It happened while we were spending a week in Copenhagen. It was the night that we - five students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences who were asked to cook an improvised meal in a community garden in the center of the city- became a group. We had already spent four days together in Copenhagen, traveling, eating, and rushing around the city, but still, we were disparate - not until we cooked a meal, did we come together.
Our appointment for the day was with the Copenhagen Food Co-op; also known as the Københavns Fødevarefællesskab (or: thank God, you people all speak English so perfectly). Designed to bring together producers and consumers of like-minds, entrance to the Co-op required a small membership fee, which then allowed for local and organic produce to be bought. The Co-op was in the basement of a Copenhagen brownstone, the interior walls plastered with posters of Che Guevera and "March against the Mullah" in Farsi, Danish, and English. The wood floor in the main room was covered in brown paper bags full of kale, cabbage, borlotti beans, and apples; bags containing compilations of what was fresh and in season, neatly propped up, one against the other. Androgynously dressed adults of varying ages walked around with purpose, carting wagonloads of brassica and hauling around shiny white MacBook Airs in a way that I have only seen pulled off in Copenhagen. Bob Dylan and other funky 60’s jams blared from a hidden speaker system. Our tour guide, a gaunt man with a Trotsky style beard shepherded us through, explaining the inner workings and rules and regulations of this seemingly peaceful and self-sustaining enterprise.
After our tour of the inner workings of a Co-op, our guide suggested that we cook with the contents of one of the brown paper bags. In a park. At night. In September. In Copenhagen. With a mobile kitchen.
So to me, mobile kitchen means, food truck, fully equipped, semi-detached kitchen with apparatuses. It says stove. Or burner. Or a microwave. No, when he said mobile kitchen, he really meant bicycle with wood burning stove attachment. “Lost in translation” could not possibly have been used as an explanation for this confusion - the man spoke better English than most of us.
We cycled through the city with brown bags in our backpacks. Nothing made me feel more Danish than biking alongside many other Copenhageners, as if riding a bike through a city well planned with its elegant 17th century mansions and palaces, wide streets and neatly kept gardens, was the ultimate expression of Danish culture.
We set up our cook spot in a community park created along a bike path in the center of the city. The park had been converted into a garden which was meant to be designed and taken care of by the community surrounding the park, and as such, it was an amalgam of flower beds and tomato plants, cultivated herbs growing alongside wild mushrooms, pushing their way in along the edges. Sandbags acted like flower boxes; pushing the plant beds off the ground and giving the park a sort of guerilla feel. Perhaps that was done on purpose, a way for people to take back space and reimagine interactions, draw lines with their sandbags. Alongside the children’s slides and brightly painted wooden fences, the space felt inviting.
We gained some impromptu friends on our journey. Our guide from the Co-op and a friend of his who gamely biked over a box full of kitchen equipment. Earlier in the week we had met a local food activist who had suggested the garden as the ideal spot for our dinner.
Not unlike a game show in which the contestants are given a short period of time, a basket of ingredients, and only their ingenuity to provide the judges with a meal, or they are thrown to the wolves, we stared down at the brown paper bag of winter vegetables and wondered what kind of meal could be made. I felt like a survivor. I felt like a pilgrim. I thought to myself: “I am not equipped to handle a nuclear meltdown without supermarkets”. I'm not quite sure what our guides imagined we would be able to make with the various brassicas, I mean, cabbage and kale? They didn't want to just limit us to one. We somehow managed to make some appetizing dishes. There was a stew! There was a salad! We washed and prepped on picnic tables. As the evening turned to night, we cooked on the mobile kitchen, hulking and ancient-looking, black steel, which was reminiscent of one of the boiler and smoke box of a steam locomotive from the 1930s. And while there was little light to see the food that finally filled our table, we were proud of the meal we produced. There was a pumpkin mash, rendered creamy, and whipped with generous pours of olive oil. The cabbage and kale had been taken in one dish, turned to ribbons to forest green and ivory, simmered in Carlsberg beer (to stay truly Nordic), though still fairly fibrous. One of our classmates was adept at foraging, and had collected some mushrooms, sautéed simply with garlic, onions, garlic, and borlotti beans. I took sugar and butter and cut up all the apples, slow cooking them into a mash that was both sweet and savoury, adding beer just to continue the theme of the night’s cooking, and finding it to work very well indeed.
Yet while cooking, we each found our places. Our strengths and weaknesses pulling the group to a cohesive whole, one’s creativity, the other’s sense of taste, another’s adeptness of foraging, another just for doing the dirty work. I’ve always felt a sense of calm while cooking, perhaps that is why I find it so pleasurable. But it was also an exercise in slowing down and being present. After a week of rushing to appointments and meetings, tastings and dinners, and trying to stuff as much of the city in, there was something refreshing and nourishing about cooking outside together. There was no hurrying because we couldn’t. Each dish took the time it took. And by the end of the process, by the time we sat down, with the night completely surrounding us, with cold chilling our bodies, there was nowhere else we wanted to be.