The occupy food story

Devra Gartenstein tells the tale of her almost involvement in the non-event of the book of the food of the occupy movement.

Late last year, I saw a Facebook post announcing that the Occupy Wall Street folks were working on a cookbook. I shot them an email, asking if they needed an editor and a publisher. It turned out they were in the market for both.

A year ago, I accidentally started a publishing company, focusing on quirky, political books about food. I have yet to publish a book other than my own, but it’ll happen. In the meantime, I’ve been learning about editing and ghostwriting, and I’ve been exploring possibilities.

Occupy logoAlthough I’m undoubtedly a member of the ninety-nine percent, I never camped out or showed up at a demonstration. I own a small business—a farmers’ market concession—and from time to time I donated surplus food to my local Occupy Kitchen. I also donated an outdoor stove. You could say I’m a sympathetic outsider.

The Occupy Cookbook project was in its infancy when I tried to get involved. I spoke with the guy who’d spearheaded the endeavor, and he said he wanted to publish recipes by the ninety nine percent, for the ninety nine percent, focusing on making the most of inexpensive ingredients during hard times. The introduction would include essays about food politics, as well as an account of the early, heady days at the Zuccotti Park Occupy Kitchen, complete with photographs.

I lobbied for an inexpensive book, to go with the inexpensive food: a book for the ninety-nine percent. That meant passing up the pictures, and opting for simple black and white, mostly text. But he said he had great color pictures, and really wanted to create a coffee table book, a novelty item.

I was hesitant to broach the subject of money. At first he said that he didn’t want anyone profiting from the project, then he conceded that he really would like to earn a bit of money because he was doing most of the work and still had to pay his own rent. I proposed an arrangement where eighty percent of the profit would go to the organization, ten percent would go to him, and ten percent would go to me. I was nervous about using the word “profit”.

I was invited to participate in a conference call with folks from Occupy Kitchens all over the country. My contact was asking for recipes, dishes that cooks had been making in outdoor kitchens using donated ingredients. Someone suggested organizing the cookbook around ingredients that they tended to have in large supply, like devoting an entire section to peanut butter.

The last time I heard from him, he was still waiting for folks to submit recipes. He also mentioned that he wanted to include a section about how to score produce cheaply by going to the farmers’ market at the end of the day.

Needless to say, the book never happened. It’s tempting to draw conclusions about the entire movement based on my experience with a single individual, but I’d rather go in a different direction. I heard once that during the early, heady days of the French Revolution, the revolutionary state wanted citizens to dine together in the streets, but first they had to grapple with the question of who would actually serve the food in this egalitarian setting.

The tales that I heard from Occupy Kitchens involved bounty and scarcity, sharing and hoarding. Donations flowed; inspired cooks created miraculous fare in impressive volume from random ingredients (although the offerings didn’t always look as appealing as they tasted.) But there were inevitable issues around sharing food, and overworked cooks sometimes found themselves feeling resentful of the exhausting task they had taken on.

The Occupy Cookbook project ran into contradictions at every turn in part because the acts of preparing and serving food are so complicated, bringing so much joy and also carrying so much baggage. Cooking can be an art or a pleasure; it can also be sheer drudgery, a burden and an obligation. We all deserve to be fed but, in order for this to happen, someone has to be enlisted to feed us.

I hope that someday someone does have the opportunity to edit and compile these recipes. They’ll certainly tell a fascinating story.

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