Here Comes Dinner
But When Four Families Share The Cooking, Will Everyone Like It?
By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page F01
Tracy and Danny Johnston's small kitchen in Springfield is crowded and noisy on a recent Friday night with seven preschoolers, one baby, eight parents and a rambunctious yellow Lab named Charlie.
Bedlam seems to reign. Then Tracy -- a former second-grade teacher with years of training in bedlam control -- takes over. The kids are quickly ushered into the basement, where two teenage babysitters are waiting to dispense snacks and toys. The dog is firmly led outside. The baby is handed to Grandma, Tracy's mother, who has come over to help.
It's time to get down to business. This isn't a party, although there are three boxes of takeout pizza on the dining room table and beer and wine on the kitchen counter.
No, the four families at this gathering are members of the Springfield Moms Against Cooking dinner co-op, and it seems that the co-op has a little problem. Well, potentially a big problem. Tonight's dinner meeting is an opportunity to work things out.
Dinner co-ops are a wonderful way for families -- especially those with young children -- to save time and money by sharing cooking chores, says Ann Hoyt, a consumer co-op specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The most successful co-ops, she says, have members with similar needs and styles, but almost all of them require a rejiggering of the rules now and then as problems crop up.
The way the Springfield co-op works is this: From Monday through Thursday, each family is assigned one night to make dinner for everyone else. Each family has to cook only once. The other three nights, they get dinner delivered by one of the other members.
This sounds great on paper, but a few of the dinners have been -- how to say this -- a tad unpopular? Okay, they've reeked. But that's not the biggie. The big problem is, how do you tell your very good friend that the dinner she so conscientiously prepared for your family really tanked, without stomping all over her feelings?
"At first I thought, 'No, just eat it and move on. We're such good friends, it's not worth hurting anyone's feelings,' " says Eileen Beckham, one of the co-op's members. "But the objective was for the whole family to enjoy the meal and if no one enjoys it . . . " she trails off. "That's why it's an issue."
The matter has been dumped into Tracy's lap, as the co-op's most spirited cheerleader. The 36-year-old mother of two has the nonstop energy and cheery enthusiasm of a woman who used to spend her days teaching 7-year-olds. In many ways, the co-op is her baby. She persuaded her friends to start it this past January, several months after she gave birth to her second child, Jordan, now 11 months old.
"Cooking dinner just became so much harder with a newborn and a toddler," she says. "I was complaining about it to Julie [Melear, another co-op member] and Eileen."
"She was obsessing about it," says Eileen, laughing. "That's all she talked about. She really felt crunched for time."
Eileen and Tracy have been friends since they both attended West Springfield High School. They lost track of one another for 15 years, then ran into each other while grocery shopping with their babies. Tracy met Julie two years ago when she moved next door to Eileen.
For Tracy's birthday in December, her two friends decided to cook her dinner every night for a week. That's all it took. The very next week Eileen and Julie received a four-page letter outlining the plans for the new SMAC dinner co-op.
"That week was so wonderful. That was my prompt to organize the co-op," says Tracy.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company