Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Food Coop

LUCY BURDETTE: You've all met our Jungle Red friend Pat Kennedy before. She garnered a lot of press for her post on Bad Boyfriends. A couple of weeks ago we were chatting online and the subject of food coops came up. I remembered carving up giant blocks of cheese in a member's garage after the delivery. Pat remembered--well I'll let her tell it!

PAT KENNEDY: Food Co-ops.  Remember them?  Back in the 1970s, a food co-op suggested more than just a whiff of “hippie-dippy” oddity.  Except perhaps the Milton Food Co-op, founded and run by a group of solidly middle-aged suburbanites.  I don’t think that any of the women wore a head-bandana, or love beads, or fringed vests.  And not one of the guys had a scraggly beard grown down to tickle his navel.

Our co-op members worked together to bring in wonderful produce from the Chelsea Markets in Boston, “whole foods” in bulk like rice, beans, dried fruits and more (all before there was a Whole Foods food chain).  We had cheese and spices and fish too! I like to think that the food co-op movement kick-started the foodie culture in this country.
Food co-ops were gentle rebellions against what was available at that time in local grocery stores. “We should be eating fresher, ‘healthier’ foods – and have more options.”  At least that’s what our leaders told me.

As a young mom – and one from the Midwest at that – I had had a very vanilla relationship with the world of food up to that point.  Until I moved to New England, I had never eaten squash, nor any kind of cheese other than Velveeta, the Parmesan-shake-powder put out by Kraft, and possibly Cheeze Whiz (can’t remember when it was first marketed).  Don’t even ask about seafood.  But I did have a sense of culinary adventure, trying out a Julia Child recipe every week from her early TV shows, buying exotic spices  for those recipes (tarragon!) and was eager to taste and experience new foods. 

Imagine my surprise at Swiss chard – big fat, black-green bunches of it.  “What do you do with this?”  And hunks of Emmenthaler cheese!  I was even amazed at the different types of potatoes, and more surprised at all those squash varieties.

Now “food co-op” engenders a time and place that has vanished.  I suppose that people who are interested in food co-op-ing now belong to a CSA and get their produce directly from the growers.  Today, I could only find two food co-ops in the Boston area where I live (Jamaica Plain and Cambridge, naturally).   Here’s a link to a directory of food co-ops across the country.

But still I wonder if there are still young folks who never enjoyed an acorn squash baked with butter and brown sugar, or had shreds of kale floating in a soup, or had a luscious crust of melted Gruyere over Julia Child’s Potato and Sausage Casserole.

So dear Reds and other friends, did you ever belong to a food co-op?  And when did you give up the  toasted Velveeta cheese sandwich (on Wonder Bread, of course) for a grilled cheddar and Granny Smith apple on whole grain bread?   

Patricia Kennedy is a marketing consultant for healthcare organizations. She lives in Boston with her husband Joe, both wonderful and adventurous cooks.  For more information on Pat,


  1. ::Sigh::
    No food co-ops in my past and now that I’ve read this, I feel like I’ve missed out on something special.
    [But there’s no Velveeta cheese on Wonder bread in my past, either . . . I’ve always baked bread, just like my mom.]

  2. Grandma Getze was babysitting me at her house. She told me to watch the window, let her know when her sister Edith (my aunt) walked by on the way to the store. When Edith went buy, I jumped up to tell Grandma, and off we went -- me and Grandma scurrying down to Edith's house with brown bags which we proceeded to fill with ripe plums from Edith's backyard tree. Grandma's Co-op.

  3. Pat, you brought back all my hippie memories. I know that co-op up over in Cambridge—Central Square was it?

    I grew up on the North Shore, so I miss seafood especially that of the crustacean persuasion. Corn beans, potatoes, squash… I force real baked beans on my family regularly. I make it in a pot I picked up at Durgin Park and carried it to California sure I would never find one there.

    When I was engaged, my father said, "But he put ketchup on the beans. Your mother cried all night." He had a way of judging people by the food they eat. "You can't move down south. They eat rice."

