An illustration of people working and living around a house

The communal dorm where I lived my sophomore and senior years at Amherst College felt pseudo-Greek in its grandiosity, at least from the outside. Inside, it was both sloppy and bare, filled with disintegrating furniture and body aroma. It was called the Zü, a joke mostly on us, the animals who lived inside. We didn’t eat in the cafeteria; the Zü was the one dorm on campus where students cooked their own meals. Five nights a week, around 20 of us ate a vegetarian dinner together, and once every two weeks, a friend and I were responsible for making it. The first time, I was in such haste to chop a dozen onions that I almost cut off the tip of my thumb. By necessity, I learned about knife skills and cooking for a crowd, especially how to plan my time.

My brother called me in the winter of my senior year. I was pacing outside the Zü, staring up through bare branches at a fortress of heavy gray clouds in the sky. A few months before, Zak had moved back into the Holman House, our childhood home in Portland, Ore. After my parents separated and my mom moved to Wisconsin for work, my dad had lived there with transient roommates: a former Merry Prankster on the Ken Kesey bus; a bookstore owner the size of a giant; and, for a time, a man I was seeing long-distance who worked as a chef. My mom was the homeowner, though, and eventually decided to rent the house to Zak. My dad left behind bookshelves filled to the brim but mostly carted his trove of things to his new apartment a few miles away.

Zak moved into the Holman House with his friend Cynthia, who filled the gaps my dad left with her own oddities: a heap of broken bikes, a fleet of children’s wooden desks, tubs of art supplies. The capacious Holman House could swallow collections whole. Tender Vittles, Cynthia’s fluffy white magician’s-rabbit-like cat, also moved in.

As I walked figure eights around the trees outside the Zü, Zak told me that Cynthia had invited her friend Chris, with whom she was working on a stop-motion animated film, to move in as well. Chris, he said, was an unreal cook. (Zak loves to inflict me with maddening envy.) Just the previous night, Chris had cooked a tom kha curry with galangal, lemongrass and makrut lime leaves, filling the kitchen with what Zak called “the smell of Grandma’s perfume.” I wanted to be in the kitchen with Zak, Chris, Cynthia and their friends. I wanted to eat Chris’s food, which sounded like it was just right, and also Zak’s, who’d started life as the pickiest eater and slowly metabolized his pickiness into culinary acuity. I wanted to move to my childhood home. I asked Zak if there was a room at the Holman House for me.

I moved back to Portland in the summer of 2007. Chris and Cynthia didn’t want work to drag them down, and at first, despite long hours at the stop-motion studio, they made a point to go out often and stay out late. But every time Chris stayed in and cooked Northern Thai foods from his childhood, Cynthia, Zak and I encouraged him. Before long he was calling his mom more often, asking how to make his favorite dishes. Chris’s food got more and more delicious. The quality and intensity of the heat was inspiring, and I had many out-of-body moments while eating some perfect interplay of spicy, funky, salty, sweet, meaty and bright flavors.

When Chris cooked, he was patient and precise. He rarely multitasked. Instead, he focused all his attention on the task at hand, not looking up or away but fully absorbed in one action: a chef’s knife smashing garlic cloves or lemongrass, slender fingers pulling slimy strands of tendon from a chicken breast, a paring knife cutting the muddy intestine from a shrimp. At the stove, he’d wait to witness a transformation, his cues coming not from a cookbook but from the shifts in aroma, color, texture and sound in front of him.

Cooking and eating with Chris transformed Thai food for me. It had always tasted delicious, but he began teaching my housemates and me to experience more nuance. Chris made foods that predated the arrival of chilis in Southeast Asia, foods his father loved, including a medicinal soup called gaeng liang spiced heavily with black pepper. He taught me about the culinary dishes of the Shan States, which repeat in subtle variations across Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. I learned that pad thai had been invented in the 1930s as part of a government-sponsored contest to strengthen Thai nationalism with a unifying dish. “No way,” I said, as he heated his wok until smoke curled from the surface, added a squeeze of oil, and then turned and nodded in my direction.

Zak was the first one to apprentice himself to Chris. He’d watch carefully, and when Chris was out with friends or on a date, Zak would try to replicate his favorite dishes: tom kha soup or tam makhuer, charred eggplant, chopped and panfried with roasted garlic and chilis, and seasoned with fish sauce. Zak would make small alterations, and I loved seeing in real time the way recipes change through individual preference.

Every time I made dinner, I was heartily thanked and cheered on. Every time someone else cooked, I felt awash in gratitude.

I hadn’t lived with Zak since I was 7, when he moved away to college, but across all those years he’d remained a central part of my life. Zak is almost 11 years older than me, so much older that he’s had an outsize effect on my tastes. When I was a toddler, he cooked me frozen peas with butter and made sure I didn’t fall to my death. When I was a little older, he took me for my favorite after-school snack: jo jo potatoes with ranch dressing from Pizza Plus.

