Eating with Strangers to Save the Earth

Tyler Stefanich

With Northern Spark 2016 and 2017 as bookends, Making the Best of It: Dandelion(MtBoI:D) is a 12-month experiment in hospitality and companionship. Through a series of pop-up community meals hosted throughout different neighborhoods across Minnesota, collaborators Marina Zurkow, Valentine Cadieux, Aaron Marx, and Sarah Petersen will sustain conversations about “the risks of climate chaos, our business-as-usual food system, and the short-term food innovations at our disposal.”

MtBoI:D envisions the future through upbeat attitudes inflected with hints of survivalism. As with Zurkow’s tandem iteration of the project, which focuses on jellyfish, the sourcing of meals from both dwindling or abundant anthropocene “wildlife” addresses human-led catastrophes while actually brainstorming opportunities for growth and adaptation.

As climate activist and Northern Spark Advisory Committee member Wen Stephenson points out, “despite the remarkable gains of renewable energy worldwide, and the promise of new technologies, we are nevertheless racing toward worst-case scenarios.” We can either remain paralyzed with indecision or actively make the best of it. Under shadows of bulk data that describe trees suffocating, oil spilling, and refugees fleeing war or climate disasters, MtBoI:D embeds these facts within sustained empathic experiences.

For Cadieux, the 12-month scope of MtBoI:D “allows people to sit with their discomfort” by offering enough time to share and understand one another’s concerns. Because responses to climate change can no longer remain entangled with our own small consumer choices, our next steps must be communal. Upgrading lightbulbs, flushing less, recycling more, even retweeting propaganda, these are helpful but minor. Organizing boycotts, sit-ins, and strikes, coordinating purchasing power en mass and good old fashioned lobbying, these impact progress. And to get there, we can start by sharing meals with strangers and continuing the kinds of difficult conversations that don’t conclude.

At the center of the project’s communal table sits the dandelion, a nutritious and abundant wildflower that can be steeped for tea, fermented for wine, sautéed, eaten raw, pickled, or battered and fried—some research even shows that three cups of dandelion tea can curb the spread of cancer. Not only have dandelions long since proven an endurance in disturbed or anthropogenic habitats like mowed lawns and cracked concrete, in 2007 NPR reported that scientists had publishednew findings in the journal Weed Science, discovering that the wildflower actually thrives with increased levels of carbon dioxide. In a future world of 400+ ppm CO2, they would proliferate and grow physically, meaning more and bigger dandelions. While the researching scientists and even the reporting skewed negative by relegating these projected super dandelions to the status of nuisance, MtBoI:D generates a sense of flavorful possibility.

By encouraging folks to appreciate food found outside plastic packaging and corner stores, MtBoI:D taps into a decades-long tradition of urban foraging in America. In the 1980s ecologist “Wildman” Steve Brill was arrested in Central Park for, as the Parks Commissioner at the time said, “eating our parks.” Two undercover rangers nabbed Brill for leading foraging tours without a permit and charged him for criminal mischief. Brill and his tour mates were eating dandelions.

MtBoI:D builds from recipes and tips shared by foragers like Brill, who still leads tours in New York, and foodie leaders like Kim Bartmann to consider each meal throughout the yearlong project not as a retreat but as a refuge. These recurring meals will offer space where people return and affirm their worries, hopes, and strategies. Cadieux approaches these experiences as opportunities “to practice new relational habits” to be shaped, playtested, and enacted.

Imagine an earth with 400+ ppm CO2, dandelions as big as cats, common grains no longer common, and sugar beets and berries a rarity. For one of MtBoI:D’s meals, everyone could be asked to bring a flour-based dish baked with flour-substitutes. Or desserts made without honey or sugar. Each person could be served different communal dishes and then barter or ration portions and preferences across the table.

This dynamic of forecasting a future world will surely invigorate the often sluggish process of building relationships. Here the dining table becomes the place where folks can realize our shared responsibility for climate mitigation and adaptation. And rather than searching for one-off solutions, systems-based thinking is the touchstone of MtBoI:D. As author and environmentalist Naomi Klein asks in theeponymous documentary based on her book, This Changes Everything, “What if global warming isn’t only a crisis? What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?” When we think of this as the question (How do we build a better world?) we can see the deep faults of solution-based thinking. For Zurkow, the error is baked into the approach, that “the idea of a solution is ‘there, I fixed it, now I get to sleep.’” But systems-based thinking is iterative and starts with knowing that there is no end, no one solution to any one challenge. Every thing and every one of us is woven together. The systemic responsiveness modeled by MtBoI:D will be sustained through active companionship.


— Nathan RP Young