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.
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."
Still, there have been some discontented rumblings. After all, if a family's hungry and then dinner is delivered and the kids or the grown-ups don't like it, it's a problem. And what if one family hated the dinner, but the others thought it was great? Should the cook get a complaint or a compliment? And just how do you tell a good friend that you never want to eat a mouthful of her bland chicken-and-pasta dinner again?
That's why Tracy came up with a plan. The families would meet every month or so for a casual dinner and the husbands and wives would vote -- anonymously -- on which meals were winners and which were not quite as popular. To keep anyone's feelings from getting hurt, she came up with three categories that she's named keepers, sweepers and golly jeepers. The keepers, obviously, are the ones everyone loved. The sweepers are the ones no one wants to eat again. The golly jeepers fall somewhere in between. Everyone marks their preferences on the ballot, and then Tracy's mother, a neutral nonmember, tallies the votes and announces the results.
So on this Friday night, the couples crowd around the table in the Johnstons' kitchen, where baby pictures and kids' artwork are displayed on the refrigerator.
When the pizza is almost gone, Tracy announces it's time to vote. "It's anonymous," she explains, "because I would be sobbing if someone told me my chicken piccata is under-seasoned and unattractive."
"So should we cover our sheets so Tracy won't see our comments and cry?" asks Julie, to much snickering.
"There will be grief counseling provided after the results," someone else pipes up.
Once the ballots are completed, the couples talk about the next month's menus. The weather is getting warmer, so Danny offers to grill ribs one night. Everyone cheers that idea except Eileen and her husband. They don't eat pork. "No problem, I'll throw on some chicken for you," he says.
"I'd like to see more fish dinners," says Julie.
"I like fish, but not three times a week," says Danny.
"What about shrimp?" she asks him.
"Shrimp doesn't count as fish. Shrimp is like steak to me," he answers.
Tracy adds, "Just make fish and tell him it's pork." Everyone laughs.
Waiting for the ballot results, the moms agree that the benefits to the co-op have been numerous and unexpected. Tracy jokes that Kendall (her 3-year-old daughter) "is cleaner. She's getting more baths because I have more time."
Michiko says she's wastes less food; Julie says she's trying new things. "I never would have made seared tuna for my family, but I did it [for the co-op]," she says.
The ballots are finally counted and the results tallied. To spare feelings, the sweepers will not be publicized, although Tracy will allow that the homemade pizza that she and her husband made got only a lukewarm reception. "It just wasn't that popular," she says.
On the other hand, her crab cakes were among the keepers, along with Eileen's pecan-crusted tilapia and Julie's seared tuna with ginger sauce.
A few weeks later, both Eileen and Tracy say the quality of the dinners has improved, thanks to the balloting. But now there's another problem: "Eileen made chicken for dinner and then the next night Michiko made chicken. We need to have another monthly menu meeting," says Tracy.