People driving by the Capitol building at Broadway and Colfax will notice many things about the Occupy Denver demonstration site, including energetic protesters chanting and waving signs, a Hooverville-style collection of tents and tarps for the 24-7 campers and, right in the middle of this organized chaos, the Thunderdome. This fully-functioning kitchen is run by former restaurant employees volunteering their time for the Occupy Wall Street cause, and the makeshift plywood-and-tarp structure serves hot meals, snacks and drinks to anyone who asks for them, demonstrators or not -- serving between 200 and 400 people a day.
The demonstration population ebbed and flowed this Saturday afternoon, with the diehard campers and organizers sleeping in shifts and the non-campers staying anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but the total number stayed steady at around 75 to 100 -- with about 75 percent of the people there to protest, and the other 25 percent homeless folks who gravitated toward the tents, sleeping bags and free food.
"Fuck the shelter," said one homeless man. "They're all full of bedbugs and crackheads."
The homeless fellow said he was with the protesters because he was "definitely part of the 99 percent," and also because of the free eats.
The Thunderdome, named for the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, lives up to its name. It's a crude configuration of mismatched canvas tarps, scraps of lumber, boxes and old furniture. But on Saturday, this rudimentary shack was well-stocked with such donated foodstuffs as granola bars, cookies, crackers, fresh fruit, sandwich makings, beef jerky and beverages including juice, tea, coffee and bottled water. It was chilly and rainy, so there was a full coffee pot and also a carafe of hot water being overseen by two unemployed chefs, Pat and Crunchy.
"We're feeding motherfuckers and stickin' it to the man!" said Crunchy.
These two colorful characters provided much-needed morale boosts for the group who were toughing out the damp and chill. "Welcome to the Thunderdome, bitches!" hollered Crunchy, rubbing his hands together and grinning.
"I'm currently employed at the Thunderdome," said Pat. "My current salary is zero."
Since the kitchen is free, its popularity is obvious, but Pat and Crunchy's comedy routines are quickly becoming a staple among the core protesters.
"I eat pussy and cook like Jesus!" exclaimed Crunchy.
"You look like Kermit the Frog," Pat retorted a few seconds later.
The duo proceeded to sing the "C is for Cookie" song from Sesame Street.
The legalities of having a kitchen in the park seemed doubtful, but Pat explained the rules. "The kitchen has been open for eight days, and we've made sure that it complies with being a freestanding structure, on public property and not attached to state property," he said.
"We run this as efficiently as possible to create as little waste as possible," said volunteer Patricia Hughes, while Crunchy was making jokes about having intimate relations with Lady Gaga.
The kitchen indeed had a labeled recycle bin, as well as compost bins. Trash was meticulously removed, and dirty dishes and cooking utensils were transported to volunteers' houses to be washed and returned.
Mealtimes at the camp are loosely scheduled to coincide with the daily general assembly meetings at noon and 7 p.m.
And what, exactly, is on the menu at Chez Thunderdome?
In the almost ten days that the facility has been open, Crunchy has prepared a fine -- and mostly vegan -- spread, including roasted squash and rice casserole, an autumnal vegetable stew, an eggplant and purple pepper stir-fry, a Chinese long bean and tomato stew, and a kale/rainbow chard dish with spicy sausage.
"We can cook anywhere," said Pat, proudly. "We are here 25-8."
In addition to the meals prepared on-site, supporters have brought prepared foods like casseroles, soups and burritos. Two supporters actually delivered a ten-pound dish of homemade macaroni and cheese on Saturday, and Crunchy and Pat donned gloves and dished it onto paper plates. The rich, steaming portions were a welcome repast for the lucky demonstrators who followed the "first-come-first-served" rule.
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A few local restaurants have also donated food, including Papa John's Pizza -- that chain could use some good PR karma right now -- as well as Tokyo Joe's and Einstein Bros. Bagels. "We'd like to have more local chef support," said Pat.
Crunchy estimated that the Thunderdome was feeding uup to 400 people a day, with everyone from protesters to homeless people to passersby welcome.
"I'm glad they are here," said a female protester. "They keep everyone fed and make everyone laugh, and we need that right now."