In a couple of years, Karen Zita Haigh will get her doctorate in computer science and leave Carnegie Mellon University. Wherever she goes, says Haigh, she hopes there's a co-op. To that end, she has designed a World Wide Web site for ther Dinner Co-op, with the goal of encouraging others to establish similar groups elsewhere.
Visitors to The Dinner Co-op Home Page (http://dinnercoop.cs.cmu.edu/dinnercoop/home-page.html) can read the co-op's history, learn the full details of its organization, view sample dinner bills and expense reports, call up several year's worth of old menus, view the upcoming schedule and download favorite co-op recipes. The site also includes a list of people interested in establishing co-ops in their towns.
"I constantly am getting e-mail from people saying this is really great," says Haigh, who admits to spending "far too much" time on site management. "Fortunately, my advisor is not yet aware of it."
Green Salad with Celery and Tomatoes
File de Peixe ao Molho de Camarao
(Brazilian-style Fish Fillets
with Shrimp Sauce)
Fresh Pineapple and Grapes
by Jose Carlos Brustoloni
Grilled Portobello Salad
Fettuccine al Gorgonzola
Brownies with Ice Cream
by Barry Brumitt
by Marni Friedman
Nobody ever said graduate school in America was a gastronomic experience. But for a handful of computer science grad students at Carnegie Mellon University, dinnertime is worth looking forward to. Five nights a week, they enjoy a home-cooked meal together, perpetuating a tradition that is entering its ninth year.
Sanjiv Singh says he and his roommate hatched the idea for the Dinner Co-op while on a canoe trip in 1987. "We were single and young and trying to find a way to get together and have a social thing around eating," recalls Singh, now a research scientist at the Pittsburgh university. "Anyone who lives on their own finds they don't have an appetite for much more than leftovers of spaghetti."
The challenge was to devise a co-op that fit the nature of graduate-student existence. Flexibility and the ability to absorb turnover would be key. Dismissing the kind of rigid co-op whose members cook together every night, Singh and Randy Brost designed an alternative model that has required only minor alteration since.
In theory, the Dinner Co-op operates Sunday through Thursday with 15 members, which means each member cooks once in a three-week cycle. Cooking slots are assigned at the start of each quarter, after much juggling to accommodate individual needs. A few days before every meal, the scheduled cook (who is also the host) sends a menu to all members via e-mail; any who would like to come must RSVP electronically by a designated time. Typically, six or seven members show up for dinner on any given night. The cook reports the cost of ingredients and the names of attendees to the co-op treasurer, whose computer periodically generates bills detailing who owes whom. Members pay only for the meals they attend and may bring guests.
Singh says he can think of a few reasons why his co-op has beat the survival odds. One is the built-in flexibility. Members can come five times a week or once a month if they like. "They don't feel boxed in," says Singh, or as if they have to commit the whole evening. It's considered okay to eat and run, although members often sit around and chat.
The e-mail feature also helps my making communication easy. And because members can preview menus, they can avoid dinners that don't appeal.
Pittsburgh's compact geography also contributes to the network's success. Most people live a five-minute drive from ech other and none more than 20 minutes apart. That's a critical consideration for a co-op that's supposed to save people time.
Finally, says Singh, it helps that graduate students rarely have children. This year, for the first time, the group includes a member with an infant; Singh himself is about to welcome his first child. "My wife says it shouldn't make any difference," says Singh, but he is worried that the co-op won't fit into the more structured days of new parents.
For active members such as Karen Zita Haigh, the benefits go beyond convenience. "It's a great way to meet people," says Haigh, who met her husband at the co-op. (Theirs was the second co-op marriage.) "Plus we get really good food for a lot less than you pay in a restaurant. A lot of people who used to barely be able to fry a hamburger are now good cooks."
Singh is among those who say the experience has improved their cooking skills. "I can cook three things at one time now,", he says proudly, "and it's only because regularly I have had to cook, once every three weeks for the last eight years, for a large group of people."
To judge by past menus, many of the students take some pains with their dinners, baking homemade bread or trying out a recipe from a new cookbook. "It's usually at least one notch above Spaghetti and Prego," says Singh, but a major effort isn't expected. One member actually posted a menu of bologna sandwiches -- and people showed up. It doesn't hurt the menus' ethnic variety that Carnegie Mellon's prestigious graduate program in computer science and robotics draws students from around the world.
Over dinner, these accomplished young people discuss everything from politics to higher-energy physics. Because most are working in the same field, they can use each other as sounding boards. Singh says he feels so strongly about what he has gained from the co-op that he thanks the group in the acknowledgments in his published articles.
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