One of the jobs I love most at Twin Oaks is cooking, and after years of making dinners in our industrial kitchen, I’ve pretty much lost the ability to prepare meals for fewer than, say, 35 people.When I’m off the farm and cooking just for me, I’ll look up from chopping to find that I’ve diced enough carrots for an entire platter, instead of just the one or two I’ll actually eat. Same goes for how big a hunk of meat to buy, the number of sweet potatoes to roast, or how many peppers go in the salad. When I’m at Twin Oaks, the answer to almost every food quantity question is: A lot. Sure, you can over-do it here (and its a bummer when food gets composted because too much was made), but, in general, Twin Oakers tend to measure ingredients by the bucket, rather than by the cup. As you can imagine, the results of being accustomed to cooking for a hundred can be comical when you’re trying to make a romantic meal for two, and my unconventional cooking practices have left my non-Twin Oaks family more familiar with leftovers than they might like.
Still, despite my inability to cook for fewer than a packed room, I really appreciate my role as a Twin Oaks cook for the good things it’s brought me—a whole lot of confidence in the kitchen that I never had before, and an ability to keep my head on my shoulders when things don’t go as planned. Since dinner at Twin Oaks typically means at least two main dishes for about 100 people (with allergen-free smaller versions of each), plus around a half a dozen side dishes all prepared in only 5 hours, there’s a lot to go awry…and something usually does.
At four o’clock on my last dinner shift, things were going relatively smoothly. I had planned on a Southern inspired dinner, and there was beef stew boiling away in the pressure cooker, a vegan lentil version on the stove, the green beans and beets were already prepped, and mac and cheese, spicy grits, collard greens and two different kinds of corn bread were already in the works. While the two other folks on the dinner shift continued their tasks, I went to check on the main course—the beef stew—to make sure it was getting close to finished so I could work on something else. As I went to unscrew the last gasket on the gigantic pressure cooker, though, I encountered a major set-back: rather than actually unscrewing the top connecty-bit on the lid from the cooker itself, the plastic knob just unscrewed itself entirely, falling off in my hand and leaving a searingly hot metal pin wedging the lid and pot firmly together. My stew was completely unreachable.
After banging at it with a wooden spoon for several minutes, I brought Augie, one of the other cooks, in for a strategy session. We discussed simply putting the lidded pressure cooker out on the steam-table as it was, and instructing folks to treat it like a pinata— the first person to get it open would receive the special prize of boiling hot beef instead of candy. We also talked about just whacking at it until the metal pin broke, or letting the whole pot cool down in the fridge to see if that might cause some shrinkage and allow the two pieces to separate. When none of those plans seemed workable, I decided on a new tactic: tools.
One of the many benefits of living at Twin Oaks is that you’re never far away from a working wood-shop, or from someone who knows their way around fixing almost anything. So, at the height of my dinner shift, I left the kitchen entirely and ran down to the Courtyard to raid the wood-shop for wrenches, ratchets, and hammers. Not being a particularly handy person myself, I wasn’t sure what to get, but I happened to run into Red just as I was leaving. After listening to me breathlessly explain the problem, he smiled, and recommended a couple of items that he thought would do the trick. He even walked back up to kitchen with me, where I proudly announced to Augie that I’d brought both tools and reinforcements!
Within a few minutes, we’d gotten the pin loosened with just a little adjustable wrench, and I finally managed to pull the lid off the pressure cooker and get to the stew inside. Even when it was all over, though, I still left the other tools—more wrenches, the ratchet, and the gigantic metal mallet that looks like it means serious business–next to the stove top for the rest of the shift, just in case something else went wrong. At Twin Oaks, it’s good to expect the unexpected.