Making Coffee with Grumble

Photo by  Alex Holt . 

Photo by Alex Holt

This is how Grumble taught me to make cowboy coffee: Fill a giant pot with water and bring it to a rolling boil, then shut off the heat. Add your grounds (always more than you think you need, the coffee should be STRONG) and let them incorporate for five to seven minutes. Stir again, then toss in a cup of cold water and tap the bent-up pot with a ladle or cooking spoon to sink the grounds. Find someone to lift the pot and pour the coffee into the serving container with you, filtering it through a fine mesh strainer. Get a mug, fill it up, and brace yourself for a busy, caffeinated day.

It’s a ritual I’ve repeated in so many places--from the anti-mountaintop removal campaign in Appalachia where Grumble and I first met to a humanitarian aid camp in the US-Mexico borderlands to my own kitchen on mornings when I’ve forgotten to buy filters for the coffee maker. Each time I do so, I think of this friend and teacher, who has dedicated his life to cooking for direct action campaigns and mass mobilizations (and I’m not the only one who associates a cup of “rocket fuel” on a groggy, pre-action morning with Grumble--when I talked to friends, his coffee came up again and again, and one even pointed me to a song about it). He has given--and continues to give--me and so many others so much: Bowls of spicy pozole and plates of fruit cobbler. Kind words and patient cooking advice channeled through his ever-so-slightly grumpy demeanor. Stories about trees sits, anti-nuclear marches, and disaster relief efforts; and advice gleaned from his years of experience in the field.

I interviewed Grumble over the phone and, as we talked, he made split pea soup for Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers stationed near Yellowstone, Montana. Between slicing and stirring he told me how he became a cook, shared some of his strongest kitchen memories, and offered advice on how we can make movement spaces more accessible for elders.

Note: This interview contains references to police violence and police use of guns. It was edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with a pretty basic question! How did you learn to cook?

Kind of two ways: I grew up in a traditional conservative household and my mom was a housewife and a really good cook, which inspired me to learn how. She didn’t really teach me anything because I was a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s, but after going to college and moving out of the dorms, I took it up and I really loved to cook. Initially, how I learned was just through cookbooks. One of the first ones that I used was The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen. I tried stuff from that and cooked for my friends for potlucks and stuff. Initially, I wasn’t very good at cooking, but because I loved it and seemed to have a knack for spices I got better as time went on. Then there were a couple of people who influenced me, like Felipe Chavez who cooked for the New England Walk for Nuclear Disarmament, which was my first direct action thing.

At any rate, I observed people and I really picked it up fast. I started cooking for other people more and more as time went on and, over the course of the years I just got better and better at it and stopped looking at recipes except for consulting them occasionally. That’s kind of how I learned--observation. The hard knocks of activist kitchen work.

What inspired you to focus on cooking as part of your work as an environmental and social justice activist?

One of the things I realized pretty early on in my activism is that people can focus on what they’re changing and do it in a healthier way and also have more energy for it if they have food support. Pretty much that’s my inspiration for cooking for people. And, also, food brings people together. Everyone has to eat and it just helps a community in resistance come together.

Like gathering around food and the conversations that happen over food?

The conversations over food, the sharing of food. In most of the kitchens I work with it’s a collective effort to produce the meals, just like it’s a collective effort to stop a pipeline or protest police brutality or stop mountaintop removal. [All] of those things take people working together and food is a huge example of that. And cooking together saves a huge amount of resources in general. It’s really a community activity.

Can you tell me a little about your trajectory--the work you’ve done as a cook in social movements over the years?

I’ve done activist cooking my entire adult life, so there’s a lot to that. I started out in the anti-nuclear movement, but Seeds of Peace as a collective has diversified to support forms of resistance in environmental justice and social justice movements. I’ve done everything, I guess--my favorite is on-the-ground resistance camps or ongoing direct action campaigns. Forest defense in the 1990s was a big part of that--Cove Mallard, Otter Wing, the Bitterroot Salvage Sale. Then, as the 1990s progressed and people realized--and they should realize again--that part of the enemy was global capitalism and capitalist entities, and were trying to focus on some bigger pictures causes, there were the mass actions of the anti-globalization movement.

Another thing that’s been really important to me is cooking for spring gathering meetings [on Black Mesa] and supporting the Diné elders in their resistance to forced relocation. Especially lately, my work has been as an accomplice/ally with indigenous people in resisting pipelines and breaches of their sovereignty and destruction of their treaty territories. Some of the other things that have been really good are going to Ferguson and working with people around police brutality, providing food support there out of one of the sanctuary churches that were set up. And going to Baltimore and doing the same thing. I spent six months in New Orleans after Katrina cooking for volunteers and returning residents--another really cool thing, although I now realize it was over a decade ago. That’s a brief synopsis of lots of things.