Zak taught me to love coffee ice cream and hate cake, convinced me to play basketball, steered me away from the to the trumpet, showed me how to copy CDs from the library and shared his favorite movies, often either transgressive dark comedy or hair-raising Hong Kong action: Nuts in May, Swordsman II.

I felt like a little kid around Zak until I was in high school, when he moved back to Portland from graduate school and lived in various houses with roommates. I’m not certain that Zak ever articulated an agenda to make sure his little sister became someone he liked to hang out with, but he took my hand and let me walk with him wherever he went—to music shows, experimental movies and parties; to his favorite spot to eat ph; and, in the summer, to “the river,” which meant any river within an hour and a half of the city.

An illustration of people putting ingredients into a large pot of stew

After college, our relationship changed again, albeit slowly. I was still a sidekick for a long time, and I felt grateful for the familiar role. He could put me in my place with a few words, shocked by all the adult social behaviors I hadn’t learned from our parents or in college, especially about how to share space thoughtfully, how to keep a joke rolling, when to give someone space. I learned never to go to a party empty-handed, to always ask what I could contribute, to always bring beer. The space between our ages began to shrink. We were becoming more like siblings, less like babysitter and ward.

At first, I didn’t cook with Zak often; I just enjoyed the meals he made. Zak always prepares tortillas and salsa from scratch, pouring boiling water over the dried masa and roasting and peeling the chilis, garlic, and tomatoes or tomatillos. When he sautés vegetables, they taste better than anyone else’s—at once greasy, clean and more intensely themselves. He makes everyday food taste extraordinary, which seemed like a magic trick until I noticed how closely he pays attention to every ingredient.

Eventually, we all started cooking together, sous-chefing for whoever was taking the lead, tidying if the other jobs were taken. Zak and Chris could hum alongside each other in the kitchen, not needing to speak as they moved in sync to make a meal.

In high school, I felt I didn’t live in the Holman House but with it. That sensation returned as soon as I moved back. The house was our fifth roommate, a chaotic, social and demanding one, needing constant human attention. It never let people go—it was the kind of romantic who keeps marrying and remarrying, getting back together with exes, falling in love again. Zak pointed out that no one had properly moved out of the house since the ’90s. There was an accumulation of stuff everywhere, and nobody knew what belonged to whom. Every surface became a repository for magazines, books, receipts, little sculptures, rubber bands, hair bands, bags of cookies, jars of chili flakes. We’d clear the counters, and a week later, like snowfall in winter, the odds and ends would pile up anew.

My dad’s books lined the upstairs hallway, making a dense library. My parents’ cookbooks filled one kitchen wall, ceiling to floor. Low cupboards in the dining room held what my parents called “the people’s dishes”—dozens of mismatched plates, bowls, forks and spoons that allowed us to throw big parties and never need disposable dishes. Cynthia’s art supplies, easels and children’s desks filled the corners of the basement. Somehow other people’s storage ended up there, too, so that we were never sure whose precious art and mementos we were boarding.

We never had a chore wheel. People only did what they wanted to and rarely anything more. That meant I was meticulous about keeping the fridge in order, but I never cleaned under the hood. Zak seemed especially bothered by the grout between the tiles on the kitchen counter, which shed bits of wet brown powder when he scrubbed it after dinner. I’d listen to him whine and shrug it off. What did I know about fixing grout? The scale of the house and yard and our laissez-faire attitude seeded a feeling of resigned acceptance in me, which wasn’t altogether unpleasant. I gained so much from the company of my roommates. It was a trade I was willing to make.

A book cover showing a grocery bag with the title Group Living

Two Group Living Recipes

Follow along with two recipes from Lola Milholland’s ’07 Group Living and Other Recipes: A Memoir.

I left college with an internship that became a job at a nonprofit, where my work focused on the economics of local farming. I spent a lot of my time trying to get more local food into school lunch programs. Another portion of my time went into writing for a food magazine. I loved it. My parents had taught me a kind of values-based hedonism around food: they took overt pleasure in every meal, slurping, sucking their fingers clean, making loud smacking sounds of satisfaction. That pleasure amplified into delight when the food came with a backstory of human and ecological care.

I tried to write from that same hedonistic impulse: start with what tastes good to me, interrogate why and then look at the people, culture, ecosystem, agronomics, mythologies and politics that brought it to this moment. I also started to develop my own systems for evaluating new food technologies, enterprises and policies. In the face of complex issues, I asked: Who funds it, who owns it, and who profits? And the questions hidden on the flip side were equally important: Who doesn’t own it? Who doesn’t profit? I toured independently owned groceries and visited small-scale grain mills in rural Oregon, interviewed tribal members about huckleberries and prehistoric lamprey, and met immigrant farmworkers turned farm owners. I also gravitated toward organic farmers.

This was like a gift circle, a practice in giving and receiving without the burden of debt.

I was becoming more passionate about food politics, but I knew that I didn’t want to let that passion become moralistic. Being judgmental about what people eat is useless and nasty, because food is a spiritual, intimate thing in our lives. My parents held many strong beliefs, but they—and my dad especially—tried not to moralize. He was so curious about what other people thought and where their ideas came from that he couldn’t care less whether their politics matched his own. That seemed right to me. The most compelling way to share something is to share it, not to scold or whine or patronize. In return, you have to listen.

