Part 1: Common Meal Practice Run - 2016 Interview
“My illness is messing with my brain, making things fuzzy. But this kind of stuff, I can’t forget it.”
The cohousing world lost a pioneer and community mentor in the Summer of 2016, Joani Blank of Swan’s Market Cohousing in Oakland, CA. A fierce advocate for the power of community, all who knew her have stories to tell.
I had the privilege of interviewing Joani by phone a few months before her passing. She kept me on my toes, and soon I’d strayed far from the list of questions I’d written.
It was obvious, immediately, how crucial she considered breaking bread in community to be, saying “Cohousing without common meals isn’t cohousing at all…” The biggest key Joani gave to establishing a successful common meals practice is to move into your community with a plan already in mind. She plugged talking to existing communities, to gather info about what works well and what doesn’t.
Joani is credited for initiating a “practice run” idea for forming groups to get a sense of the mechanics of well-run common meals. She suggested finding an established cohousing to practice at before moving into your own community. You'll bond over the process, learn in a gentle trial-by-fire, and get into a cooking rhythm.
So, how do you organize a practice meal? Here are Joani’s step-by-step tips:
1. When feasible, find an established local cohousing to lend you their common house kitchen for a meal. You may have to reach out to a few to make a connection.
2. Spread publicity about the practice meal to your members. A community email list is an obvious way, but don’t forget to mention at meetings and in-person too.
3. Include prospective members in the meal as well, not just your core group. Don’t put limits on who’s able to attend – you want everyone to have the experience.
4. Have your group choose 3-4 people to be cooks for the meal. The cooks will be involved in the full process, from menu planning to clean-up. Have them orient themselves with your cohousing host’s kitchen setup beforehand so it’s not a surprise day-of.
5. Menu planning can be an overwhelming thing in itself to new groups. Think simple: pasta/lasagna, a big salad and garlic bread. Ice cream’s always a crowd pleaser.
6. Talk to your group about preferences for noise level and meal timing, and choose your day for the practice run. Joani recommended an early dinner on a Sunday, say at 4:30 or 5pm. You don’t want it too late for families with young children. She found Sunday meals gain the highest interest and attendance. Through the planning process, she recommended not letting small challenges hang you up. Choose a day and stick with it.
7. Ensure all the pieces are in place. This includes planning for someone to do childcare during the meal in intergenerational communities. Likely you’ll want to hire this task out so the whole community can participate, unless a teen in the community’s willing to do it.
8. Figure out how many people to expect for the meal. Have your community sign-up and ask questions about food preferences: are you vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, or do you have any other food intolerances or allergies?
9. Once the cooks have shopped, it’s prep time. Allow plenty of time for cooking that day (longer than you anticipate) so you’re not rushed to get food on the table.
10. Sit down as a community and bask in your success: a great first common meal, cheers!
Stay tuned...I’ll be posting Part 2 of Joani’s common meals advice soon.