On community, and the art of various cookings

I have been at Hillhacks for over a week now.

Hillhacks is a gathering of geeks, artists, practitioners and attendees from major cities in India, and other parts of the world. Everyone makes and creates things, shows off hacks, plays music, works with the body via yoga and hula hoops — many people do many cool things and an equal many participate. We are all making and unmaking things, processes, and our selves.

For me, Hillhacks is a great experience of community, in the sense that Scott Peck wrote about in his book “The Different Drum”. Here, community does not mean a religious or ethnic group. It is a collection of people who get together for a period of time, experience a number of emotions — some transformative, some not so nice — and eventually experience some level of personal transformation. At the end of the experience, some people experience a sense of belonging with the group and its spirit — and this process occurs through a great deal of personal and collective struggle.

I won’t mull too much over this sense of community because this will cause me to lose the focus of this post.

The purpose of this post is to understand how different people bring different levels of energy and collaboration to a group through activities and enterprises. Hopefully, this will help us (and me, especially) to arrive at some honest conclusions and insights about how individuals and groups work, and how various forms of collaborations are possible.

At the end of this post, we shall hopefully talk a little about alchemy. And if the talk about alchemy does not happen, it is because I have to run to look after my 15-month old daughter who is currently experiencing her own sense of self in the midst of a large commune.

So here we go:

I totally enjoy cooking. I am not a gourmet chef and I don’t pretend to be one.

Cooking is a wonderful form of self expression and giving, and a fantastic way to rejuvenate one’s spirit and self. In this spirit, I decided to cook at Hillhacks. Partly, I was also feeling uncomfortable with the heavy foods that were served as part of the lunch and dinner fares. I felt I needed something different, and maybe other participants could partake of the different foods.

Now I asked the catering contractor to let me cook aloo parathas (chappatis with potato filling) in the kitchen. He allowed me to cook in the kitchen and asked me to prepare food only for myself. Perhaps he underestimated my ability to cook for more people. But perhaps he was also being practical that if food has to be served for 40–60 people, it has to be prepared in time. Aloo parathas can take too long to cook for everyone.

In the spirit of quiet defiance, artful negotiation and collaborations, I managed to make about 40 aloo parathas. They never made it to the dining table because most of them were consumed by participants queuing outside the kitchen and helping themselves to a piece or two. The balance parathas which weren’t roasted went to the kitchen staff who seemed to lap them away happily.

All in the all, the first enterprise of cooking in the common kitchen was decent. I made some friends, got popular in Hillhacks, and found a sense of purpose to be in the community.

Next, I proposed to prepare a Bombay street delicacy named pav bhaji.

The catering contractor liked my food, and offered to get supplies to help me cook. Trouble was, he got them sooner than planned. I braced myself for this enterprise — cooking for 40–50 people. The chief chef in the kitchen was unhappy with my presence and decision to cook. He had already planned the menu for that day.

But the contractor, the chief chef’s boss, was on my side. So I had to use some more artful negotiation and make my way through with quiet defiance. The process was super interesting — trying to figure out salt and spice proportions for so many people, garnering all my physical strength to stir the pot of curry, regulate the temperature so that the spices blended well, and be inclusive of the kitchen staff so that they do not feel alienated. Again, we had a winner that day. Participants loved the pav bhaji, they delighted in its spices and I got more popular.

I was so excited to cook that I now started planning for various nice things I had learned from my mother and grandmother. I wanted to cook, and cook. But I was starting to lose sight of the fact that the kitchen staff may not share the same enthusiasm as me, and that they would have to stick to their plans and measurements — cooking for 60–80 people means having enough food for all, and served at the appointed hour.

Yesterday:

And so I had my moment of transformation just yesterday, when four enterprises of cooking were taking place simultaneously. I wanted to prepare mint chutney with potato pancakes. So I had all the ingredients nailed and I tried artful negotiation once again to get inside the kitchen to start cooking. This time around, it was difficult.

There was Okra to be cooked for the largest gathering in Hillhacks.

The contractor was upset at other participants making requests to cook in the kitchen while the staff was trying to meet their obligations.

I was directed to cook in the alternative kitchen that had been set up in the dining hall. I thought I’d make my way with more artful negotiation and quiet defiance, but I guess Providence just had other plans.

The art of various cookings: enterprise 1:

So I started in the kitchen by getting help to boil potatoes. Meanwhile, I got some more help in preparations for the mint chutney.

I tried to stay focussed because this recipe required time to prepare. So I had to be mindful of how I proceeded to cook for 60–80 people. Somewhere, my own ego was getting mixed in this alchemy.

I managed to get the mint chutney made with a lot of effort and loneliness. There was no usual collaboration and joy in cooking because the kitchen staff was anxiously trying to get their okra preparation done (and keep people away from making arbitrary requests for help and equipment).

