Fringe Food

Concocting Community Since 1999

  • Photos by Erin Sparks

Lined up at that familiar midday queue on the seventh floor of the Hall building, I turned to the person in front of me to ask if they wanted to hear about the first line-up I ever stood in at The People’s Potato.

There was no reaction, no visible hint that they had heard me. I repeated myself, with the same outcome, before migrating my tale to the person behind me.

Perhaps it was due to the overwhelming sense of anticipation experienced by these Potato-goers—thoughts of a fresh, succulent plate of vegan nourishment trampling all other perception—or perhaps it was simply the wrong end of those few hungry minutes before lunch, but neither diner would humour me in my memoirs.

As The Link has kindly agreed to let me foist an odd array of gastronomic opinions upon their entire readership, I will instead take this opportunity to regale readers with my tale. Don’t worry, there might even be a point to it (but you’ll have to read to the end of the article to find that out).

My first line-up at the People’s Potato is, in my mind, the first ever line-up in People’s Potato history (though my timeline might be off, or previous unpublicized servings may have occurred). It wasn’t so much of a lineup as a patchwork of aloof and—dare I say it—hippiesh individuals (of which I proudly counted myself) awkwardly eyeing up a small table on the seventh floor of the Hall Building.

We had been told that at some unknown point, free food would appear on this table. And so we waited, patiently, for about half an hour whereupon, to our amazement, a pot, ladle and array of mismatched dishes emerged from some undisclosed location, with a smiling, curly-haired man in tow. The man was was Zev Tiefenbach, the year 1999, and the first publicly-held vegan meal had been served in the Hall Building.

And so…we ate a lovely bowl of dahl.

I can already sense this tale has backfired: not only is it more anticlimactic than my grandmother’s recent depiction of her reunion with a childhood friend after a fifty year separation (To quote: “I said hello. They were awfully glad to see me.”), but more crucially, it makes me feel old as hell.

However, if there is one thing worth dwelling on, it’s this: I could never have predicted that such a humble meal would, barely a decade later, lead to one of the nations’ most respected community food organizations. Even before returning for a scrumptious plate of vegan fare this past Tuesday, I was well aware that the People’s Potato had since become a model for a healthier, more inclusive way to share food in public.

In the years that followed its modest first serving, the Potato has made dizzying headway: it has secured kitchen space in a corporately-run cafeteria, forged long-lasting relationships with local farmers, published cookbooks, catered countless social justice events, published cook books, hosted workshops and all in all helped set the bar for what a food collective can achieve. I asked Gustavo Rodriguez, a longtime collective member, how it was possible for the Potato to accomplish so much in such little time.

“It all comes down to our clear constitution, which has stayed the same since the beginning,” he said, adding that food security is the core of the Collective’s raison d‘être. “Food security is basically knowing where the food comes from, under what conditions, how it gets to you, how it’s prepared, and how it’s accessed,” he added, noting that the vast majority of People’s Potato initiatives stem from this basic root.

If you’ve eaten at the Potato recently, you will have noticed the scrumptious quality of their food, the lively energy at the serving counter, and the highly-efficient system of staff, volunteers and donations which allow everyone to become of the communal effort that is any meal. You might point out that every meal we eat in life, from unassuming pot noodles to lavish buffet, depends on a myriad of social and material relations. But you have to realize just how rare it was—and still is—for most of us to recognize this, let alone do something about it.

The People’s Potato are leading the way. They do it passionately. They do it well. And, as a bonus, they tend to make it fun. So while ‘food security’ may not come across as a term that has much to do with you (I, for one, never believed it to have much to do with me), it takes only one tasty dish, one new lunchtime, or one less chemical in our body, to witness its recurrent role in our daily life.

“I might be cutting veggies with an engineering student from India, a newly-arrived sociology student from Vancouver, and an immigrant from another country who is not a student. The most spontaneous conversations come up, and everyone has a point of view,” said collective member Gustavo Rodriguez.

“When I first arrived in Montreal, I didn’t know what the People’s Potato did,” said Rodriguez, who was born in Colombia and came to Concordia after studying in California. “I simply appreciated being able to eat and hang out with other people, being part of a community.”

While Rodriguez found such communality eating around ramshackle tables on the Hall Building’s seventh floor, he also found it in divergent ways as a Potato volunteer and, eventually, a collective member.

“Every day there is a social element to what happens here,” he said, “I might be cutting veggies with an engineering student from India, a newly-arrived sociology student from Vancouver, and an immigrant from another country who is not a student. The most spontaneous conversations come up, and everyone has a point of view. If it weren’t for this kitchen or this meal, we may not have had the chance to hang out.”

Despite the Potato’s highly accessible lunches and volunteering opportunities, not everyone can make it during opening hours, or necessarily feels comfortable in the kitchen. To counter such obstacles, Rodriguez told me that the Potato now offers a bi-weekly good food box, have published a new cookbook, and have extended the range of their Cooking 101 workshops.

Though the People’s Potato’s board members spend time fighting for high-level policy changes to assure the health and autonomy of individuals and communities in an increasingly corporatized foodscape, the day-to-day perks of a more ‘food secure’ world seem to revolve around the interplay between oneself and one’s surroundings, between the personal and the collective.

The mismatched band of hungry students hovering about that seventh floor table 12 years ago seemed to me at the time a vivid enough illustration of the crucial role of community food organizations in mediating social isolation. But years of involvement in collective cooking endeavours around the world (of whom the People’s Potato is nearly unmatched) have personally made me aware of just how far these connections can reach.

Rodriguez, for one, forms one drop in a steadily-refreshed pond of diners, volunteers and collective-members that have built the Potato over the past 12 years. Stories like his reveal that food security, at least the way The People’s Potato understands it, speaks to connections that span much, much beyond the walls of the seventh floor.

“I remember having to design a menu one day,” he said. “So I called up my mother to ask her how to make this soup she made me as a kid. It’s pretty cool to be able to cook something my mom used to make for me—and then have 400 people enjoy it!”

The People’s Potato serves fresh, vegan meals every day at 12:30 on the Hall Building’s 7th floor on a donation basis. for more information or to volunteer, visit peoplespotato.blogspot.com

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