You mentioned Seeds of Peace. Could you talk a little bit about that organization?

Seeds of Peace is a collective--I’m not a co-founder, but I think I’ve kept it alive somehow over the course of the years. It was founded in 1986 after the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament and, throughout the years, in its different evolutions and different sets of personalities, it’s provided food support for probably a million-plus people, as well as logistic and direct action expertise from the experience of working on ongoing campaigns. It was originally a group dedicated to supporting and organizing walks around nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons and, as I said earlier, branched out into the entire gamut of social movements within the so-called United States.

Cool, thank you! I want to ask about your “Eat First, Then Smash the State” slogan because I love it so much. It’s the slogan for Seeds of Peace, right? And I’ve heard rumors that you did a radio show by the name. How did that phrase end up coming about?

It was kind of a play on words off of [environmental direct action organization] Earth First! I don’t know, I guess the reality is it was something I thought up and then thought was a good saying to highlight the work that Seeds of Peace and I have done throughout my activist career. Food’s really important to a person’s health and well being. When you are basically in a war with corporations and capitalism and the State, the idea is to make sure you have a meal before you confront whatever you’re confronting.

Yeah. Do it on a full stomach!

Yup. Which … you’re likely to last longer. I mean, stuff that we generally try to do at mass actions or anything that we’re doing--like at Standing Rock when people were locking down on the easement--as much as possible we tried to show up with food. It helps people last longer, be in a better mood, be more enthusiastic, etcetera.

I’ve definitely experienced that! And then the radio show--was that about food or was it a music show or something else?

I sort of took a break from full time activism and got a job at a co-op up in Moscow, Idaho, and during that time I had this radio show by that title. Originally it was An Empire Strikes Back because my roommate started it as a show to talk about the Iraq War, the second one that started in 2003. But it changed and really it was a political rant and rave show about whatever issue came into my head or what I was doing, because all my vacations in that time frame were spent going to mass actions or helping actions that were happening at Buffalo Field Campaign or elsewhere. Then I went to New Orleans for six months [after Hurricane Katrina]. I eventually quit and went back to full time activism. But the radio show … I don’t know, I would play new CDs that I had never even listened to and some of them were really terrible so I’d have to apologize. It was supposed to be a fun kind of diatribe against capitalism and it was not so much about food at all except to say, “I’m going here to cook for this.”

Thank you! I’ve always been curious about that.

Well, there you go.

Is there a certain recipe passed down to you by someone else that you continue to cook? What is it? What’s the story behind it?

Um … it’s a really simple recipe, but my mom used to make this orange syrup to go with waffles and pancakes. It’s really simple, you just have a can of orange concentrate if you’re making a small volume of it--or you can go higher, like three of those things. Then water, a cup of brown sugar, and a stick of butter or margarine, depending on if you want it vegan. Then you bring that thing to a boil and take a tablespoon of cornstarch and mix it with a tablespoon of water, pour that in there to thicken it and there you are with your orange syrup, which I always loved as a kid. I continue to make it to this day and it was inspired my mom.

That sounds really good! Do you have anything else that’s a favorite thing to cook?

Because I grew up in northern New Mexico, I really like to make pozole and enchiladas. I make them frequently.

Your pozole is super delicious and super spicy!


Yours was the first pozole that I ever had, and it wasn’t until I moved to Arizona and had other versions that I realized it wasn’t always that spicy.

No, no, that’s kind of a Grumble trend.


What are some of the most interesting or strangest food-related experiences you’ve had?

Well, I can share one that was interesting and pretty much terrible as well. In 1993, in Cove Mallard [a forest defense campaign in Idaho], Forest Service law enforcement got a search warrant for our base camp. During the course of it--it would take me too long to tell the whole story--I made breakfast and coffee for the camp, which they allowed me to do under armed guard. I had a shotgun pointed at me the entire time.

I also woke up that morning with a shotgun two inches from my forehead.

So they let you cook the meal but at gunpoint, basically?

Yep! The guard sat on a bench outside the kitchen with a gun in his lap, pointed at me.

Do you remember what you made?

I think it was fried potatoes and blueberry pancakes. And I made the strongest coffee I could possibly make with the best coffee we had in camp at the time.

One of the other really incredible experiences was the first lock down at Standing Rock with Red Warrior. Two people were locked down, one to an excavator, and we showed up and served breakfast burritos and coffee. It was before the Morton County Sheriff’s Department cops went to FBI school for lockboxes so it was the longest lasting PVC lockbox I’ve ever seen. This person Happi held out on that excavator--albeit he wasn’t very cooperative with the grinder--for, like, five hours.

