Eating Our Hearts Out

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By Caitlin Morgan  |  Illustrations by Lila Volkas

It was in Cloyne that I learned how to eat.

Cloyne, the rambling, century-old, hotel-turned-co-op. Nearly 150 of us roamed its red-carpeted hallways during our time as students on the UC Berkeley campus. Reggae wafted from the windows down to the courtyard, where college kids were drinking 40s or shooting hoops or practicing handstands, doing the crossword or smoking weed, finishing homework or sunbathing naked. It was weird and it was romantic.

It was dirty, too. Take the dish room. It served as the anteroom to our industrial kitchen with its four six-burner stoves and three long, stainless steel tables. The pot room was separate, smaller and darker, filled with stacks of crusted pots and pans, the kind of place even Cinderella would have balked at. The dish room welcomed you to all of this, to the walk-in freezer, fridge, and pantry. After an hours-long work shift, you might find stacks of clean dishes and cups. Usually, though, it was bins and bins of dirty plates, and we either washed our own or—too lazy—ate off lids from yogurt containers, using old take-out chopsticks that no one had bothered to throw away.

In my parents’ house, which I had recently left, dinner went like this: The night before, all six of us outlined our various schedules: who was picking up whom, when we would all be home. Dinnertime was set. We stumbled in—my mother from work halfway across the state, two of my brothers and I from the high school two towns away, the youngest from middle school. My father, increasingly irritated with the chaos, finally herded us toward the small, round table. On it were salad and Newman’s Own salad dressing. Some sort of meat or fish. Rice or pasta or bread. No milk or juice at the dinner table, just water. Bakery-bought pie for dessert when we were lucky. We all yelled and teased each other mercilessly.

Cloyne multiplied this familiar pandemonium, hundredfold. Dinner went like this: Food was served at 6pm. Student cooks tried to make enough for 100, but never managed it unless it was particularly bad or the third curry that week and we left it in the serving dishes. By 5:57, the crowds formed. Head cooks yelled at anyone bold enough to poke their heads in from the dining room. If the food hadn’t appeared by 6:08, the clamor began. Forks and knives banged on the table in rhythm, sounding like a hungover summer camp, with a 17-year-old white guy trying to rap along. Cooks wove their way through the bodies to deposit huge trays of food on the tables, fighting off the snatching hands around them. Then it was free-for-all. We pushed as close as possible until we could grab a serving spoon from someone now sprinting to the next dish. My friends and I used the minutes before dinner to examine the butcher-paper menu posted on the wall, prioritizing dishes based on their popularity, guessing which cook would carry what so we could follow the right ones as they exited the kitchen into the fray. Meat was always in demand. Fish, too, unless it was tilapia, which it almost always was. We mobbed anything “special”—like homemade bread or sweet potato fries or bruschetta—anything that wasn’t rice or baked tofu or overdressed green salad.

If we arrived too late or the cooks had seriously underestimated portions, we moved to buckets of cereal or the brown bags of day-old rolls donated by local bakeries as if we were a homeless shelter. The more enterprising and skilled among us braved the kitchen—a war zone of abandoned baking sheets and vegetable scraps—and cooked a nice, one-portion meal with whatever we found in the refrigerator and pantry. My friend Aaron often cooked for me in his slow and intentional effort to break down the vegetarian: “It only has a little bacon in it, it’s mostly vegetables, but if you really don’t want it I’ll just compost it.”

Visiting parents either chuckled at this scene or experienced heart palpitations. Even co-opers from the other 16 houses in our organization were appalled by the anarchy of a Cloyne dinner. “We all line up,” they said, “and take one piece of everything.” Try getting between 75 and 150 people to line up, we said. It’d take ages to get food. And the last ones in line would get nothing. At least this way, everyone has an equal shot at some food. It’s democracy! Move over, they’re bringing out brownies.

My father prepared dinner by consulting his appetite—what kind of meat did he feel like eating?—and building a few vegetable and starch dishes around that central idea. He shopped almost daily, even though we lived in a tiny town 20 miles from a grocery store. Things did not and could not work like that at Cloyne. Our food manager, a student like all our managers, made orders through our central warehouse, which sent deliveries to us thrice weekly. We stocked the delivered goods into the plastic bins in our walk-in. And that’s what we had to cook. It was California, where even in the dead of winter we could get fresh, relatively local produce, and so it was part of the house ethic to buy only in-season fruits and vegetables. (How did we square this with our constant supply of Lucky Charms? Well … every family makes its compromises.) This meant figs in early fall: fresh figs that burst cold and seedy in my mouth in the walk-in, where I hid from the heat of a Bay Area September. Persimmons—harbingers of Halloween—arrived in late October. I had never tasted or even heard of the orange fruit, almost spicy in its boldness, the velvet of the flesh giving way after just a little pressure from the teeth. My first year I ate three a day, trying to make up for a lifetime without them.

