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March 01

 

Cooking in Mother's kitchen

- by Carel

 

Nine o'clock in the morning.

Entering the heart of the "Cuisine Solaire" or Solar Kitchen, the scene is one of intense activity. Steam boilers emit gusts of steam, groups of people cut vegetables at long tables, someone stirs a large drum of milk, another watches pieces of eggplant being fried, women with small trolleys ferry food products from place to place, a pasta machine extrudes long strings of spaghetti.

The day at Solar Kitchen starts early. By 7.15 a.m. the first workers come to prepare the working space. At 7.30 the preparation of the lunch meals, which have to be ready by 10.30 a.m. for transport to the schools, Kindergarten and the Pour Tous outlet, starts. Then it is time to fill the tiffins (a set of shallow metal food containers which fit into each other), which will be collected from 12 o'clock onwards, and to prepare the lunch to be served in the Solar Kitchen Dining Hall. At 12.15 there is already a queue of hungry Aurovilians and visitors.

The anchoring rocks in this pandemonium are Andrea and Angelika. Their heads wrapped in cloth like the others, they decide on the day's food variety, supervise the cooking, handle the incoming food products, organize the cleanliness and strict hygiene inside the kitchen and dining room, and generally deal with the hundred and one small or major problems of the day. They head the team of 45 people which prepares the food, providing 900 lunches a day - 410 for the schools and Pour Tous, 130 in tiffins, the rest to be served in the Dining Hall. Since December 2000 it also provides a tiffin service for dinner to 70 people.

Apart from the cooking area, activities in other work-related spaces like the machinery section, the dining hall flower arrangement, the caretaker house, the booking and accounts section are simultaneously going on. Altogether 60 people are working at the Solar Kitchen of which 31 are Aurovilians from 7 different nationalities and 29 employees from the surrounding villages.

Challenges

The Solar Kitchen is one of Auroville's success stories. But there have, of course, been plenty of teething troubles. For example, only a month ago Gilles heaved a sigh of relief as the solar bowl finally started to generate steam - until now diesel had been used. Also in the kitchen itself the work and the organization had to develop. "In the beginning there were no guidelines, no cookbooks, just a huge amount of things waiting to get organized," says Andrea. "So we started to concentrate on the few indications the Mother had given about the preparation of food, like 'cooking must be done in silence and harmony' and 'no quarrels'. During the last two years the team became well structured which is necessary for good teamwork." "Every new member to the overall team challenges us to find his/her appropriate place inside the whole picture," adds Angelika.

The kitchen huge popularity brings its own problems. "The kitchen was designed to prepare a maximum of 1000 meals," says Andrea "but I think nobody imagined that, just two years after its completion, it would be serving 900 meals per day consisting of 6 to 10 items each! The Mother envisaged several kitchens in Auroville serving the different needs of the people, but for the moment we are the only community kitchen open to all Aurovilians, Newcomers and their guests. We prepare food for children from the age of 3 years onwards and for adults. As they all come from different cultures, our task is not easy. As a consequence, we serve on most weekdays two different meals, Indian and Continental, plus two salads for those relying on raw food. But in spite of the choice we cannot serve everyone's needs."

"With the 900 meals we are at the limit of our capacities," says Angelika. "The kitchen area proper is already crowded, yet we still lack some essential equipment like an oven and a dish- washer. Also our storage capacity is absolutely insufficient. Every square meter of our cold storage room is being used and our dry good storeroom is simply overflowing." The dining hall, where on average 350 people come to have lunch every day, is also too small. Some people have stopped eating there because they felt the space was too crowded and too noisy. As there is only one serving counter, people sometimes have to wait a long time in the queue, part of it outside the midday sun.

Financial aspects

"The kitchen recently increased the contribution requested by 20%, or from Rs 500 to Rs 600 a month. For 26 lunches/month this comes to Rs 23 per meal. The contribution does not include a reserve for building expansion or major repairs," says Ilse, who together with Claudine organizes the financial aspects of the kitchen.. "But not everyone pays the new rate. The Central Fund, which pays for the nutrition for the Auroville schools (380 meals in all) contributes only Rs 500 a month for each child and teacher. And the additional subsidy the Central Fund pays for those who take part in the 'Nutrition for Auroville' scheme is equally limited to this Rs 500 a month." explains Ilse. Under this scheme all the Aurovilians who cannot pay at all or only a part of the contribution requested, can have subsidized lunches in the Solar Kitchen, the Central Fund covering the remaining amount,"

"At present our monthly budget is approximately Rs 400,000. Nearly half of that comes from school nutrition, about Rs 80,000 from the 'Nutrition for Auroville' scheme and the rest from individuals and guests. We would really appreciate it if the Central Fund could pay us the full amount for school nutrition and the nutrition scheme," says Ilse. "At present our running expenditure is only just secured. And the kitchen already has a deficit of Rs 500,000, as a building extension to house the gas bottles could, for reasons of safety, no longer be postponed. We lack money for expansion, and expansion will be very necessary in the near future."

Organic? Oh yes!

One way of providing healthy meals is to use organic food products coming from the Auroville farms. "The farms are getting better organized and are more in number. There is a good cooperation," says Angelika, "and we prefer Auroville products. First because in Mother's vision, the city of dawn should ideally provide itself all the basic needs for its citizens, and the most basic need is food. Another reason is that we try to avoid artificial chemicals in the food, which is nearly impossible with conventionally grown products like the vegetables from Pondicherry. Lastly, we should not forget the subtle 'qualities' inside the Auroville area because of the Mother's concentrated Presence, which we can also experience in the plants we eat."

"Whenever Auroville Farms cannot supply us with needed produce we are open to other organic sources as well," adds Andrea.. "Here, AuroAnnam is of help for us. For example, they provide us with rice from the Hare Krishna Farm in Bangalore and a choice of organic spices. Other high quality goods, like pulses, are also offered to us but generally they are too expensive for the Solar Kitchen's budget."

The effort of the kitchen to use organic food is evident from in the figures. During the last financial year, an average of 35 % of the food expenditure was used to purchase organic produce. The non-organic foodstuffs came mainly from Pondicherry.

Challenges abound in the Solar Kitchen. Are Angelika and Andrea personally affected? "Definitely," says Angelika, "Now and then we have sleepless nights when we try to solve certain problems, for example problems of harmony and communication between team members. Nonetheless I am happy to work here. For me the Solar Kitchen is Mother's Kitchen." "I love to work here," corroborates Andrea. "It is a means to grow, a super chance to progress, to learn to work together in a harmonious atmosphere."

 

For further information contact: solarkitchen@auroville.org.in

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