    "But we eat rice, Daddy."

    "You don't understand. They eat rice the way we eat potatoes."

    Steve and I are still married of course. What wouldn't keep a couple together better than having to prove a parent wrong?

    "He's not from the south, Daddy. He comes from New York."

    "But he eats rice."

  4. Many memories! In the early seventies my friends and I, in three separate group houses on the same street in southern California (on Balboa Island) belonged to the Laguna Beach co-op. It required work from members, so we'd pile into somebody's car and drive further down the Pacific coast. I'd had decent (not fancy) cheese at home, as well as whole wheat bread, since my mother read Adele Davis on nutrition, but I had never eaten a mushroom, a leek, or any kind of soy product. Back in our student digs we taught each other to cook and held frequent potluck dinners.

    In grad school in Indiana I shopped and did my member work at the Bloomingfoods co-op, which still exists. And when I moved to Medford I joined the Arlington food co-op and did my work stint in the co-op garden. One member, who I later learned was a Quaker, had given over her entire front yard to grow food in.

    So yes, food co-ops were a big part of my past and I miss them. Getting my bulk brown rice or wheat germ at Whole Foods just isn't the same. Some CSAs used to include work, or at least allow members to volunteer.

  5. Joan, you're so lucky to be a long time bread baker! And Jack, love the story about the plums!

    Reine, I know exactly what you mean about rice. My sister and I nearly croaked the year we were invited to a southern Thanksgiving dinner where rice was served with the turkey and gravy!

  6. Edith, I never lived in a group house, but like you, I had some friends who cooked together and learned all about healthy food, including soy products (among other things.) I tried recipes with the texturized soy protein product, but honestly it never in a million lifetimes really resembled ground beef:)

  7. Oh, Edith, how did I know your answer would be YES?

    And I met the writer, Pat Kennedy, in line waiting to pick up my order at a food coop. I had my baby (now 37) in my arms and Pat took one look at me and said, "You look like the picture of the author on a book I'm reading." Of course the author of that book was my sister.

    We belonged to that food coop for years until neither me or my husband had the time to put in the hours you needed to volunteer. For a while we tried a CSA -- there is such a thing as too much kale.

  8. Hallie, what a great story. =)

    No food co-ops in my past. We did belong to a CSA briefly, but we kept getting too much of certain things on some weeks, and it just went bad so we stopped. But the best was probably buying half a cow from a guy who just let the cows graze until they were mature, then took them to slaughter. Best.Steak. Ever.

    I wish I had more time to shop a farmer's markets, etc., but between day job, kids, activities, etc., well, let's just say the grocery store is so much more convenient.

  9. Yes, it is true. One of the best benefits of my co-op membership was meeting Hallie, a friend now of 37 years. And through Hallie, I met Roberta (aka Lucy) and Hank and many other wonderful Jungle Red folks. Interesting that my JR friends are foodies too, but my guess is that not one of them ever ate toasted Velveeta on wonder.

  10. Reine, I laughed out loud with the "eat rice the way we eat potatoes." My father was more horrified by my scrooge-like first husband than his eating preferences, but maybe that's because neither ate rice.

  11. Reine, yes the main co-op we dealt with was in Central Square -- Cambridge. We'd have to call and call and call hoping to get an open line to place our order. How well I remember that agony. It was way before email, of course.

  12. The Park Slope Food Coop near us is famous. Or infamous. See this clip from the Daily Show about the Palestinian vs. Israeli Humus Debate:

  13. Edith! Your mom read Adele Davis?? Warped us for life, I'm sure:-)My mom became a "health food nut" when I was in my early teens, but I don't remember that we ever ate badly even before that. In part because my parents loved to travel, and loved Mexico, especially the markets. Going to Guadalajara of Mexico City as a child, the food markets were the biggest treat.

    Anyway, I never belong to a co-op. Whole Foods Market in Dallas opened in 1984, at the height of my own hippy-mom bread-baking days.