The chief chef added his finishing touches to the mint chutney which I believed turned out well. But he did not want to own it in terms of laying it out on the serving table. It would be my job. I disowned it too.

The art of various cookings: enterprise 2:

Meanwhile, Paola — a Hillhacker — was starting to show how to prepare apple strudel without using oven. Now that enterprise involved getting interested people to cook, and other interesting spectators from becoming nuisance. Paola is a lot more artful and spirited. She was managing to do this process as if it were a flow. There was no obstruction of any sort — no emotional obstruction, no equipment obstruction (there were always alternate equipments found to continue the process), and there was no spirit obstruction. The energy in this part of the dining hall kitchen was perfect.

Everything was a flow here. And even when people threatened to get out of the flow, between Paola and some of the others, things would get sorted out. They’d be sorted out with simple communication — no artful negotiation.

The art of various cookings: enterprise 3:

Meanwhile, there was Tod — another Hillhacker — who was going about quietly preparing miso soup in the other part of the dining hall kitchen. He had a smile on his face. His sense of purpose was clearly not so driven to the outcome as it was driven by a sense of process and directed by a calm flow.

Tod ended up preparing the miso soup in the midst of a lot of noise and obstructions. But since he was so guided by the flow inside himself, he had an outcome.

Eventually, the two litres of miso soup were devoured.

The art of various cookings: enterprises 1 and 4:

So now we were left with the two enterprises — enterprise number 1 of myself, and enterprise number 4 of the kitchen staff. We were both anxious selves.

I had to take break after the chutney was prepared because my daughter needed attention. By the time I finished up with her, I was convinced that there’d be no aloo tikkis because there just wasn’t enough time to prepare, and I had no energy to labour. So I decided to convert the boiled potatoes into a salad.

By the time my collaborator Divya peeled the potatoes, the kitchen staff asked for the potatoes to make up for the shortfall in the quantity of okra.

I found it wise and practical to let go.

So there was a mint chutney at the end of enterprise 1. It was stored in the fridge. Someone suggested keeping it out at dinner for people to eat as an accompaniment. I was attached to that outcome. Eventually, the kitchen staff asked for the chutney to be preserved for this morning’s breakfast since it would work better as an accompaniment to the chole-pooris this morning.

Eventually, I had to let go off whatever was left of my ego and let the mint chutney find a life of its own.

Of enterprise 4, the okra was half cooked. The dal gave me a queasy feeling in the stomach. The alchemy of the food was just not right. Perhaps that’s because the staff cooked the food so anxiously. The chief chef in fact complained he was tired yesterday but refused to be relieved of his responsibilities.

So what of enterprises, collaborations, and community?

Well, tonnes of learning here. Let me recap what I can glean from the four enterprises. You, the reader, has the responsibility to glean more and add in comments and share:

  1. Flow: no enterprise is possible without a flow. When I say flow I mean a smooth flowing of activity, emotions and spirit. Even when there is an obstruction, the flow finds its way like little arteries do in the blood circulation or tributaries do in a river. Flow is necessary if the process has to move forward.
  2. Attachment to outcomes: Can we undertake enterprises and pursuits without being attached to outcomes? I am not writing here without attachement. But there are various forms of attachments. There are attachments with the self and ego involved and there is pain when the outcome does not happen or when the outcome is different from what was originally expected. There are attachments — in terms of care, love and pain — but these are driven by a sense of the self being a conduit. You are not the doer, but you are being called to do. You have to ‘do’ to fulfill a larger purpose — feeding people, nourishing spirits — and you insert yourself just in the right place and move on when your ‘doing’ part is done.
  3. Collaborations and working with people: This is a tough one and I am always struggling with it. But to work with people requires mindfulness and self work. You have to be fairly assured of yourself to be able to work with people. If you are insecure yourself, you will find your insecurities showing up in the working process. The working process may transform you (as did it to me) or you may find yourself banished by yourself in the dark recesses from where you have to reclaim yourself. In any case, working with people requires flow, spirit, courage and a good amount of listening (to everything unsaid) and submission to be able to be part of a collective enterprise or community.

I could go on and one about the learnings and insights, but I am afraid of repeating myself here, and I am also running out of good ideas. (I am anxious of time running out and my daughter will be here any minute).

So let me quickly say a thing or two about alchemy.

I have loved cooking because you have to bring so much of your self, emotions and spirit to what you are preparing. The ingredients and process are not the only things which make a good culinary outcome. It really is our selves which transform the preparation. And we are also transformed by the preparation. So often, I find myself humbled and awed by how the yeast fluffs up the bread or how a spice interacts with a curry to produce a completely unintended flavour or texture. Alchemy is a blend of all these influences. Eventually, alchemy is what results in transformation, and oneness.

So happy gleaning insights from here.

I shall wait for you to tell me more about community and collaboration, and everything else I am yet to know. ;)