Here at Happy Food Baby HQ, it’s not all fun and frolics in the kitchen. There are more serious issues to think about too. Here is one of them.
“The kitchen is the heart of the home, it’s where people gather,” says Sandra, as she stirs a pot of delicious-smelling beets and onions over a cool green, retro burner. She is one of the stalwarts of the Occupy Dame Street camp. Her words are fitting: we are standing inside a wooden structure, recently built, that houses a makeshift kitchen. Gathering around a dinner table and the breaking of bread have long been associated with the act of people coming together, from diverse backgrounds and from opposing sides of conflict.
Following an unseasonably kind winter so far, we now head in to January, recognised by many as the worst month of the year, weather-wise. I wonder how the Occupy Dame Street protesters are doing for tea, coffee and food. An interesting tip-off from a friend, mentioning a big pot of stew down at the camp, spurred me on to Dame Street to see for myself what exactly was cooking.
Mid-November, a structure was erected on the flagstones of the Central Bank Plaza, replacing the large domed tents that had become a familiar sight for passersby on Dame Street. Inside is a rough and ready kitchen. It is well-insulated, warm and cosy. The yellow tarpaulin roofing filters the afternoon sunlight, casting a strange yellowy light that encompasses you from the waist-up. Below, the cold, wet, grey granite flagstones – that have seen their fair share of protesting over the years – clash with the warmth of the structure, a stark reminder that this is not simply camping in the extreme.
The day I visit the camp, I hear loud, upbeat music blaring as I cross the road at the bottom of Trinity Street. It’s been a while since I passed by the camp and actually took notice of the goings-on. A lot has changed. The tents are not so visible. Wooden palettes have been erected along the perimeters of the plaza, not quite your homely white picket fence, but something along those lines. At the entrance, I introduce myself to Mark, who is dancing and bopping away to the music – I don’t know if this is a regular thing or just because it’s Friday. When I ask him about the camp’s food situation, he is friendly and doesn’t hesitate in beckoning me inside the new wooden structure. This is where he introduces me to Maria. I notice there is something about her when I meet her; she doesn’t shake my hand upon our meeting like the other occupiers have done, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions. She is happy to speak with me for a little while, bringing me outside the structure where she asks for the music to be turned down so we can hear one another. I begin to ask her about her role in the kitchen. She is the cook, a task she has volunteered to undertake. After chatting for a few moments she says to me “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but I’m actually blind.” My assumption was correct, and as if to compound this new information, Maria’s guide dog, Chasqui, a beautiful, silky black Labrador, appears between us to check me out.
Maria is almost one hundred per cent blind. She can see light and dark, and some colours, but not enough to protect her hands when she’s preparing food with a sharp knife. She shows me the index finger of her right hand, marked with three deep, purple slices – I have to refrain from saying, in mild horror, that her finger looks like a gnarled old carrot. At least, I say, somewhat light-heartedly, Maria has an advantage over most, for when there is no overhead lighting in the kitchen, she can still continue to work as normal whereas most could not.
There are whiteboards hanging on the structure walls. I am heartened to see the messages the occupiers have scrawled there. This is genuinely a community. And this kitchen would appear to be its hub.
At a time when kids across the country were writing their wish lists to Santa, the occupiers, too, had drawn up a list of things they want and need. This list is an interesting contrast to their demands of the IMF and the ECB. Right now, top of their Food Want List is meat and bread. Meat is not common in the camp as there is no way to keep it without refrigeration. Maria tells me she would love some quinoa. All Emily wants is “soup, soup and more soup”. John is not fussy; he would eat anything. Another occupier called Mark tells me he doesn’t eat. Bread is somewhat catered for. Three days a week, the Salvation Army takes the leftover food from the Avoca kitchen on Suffolk Street. The rest of the time, says Justin, the restaurant manager, the occupiers are welcome to it – mostly breads and scones (lucky occupiers, I thought, do they get the leftover Mars Bar Squares as well?). Ramos, the Greek and Turkish buffet in The Epicurean Food Hall on Middle Abbey Street, is also generous with its leftovers. Come 9pm, the occupiers arrive to take any food that didn’t sell. Local supporters, too, bring in food they have prepared at home. Not all of the 99% can afford to physically join the occupiers outside the Central Bank, but any and all help is greatly appreciated. Hot water is also something that is requested, as the kitchen does not yet have the necessary facilities for keeping on the boil.
As for the equipment, Maria tells me most of it is donated by businesses and individuals, although she admits to spending about €40 to €50 of her own money on supplies.
That Friday I visited, fajitas were on the menu. Another day, there is rice cooking and Maria is in the midst of making some kind of curry. The occupiers are not starving, although their efforts pale in comparison to the abundance of food at Dame Street’s big sister camp on Wall Street: the occupiers there tuck into pepperoni pizza on a daily basis.
Will the kitchen structure continue to endure the Irish winter, and will the food created within it sustain the occupiers for as long as it takes to reach a positive resolution? If you’re passing by Dame Street any time soon, pop into the occupiers, they are so friendly. Maybe you have some food left over from the Christmas and New Year celebrations that they would really appreciate. They are the 99%, they are you, they are all of us.