    Now I belong to a CSA (although we call it a produce share.) We pick up from our delivery point (which just happens to be two blocks from my house.) My daughter and I usually share the share:-)

    But I have to admit I have yet to master the big curly bunches of kale, although I love the boxes of baby kale you get at the supermarket. And turnips defeat me. Anyone with a good turnip recipe, let me know.

  14. PS Obviously, can't type today. Apologies. Guadalajara OR Mexico City. And BELONGED to a co-op.

  15. Deb, there are NO good recipes for turnips. My German grandparents emigrated to Oklahoma in 1908 arriving in late October. They froze in a sod hut and subsisted on turnips all winter. Ever since, turnips are verboten in our households.

  16. Pat, thanks for such an interesting account of your food co-op experiences. Your mention of different cheeses reminded me of my father's love of cheeses. When we would go to Cincinnati for a doctor's appointment or to shop, there was a deli with lots of cheeses where my father always had to stop. There's nothing he enjoyed more than pushing cheeses on somebody to try.

    I've not had any experience with a food co-op, but I can imagine that my daughter, who is wholly into healthy foods, would belong to one if one existed near her. The closest I come to this sort of connection is the farmers' markets they have around my area in western Kentucky. At these local set-ups, you can get all sorts of vegetables, fruits, breads, and even flowers. Locally grown blueberries are amazing, but they ruin me for any store bought ones.

    Reine, you cracked me up with the rice eating tale. In the early days of our courtship and marriage, my husband, from western Kentucky, was perplexed at my family's more Southern eating. I grew up in Maysville, KY, which is on the Ohio River halfway between Cincinnati, OH and Ashland, KY. Anyway, we were more Southern there than they were in the western part of our state. We ate corn pudding, country ham with beaten biscuits, transparent puddings, and drank sweet tea. At least he came to appreciate the country ham and learn the difference between great country ham and mediocre.

    Jack, somehow I can fully imagine you scurrying down to pick the plums. Your grandmother must have been a great character. Deb, my mother-in-law actually loves turnips. I'll have to ask her how she fixes them. I've never worked up the desire to taste them.

  17. Hi Pat! I have never belonged to a food co-op, although there is a Co-op store here that I visit from time to time. As others mentioned, after reading this I feel I've missed out.

    Velveeta....For years, when my sons were on swim team, I helped in the snack bar. Our best seller was nachos. There is *nothing* nastier than opening a gallon can of congealed Velveeta and wrestling it into a slow cooker at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Turned me off cheese for life.

  18. Ramona, Velveeta is NOT cheese. It is a "processed food product." :-)

    You can imagine how much I embarrassed my daughter when she was playing soccer and softball and I brought juice and fruit roll-ups for snacks. Everyone else's moms brought Cokes and cookies or donuts...

    She's never let me live it down. But she's a great cook and a really healthy eater.

  19. Deb, I brought water and pretzels. Talk about uncool! LOL

  20. Yes, I was a member of a food co-op, and I miss it something awful. It was Sevananda, and it was located in the Little Five Points/Inman Park historical section of Atlanta. Very funky. Yes, run the by very people you mentioned - beards, beads and bandanas, including moi. I loved living in the neighborhood more than I can even express. We took turns working our hours in the store and ate healthy, delicious stuff while we sat around talking, talking endlessly. what lovely memories this has brought back!

  21. Such a fascinating topic--I was trying to remember what we had for dinner when I was a kid..spaghetti, I think, but I'm pretty sure my mother never made spaghetti sauce. I have a little memory of beloved Beefaroni. Sloppy Joes, and pot roast. Salads, though? nope...because I remember in the 70's when I discovered salad and it was the biggest treat ever.And those canned green beans. Wait--we had carrots and celery, definitely. Cheese? Cheese was--nope, I don't remember cheese.

    I think my food thing changed when I moved to Washington Dc...and gave dinner parties, all out of Joy of COoking and Julia Child. We all did it, right? And there was a lot of competition. I certainly remember that elaborate Julia Child onion soup--a big hit!

