Story and photo by Charlene Hewitt, Alligator Blogger
I don’t know much about the religious or spiritual practices of the Hare Krishnas, but I attend Krishna Lunch religiously.
My very first day on campus was a Wednesday, and after my first class I headed straight to Plaza of the Americas to experience Krishna Lunch. And, yes, it is an experience. As soon as they get set up, a line of maybe 50 people forms. There’s a table where patrons purchase vouchers for a set donation price, then another line where the food is served.
In the food line, each volunteer is responsible for serving a single item: one person hands out plates, another dishes out noodles (or rice, depending on the day), and so on until the gentleman at the end puts salad dressing on the salad and then rams a fork on the plate with authority — sometimes he makes an airplane noise as the fork makes its hasty descent.
The melodic chants of the Maha Mantra ring out from a nearby group of people sitting on a blanket with various instruments, including a drum and hand cymbals. Occasionally, someone dances.
Every day from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on-campus lunch goers arrange folding chairs in circles to dine with friends, others move a single chair into the shade of a tree and some just sit right on the grass, not seeming to mind the dirt or the occasional ants. Krishna Lunch has been a UF tradition since it started in 1971.
Before I took the first bite, I performed a ritual that many 21st century students perform when trying a new food: I snapped a picture of my Wednesday spaghetti and uploaded it to Instagram, with the caption, “First Krishna Lunch of many.” Indeed, I have been back almost every weekday since.
On days that I’m not on campus, I take my daughter to Krishna House for lunch. Over the past 6 weeks, my daughter has developed a fondness for one of the devotees, Menaka Harjani. Menaka (pronounced “Maine, like the state, and then ‘ka,’” she explains) serves the first two hours of lunch on the porch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I look forward to those days and the positive interactions that my daughter experiences there. While it’s true that she may not consciously remember any of the specifics, early experiences create the foundation to how she will view the world, whether as a safe place to grow, a scary and dangerous place to fear or something in between. As much as possible, I try to expose her to the positive experiences.
At Krishna House, young people gather on the porch and discuss philosophy, colleagues discuss his or her weekend plans, community service workers take a break from his or her duties, and even the mailman sets down his bag to enjoy a plate of food. Here everyone is treated with the same courtesy, and no belief, practice or dogma is ever forced on anyone.
“We don’t like to impose,” Menaka says. “If someone seems interested, we offer, but that’s it.”
Menaka tells me that just two chefs start preparing lunch at 5 a.m.! It takes them four to five hours to prepare over 1,000 servings. Except for the chips and spaghetti noodles, everything is made from scratch that day.
“On an average day, just on campus, we serve about 800 people, and on the porch at Krishna House, we serve about 80,” Menaka says. Those figures are just for an average day. Wednesday spaghetti and Friday chili attract even larger crowds.
Everything is donation based. Beginning Oct. 1, the suggested donation per plate is $5 because the price of food, mainly the fresh salad ingredients, has increased. However, 10 vouchers can still be purchased for $35, which is the route I take. $3.50 for an all-you-can-eat vegetarian (vegan versions are also available upon request) meal with a drink is unbeatable.
“If you can’t pay, you can volunteer and get a free plate of food,” Menaka says. The amount of time that someone volunteers is self-determined.
Lunch is served on weekdays at Plaza of the Americas from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. At Krishna House, lunch is served on the porch from noon until 4 p.m.