Fashioned from the finest vegetarian leftovers gathered from nearby dumpsters and grocers, it gave the guests an altruistic flush. Inspired, they spoke of anarchy, workers' rights, and tofu being the other white meat. They wanted to break down the barriers between the haves and have-nots.
So went the first meeting of Cleveland's Food Not Bombs. Of course, some had good intentions, but didn't follow through. The rest formed a loose crew that has shown up on Public Square every Sunday since 1995 with a free vegetarian meal for the masses. They share the food with the homeless and whoever else happens by. The feasts are meant as a catalyst for community, a bright spot of spontaneity and camaraderie after a full week of being "circulated through the system."
"From the start, we wanted to find ways to build communication between people who were bringing the food down and people who were eating the food," says Dan Kerr, one of the founders. "We want to create networks between homeless people."
A native Clevelander from a family of activists, Kerr learned the art of dumpster-diving at the feet of a man actually named Dumpster, then spent a few years helping run a soup kitchen in a New York homeless encampment. Returning to Cleveland for graduate school, he met up with some like minds.
A talkative, teacherly sort who regularly stops by the shelters, Kerr is fond of terms like "the philanthropic Mafia" and "the institutionalization of poverty." The homeless get enough structure sleeping in a gym with 400 other people or being served slop in an assembly line, he reasons. The Food Not Bombs gatherings are a break from that. The Sunday meal is self-serve, so everyone -- homeless and non-homeless -- is on equal footing.
Nationally, Food Not Bombs originated in early 1980s Boston, when some anarchist thespians planned to distribute food to actors playing homeless people in their antiwar street play, but soon found they didn't need actors. Real homeless people were eating their props, so they scrapped the symbolism and focused on feeding the poor.
Unassuming yet intellectual, Cleveland's Food Not Bombs is a youthful assemblage that's distinguished visually by demure piercings and olive drab. Rather than lead protests, they prefer to help the homeless organize their own, like the tent city set up on the Square in response to Mayor Mike White's 1999 homeless sweeps. They're progressive in their politics, but they don't rally around one banner, be it hippie, punk, or Wobbly. Some want to Free Mumia; others align themselves with abortion rights, environmental activism, or labor unions for low-wage workers.
"We've all reached a flexible understanding," Kerr says. "Even the people really into vegetarianism tend not to be hardcore about it. Last week, for example, someone brought down a bunch of ham and lunchmeat. And this other guy shows up with beef and noodles and fried chicken. So we just said, 'That group over there is called Ham Not Bombs and that group is called Chicken Not Bombs and Beef and Noodles Not Bombs.' There's a lot of joking around."
"A lot of curry jokes," adds Chris Dole, who's been with the Cleveland contingent since day one.
In the early days, the group's Sunday cooking sessions, where new and old business is discussed over potato peelings, were much more intense.
"We used to spend, God, 8 hours, 16 hours just preparing food," Dole says. "We'd have these bell peppers stuffed with rice and tofu. Eight courses. Candied yams. But it was getting really frustrating. By the time you got all this food and got downtown, you'd be too burned out to do anything."
Sometimes, just scavenging the ingredients would fritter away a whole Saturday, says Kerr. They'd drive all over town, filling up four cars and a van. "Then we'd have to sort through it all."
The West Side Market was a particular ordeal, with its take-two-cases-of-cabbages-or-nothing policy. "I remember this one time, this guy had a whole truck full of raspberries," says Kerr. "'Here, you can take this whole truck full.' But the problem was, there would be some that were moldy. And you'd have to sort through all this stuff!" So they politely declined. Now, rather than scour all of Greater Cleveland, they stick to a few tried-and-true sites.
Lately, they've been cooking at a Slavic Village kitchen, where protest posters are more plentiful than pan lids. On a recent Sunday, a few no-shows have the group running behind. As for the "shows," some are new and not real handy with a paring knife -- the Anarchist's Cookbook apparently didn't cover that.
Luckily, two old-timers arrive, offer a crash course in vegetable chopping, and toss out the slimy asparagus and the case of soy milk that expired a month ago.
As kale, radishes, and eggplant are sliced for stew, talk turns to love-hate relationships with cilantro (five people love it; one guy thinks it tastes like oven cleaner) and the excruciating boringness of spending nine hours in a car with workers from a revolutionary bookstore who restrict their conversation to The Revolution.
At first, Food Not Bombers were apprehensive about serving food without a permit in Public Square. In late-1980s San Francisco, people were arrested for such "crimes," to much public outcry. But here, they've been left alone.
"The politicians here knew what was going on in other cities," says Kerr. "To Mayor White's credit, he has more or less let us distribute food. I think that was very smart."
But things got tense when Kerr and Dole decided to add a microphone and a couple of amps to the downtown feast, so the homeless people could try some "old-time soapboxing." The homeless were well behaved, but a couple of kids who monopolized the mic for three hours during All-Star Weekend 1997 weren't.
"They started singing about how they were gonna kill the cops with their Glocks and how they were gonna smoke a blunt," recalls Kerr. "That was when the cops came" and pulled the plug.
Kerr and Dole then decided to try the airwaves. Both Case Western Reserve graduate students, they now host Frost Radio, Greater Cleveland's unofficial antidote to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, on WRUW-FM.
The weekly talk show, which airs on Tuesdays at 11 a.m., features homeless guests discussing life on the streets of Cleveland. Recent topics included the staleness of sandwiches distributed by a Christian group, why homeless men and women who are sleeping together aren't necessarily having sex, and a lively reminiscence of a bus full of poor people crashing a country club.
Dave Campbell, the self-proclaimed President of the Homeless and a frequent guest on the show, came up with the moniker. "Because frost covers everything," he enthuses. "Frost makes things crystal clear."
At the Sunday meal, Campbell plants his black flag in a conspicuous corner of the square, then helps himself to vegetarian spaghetti. Two women, hunched over beyond their years, rummage through the pile of bagels donated by a local bakery. A man wrapped in an afghan asks for a hot dog, but settles for some soup.
Ralph Pack, a pensive elder in a pea coat, hails from the Depression-era hobo school of homelessness. A former petty crook, he used to room in the $5-a-night flophouses that dotted the near East Side 20 years ago, and he laments the high rents now. He's been coming to the Food Not Bombs meals for several years, calling them "a fulcrum for activists of all types."
"Something even more important than the food, it gives us all a place to network and make plans about getting more shelters, more food. This is the only way to get the word out [to the non-homeless] that these last few years have been a horrifying time" for finding cheap housing. Temp agencies routinely recruit in homeless shelters, he says, paying wages below subsistence levels, so workers stay dependent on shelters.
Adrian Williams hopes to get his own place soon. But then he might not be able to afford food, so he'll still come to Food Not Bombs. "Some come all the time, some come sometimes," he says of the gatherings. "You got those who last a year or two, you got those who go on forever. I met people who are homeless for a week or two, a year. Next thing you know, they're right back in the midst of society. Then I met some who've been homeless for 13, 14 years. But everybody who comes here, I'm sure they all appreciate it." Their stomachs won't be filled for the whole week, but maybe their souls will.