An OpenVillage Food Culture: Sidi Kaouki

ethno-openvillage-mena

#1

So it will come as no surprise to those who know me from LOTE and OpenVillage Festival 2017 that the primary area that draws my interest when it comes to creating the culture of OpenVillage spaces is how a group of people living and working together choose to structure the creation and consumption of food.

Like disposal of (human) waste (and in an Edgeryders OpenVillage – the provision of wifi Internet!) it is the one of the unavoidable necessities of social / group life. Like death and taxes it seems!

I was particularly drawn to the idea after the discussions between @matthias and @alberto following the early visit to the house in January, when thing were still getting going, I wanted to see how things had settled in to place following the arrival of the stable core members of the project teams.

I found a very strong team of people who obviously love food, both eating and preparing, and shared many wonderful meals with them all. Meeting for breakfast, often lunch and always for dinner together. It was a good opportunity to catch up with people after a full day of doing different things, but not always as structured as it could be.

Some thoughts / observations / suggestions follow:

  • There will always be those within a group who do not want to cook. There skills may lie elsewhere. This is acceptable, but needs to be easily available information, given without a value judgement. How the ‘value’ of some people always doing certain duties is balanced with the ‘value’ of those doing other duties is for people much better at economics and currency than me to understand.

  • There will often be those who may not want to eat at the same time as others. This needs to be considered better in a group situation. There is the danger of creating a ‘tyranny of dinner time’. Especially if there is no set time for food to be prepared. The requirement to 'down tools (digital or otherwise) and attend the communal meal often with limited warning, and varying times of day can cause frustrations. I would suggest a visible opt-out system, so that, say around lunchtime anyone who did not wish to be included in evening meals would write their name on a self-catering list in the kitchen. I have experience of this system working at a month-long arts residency last summer. Every person there chose to opt out of communal dinner at least once a week, but there was always a communal meal taking place each evening. All comms was done through face to face and through shared whiteboards added to throughout the day. We even managed it one day when we had all taken a 24hr vow of silence! So it’s doable under extreme circumstances.

  • A varied cuisine, prepared by diverse members of the community of the space is a great way to share and gain a better understanding of each other. I highly recommend it. However there is a danger involved when food prep times between cultures vary. During my 2 weeks at the house I noticed that when the Europeans were on food duty the prep and cooking time was often 60-90mins. More often than not one person working alone, with help from perhaps 1 other person. When MENA resident were on food duty prep and cooking times ran to 120-200 minutes and usually involved 3-4 participants in the kitchen. Food was always plentiful and excellent, but comparatively worth the 200% increase in human time investment? Probably not (in my opinion).

  • At least one meal a day must be at a structured regular time. I will always pick dinner as this meal as I think its best to discuss what has happened during the day and plans/ideas/hopes for the next day. But i also accept that i am not a morning person, so getting much out of me at a communal breakfast would be difficult. This also help everyone involved in the process plan better for the evening. If you know that food must be on the table at 7pm and takes 2 hrs to cook, you cant be going shopping for ingredients at 5:30pm.

These are all strategies for how to best structure the creation and eating of food in a system where many people are expected to contribute (mostly)equally to the cause. My gut reaction is that this system is probably not the best solution to a long term OV food culture across spaces. Here’s why i think that:

  • It relies too heavily on passionate amateurs. How many times can i cook for a group of people before it’s “Alex’s damn pasta dish” again?
  • The risk of competitive cooking (as discussed by @alberto and @matthias here).
  • In a permanent OV structure it is vital that more time is spent thinking about food permaculture. If you are growing more of your own food to eat then you have to plan better and be more responsive to natural abundance. Otherwise there’s so much need for shopping. As individual time cost for catering drops with larger numbers so there is a corresponding increase in time cost for resupplying (especially if your location is remote).
  • Isn’t the provision of food for groups in a live/work environment a valid project in its own right? Why must it be an addendum to another ‘valid’ project. Food permaculture extends outside of all spaces and is guaranteed to have immediate use and value in every locality. That’s why so many long-lived religious communities built themselves around the twin pillars of food and faith. Cheese, beer, wine, spirits, fruits, cured meats … there isn’t one of those products that didn’t support a monastery (and by an extension an entire local community) off the back of the food culture of the religious community within its walls.

