On Milwaukee near Western and the old Congress Theater, in a storefront that once housed a hardware store, balmy April smog filled the air-conditioning-free new home of the Autonomous Zone anarchist collective. Assorted dogs orbited a weathered, dreadlocked white guy nicknamed Diamond as he drank red wine and munched bread on a folding chair in the main room, a dim, generous space with a high ceiling and a long-neglected hardwood floor. Behind him were racks of zines, books, and political pamphlets advocating freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, safer sex through Saran Wrap, and other causes celebres; over his head a hand-lettered sign decreed vaguely: “Please be fair to the other people who want to read this stuff, and the people who worked really hard to make this library a good resource.” Diamond and about a dozen other activists were awaiting an unusually classy dinner at the A-Zone: Dan Bocik, owner and head chef of A Tavola–a spot near Damen and Chicago where Bocik serves fine Italian on the first floor and gives cooking lessons on the second–had been invited to teach them to make vegan gnocchi.
Most of Diamond’s compadres were college students. They were just as eager to eat as they were reluctant to disclose surnames; a Harold Washington College art student named Josh said he’d been looking forward to the feast for weeks. “A new vegan recipe–oh yeah!” Josh was raised in upstate New York, but his accent owed more to a few semesters of study in California.
Bocik, a tall, elegant guy who’s worked in restaurants most of his adult life, finally arrived, armed with gear– a worn old-fashioned food mill, hotel pans, a skimmer–and was ushered back to the kitchen by two roommates named Rachel. Rachel A, a blond wearing a huge belt buckle in the shape of the circled-A anarchy symbol, was friends with Bocik and had arranged the lesson. Rachel #3 (they’ve got another roommate named Rachel who goes by #2) was a smaller, darker girl with round glasses and pigtails who half joked about “control issues” between the roommates but defended A from Bocik’s cracks in turn. “Don’t mess with a Rachel!” she told him.
The activists peeled themselves from the big room’s stained couches and crowded around the butcher block that took up most of the kitchen. They were eager with questions, hoping professional alchemy could coax flour, nutmeg, and potatoes to cough up good gnocchi with no help from eggs and cheese. It became clear, however, that Bocik–who volunteered his time and supplies for the event–had never tried this before.
He enlisted the students in prep work–milling tomatoes for marinara sauce, peeling hot potatoes for the vegan dumplings–while he browned garlic in olive oil, then set the marinara to reduce. While Rachel A industriously trucked dirty pans back to the dish sink, Bocik milled the potatoes and got out the flour. Then he stopped. “OK, we’re not really going to mix the flour and the potatoes, because first…well, since we’re not using eggs, I guess we should…maybe we should put some water in there…” He shrugged and started to knead and fold.
“D’you ever cook vegan stuff?” someone asked.
“You are now!”
Somebody else suggested Bocik dump in some wine.
“Yeah, good idea,” said Bocik, looking up from the dough. “Wine is vegan. Let’s put some crack in it. As long as you don’t have milk in it, crack is OK.”
“Did you bring cheese for it? Real Parmesan?” somebody asked.
“Uh, I have some, but absolutely nobody is getting any,” said Bocik, nodding toward three different signs declaring the A-Zone fridge inhospitable to animal products. (One just said, “Non-vegan items will be discarded.”) “I don’t wanna be the guy who defiled the A-Zone.”
“You should definitely put nutritional yeast in here. Where’s the nutritional yeast?” asked Rachel A. She found a shaker filled with straw yellow flakes.
“Er,” said Bocik. “Um, I’ll just leave it au naturale.” He rolled out the dough and began to cut it into strips, then morsels.
“Your sauce is ready,” said Rachel A, who had prepped an alternate entree, tofu cacciatore, just in case, and was waiting for the stove.
“No, it’s not,” said Bocik.
“Why didn’t you put the garlic in the marinara?” asked A.
“We took out the good flavor; it went in the oil,” said Bocik.
“When you went to school for cooking,” asked Rachel #3, admiring Bocik’s knife skills, “did you have races with the other cooks?”
“That’s what we did all day,” said Bocik.
When the feast was finally spread, the gnocchi were a little pasty, though the sauce showed Bocik was in his element. He put his grated cheese out next to the dead-yeast topping.
A flyer Rachel A circulated to attract local activists to the event had invited them to “squish the state” with the eggless dumplings. Asked whether individual acts of veganism seemed futile, Josh said no, especially if you did it as part of a larger group. He paused, then said it was a good personal protest against the way animal bodies and fluids are manufactured. “I’m not down with that.” Also, he said, the boycott tactic has historically had an influence on industry.
On the meat industry, or industry in general?
“Uh–general,” he said.
Rachel #3, asked whether making vegan gnocchi would in any way affect rhetorical fish in a barrel George Bush II, responded that the foodstuff’s deliciousness could ruin the president’s concentration. “He’s always masturbating,” she said, “and when he sees vegan gnocchi he has to drop his penis.”
“Are you talking about the ‘squish the state’ flyer?” Rachel A cut in. “Squishing the state has nothing to do with George Bush!”
Bocik watched as the cell enjoyed the fruits of his experiment. He joked with Rachel A near the wine supply. “You want to overthrow something with me? Let’s overthrow something tonight!”
She half smiled at him. “Let’s overthrow the Moral Muffins,” she said, playing with a box labeled Organic Moral Fiber Muffins. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“C’mon,” he said, “it’s only for the day. We won’t make a lifestyle of it or anything.”
A beat passed. Rachel A rocked on her sandals and took a sip from her plastic cup.