One of the other ones was when there was this thing called the Matrix Program--against homeless people in San Francisco--when Seeds of Peace was based in Berkeley. The cops would bust people serving food on Union Square. We were out there one day in 1993 and the usual Food Not Bombs crew went ahead and was serving the food and the cops came and dumped it all out. There is a parking garage under Union Square so we set up a two burner behind a pick up truck and went ahead and made a soup for folks in the parking garage and then just popped up to the surface with the soup and served it.

Amazing! How have you seen the intersections of food and resistance change over the years?

In some ways it’s the same. One of the things that has evolved in the last thirty years is the realization of how important food is. It’s something that people now incorporate into their planning on a routine basis. That wasn’t really there [before], especially for people organizing big anti-globalization things--Seeds would just insert itself into the organizing to provide food support for people. People have come to have a greater appreciation that food support is something that they do need to have lined up for action camps and especially for ongoing campaigns.

Uh, there are less vegans around than there once were. That’s another thing. But more people not eating wheat.

With Standing Rock, I think people have realized again the value of ongoing resistance in fighting fossil fuel energy infrastructure. The kitchen is an integral part of that and people realize it. Food is really important in indigenous culture and community so there’s a lot of respect for that work.

What advice might you give cooks who are just starting to work with direct action campaigns and social movements?

You have to expect that you’re going to work really, really hard. And that you do the best you can. And to realize that people are not, unfortunately, always going to appreciate you as much as you might like. Some other [roles] may seem like they have more prestige, but know that you are essential to the fact that people are resisting. It’s kind of a long term commitment, it’s not a dabbley thing.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is spread people and kitchen work. I’m out West now doing Buffalo Field Campaign stuff but good friends of mine in Seeds of Peace East are cooking for the resistance to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline--the frack pipelines in [West Virginia and] Virginia. They are out there on the front lines where the monopod and the tree sit are. And I think that’s great that they’re doing that and, you know, part of the idea is to spread this kitchen support because I can’t be in every place in the world.

That’s great that there are different pockets of Seeds of Peace operating in different places now.

Yeah, and now, out of Standing Rock, there’s some Diné friends of mine that have kitchen equipment and cook for resistance stuff out there. So that’s really cool.

How do you think younger organizers can support their elders? Does food tie into this and, if so, how?

A part of that, I think, is that people should emulate Native cultures--not appropriate them, but realize that having respect for people who have experience and knowledge, and listening to that, is pretty important. Really, there’s just little ways that you show respect by, like, helping somebody who’s older than you by providing them with meals and taking care of them when they’re sick and stuff, because these are the people who have preceded you in resistance and given their lives to it. Bringing them a plate of food, etcetera. I guess that’s it in a nutshell.

And to provide the infrastructure that is necessary so they can be a part of these camps and share their wisdom.

Like making action camps accessible to people who are older and maybe not as mobile as they once were?

Yeah. That is really what I’ve been an accomplice in. In indigenous-led camps and efforts, it’s just part and parcel of the camp. And it’s something more settler-focused things need to think about. Seeds of Peace East, when I was out there, did a lot of cooking for older people doing actions around the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission and against pipelines. These people are willing to throw down and do stuff and others should be willing to support them if they want to do that.

Grumble's Recipe: Potato Salad for 2000

Equipment Needed: One 25-gallon pot, 160 quart cooler, large colander, one large paddle, 60,000 btu burner, lots of cutting boards and a lot of volunteers.


150 lbs. red potatoes

1/2 gallon apple cider vinegar

10 bunches celery (in small slices)

1 case red bell peppers (diced)

25 red onions (diced)

6 red cabbage (cut fairly small)

10 quart jars baby dill pickles-sliced

2 gallons of mayo

1 quart mustard

1 lbs. dill

1/2 cups black pepper

3 cups salt

2 cups paprika

11/2 quarts canola oil

Chop potatoes into bite size pieces, put into the pot, cover with water and cook until done (do not space the potatoes out or you will have mashed potatoes). Drain immediately, then start the process of cold immersion. You will fill another big pot with cold water and put the hot drained potatoes in it, then drain it, and repeat this process until the potatoes are fully cooled. Add all the ingredients into the big cooler and mix with the paddle (act like you’re turning a canoe and paddling one, it is a lot of fun!). You’re done when it is totally mixed. Taste and adjust the flavor as needed. Go out to your nearest mass action (there better be one) or street protest and serve!