My gut reaction is that in communities where the core membership of the OpenVillage space is going to exceed 8-10 permanent residents then one of those people has to be retained as a permanent head chef for the group. Perhaps with an allied project that looks at areas of food permaculture or food cultivation alongside, but where the kitchen, garden and local food community infrastructure are tied intimately together.

Anyway, much more to add, but for now, I thought I’d throw open to the platform for responses.


#2

ping @Sofien-Dahem @HadeerGhareeb @imake @natalia_skoczylas @hazem @islem @Ceylan
Interested to hear your views on the subject as the more permanent residents or those who were there at the same time as me.
Please don’t take anything above as personal criticism of what you are doing there.


#3

Very interesting – might be our deepest reflection yet into food and communal (and non-communal) eating.

Just a a couple of integrations:

  • Competitive cooking was, in my account of early days in Sidi Kaouki, a nice emergent property of communal living, not a bug! Everyone wins: the cooks get to show off, the non-cooks get to eat delicious treats.
  • This also eases up the problem of “Alex’s damn pasta dish again”. On that, I noticed that people have very different thresholds for food boredom: some can eat more or less the same food, day in, day out. Others get bored and restless. The former can enjoy your pasta dish for a very long time!
  • Resupplying in Kaouki was a nuisance when I was there, and I suppose it still is. Matera was way easier: someone would just walk to the nearest superette, and to some greengrocer’s. This would be a 10-15 minutes walk each way. In practice, I don’t think we can really beat logistics (as argued here). Kaouki is likely to be a one-off, with the next houses being either in cities or a short bike ride from commerce.

#4

Hey @alex_levene @alberto ,

Is there any projection of food autonomy (even partial) for the current and future open village houses?
It could possibly be a perspective of new roles being distributed around the food topic. Wich might balance more “widely” each and everyone investment there.

(Open gardening workshops)


#5

Thanks, lovely to read you. Culturally speaking, did you see hesitance to cook and eat the way others do it, or is this one of those situations where diversity completely wins the game because everyone brings something to the table, so to speak, and good management will only optimize it?

In a way, self selection in the house should already take care of that, because why would you want to experience coliving if you’re not open and curious about other ways…? Hm.


#6

I’ve not seen any reticence to explore a varied cuisine, there is inevitably a fusion of styles that occurs (like when @anique.yael created the unique Edgeryders version of Shakshuka :sweat_smile:) I think you’re right that there is an element of self selection that occurs. People willing to take that step into the unknown are often more likely to be adventurous when it come to food.

But it does bear thinking about in more detail. Especially if you want to think about how the culture of food is shared between OV locations. I had an interesting discussion with @nadia a while back about how within shared living spaces, there is the tendancy over time to default towards the most extreme needs in the cultural set up: e.g. if 2 vegans are in a squat; the whole squat is vegan.

This poses a potential point of friction within a more fluid set up such as OV. If people are cooking for everyone, but have to take into account the changing dietary requirements of visitors and temporary guests how does that square? I can cook a huge variety of dishes that use meat, a handful of vegetarian dishes and maybe 2-3 vegan dishes. Would the long term residents of an OV space be expected to change their cooking habits to make allowance for the visitor, or visa versa? All relevant and pertinent questions i think.

I’m not suggesting that there is a one-size fits all for the whole OV, but i think its a case of the situation being explicit to all participants. “if you go to x, it is a vegan space” “if you go to y, it’s a omnivorous kitchen garden space,” etc…


#7

Yeah, having someone in charge to manage expectations.
All in all, I dont see this as a big problem - diverse enough dishes, diverse enough cooks (which means offering anyone the opportunity to probe their talent and risk “innovations” :)). The thing which i find more worrying is avoiding waste…
What I do in my house (smaller coliving as we know) - I have days regularly when I just clean the fridge: pick products close to date (or even overdue!), eat leftovers, get creative with assembling what’s there into a dish. It’s more of a secret behavior, but in a larger group I wouldnt mind putting it forward as a proposal.


#8

This is a basic when it comes to recepies history of creation. Famous plates included indeed.


#9

hey @alberto
I agree that the competitive cooking side of things is a pleasant side-effect. But i wonder if it extrapolates out in a permanent living space. Would i find it frustrating to constantly have to masterchef for the group every time i cooked? possibly. Especially if on to of that I was also running a separate project.

also, even with hyper local resupply options it still adds time cost. I’m not sure that the Sidi group have really got the bottom of the distribution of duties when it comes to shopping for food. Ultimately the chef must be responsible for buying the required ingredients or communicating all the options. That adds to the daily responsibility. Or, say I choose to shop on a different day to the day I cook, I must also make sure that the supplies I purchase aren’t used up in the interim. Again, fine for a few weeks if mistakes occur. But long term, frustrations are going to build up.


