Vegan Cooking Workshop Stirs Up Local Flavor

Lilli Sher

The smell of cooking curry wafts up the basement stairs of United Campus Ministry (UCM) Tuesday evening. As volunteers chop vegetables, fill water cups and add chunks of tofu to a simmering stew, it is clear that the Athens Vegan Cooking Workshop is in full swing. Located at 18 N. College St., the workshop is a project of Conscious Ohio.

The organization focuses on bringing people together to cook an affordable, local, vegan and organic meal every Tuesday night, Ally Valeda-Maiden, the president of Conscious Ohio, says. 

“It is through the tireless efforts of our volunteers and attendees that we pull this off,” Valeda-Maiden says. 

Volunteers arrive at 7 p.m. to help cook, and those who just want to enjoy the meal come to UCM around 9 p.m. A $2-3 donation for dinner is requested from those who do not volunteer.

Each week, volunteers help prepare a different full-course meal. This week, the menu consisted of tofu curry in a Pawpaw marinade, tikka masala, spring rolls, salad, jasmine rice and Pawpaw smoothies.

It is not required to have culinary experience to volunteer at the workshop. Volunteers are enlisted to do anything from washing dishes to preparing elaborate stirfrys, depending on their comfort level and preference. 

Many of the ingredients are sourced from the Plant Biology Gardens, the Chesterhill Produce Auction and local grocery stores, Maiden says. The gardens are run in collaboration with students studying plant biology and Food Studies theme students.

“My goal this semester was to get...the workshop to purchase produce from the student gardens,” Rachel McDonald, an intern at the Grover Market, says. “[Grover Market] sells the produce that’s grown in the student Plant Biology Gardens.”

This week, the potatoes, tomatoes, onions and garlic used in the recipes were purchased from the Plant Biology Gardens, according to Conscious Ohio’s Facebook page.

Olivia Ritchie, a junior majoring in studio art, says Tuesday was her second time attending Vegan Cooking Night. 

“I like how it’s a good, homemade meal for super cheap,” Ritchie says. “I don't feel bad about eating anything, there are lots of veggies and I feel good about supporting a community-organized group like vegan cooking night.”

McDonald says she likes that the workshop exposes students to non-traditional recipes and ingredients, as well as cooking with more produce and vegetables.

“It offers students and community members a way to interact in a way that’s not through the dining hall or having to pay for an expensive meal,” she says.

Indeed, UCM’s basement on Tuesday evening was crowded with OU students and Athens locals cooking and sharing a meal together. Because the workshop meets weekly, it allows participants to build friendships, and meet people they would not have otherwise.

The Vegan Cooking Workshop is “a staple” for those who attend, Maiden says.

“Our events are informational [and] enjoyable,” Maiden says. “We provide recipes, ingredients, and a space for people to explore cooking while helping them hone a skill that they will bring with them wherever they go.”