09/28/2008 10:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pittsburgh: An Environmentalist and Ice Cream Lover Debate Watch

A trendy little ice cream shop in Pittsburgh's Shadyside district became home to a sizable debate-watch party last night, thanks in part to ingenuity of Carnegie Mellon PhD student Kari Lundgren and some other CMU graduate students. Lundgren, a community organizer and member of "Catholics for Obama," helped to orchestrate the event by posting it on the Obama website and spreading the word through CMU's campus email and Facebook.

"Oh Yeah!" Coffee and Ice Cream owner Ethan "Rooster" Clay hoisted televisions not usually present in his shop into the space to accommodate the more than 50 customers who came not just for his fabulous organic and vegan ice creams, waffles, and espresso, but also for the camaraderie found with like-minded folks.

Event organizer Kari Lundgren and owner Ethan Clay

"Oh Yeah!" features organic, vegan local foods and ingredients in a small, homey corner of one of Pittsburgh's more affluent neighborhoods. It is a sure haven for locally-minded environmentalists, right down to its well-placed recycling containers and on-site book exchange program. One of the major attractions is a list of more than 100 items that can be mixed in to the ice cream delicacies, including wheat germ, marshmallow fluff, a variety of candy bars, and even salmon. Customers peruse the giant chalk board to create new combinations of flavors and textures. (Since I knew I'd be working late on this story, I opted for coffee ice cream with mixed-in coffee grinds and chocolate syrup!) Notable on the board are the ingredients "squirrel meat" and "soylent green," though they are struck-through in a well-received effort at humor.

Rooster points out that constructing his business around other local growers and producers is a more "heartfelt" business practice. His focus in the ice-cream biz is not only environmental, though. Clay describes his store as "a free space where anyone can come and be in peace." Lots of people showed up last night to enjoy that peace, and to see what their government future might hold.

Candi Carter-Olson, a PhD student at CMU, brought her twin babies, Gabriel and Christopher, because, as she says, "politics should be a social thing - a conversation." She wanted to be a part of the momentum and discussion that is inherent in a group gathering. Lundgren, the event's organizer, echoed the sentiment, saying that politics should be viewed as "a community endeavor, not an individual one." Elise Power walked to the ice cream shop from her nearby home because, as she says, "it's more fun together, to see the election as a community thing. Obama talks about that and understands how important that is." Clearly these folks would take issue with Sarah Palin's disparaging assessment of the value of community organizing.

The early crowd gathers

By 8:30, the tiny parlor had begun to fill with folks eager to watch the exchange between Obama and McCain, but it was clear who the crowd favored. Signs on the wall advertised an upcoming "Barack the Vote" event as local employees from the environmental group "Clean Water Action" assembled near the TV screens. Shane Pavlick, a Clean Water member in attendance commented that the gathering was an important part of the election process this year because "it creates a joined voice. You can build strength in numbers" just by gathering at a public place. Other members of the group echoed the sentiment. One noted that they are "community organizers and proud of it."

Folks in attendance ranged from babies to undergraduate students to professors, spanning a wide range of ages. They were all like-minded in one very important way, though - that in this era of big corporate greed, it was important to patronize this small, private ice cream parlor. Matt Kendo noted that "the economy is so bad that I don't even want to save - I want to spend in some ways to inspire others to spend." He also said that when it comes to "Oh Yeah!," " you can't beat the name."

Others echoed the sentiment, pointing out that in these tough times it is more important than ever to support small, local businesses in order to re-create the chain of spending that got so out of control with the Wall Street big boys. By stark contrast to the hundreds-of-millions shuttled around companies like Lehman and Bear Stearns in market systems across the globe, Rooster says that most of his ingredients and supplies dome from right in Western Pennsylvania, a fact that is important to his customers. He says he hopes that his commitment to other small and local businesses creates a connection that people seek when they are looking for more than just a good cup of coffee. "I think it really does matter," he says when asked. "I think the big question is - is the economy only ailing when we agree to think that it's sick? Things will change if we all become more locally-minded."

Patrons scooped up heaps of ice cream and downed ceramic mugs of coffee and espresso, but the atmosphere during the debate itself was surprisingly quiet. Promptly at 9:00, the crowd hushed and the volume on both large televisions was cranked up to maximum level. Gathered around the screens, some folks manned notebooks, but most sat in quiet respect as the candidates took the floor. Throughout the telecast, there was only one occasion when the crowd released an audible reaction. It was when John McCain repeated that the one person he had admired all his life was...Ronald Reagan. No doubt was left then that surely every person in attendance was in Obama's corner.

Rooster says that although this event was not his biggest financial gain since opening just over a year ago; the shop recently participated in Pittsburgh's Construction Junction event, (Construction Junction is a building materials salvage and reuse co-op), he is looking forward to hosting another Debate Watch Party for his environmentally-minded patrons. "I think he's gonna come out next time," he says, in reference to Obama's low-key performance Friday night. "He's talking about the future, and that's more important than the past."

So community organizers like these hope to gather other environmental activists, patrons of the local economy, and Obama supporters again on Thursday night when the Vice-Presidential candidates square off. We're hoping that, for that evening, there is a new ice cream mix-in offering, perhaps "Caribou crunchies" or "Lipstick Licorice." But even if "Oh Yeah!" offers its standard fare, this community is sure to enjoy their role as Pittsburgh's environmental Obamaniacs, with or without sprinkles and whipped cream.

The OTB columnist with owner Ethan "Rooster" Clay.

"Oh Yeah!" Ice Cream and Waffles," 232 South Highland Avenue, Pittsburgh, 412-253-0955.