The Greenwood + Lentil, Tomato and Garlic Soup
Many Voices Many Kitchens this week talks to Oskar at the Greenwood, Edinburgh’s new sober, queer cafe, about opening a business during a global pandemic, the importance of art and hospitality, and lentil, tomato and garlic soup!
SWK: How would you describe the Greenwood and how did you come to be?
Oskar: The Greenwood is a new cafe, arts space and eco-friendly shop that opened at the start of September here in Edinburgh. It’s a safe space, suitable for all ages and without an alcohol license, made with the LGBTQIA+/queer community in mind. In Edinburgh it’s seemed to us for a while now that for the queer community here it’s always been the clubs and bars that have been the main social space for us. So I was talking with friends about how nice it would be to have a sober queer cafe space as well as all the bars, and then earlier this year I saw a Facebook post saying that there was a little shop and cafe space looking for new management. So I shared it, mostly as a joke at first, saying how I should turn it into a queer cafe, and the next thing I knew I had fifty comments from people all encouraging me to actually do it, including one from my friend Zak, who asked if I’d like to go in on it together. I had no experience opening a cafe, so it seemed like a good idea not to do it on my own, so together we messaged the owner and a couple months later we opened!
SWK: That’s so quick!
OH: It was a bit insane! I still haven’t fully processed it myself!
SWK: It must have been amazing to receive so much community support in such a short space of time.
OH: That was the biggest part of it really! I’ve worked as a drag queen and multimedia artist so I had some experience with fundraising, just in terms of getting together £200 or so for a show, and as we knew that there would be some takeover costs for the cafe I suggested trying to do the same just to cover the basics. And the response was incredible – I think we raised the original £1,500 goal in around three hours, so then we doubled that goal and then raised £3,000 within the day.
Even more than the money, though, it was the messages alongside the donations that made so much difference. People saying things like this is what I’ve always wanted or just telling their stories about how they maybe don’t feel comfortable in nightclub or bar space and so what a huge difference a specifically queer cafe would make in their lives. Those comments proved to us that a cafe was incredibly needed for the whole community, beyond it just being a nice way for myself and Zak to stay employed, and that it would really mean something big to people.
SWK: What was the actual takeover of the place like?
OH: The previous owner, Polly, was in the space until the end of August, and before we opened we really wanted to change a few things like the wall colour and the general energy and style. We also didn’t have a kitchen at first, so we had to set up our own simple version using things like slow cookers and basic shelving. So all of that was a lot of work! For the first three days we were in there 7am til 1am, just trying to get everything done!
We also reached out to local queer artists for their artwork or zines so I had to individually price all of those and create a system to remember what belonged to who, which was a new experience for me – it was a learning curve!
SWK: How did you find that first month of being open?
OH: I’d worked waiting or catering jobs since I was 16. At the same time, during the last couple of years I’ve managed to do my arts projects for just-about-a-living instead, so going back into the hospitality world was a big step! And compared to my arts projects, where I can take time to think about what I really want to do and how I want to present things, suddenly I was back in a place where there were urgent, practical things in need of doing, like dishwashing and preparing food!
Overall, though, it’s just given us a lot. It’s felt like we’ve been able to have real purpose to our lives, and what gets me through the difficult days is knowing that this really does mean something to people, and having them come in and say that they love the fact that we’re here. Maybe they’re 16 and finally have a loving and supportive sober queer space they can access, or maybe they’re an older queer person who avoids alcohol because of previous substance abuse, it’s all these sorts of stories that we hear that really help to push us through the hard days.
SWK: On the food side of things then, how did you originally decide on your menu?
OH: It was mostly myself and Zak sitting down together and brainstorming! We knew we wanted to go vegan with our hot food selection, partly because we just don’t want to use too many animal products anyway and partly because we don’t have much of a kitchen space, so the fewer materials and equipment we can use the better. We’re mostly slow cooker based, just chucking vegetables in, but we do try to rotate as well, so we’ll have a different soup and then a curry or a stew, and then the baked goods, which we were lucky to inherit from the previous owner. The baked food selection is the only thing we have that isn’t entirely vegan, but they are all delicious!
We also thought that we should do smoothies, so we invested in a huge kitchen blender and now we can just throw frozen fruit in there – which has been really popular. It feels really healthy as well, despite the high fructose levels! And with that we can also do a smoothie bowl, where we add in granola, chia seeds and banana slices to make a nice breakfast too.
SWK: I love the fact that as well as food, you’re also supporting local artists – how important was the artsy aspect of the Greenwood to you as well as the hospitality?
OH: It was really important! Zak is better at the day-to-day management of things whereas I’m more of the creative curator I suppose! It started off with people in my network including friends and people from the drag scene who maybe had a background in illustration or something like that. And then for the rest of it, social media really helped. All I had to do was publish a call-out saying that I was looking for people to exhibit and it all just spread from there, by the end of the day I had all the exhibition slots filled.
As well as that, in the shop section we have prints, zines and sculptures made by local artists. There are so few spaces out there that fully prioritise queer artists, it’s much more common for existing galleries to maybe hold special one-off queer programmes instead, so I wanted to make the Greenwood a place where people could come in whenever, even if they’re not necessarily a member of the community, and still know that they will see specifically queer-made art while they’re here, even if that art isn’t necessarily about ‘being queer’.
