The first time I ever cooked, I cooked for 25 people. I made a borscht that stained my hands purple for a week.
During the school year, I live with 24 other college students in a cooperative house. It’s a weird place. A Victorian mansion originally built in 1888 for the family of an illustrious lumber dealer, it’s been adulterated by nearly a decade of habitation by students.
The stately library is full of sagging couches and, in one corner, beer kegs. The dining room table is four tables pulled together where, squeezing in, you can fit 50 people during plus-one dinners — but usually it’s just the 25 of us, which feels more intimate than you’d think. A faux marble bust of Elvis looks over us while we dine.
Then, there’s the kitchen, which looks like it belongs in the back of a small restaurant with major health code violations. This is where we spend most of our time and where, for three hours every afternoon, two co-opers prepare the communal dinner. The dinner is never ready on time; it’s usually tasty but occasionally inedible, and it’s always vegan.
Simply put, veganism is abstention from eating animal products — not just meat, but anything that comes from animals. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. For example, most of the vegans in the co-op eat honey. But one of us doesn’t, and when I labeled honey-roasted Brussels sprouts as “vegan,” it was a bad day for me.
Some vegans won’t eat gummies containing gelatin, and others, if you take them to a Provincetown cookout, will cave and have a hamburger “just this once.” People become vegans for different reasons — it’s about health, or it’s a political decision, and, for some, it’s just nice to have an intentional relationship to food.
I’m not a vegan. Have you ever had duck confit? That’s why I’m not a vegan.
When I was eight, during a bout of political consciousness, I was a vegetarian. “Here,” my mom said at dinner one night, portioning food onto my plate, “have some chicken.”
“I would never,” I scoffed. The vegetarianism lasted about three days. The self-righteousness has persevered.
Those of us in the co-op have many things in common: we’re mostly queer, many of us are artists, we share politics. When you walk in the front door, you are greeted by a poster loudly declaring that “capitalism is a pyramid scheme.”
But food is what really brings us together. If someone busts ass to make a delicious dinner, it is met with rowdy applause. If someone doesn’t make enough food, it will be discussed at next week’s meeting.
We don’t have a president in the co-op; we have a steward of mediation, who resolves household problems, like determining how many cups of rice is appropriate for 25 people. I served in this role last year, but I wasn’t much good at it because I can’t do math, and I have a habit of rolling my eyes at any inconvenience.
My entire education in cooking has taken place in the co-op. Since that borscht, I’ve made shakshuka with chickpeas instead of eggs, tempeh tandoori with vegan naan, vegan chili, seitan “chicken” nuggets, lentil bolognese, and vegan vanilla cake with bananas instead of eggs. Not all of it comes out well, but everyone gets fed. I mostly cook with my best friend, Olivia. We play music and gossip and, when everything is on the stove or in the oven, we have a glass of wine and feel good about our handiwork.
A few times a semester, we have naked brunch, which is exactly what it sounds like. We shut the doors of the dining room and hang up signs that read “Do not open door if you do not want to see naked people eating.” We fry up some seitan “bacon,” make blueberry pancakes, and smear bagels with Tofutti.
There is nothing sexual about naked brunch. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite of sexual. Once, an infatuation that had been torturing me for an entire semester evaporated when a soggy pancake fell into the lap of my beloved. He picked it up and excused himself, the cheeks on his face bright red, his other cheeks lily white and rubbing together. I slurped down my oat milk, and my friends munched on their bacon and leaned back in their chairs, each of us content in our natural states.
Naked Brunch Bacon
A marinade that adds salty, smoky, and subtly sweet flavors to tempeh makes a delicious vegan addition to any brunch. I’ll let you do the math if you need to scale it down for a smaller brunch crowd.
4 8-oz. packages plain tempeh
4 Tbsp. avocado oil
¾ cup tamari
½ cup maple syrup
2 tsp. smoked paprika
½ tsp. cayenne
½ tsp. sea salt
A few of grinds of black pepper
Slice the tempeh into 12 very thin strips — you really have to get it slim if you want it to be bacon-y.
Whisk together the remaining ingredients to make the marinade. Marinate the tempeh for 15 minutes while you heat the oven to 400 degrees F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place marinated tempeh on the baking sheets, letting excess marinade drip off into the bowl — you will need it for brushing on the tempeh later.
Bake about 8 minutes. Remove baking sheets from oven, turn tempeh slices over, and brush with the remaining marinade. Return to oven and bake another 8 minutes or so until brown and crisp around the edges.