Cooking Up Community


Recently I wrote my first piece for GradHacker (to appear in a couple weeks) in which I talked about food and cooking and the benefits of joint meal preparation for academic communities.  In it I make the point that cooking together is a nice way to acclimate to a new region, get a feel for local foodways, and support local businesses. It also promotes physical and emotional wellness by creating social situations within academic communities that can tend to be isolating.  It also provides new members of our ever-transient circles opportunities to contribute their own regional and cultural flavors to a group.

Nights out at the bar after seminars and pot luck gatherings are good too.  But what I’ve always enjoyed is the communal process of food preparation.  I like watching what other people do in the kitchen and observing and adapting new techniques I can use myself.  I also enjoy the kitchen atmosphere and the conversation that can flourish with multiple people concocting their own dishes.  Often these casual gatherings, I find, yield more insightful discussions of history than I’ve ever heard emanating from a seminar room.

Far from being an expert chef, I do enjoy cooking and I find its a useful pastime for collecting my thoughts about projects I’m working on.  When I get stuck with my research or writing I’ll repair to the kitchen to make some salsa or a salad.  Sometimes I’ll bake cookies, but more typically on these occasions I’ll gravitate to those things that don’t require precise measurements or procedures—things I can do on autopilot.  It helps to do something useful with my hands when I’m trying to sort through things in my brain.

Community cooking also enables those living in dormitories or temporary housing situations to roll up their sleeves and dice some onions.  It also presents an opportunity to use ingredients that we might, due to volume or price, be disinclined to purchase for ourselves.  And of course, the enterprise very often yields prodigious quantities of leftovers that can sustain the busy academic through a week of irregular hours, heavy reading, rolling deadlines, and burdensome grading.

As the new semester gets underway, consider some of these communal cooking ideas and recipes and throw together an impromptu department gathering to sling some food.  If you have some winning concoctions, do share them in the comments.

Black Bear Blueberry Zucchini Bread
Never anger friends with gardens.  Recently a friend brought a zucchini.  A prehistoric zucchini!  This thing was gigantic–big enough to warrant a google search for 15 things one might make with zucchini.  Because Mainers know it’s also harvest season for the low bush blueberry, which can generally only be purchased fresh by the quart, this one made perfect sense and had the added merit of being sensational!

From, image only, not the recipe

3 eggs, 1 cup vegetable oil, 3 tsp vanilla extract, 2 1/4 cups sugar, 2 cups shredded zucchini, 3 cups flour, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp baking soda, 1 tbsp cinnamon, 1 pt blueberries (non-Mainers can settle for canned or frozen)

mix eggs, oil, vanilla & sugar.  Fold in zucchini.  Sift flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon.  Fold in blueberries. Transfer to pans. Bake 50 minutes at 350.  Cool on rack.

Rob’s Resource Rich Risotto
Risotto is fantastic community food.  It’s rich and filling and can be made more or less by the seat of your pants once you grasp the basics.  It also creates work for many hands.  Once you add the rice it needs to be continuously stirred–so if you’re going solo you need to have all your other ingredients prepared beforehand.  With a team though you can have others contributing as the dish cooks.  I find one cup of arborio rice will create a risotto to feed 4 to 6 people as an entree, and more if used as a side dish.  This one is a lemon risotto that I’ve made recently, which is a fantastic side for a white fish, and a very simple process to make.

Image from

I start with a base of onion or shallot and garlic, sauteed in oil with whatever herbs the spirit moves me to pluck from the window sill.  On medium heat, add the arborio rice and cook for a minute or two stirring continuously.  The rice will absorb between 4 and 5 cups of liquid as you cook it–added a cup or so at a time.  I usually do the first cup with white wine, the next three cups with chicken or vegetable stock, and the rest (if needed) with water.  Add the wine and stir continuously until it is completely absorbed by the rice.  Repeat with the stock and water until you have the consistency you want.  Add the juice and zest of one lemon and some asparagus, chopped in thirds and added directly if you like it al dente, or steamed a bit in advance if you prefer it softer.  Finally, stir in a half cup or so of parsley and about a half cup of shredded parmesan cheese (grated will work too).  In place of the lemon and asparagus you can substitute just about anything.  I usually like my risotto vegetarian, but you can also make it with pretty much any kind of meat as well.

Katherine’s Castlegregory Meat Pies
(Traditionally made on Pattern Day, in mid August, but for most places in the US, a process better suited, I think you’ll agree, to fall or winter)
Oven Temp: 180 deg C, Gas Mark 4-5 (350 to 360 F)
Filling: 2 lbs Diced Mutton (include a little fat), Salt and Pepper
Pastry:  2 lbs. Plain White Flour (7 cups), 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp Bread Soda, 2 ozs Margarine (half stick) 1 1/2 pts Buttermilk (about 3 cups)

Sift flour, salt, bread soda. Rub in margarine.  Add buttermilk and make a nice soft dough. Knead lightly.  Break off pieces of dough about 2″.  Roll into a ball.  You should end up with 24 balls of dough.  Roll out on floured board to size of a saucer.  On a dough circle, place some of the meat filling to within 1/2″ of edges.  Cover with another circle.  Pinch the edges to seal.  Make a slit on top.  Repeat with rest of dough and filling.  Put on floured baking tray and bake in pre-heated oven until nice and brown.

Mutton Soup
Put mutton bones in a saucepan with salt and pepper and a little diced onion.  Cover with cold water and bring to a boil and simmer for 60 to 90 minutes.  Strain.  Before serving pies put them into soup and simmer until nice and soft.  Serve immediately.

Pies can be eaten hot out of the oven, if preferred.  And my favorite part of the recipe: If you don’t care to make your pies from scratch, you can get them in just about any pub or restaurant in the village on Pattern Day.

Clio’s Cream of Carrot Soup
4 tbsp butter, 1 onion chopped, 6 carrots sliced, 1 stalk celery with leaves chopped, 2 medium potatoes peeled and diced, 2 sprigs parsley, 5 cups Chicken Broth, 1 cup heavy cream, Salt, pepper.

Image only from

Melt the butter in a large pot and add onion, carrots, celery and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add potatoes and parsley and stir until coated.  Stir in stock and cook, partially covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.  Put through a food processor or blender on puree.  Return to the pot, stir in cream, add salt and pepper and reheat without boiling.

This is more or less the recipe as it appears in the Fannie Farmer cookbook, but I usually replace the cream with about a half cup of whole milk.  Heavy cream is just not something I keep around.  And I always add garlic (as to all things) and increase the celery and experiment with whatever herbs I have about.  There are some great variations on it with ginger or curry as well.  The great thing about soups is that they almost always reward imprecision and experimentation!  And again, it can be a great fall or winter entree, especially if served with a nice homemade bread, or an appetizer–perhaps as a prelude to risotto or meat pies.

Academia can foster an odd lifestyle.  And much as we try to prevent it, the oddity will manifest itself in our food preparation regimes and patterns.  These ideas are deliberately long and a bit involved so as to foster some conversation and community with colleagues and friends.  But a whole separate post might detail ways we can adapt our food preparation to meet the other challenges of academia as well:  namely long hours, limited facilities, and, for those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder, abject poverty.  But as orientation and meet and greet season is upon us, this seemed as good a place as any to start!

3 thoughts on “Cooking Up Community

  1. Pingback: Community, Wellness, and Economy: It’s What’s for Dinner | GradHacker

  2. You can’t cook with too much garlic. Its not possible. Fantastic blog sir! I am a graduate student at Umaine who is similarly in love with food, especially growing it and consuming local ingredients. Congrats on the gradhacker position!

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