    NOw, where we live at least, its so easy to get beautiful food--we are so lucky. I wonder if Beefaroni is actually good--it can;t be, right?

  22. Hank, I bet our mothers were using the same meal rotation. Except we had liver and onions once in a while, which I completely refused. those nights us kids would get hamburgers fried to hockey pucks...

    Do you guys mean turnips or rutabagas? We loved rutabagas in our family--boiled until soft, then mashed like potatoes with butter and milk. a standby for Thanksgiving too!

  23. Hank, we never ever had spaghetti or any kind of "pasta" in our house because my Dad called it "jelly bug food." I'm not sure what a jelly bug is/was but whatever it was, it ate things like spaghetti, pizza and canned tamales (which I adored), Hostess Cup Cakes (the chocolate ones with the squiggle on top. Oh, dear. I am afraid I am clearly showing what a non food-co-op person I was until the great enlightening.

  24. Reading through the responses it started me thinking what foods I ate growing up. No fast food restaurants, that's for sure. I didn't realize just how typically Southern a lot of my mother's cooking was, but fried chicken was a staple for Sunday dinner, along with mashed potatoes and green beans. Always fresh green beans when they were available. No Colonel Sanders or shortcuts. My mother cooked. Sloppy joes from scratch, spaghetti, meat loaf, rump roast with potatoes and carrots, corn pudding, sliced tomatoes, and on and on. Good food. The one thing I wouldn't eat that I love now were salmon patties. My father would use left over mashed potatoes and make potato cakes. Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. Pimento cheese made from scratch (homemade mayonaise). Fresh ingredients do make such a difference.

  25. Now I want a recipe for salmon patties...

    "Jelly bug food" - got to love it.

  26. Travel day for me today, so I am reading this in the evening. When my husband and I were first married, he went to Boalt Hall Law School (UC Berkeley) & we shopped at the Berkeley Coop -- we were boycotting grapes and Safeway in those days. I could not believe all the wonderful produce! Once, when I had a job at a a nursery school in Berkeley, we were making fruit salad and I was told to "pick up some jicama" (???)

    When I moved to Chevy Chase, MD, I joined a vegetable coop (we distributed the food on Gloria Steinem's sister's front porch). Each family got a basket. I think it was $5/wk. (maybe $10) -- two people would go into DC to the vegetable warehouses and get a variety -- then divide the food up into baskets. There would always be some oddity along with our carrots and potatoes.


  27. Pat, I really enjoyed this. Brought back memories of various food coops I belonged to years ago--the hippie type, I'm afraid. Now, we live for the great farmer's markets all over Kansas City.

    Oh, you can mash boiled turnips with lots of butter, bake them with butter and cheese, and wash them and slice them very thin after soaking in icy water to serve raw in salads (crunchy like jicama). They're also good sliced into stirfry.

  28. I am a member of the Outpost food cooperative here in Milwaukee, which has expanded to three stores with another under construction. I shop there regularly, and also stop in to drop off things for recycling that my village won't take. I'm a life member. My sister, who moved back here a year ago, has rejoined it and-- a hangover from the old days-- still calls it "the co-op." I have to keep reminding her that it has a name, and is just one of several co-ops in the Milwaukee area. Are we behind or ahead of the times? (Milwaukee had a socialist government for a large part of the 20th Century. Co-ops make sense here.)

  29. Oh yeah, food co-ops! Common around Ohio State in the early 1970s, also at UMass Amherst. Bandannas, beards, and beads galore! But growing up? No need. Everyone had a garden, and my parents would try anything that caught their fancy. Turnips? Yes (and I still don't like them), peanuts (in northern Ohio?!--so good!). And lots of down home cooking--fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, biscuits and homemade strawberry jam, well, you get the picture! My mom was a great cook, but happy to indulge her kids in the kitchen, so someone was always trying something new once we were tall enough to stand on a chair to stir a pot!