Here Comes Dinner
In her effusive style, the letter began, "Imagine this: Spending the late afternoon baking cookies with your kids, then leisurely reading a magazine article on America's Sexiest Plumbers [Tracy's husband works for Plumbing Express] while awaiting the arrival of your husband and your very own home-cooked meal delivered right to your door. Sounds pretty good, huh? Well stop dreaming and let's make this happen!"
The plan, as Tracy outlined it, would have each mom prepare a main dish to feed three to four adults with one to two sides (including at least one vegetable). Meals should be homemade -- no frozen chicken nuggets -- and require minimal reheating when delivered. She estimated that there would be an initial cost of about $10 for Tupperware storage containers. The weekly cost of meals would be between $30 and $40, although some might cost a little more while others would be less.
"One week you might spend $50 to make crab cakes or scallops, but another week you might spend less than $30 on red beans and rice and sausage," she said.
At the very end of the letter, as almost an afterthought, Tracy had written, "We must resist the temptation to bad-mouth each other's culinary skills. If it sucks, tell your concern to the cook's face in a tactful way. Likewise, for compliments to the chef. We all love hearing the big, 'Thanks, that was delicious!' "
To get the co-op going, there needed to be four families to share cooking duties. Julie and Eileen and their husbands had become friendly with Michiko and Kei Ota, who had recently moved next door to them. They asked the Otas, who also have two children, to become the fourth family. The co-op was complete.
Five months later, the mothers think the co-op has been generally successful. There are some kinks to work out, however. Some meals have been less than stellar. It's also been hard estimating how much to buy to feed 16 people. "I never fix enough vegetables," says Tracy. "I think I've bought enough, but then each person only gets four asparagus spears and they're unhappy."
In other ways, the co-op has strengthened their friendship. Three families live on the same Springfield cul-de-sac, so dinner delivery is easy. It usually shows up around 6 p.m., packed in Tupperware containers carried in a blue wagon pulled by a couple of the kids. The fourth family -- Tracy and her husband -- live just a five-minute car ride away.
All the women in the group are stay-at-home moms, so sometimes child care is shared, too. The children, two to a family, are close in age, between 3 and 5 years old (except for baby Jordan), and they like to play together.
"It's so awesome," Tracy says, describing the group. "There's a black and white couple -- that's Danny and me. Then there's a black couple, a white couple and a Japanese couple. What could be more American?"
Since the co-op started, dinners have ranged from crab cakes with sweet potato fries and jicama slaw, to pecan-crusted tilapia with potato salad and steamed broccoli, to Japanese donburi (rice bowl) with chicken, scrambled egg and pea pods plus edamame (soybeans cooked in their pods) on the side.
Although traditional family fare such as meatloaf and lasagna occasionally appear, the group's members have worked to stretch both their cooking skills and the palates of their children. "The kids loved popping the edamame," says Tracy. "They also loved shouting the name," she adds, which came out as "ed-a-MOM-my."
At least one of the mothers seems surprised the co-op has worked so well. "Frankly, I thought this would fail, but I'm loving it," says Julie, who has Wednesday night cooking duty. "My food bills have even gone down a little."
The Otas, who moved here eight months ago from Tokyo, were initially worried that they wouldn't like American food. They also worried that the American families wouldn't like the traditional Japanese food that Michiko cooks. Neither of these things has happened. The Japanese food has been a hit with all the families, and the Otas have thoroughly enjoyed their American dinners.
"I love this," confesses Kei, who's in the United States for a year as a visiting scientist. "I am like a son with all these mothers cooking for me. And my role is to eat."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company