to Lee) was Sevananda, a co-op in Atlanta, Georgia. The small co-ops in Ashland, Oregon, Bloomington, Indiana, and all over the country, survive today by carrying pricey gourmet cheeses, offbeat wines and heritage tomatoes. Whole Foods may have co-opted the co-ops, but now farmers markets are great for meeting dykes while buying from the long hairs who are still growing and selling food.
Email Lee Lynch at email@example.com.