It took me at least a year at Cloyne to eat in a way that could be termed “healthy”—in a way that was joyful instead of stressed. I had realized in my late teens that I was no longer the stick figure of my childhood, but I couldn’t figure out what my body was supposed to look like now, or how to force it into that shape and make it stay there. I worried, snacked guiltily, and occasionally snapped. I ate only fruit for breakfast and came home from class ravenous and light-headed. I ate one food group at a time because I didn’t recognize that my parents had already taught me how to balance a meal. On mornings after parties, I got up early to run before the hangover kicked in and kept me lazy and fattened. I counted every day as a day I had either gained or lost weight, a constant tally in a battle against myself. And when I got sick, which was often thanks to frequent saliva-swapping between people around me, I reckoned I had a free pass and furtively inhaled bowls of sugared cereal. I am not entirely sure how I got through this, except that I surrounded myself with women who assured each other that we were beautiful. And beneath the anxiety, I was learning to love food. My parents identified themselves as two types: live to eat (my dad) and eat to live (my mom). Neither approach seemed quite right. They were both missing the point of feeling good because the food itself was good in every way. I sensed that was how to eat, and kept trying until I got it.

So it was both accidental and inevitable that I ended up pursuing a degree and career in food studies. I arrived at Berkeley a staunch environmentalist, but with no idea of how to focus that intention. And here was a house stuffed full of kids who’d grown up in the province of Alice Waters. The face and words of Cesar Chavez were pasted on walls all over campus. Michael Pollan was holed up in the journalism school just across the street. We’d grown up in a society trumpeting health, suffering from obesity, and selling anorexia. The economy was crashing, the biosphere was crashing, and we looked around and thought, this is something we can do. We can eat and grow food that isn’t bad for us or for the planet. That’s the answer.

It still is the answer. And it’s not the answer, only one answer of many. But at the time, we clung to it like a lifeline. I could say that it was simpler then, but it wasn’t, because even then we were arguing over local butter versus palm-oil substitutes: Which was more ethical? Even then, we couldn’t agree on whether industrial organic was a saving grace or a death knell for sustainability. Even then, one kid railed against Monsanto while his best friend subsisted on bacon sandwiches, Coke, and cigarettes. We didn’t always see the ironies. We needed to believe something while we tried to see where life was going, while we tried to survive finals.

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At the end of every fall, Cloyne held a Special Dinner, and in spring, a Special Brunch. We said goodbye to each other and the semester. A team of cooks prepared food for four straight days, and on Sunday we feasted. The food adhered to a theme, and most of us took advantage of yet another excuse to dress up in a costume. At the end of my second year, we were all facing relocation so the building could undergo earthquake safety updates, melodramatically referring to ourselves as the Cloyne Diaspora. The theme that spring was Peter Pan, by which we really meant Lost Boys. This was not a mistake. We fancied ourselves overgrown lost children, old enough to have sex and do drugs, but not so much for responsibility or real purpose, which we craved and feared deeply.

Have you seen the movie Hook? In it, Robin Williams plays an adult Peter Pan, leading a dreary and corporate existence in the real world. All the magic has gone out of him. When he returns to Neverland to find his children, kidnapped by Captain Hook, he reunites with his Lost Boys. They have a feast of fantastically colored foods, and it quickly turns into a food fight. It is the moment when Pan remembers himself and how to play. That spring, we set up long tables in the courtyard. Dressed in green tights and fringed shirts, we gorged on meat and vegetables, keeping one eye on bowls of blue- and red-dyed potatoes and tapioca centerpieces. When most people had finished eating, the first food flew. I ran into the house and watched from big bay windows as my housemates flung handfuls of bright mush at each other, whooping and screeching and giving over entirely to insanity. And then they were out of food to throw. Potatoes dripped in clumps from the palm trees and basketball hoop. My roommate’s face was half blue with pudding. We got the scene right, but the sequencing was wrong; we had to deal with the mess. The maintenance team spent the evening unclogging showers, and I spent the evening sleeping off an ill-advised bong hit.

We all moved out a week later. I went to a smaller co-op where they hung signs in the pantry admonishing people not to get too greedy with the dried fruit. We had amaranth cereal and granola for breakfast. Dinner was civil, and those of us from Cloyne sequestered ourselves in a corner and made lewd jokes and dreamed of bacon.

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We all get less radical as we age, I’m warned. But living and studying in Burlington, Vermont, I see the same aesthetic I discovered in college. I’m in graduate school now, and still studying food. My peers—the millennials battling for low-paid jobs in sustainable agriculture and food access—recognize that there is no simple way to feed seven billion people. Still, we believe there are solutions, and we are determined to eat well, joyously, and as ethically as possible while we find and perfect those solutions.

Somehow, upon moving to Burlington, I ended up with two housemates who lived in co-ops in Florida and Vermont. We must know our own. We eat rice and beans like good hippies, but also porchetta di testa made from the faces of my father’s pigs. We bake vegan chocolate cake and buy slices of greasy pizza at the bar after midnight. The fridge is full of produce from local farms. I never buy Lucky Charms, but I sometimes buy Newman O’s. I eat tahini at breakfast. I remain suspicious of cheap meat and anything resembling large-quantity curry. My years of late-night cereal binges seem to be over, but not without nostalgia. I’ve never been as full since leaving Cloyne, and never been as hungry. 

Caitlin Morgan is a writer and doctoral student studying food systems and ecological economics. Previously a nutrition educator in Northern California, she now lives in Vermont.

Illustrator and artist Lila Volkas combines her love for art and food in many ways. Her work has been featured on KQED’s Bay Area Bites and on posters, T-shirts, and zines. She also leads monthly kombucha-brewing workshops. Find her at lilavolkas.com.

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