Rather than talking about food politics around the dinner table, I brought home food from farms and ranches I’d visited and told stories about the people I was meeting. We all cooked with it, and Chris started noting when ingredients tasted especially flavorful and describing them in words that felt new. He was honest when he liked something and when he didn’t. In turn, Chris helped me experience food and flavor with more perception. Our sharing often took shape in gestures of affection—when I knew Chris liked something, I’d stockpile it; when he knew what I liked, he’d make extra for my lunch.

Chris taught me to steam kabocha squash, which concentrates all its best characteristics, and at the end of every summer, when I amassed a pile of tomatoes, he’d make nam prik ong, a tomato-and-ground-pork stew with shrimp paste. He’d pile our dining table with Filipino pork rinds (his favorite) and all the raw and steamed vegetables we had on hand—wedges of cabbage, lettuce leaves, sliced cucumbers, green beans—to dip into the thick stew. I’d eat until I floated above the table, hovering above the stained tablecloth, above the scatter of dripping candles, card decks, headlamps and postcards, admiring my roommates seated in their usual spots with their favorite utensils, eating the last bites.

Over time, our household built a rhythm. Some iteration of the group ate dinner together four to six nights a week. We gradually created unspoken rules, guided by Chris and Cynthia, who shared the instinct to be exceptionally social and generous: If you cooked, you cooked for everyone, two people or 10. If you ate, you did your best to help prep and clean up afterward. We split larger costs, like bulk products and a CSA share, but when one person cooked, they bought any extra ingredients they required, and if they needed others to chip in, they asked.

An illustration of people cooking in a kitchen

Zak, Chris and I loved to cook, and we took turns taking the lead. Cynthia always set the mood with amazing decorations and odd party favors: a rubber stress banana to squeeze when someone was having a hard week; cocktail umbrellas; a bag of ice, which she invariably called “party ice”; silly straws. Who knew what might emerge from her voluminous bag!

While this arrangement might seem like a lot of work, it also brought me significant ease. I only made dinner two or three nights a week. I often had leftovers for lunch. Every time I made dinner, I was heartily thanked and cheered on. Every time someone else cooked, I felt awash in gratitude. Whenever dinner was ready, we’d serve ourselves from the rice cooker, sit down together at the dining table and take food from the bowls laid around us, talking and catching up. After, we’d do dishes, wipe down counters and sweep. This was decisively different from the tradition of women, frequently mothers, who find themselves underappreciated and burned out, tasked with food preparation. It was also different from communal meals at the Zü, which were scheduled and budgeted. Instead, this was like a gift circle, a practice in giving and receiving without the burden of debt.

Years later, I’d find words for this kind of sharing in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Hyde, an artist and academic dwelling outside of academia, studied gift-giving cultures around the world and through time and came upon common principles among them. “The gift must stay in motion,” he emphasizes, which means you can’t receive something and hoard it. You must participate in a cycle of giving. You don’t have to give what you received, but you must pass along the spirit endowed in the gift. I noticed among our household that we didn’t tally who cooked the most, who spent the most, whose dishes were the most difficult or involved. Instead, we cultivated a culture of thrill and thankfulness around dinner.

There was an element of mystery to the whole thing. Our cycles of reciprocity created something with a life of its own. Mercifully, our group wasn’t rooted in a named dogma. Instead, we were defined primarily by our commitment to each other, joined together in a marvelous little anarchy.

Underneath these memories is the thrum of the financial recession that began in 2007, the year I graduated from college. I wouldn’t have put these words to it then, but I experienced the Great Recession as an erupting Mount St. Helens, in the distance until it wasn’t—until, suddenly, the skies were blackened all around me and ash was raining down. It didn’t kill my generation; it simply froze us in place and changed the stability of the landscape we thought we knew.

I stayed put in my job and my home. This had a concentrating effect on my personality—I was like a broth simmering on the stove, becoming more condensed. Many of my friends also stayed put, lived in group houses and shared rent. These friends became incredibly close to one another in those shared spaces, even if they didn’t participate in the kumbaya meal throwdowns happening at my house. Their gift languages took other forms.

Almost none of my friends had money, and our economic futures felt increasingly precarious, but in a strange way, I found it easier to share when we all had very little—to cover the dinner bill when someone was short on cash, to loan your car or offer your time, to buy someone clothes when you saw something they’d like.

In Hyde’s writing, there is a clear critique of capitalism. He quotes a common Indigenous precept: “One man’s gift … must not be another man’s capital.” He continues, “property is plagued by entropy and wealth can become scarce even as it increases.” I knew this intuitively. If my friends and I stopped being generous with one another, we’d start counting and hoarding the meager things we had, because in this economy they were unlikely to replenish. The only thing that made us feel abundant was each other.

This article was excerpted and adapted from Group Living and Other Recipes: A Memoir, © 2024 by Lola Milholland, with permission from its publisher, Spiegel & Grau.