The spatter of spinach sizzling in a wok mixes with the beat of South American rap pounding in the kitchen. A girl in a worn t-shirt and running shorts carries bread batter from the refrigerator to the countertop where she slices it into loaves for baking. Jasper N. Henderson ’12 and Naimonu A. James ’14 perch before the stove, stirring a pot of applesauce and flipping sweet potato latkes.
“Everything is vegan but the latkes,” Henderson says over his shoulder.
Henderson and James are in charge of cooking the evening’s dinner at the Dudley Co-operative Society. The Co-op, which offers an alternative to living in the House system, was founded in 1958 and is currently located in two Victorian houses situated at 3 Sacramento Street and 1705 Mass. Ave, a few blocks from the Radcliffe Quad. This fall, 32 students are living in the Co-op, along with two residential tutors and three cats.
“Don’t spit in the soup, we’ve all got to eat,” proclaims the Co-op’s motto, painted above the doorway leading to the dining room. The phrase embodies the communal spirit of the home.
Beginning in their sophomore fall, students may apply to live in the Co-op, and, after attending an informational interview, they are placed on a waiting list that operates on a first-come, first-served availability basis. According to Henderson, almost all applicants receive a room offer within a year.
“It’s the only intentional community at Harvard,” says Lucy C. O’Leary ’11 as she kneads and slices whole-wheat bread dough. “Everyone chooses to live here.”
Lily E. Higgins ’12, one of the Co-op presidents, decided to move in during her junior fall, after her blocking group in Eliot separated.
“When I moved in, I wasn’t sure if I’d like it,” admits Higgins, who now says she can’t imagine not living in the Co-op. In fact, Higgins wishes she hadn’t waited until junior year. “In terms of growing as a person and living the kind of life that I like living, especially in terms of being really grounded while still living in this Harvard environment, I wish I had just moved earlier.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the day-to-day chores Higgins is required to do as a member of the Co-op community contribute to her feeling at home. Rather than eating in the dining halls and living in spaces curated by Harvard staff, students living in the Co-op share the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and food shopping. Students have a certain number of points that they must fulfill every semester, usually 32-34. Completing a task, such as doing the dishes or ordering food in bulk, earns a certain number of points—no specific chore is required.
For Higgins, cooking for more than 30 people is overwhelming, but Henderson, who grew up preparing meals, often volunteers to put a dish together for weekly dinners or Sunday brunch. “We have 100-plus cookbooks, and there are a lot of recipes that have been handed down,” says Henderson, who is wearing suspenders and a forest green shirt that reads ‘Prose before Hos’ underneath an outline of Shakespeare’s face.
Some of these recipes are put to use in the three big meals that the Co-op hosts every year: two faculty dinners and Thanksaween (Thanksgiving dinner on Halloween). Unlike faculty dinners in the Houses, at the Co-op, each student contributes his or her favorite dish for the professors and teaching fellows that come to visit.
“My advisor is always like, ‘The food is so good,’” Higgins says.
These three nights are also the only nights when the Co-op prepares non-vegetarian food.
A less-publicized mealtime tradition at the Co-op is naked Sunday brunch. “It’s entirely optional,” Henderson quickly points out. “Whether you want to go naked or not.”
A COMMUNITY IN FLUX
A large number of Co-op traditions center around meals, but another one of the threads that holds the Co-op community together is its tradition of protest and political activism. “I’m involved in different radical stuff on campus and this is a great place to live and do that,” O’Leary says. On the dining room walls, posters depict Russian recidivism, and the proletariat fist crushing American Capitalism.
However, even though this liberal political point of view is generally characteristic of the students who live in the Co-op, the timbre of the living environment transforms drastically each semester as students move in and out. Last year, one student played the banjo, so members often got together in the living room or on the porch to sing folk songs. This year, new quirky routines will surely develop. “One of my favorite things is how transient it is,” says Iman E. James ’12, the other Co-op president.
With change inevitably comes a loss of connection with Co-op history. “So many of the stories get lost over time as people move out,” Higgins says. Yet even though the current generation of Co-opers might not know the extensive story of the Co-op’s past, various objects in the houses bear witness to the transformations.
Nestled between the course packs and novels that line the bookshelves of the Co-op library, a faded guest book reveals the life of 3 Sacramento Street in years past, before it was converted into undergraduate housing. Its entries, which begin in 1900, were taken down when the house served as a bed and breakfast. The signatures of a few notables—Henry Cabot Lodge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—are hidden amongst the hundreds of now-forgotten names.
“Yeah, here’s his signature. That’s kind of cool,” Henderson comments as his finger traces the looping characters of FDR’s name. “It’s a gorgeous signature.”
A sign that reads “Center for High Energy Metaphysics” hangs above the porch of 3 Sacramento Street, another quiet reminder of change. “Fairly regularly people will come up to ask about the sign on the porch,” Higgins says. “But it’s very hard to explain it to someone else.”
Yet that sentiment is true of many Co-op quirks: unexplainable to the outside observer, definitive of the cooperative lifestyle.