One of the better-kept secrets among graduate students on campus is the Midnight Kitchen. The Kitchen – also known simply as ‘MK’ – is a non-profit organization that provides a free, balanced and complete vegan lunch to students, every day of the week, every semester, since 2002. Whilst it is quite famous among undergraduates – partly because it operates out of their SSMU building (3600 McTavish) – it is somewhat less well-known among graduates, although it’s always been open to them, too. Either way, I wanted to take a look behind the curtains, and so I decided to join the MK team for a morning, to cook it up for the around 250 hungry students – grads and undergrads alike – that were, like every day, to be expected for lunch!
Things at the MK get going around 9am every day, when the first cooks arrive to the kitchen on the 3rd floor of the SSMU building. When I get there on Tuesday morning, at 9.15, chickpeas are already cooking on the stove, and Diego – a member of the collective that runs the MK, and the kitchen coordinator – is getting things out of the (huge!) fridge. The menu today: roasted broccoli, rice, chili, a chickpea-green bean salad, garlic bread, and banana cake. Quite the task, and so we get chopping right away, starting with some serious amounts of vegetables.
Serving, as it does, more than two hundred students a day, the amounts at the MK are impressive, especially for somebody like myself who never cooks for more than a few people at a time. An early innocent question of mine – I ask how many of the piles of tomatoes they want chopped – earns a few smiles: well why, all of them, of course! When I ask where the food comes from, the answer is a little bit more complex: whilst it buys some staples (sugar, flour), the MK obtains much of its food from donations, including many items which, whilst not yet expired, suffered a small manufacturing default (say, in the packaging) which makes them unfit for sale. As a consequence, the MK is never quite sure what items it will find in its fridge any given week, and there is much excitement this morning as said fridge is exceptionally well-stocked.
Having chopped enough veggies for a lifetime, I move on to help with what many consider to be the “star”-item of the MK’s repertoire, namely, the much-reputed banana bread (a.k.a. “cake”). Although my ability to accurately measure cups turns out to be limited (and I pour the sugar into the wrong bowl, at that), the mashing of bananas proceeds well enough, and after mixing up enough batter for four big trays, the cake wanders into the one big oven.
By this point, the kitchen has become relatively more crowded, with five to six people handling various food items and a variety of big knives. Part staff – for some of the core MK team is paid for the job – and part volunteers, people move in and out throughout the morning, some only dropping by for a half hour, some staying the entire shift, and all joining in on the happy chatter and laughter that accompanies the cooking. The atmosphere is relaxed, music plays in the background, and one feels quite welcomed in the kitchen, even for the first time.
But of course, not all always runs smoothly at the MK: as somebody realizes around 11, the rice cooker hadn’t actually been turned on. Not to worry, though, since the cooks switch gears and place their bets on couscous, which cooks much faster. Much the same prompt reaction occurs a little later, when I successfully cut myself in the finger (ever-so-slightly); the MK has band-aids, of course, and I am told that a cut is what signals one’s first true MK experience.
As the ominous 12.30 lunch hour moves closer, things start falling into places, although the atmosphere remains laid back; if anything, the music gets turned up, and it is clear that most people here are not doing this for the first time. Trays get pulled out of the oven, plates are dished up, pots are washed up, and the food gets carried into the adjoining room, where many await. After a good morning of chopping, mixing, washing, and chatting, it is time for serving! – and for eating, mind you. Bon appétit!
I thank the MK, and all people present on the day, for welcoming me into the kitchen – which is always open to volunteers – and for the company, as well as for agreeing to appear in the pictures. For those who are interested in trying it out, the MK is open to everybody and serves daily at 12.30, SSMU building, 3rd floor – just drop by and enjoy a meal! Bringing your own Tupperware is recommended (if not obligatory – they have some of their own, or you can borrow some from the “plate club” on the 2nd floor), and do note that there can sometimes be long queues, so it can be worth coming early at 12 (there are tables where one can work at whilst waiting), or, indeed, at around 1, when most of the queue has subsided. But by then, there might be none of the excellent cake left that the MK bakes on most days!