Lectures and Fries

To the list of great pairings of culture and snack food, including movies and popcorn and art galleries and cheese plates, we can now add Lectures and Fries. Hyde Park’s largest housing cooperative, Bowers House, located on 51st Street and University Avenue, has cooked up a new kind of home-schooling with its Lectures and Fries series. On Tuesday, February 17, Bowers House hosted the seventh installment, led by Sara Black, a founder of Backstory Café.

The idea of an informal yet informative lecture series arose from a dinner conversation among some of the housing cooperative’s tenants. Bowers House member Lydia Laurenson proposed inviting speakers to come and share their quirky knowledge with house members and friends. Kevin Rohrer, also a Bowers House resident, thought their project needed a gimmick. His suggestion? French fries. After that, Lectures and Fries took off. Laurenson organized a vetting committee of co-op members to select lecturers, which she proudly dubbed “Team Crispy.” The series’ playful, do-it-yourself approach to learning is the essence of its appeal; its past speakers have presented on topics running the gamut from Jabberwocky translation to the skeptics of science in the Fortean Society.

On Tuesday night, co-op members filed into the living room and started rearranging slipcovered couches and folding chairs in preparation for the lecture. Black arrived and presented a PowerPoint slideshow that chronicled the history of the sustainable, community-oriented business she helped establish. As she discussed the dramatic course of events that led to Backstory’s opening last summer, attendees passed around bowls of Kevin’s Idaho potato and sweet potato fries, along with ketchup and homemade masala mayonnaise. Black described how Backstory Café aims to be “an incubator for community development” by creating a space where Woodlawn locals and University of Chicago students can come together for a cup of slow-filtered coffee or a Monday morning play-date with neighborhood parents and kids. Black’s description of her collaborative project resonated with Laurenson, who found a parallel between the coffee shop’s management methods and the philosophy behind the co-op lifestyle. According to Laurenson, both Backstory and Bowers House “set an important example and encourage people to think about how they could live their lives in a non-normative, cooperative way.”

The lecture ended, but house members kept chatting. And that is really what Lectures and Fries is all about: stimulating conversation and a sense of community. Learning is fun again–and it comes with a side of fries.