Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Organic Funk at a Huge University
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland

by Callan Bentley

This is the Co-op, with its day-old bagel bins, press-pots of good coffee, hot smell of the industrial food service toaster, punk rock music in the early morning, anatomically-diverse staff, its humming display fridges of three-bean salad, microwave vegan burritos, and expensive juice blends. Proud source of organic vegetarian cuisine to the University of Maryland community, the Co-op is the College Park conduit for brown rice, bulk granola, blemished fruit, tofu, and oatmeal cookies. Subverting carnivory, the Co-op is the boisterous coterie of radical young eaters.

Shopping at the Co-op for the first time, youíre likely to be struck by the tremendous variety of millinery displayed on the heads of those who work there. Co-op workers wear hats as a concession to their licensure as a restaurant. They obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit. While the health code regulators who delineated covered heads were probably imagining hairnets and surgical showercaps, the Co-op opted instead for funky haberdashery. They wear bandanas, baseball caps, beanies, berets, bonnets, boaters, conductor caps, chapeaus, fedoras, fezzes, floppy sunhats, helmets, lids, Panamas, pillboxes, skimmers, skullcaps, sombreros, Stetsons, stove pipes, ten-gallons, toppers, and wooly toques.

They are braless hippies, punks, lumberjacks, Dead Heads, vegans, anarchists, genteel and dignified Rastafarians, students, ardent nutritionists. They wear beards, nose rings, dreadlocks, overalls, tattoos, bell-bottoms, blue jeans, Carhartts, hooded eyelids, shining smiles.

Perusing the frozen fruit juice bars, your eye may be distracted by the Xerox photo of a naked Indian man labeled ìEat well, be wellî or the placard promoting Beckís newest album or ìHot Water Sign #2.î DÈcor in the Co-op is eclectic and haphazard. One gets the sense that items are posted in spontaneous appreciation their content, be it liberal propaganda, humor, or New Age satisfaction. There is no cohesive plan to the clippings, posters, foreign currency, and photographs that adorn the walls. A skull on a poster with the letters I.M.F. and the words ìMorally Bankruptî. There is a collection of mis-spoken quotes from Bush. There are informational signs as well, handwritten in magic marker, helping customers towards a smoother shopping experience. Every informational sign on the wall ends with this endearing phrase: ìLove, the Co-op.î

In addition to their motto of ìfood for people, not for profit,î a cultivated sense of irreverence is the Co-opís main shtick. One the door is a hand-lettered cardboard sign. Once side says ìHell, Yes! Weíre OPEN.î The reverse: ìGo Away! Weíre CLOSED.î On a Thursday morning, a new sign is up, apparently in response to some Wednesday incident: ìYo, customers!! Donít be a jerkface! If you open a drink, 4 oz. snack, etc., YOU BETTER BUY IT, ëcause if we catch you, we reserve the right to be phenomenal bitches and kick yer cheap ass out of the store. Love, the Co-opî

A covey of bagels: in each pigeon-hole, a different flavor perches. Blueberry, Onion, Banana-nut, Plain, Salt, Garlic, Sun dried tomato basil, Vegan chocolate chip, Cinnamon-raisin, Granola, Sesame, Poppy, Everything. Across the room, the spreads are spread: cream cheese comes quarried from a massive block, each slab individually hand-swaddled in Saran Wrap. Butter comes in squat organic tabs separated by squares of wax paper.

The typical trappings of a health food store? The Co-op has your Powerbars, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, chocolate bars from Tropical Source and Paul Newman, holistic hazelnut caramel energy bars; your ricemilk, soymilk, bottled smoothies, mango juice, yogurt, ginseng iced tea; your honey wheat, oat bran, onion dill rye, peasant white, and country wheat loaves of fresh-baked bread.

In the sandwich line, mouths silently work as the Co-op workers scan the menu and mentally add up the value of the selected ingredients. The sandwichís total worth is notated in grease pencil on the wax paper it is wrapped in.

The Co-op is a popular place. At lunchtime, it is host to an orderly mob of professors, graduate students, undergrads, campus staff, lined up for the hot entrÈe, the sandwiches, the toaster, and ultimately, the cash register. Payment is in cash or the Terp Express debit card. The Co-op does not take credit cards. The Co-op will take your personal check, but there is a ì$15.00 charge on bounced checks. Love, the Co-op.î

The lines to check out routinely back up into the aisles. Single-file, customers cradle their sagging dishes of hot tofu peanut stew and their precision-crafted sandwiches in wax paper. To stand in line is to be in good company. Crasser and more superficial elements of University society are upstairs in line at McDonaldís or Taco Bell. Balancing your meal, you are surrounded by fleece, Gore-Tex, corduroy, plaid, woven hemp, wool sweaters. There is the comfort of a hungry liberal envelope, as in the lap of Mother Earth herself.

Love, the Co-op.

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