Earth DinnerA half-hour away from serving the first course for CROPP’s annual Earth Dinner, the building’s fire alarms began to blare. The folks setting tables and decorating stopped and looked at one another in disbelief. Really?! A fire alarm…now? They’ve GOT to be kidding.

Kristen Woodhouse, café services manager, and Noelle Kehoe, one of the café staff who had been preparing for the dinner all day, looked at all the food still on the stove and the desserts waiting patiently on the counter and thought, oh, we’ll be back here in 15 minutes. No worries.

Guests were arriving. Youth Initiative High School students were there to serve food. Could we sneak in to get the food and drinks and serve it to everyone in the parking lot? After an hour of watching smoke billow out the west side of the building, Kristen and Chef Alex Brevik made the call: There was no getting back in the building. There would be no Earth Dinner that night.

The abandoned kitchen the day after the fire.

The abandoned kitchen the day after the fire.

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The next day, they went in to see what could be salvaged, if anything.

“The desserts were melted on the counters; the dining room looked like the Titanic with the water and the fancy table dressings. It was a surreal experience,” said Noelle.

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The poor melted desserts.

“One table keeps coming to my mind,” said Kristen. “It was wet on one side with the glasses filled with dirty water and had an Earth Dinner card deck open to the ‘What was your worst kitchen disaster’ card. All I could think was, ‘Yep, this is the worst.’”

Once the crew got over the shock of seeing their newly renovated kitchen turned into a mudpit, they moved into disaster relief mode. Some of the food in the coolers was still good, so they gathered it up and trooped out to feed the hungry workers: firefighters, EMTs and CROPP staff still battling the smoldering building. Trays full of local and organic bruschetta, blue cheese, prosciutto the kitchen staff had made themselves, honey in the comb from CROPP’s own beehives, and delicious handmade sausages from Underground Meats in Madison made their way to those in need.

“It was a beautiful moment to serve delicious, local, homegrown food in the middle of the chaos. It was really grounding,” said Kristen.

Noelle added, “Even without equipment we still had style.”.

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The kitchen crew is working out of the La Farge Community Center for the time being—a full-circle moment for Kristen, who cooked for CROPPies there in the early days of the co-op, before the headquarters (and it’s new-fangled kitchen) were built. Coming back to the community center is like coming back to their cooperative roots.

“People stop by with food and desserts and share their memories of when CROPP came to their aid. They’re thankful they could be here to give back,” said Kristen.

A few days after the fire, with cleanup and recovery efforts well underway, Kristen had a moment communing with the bees. “I saved some of the comb-honey and took it out to the hive and placed it on the ground for the bees to take back. It was a special moment.”

She continued, “Sometimes it’s really good to go back to the basics to remind us all how precious what we have is.”