To feed Occupy D.C. protesters, it takes a firm hand

November 9, 2011

To understand millennials and the purposeful lack of leadership behind their occupation of Wall Street and other corridors of power, you have to understand that this generation sees authority figures as equals. So wrote MTV President Stephen K. Friedman in an op-ed that has barnstormed the country’s editorial pages.

Maybe that’s true, but to understand how to feed millennials (and the other generations) at the encampment on McPherson Square, you have to understand the iron fist of authority. Breakfast, lunch and dinner don’t just appear on the plate out of the collective power of the 99 percenters. They appear because of the autocracy of Basant Khalsa, a Northern Californian who serves up meals for 100 to 200 protesters three times a day, trying to satisfy meat eaters and vegans alike.

The makeshift mess tent is stuffed with plastic containers of flour, peanut butter, cake mix, apples, canned veggies. The containers are elevated on pallets, a sign that someone understands basic health codes. Black kitchen mats run along the ground. There’s a dish-washing station at the back.

Clean dishes are stacked, awaiting the rush for dinner, which on one recent night featured spaghetti (pre-cooked and holding in a large cooler) with cheese sauce or vegetable-tomato sauce and a side of boiled potatoes topped with egg salad. It’s a haphazard menu, based on the ingredients available rather than any planned dietary regime.

This evening, the tent is dark. The generator is down, one of many problems that Khalsa confronts. Others: A lack of cups (protesters apparently aren’t saving the disposable ones). Unreliable volunteers who don’t show up for breakfast duty. The constant hunt for donations to restock supplies. And a watchful eye for potential cross-contamination in a kitchen with no refrigeration.

Khalsa, 29, has no experience in professional kitchens. About a month ago, he took a break from his job as a trucker to attend the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial; he hasn’t left yet. A previous gig as an inventory analyst with Coca-Cola, he says, gave him the skills to pinpoint problems on the spot. He works 16 to 17 hours a day and doesn’t suffer fools who dare bog down his operation.

If you ask why Khalsa volunteers for this thankless work, he won’t invoke any slow-food ideals of shared meals and sharing knowledge about sustainability. Instead, he’ll invoke his religion, Sikhism. “I like to help people,” says the turbaned Khalsa, who embodies both authority and the collective. He’s the master of his kitchen and the servant of the hungry.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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