#10

I don’t know what the ‘plan’ is, long term. Like Alberto says above this is probably the first time we’ve had a specific discussion about how the culture of food fits into the Open Village idea. Which is strange when you think how integral it is to the whole enterprise.

Personally, I think we have to build a high %age food autonomy into any permanent OV space. It would be very un-edgy to not do so.
Like you suggest, it also gives a clear outreach opportunity to the spaces, linking up OV participants with the communities that they sit within. Perhaps we can teach, perhaps we can learn; either way there needs to be space within to experiment with autonomy. Either as a garden or as a hydro/culture.


#11

We did pretty well avoiding food waste. Especially with leftover cooked food. It helps that both me and @matthias are strong believers in ‘bread washing’ our plates, bowls, dishes, saucepans…


#12

I can only offer my own experience, which is limited.

unMonastery (population = ~10): quite some masterchefing going on. On the other hand, it means you are only cooking once every 4-5 days. Plus you volunteer for it, so you are likely to volunteer when you feel like cooking anyway. So, maybe that’s the day when you want to show off, most of the times.

The Reef (population = ~4): very little masterchefing. People do not seem to feel pressure (I certainly don’t). Occasionally somebody will feel like putting a little more effort (it happened to me after reading this post by @alex_levene!), and then we will do so.

My hunch is that it depends on numbers. Larger numbers => better food… but only up to 10-12, probably, cooking for 50 people has completely different logistic implications.


#13

I remember a pop festival in Sweden where they just decided to make the whole thing vegetarian and only allowed vendors selling vegetarian and Vegan dishes on the festival grounds. Angry meat eaters (many of whom were never going to attend the festival anyway) raged on in the media to the entertainment of the rest of us. I think it was a smart move and anyway people eat too much meat, risk of bad handling and food poisoning etc. Just keep it simple.


#14

Also, vegetarian food is cheaper. Bean-based protein is the most cost-effective protein. Combining food to make complete protein dramatically reduces the cost of living. Those who demand a more meat-based diet should at least understand the economics of that. One compromise is Asian-style cooking that uses meat much more sparingly.


#15

Could you remind me of what to combine? Soybeans and … something. Tried to tell @komitas about that as he is himself vegetarian, but could not remember the second ingredient of that magical combination you mentioned while you were here in Sidi Kaouki …


#16

Basically it is combining legumes with whole grain.
Pinto beans and corn - the classic of Mexico.
Soy and rice (brown being better than white).
Chick peas and bulgar.
Are some examples.
It is not necessary that they be eaten at the same time. And eating whole grains, legumes, fresh vegetables in variety and avoiding overly processed food will do the job for you. And really, a varied diet of legumes, whole grains and fresh vegetables (fruit good but not as a substitute) and tubers will keep you strong and healthy.

My own experience at The Farm was that we became total vegans before we really knew how to do a correct diet for it. Like a lot of “new age” types, we got on the brown rice bandwagon early and our meals were dominated by rice and veg stir fry.

When we moved onto the land and had to work at hard physical labor all day, we discovered the problems in our diet. We never fully solved it until we started pressure cooking soybeans and making other soy products like tofu. And around that same time we discovered that a certain kind of nutritional yeast is a good source of vitamin B12 that is not an animal product. Once we got that going, we would work hard all day long and not get fatigued. Soybeans must be cooked with a pressure cooker or they will never get soft enough. And not everyone loves to eat them. So there is that. But it is amazing how much more cheaply one can eat.

But again, if you don’t have a pressure cooker and don’t want to eat soy then go with whole grains, legumes and fresh vegetables.