We’ve had a lot of support from the neighbourhood on that front as well, even if they don’t identify as queer we’ve had people saying that it’s really nice to see a new business opening up and supporting local artists.
SWK: Was it difficult to open during the pandemic?
OH: Well, on a positive level it gave us something to do! But also, I thought that even if it only lasted three months and then ended, either because of bankruptcy or even Brexit or something, at least we could hopefully show that this is something that can be done. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I want it to end! But if all we do is prove that Edinburgh needs more spaces like us then at least that’s something. Plus, I think that we could all do with a bit of hope during this year, and we’ve already received comments from people saying that this has given them a bit of hope, so that has to count as a success.
Also, for me personally it was a way to adapt. Especially as a drag performer, when all my gigs got cancelled I started to think about how drag shows are inherently non-sober spaces. The venues book people to make an audience laugh in the hopes that they will then buy more drinks. Which is great and I do miss it, but I also started to think that maybe there should be more of a balance – that both performers and audience shouldn’t need to feel like they have to drink to enjoy shows.
SWK: What kind of shows and events are you able to host at the moment?
OH: We’ve done things like an online, age-appropriate Halloween drag show. Also, Zak used to run a costume store pre-COVID and had some stock left over from that, so we decided to run small costume markets on Thursdays, which have been really popular! Also, I’ve been doing tarot readings on Tuesdays as well, which has offered a really nice chance to safely interact with people.
I think one of the biggest positives of having the cafe open during this time has been giving people the opportunity to see each other again even if it’s just in some small way. Even it’s people coming in and chatting about how they miss the clubs, at least we can provide an overtly queer-friendly space for people to have those chats!
SWK: What do you hope for the future of the Greenwood?
OH: I’m still looking at things on a short-term basis, so considering projects for the next three months and then the three months after that and so on. In a very general sense I would simply love for us to be able to continue well into the future and to eventually have all the restrictions lifted on us, once it’s safe to do so!
Longer-term, I hope that we can do more events and community-focused arts activities. Currently we’re working on a small documentary about the space, which is a project that someone just proposed to us one day, and that’s the exact kind of thing I would love to happen more of. I don’t just want to work on my art as an individual, but instead I’d love to use the Greenwood as a space where creative things can just happen naturally around me and I can then encourage or enable it instead of being the whole focus!
We also have Christmas stock and want to make vegan Christmas food, especially for any young queer people who perhaps don’t have families that they can spend time with, either because of travel restrictions or because they’ve been kicked out. Queer experience is so often filled with heartbreak, but on the other side there’s also a lot of joy and community spirit because, to different degrees, we can all relate to each other on some level.
SWK: How important would you say it is to have a hospitality/cafe space to foster that queer community spirit in Edinburgh?
OH: It’s been lovely to be part of a wider movement both within Scotland and globally that says that you don’t have to do things like go to nightclubs or drink alcohol if you’re queer. And even if, like me, you do still enjoy those things, then it’s still nice to have the option of a different environment instead. They say that Scotland is one of the best places to be queer in the world, and that we’re always improving, but there’s still always ways we can continue to go forwards as well, especially when it comes to younger people and those in schools. As an example of this, when we first opened we did receive a small number of homophobic comments from people online, as well as people saying that in Scotland we don’t need spaces like this, even though it’s exactly because of those kind of comments that there clearly is still a need!
At the end of the day, community is about encouraging people to come together. Yes, we’re lucky to be living in Scotland, where a space like the Greenwood can exist, compared to other parts of the world where there’s still so much more overt persecution. But at the same time, homosexuality was illegal here until only 40 years ago, so we’re not that far removed from it ourselves.
A quote that’s always stuck with me is that “to be visibly queer is to choose your happiness over your safety”, in other words, despite any comments, slurs or insults that may get thrown our way, we can stil maintain a happiness in being authentically ourselves, be that in the street or in drag or in a cafe. And all we want to do is cultivate and encourage that joy for ourselves, and for our community.
Oskar provided a recipe for Lentil, Tomato and Garlic Soup, along with a Spell to recite while you make it!
Two cans of chopped tomatoes
Four cloves of sliced garlic
Two chopped carrots
Two sticks of celery
Two cups of dried red lentils
A kettle of boiling water
Pepper, salt, Vegan bouillon
Chop celery, onion, carrots. Cool in oil in the slow cooker for around an hour until soft and tender. Add chopped tomatoes, garlic and seasoning. Boil a kettle of water and pour all of it in. Stir well, then add the dried lentils, three tablespoons of bouillon powder, and let it all cook for approximately two hours. Add extra seasoning to taste and use a hand blender to mix.
During the blending, perform a small spell in which you visualise love and nourishment pouring out of you, into the soup, and into the bellies of the community who will eat the soup. This can be performed in any way you wish. I like to keep it simple, take three deep breaths, and with each exhalation softly repeat the mantra:
“I give love, I receive love, I am love”.
Serve with bread, and love.