#17

Dear Alex, I enjoyed reading you! My thoughts briefly on that topic:

I love the idea of heaving someone in charge for the kitchen and food supply. We do this in our Wir bauen Zukunft project too. This person is responsible for checking what we need to buy, how many people are currently eating on site…I also believe it’s important to check on for example what needs to be cooked each day, because it will get bad. For me I had difficulties with one thing: in the mornings everyone made breakfast for themselves. So the ones that ate first for example used up the bread and the ones eating later did not have any left. So for me this is very new, because even though there is no “we all eat together” rule in the mornings, I always look how many people are already awake and ask around who wants to eat. Then I also think about who might not have eaten, to make sure there is enough. Also I noticed in Sidi that there is not a big responsibility with the water issue. Meaning while I was there it was the same people getting water from the well. A kitchen manager could also check on that task and find different people to get water.

In general I liked the way dinner was prepared. It seemed organically to me. One thing I noticed is: the same people cooked together. There was no change in the group structure. But that’s maybe because people like to cook with the people they want to spend time with anyways?

Overall for me, a community short term or permanent needs a community manager or at least a kitchen manager, making sure that tasks regarding the kitchen for example keep running smoothly or at least keep running. It would also help to agree on a set of “recommendations” in the beginning. As for example what does “a clean kitchen” mean? If everyone has the same view and agrees on the same factor it is much easier to stick to those “recommendations”.

So long! I would have loved to stay longer and be a part time community manager. Maybe next time! :slight_smile:

I always stick to this three sentences: sometimes I swap 1 and 2

  1. first thing to do in the day is something for the community
  2. second thing to do is something for yourself
  3. always leave a place nicer than you found it!

Love Ceylan


#18

Fortunately, these logistic issues were not very common and someone would usually go and fix the shortage - but I am pretty sure that if some of us, who ended up doing things more often than others, would eventually grow frustrated without some kind of division of tasks and clear responsibilities. I was happy to do more because I stayed for a shorter time, in terms of supplying the space, but I could also see some people who also came for a brief moment felt not responsible for neither cooking nor water or dishwashing. Maybe it was a lack of communication.

I also think having a community manager would be very helpful - and I could always do it for our projects on site. This would make easier both logistics, by having someone to check on tasks and hurry up the slackers, but also to develop some program and build and eventful space. I think we did it very well with Matthias in Nepal - we organized plenty of various meetings in just 3 months, and created a pretty amazing network, in times when the internet was scarce and the country in pieces. I’d be happy to brainstorm and prepare another iteration of an OV keeping these ideas in mind and to adapt them to local reality - which needs to be carefully considered in case of countries with very different cultures, religions, and customs. It could have been an extremely enriching time if we, for example, managed to create more informal meetings and exchanges with the locals - for sure our residents from MENA region had a bit of an easier start, language-wise, but for me it’s a pity that the space is so isolated and I have to now catch up learning about Morrocco travelling on my own :slight_smile:

Ok, that’s off the food topic. Coming back to it - i think it would be great if we dedicate a big portion of our next festival to food talking, as Alex has already suggested.


Being a being on the edge
#19

I have never lived in a group situation where all the work was evenly shared by all in a natural self-organizing way. But I have seen it become that way after a group sits down and talks it over and finds a balance.


#20

Hey Celan,

Lots of great ideas in your post. I definitely agree with the need for a set of recommendations that would be visible in the kitchen space so that everyone knows what the basic level of expectation is: e.g. no dirty dishes left on the side/in the sink
I also like the idea of having something to make it clear when food is coming towards the end of its usable life (easy for vegetables, harder for processed food) I would recommend using something like they do in commercial kitchens in the UK, which is to put a day sticker on all products on the day they enter the house (can also be used for leftovers after they have been cooked) That way each person who buys food is responsible for labelling the day they went shopping.
It also means that 3 days later the person in the kitchen has some idea of what is ready to be used, what needs to be thrown away, what is fresh and what needs using first, etc. Maybe even a special box that sits in the fridge and on the table that says “i’m about to be thrown away, eat me quick” to encourage people to not waste food. That’s something that could easily be done whilst people are preparing breakfasts for themselves/others.
The water issue i think is likely to be unique to Sidi Kaoki, but it is worth highlighting. I had a couple of occasions where i asked other people (that i noticed weren’t always carrying their weight) to accompany me on a water trip. Once the person refused, but generally people offer to help when asked. I guess the question is if its possible to have a system where volunteering to do a necessary task is preferred over being asked. Otherwise there is a burden on some members of the community to always be remembering what is needed.
Again, this is about having clear guidelines for everyone in the space. And as it is ultimately the people living in the space that police these guidelines in needs to be explicit rather than implicit to avoid confrontational situations, or miscommunication of meaning.