A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of enjoying a weird vegetable extravaganza of a meal in the company of like-minded vegetable enthusiasts and a generally lovely group of people interested in living and eating creatively.
We were brought together under the auspices of Dinner Discussion, an informal monthly dinner gathering hosted by San Francisco chef-at-large and occasional WV shadow contributor Leif Hedendal, who conceived of the series about a year-and-a-half ago as a way to open up lines of conversation between "artists and researchers and food people of different sorts, whether they be food activists or agriculturalists or different people doing cool projects," as he puts it.
Since Leif and Hiroko from the National Bitter Melon Council were the only familiar faces to me, I got a wee bit shy at first and hid out in the kitchen watching the pots boil and mushrooms sizzle, but the promise of wine and stinky cheese on fresh crusty bread soon lured me into the living room, where I was met with many a smiling face.
It would overwhelm the limits of this medium for me to describe all ten of the assembled intrepid questioners and makers of things in any adequate way, but you can get a sense of who was there from the Dinner Discussion blog and in this series of flash video interviews taken by Zoey Kroll, a super friendly and fabulously ginger-haired gardener, photographer, web designer, and combiner of dirt and technology (let your mind go where that takes you) who operates under the institutional alias of Edible Office.
Zoey lured me into close range of her video apparatus with tales of her fantastical vegetable garden wonderland in the outer Richmond, near Ocean Beach, and suddenly before I knew what was happening, I was half-shouting answers to her questions about Weird Vegetables in a slightly hysterical manner. One of the video clips includes the part where she makes me repeat “ALL FRUITS ARE VEGETABLES” multiple times, until I say it almost like a question while scrunching my eyes closed emphatically.
But you came here for vegetables, so here's what was on our grateful plates:
* cucumbers with lavender salt
* tepary beans with ginger, thai chile, lime leaf (I was very excited about these beans, they were so small yet so tasty!)
* sauteed greens with leeks
* roasted roots, morels, and asparagus (and yes, morels are really very special and hearty)
* bitter melon thinly sliced, sprinkled with Meyer lemon and salt
*All was topped by miner's lettuce gathered from Golden Gate Park by artist Amy Balkin, plus redwood clover from Far West Fungi.
I loved the bitter melon, brought by Hiroko of course, and was surprised to find that it could be eaten raw with just lemon and salt. This height of bitterness is not for everyone, and I particularly enjoyed this exchange in Zoey's video while Hiroko is preparing the dish:
Zoey: So... do you think... is this a real crowd pleaser?
Hiroko: [Pause. Then smiles, unfazed.] No. I think it’s a conversation starter.
I nearly wept from joy and an overwhelming sense of bounty when the dessert was brought out: an assortment of Meyer lemon & cardamom cookie sandwiches (like chubby macarons) made by Portland's Project Grow founder Natasha Wheat, as well as two cakes, plus rhubarb compote and olive oil ice cream made by artist and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg, who sometimes makes cakes inspired by her paintings and sculptures (above left: inedible art, right: cake art--or art cake?).
As though we weren't giddy enough, the otherworldly conjurer of mushrooms whose human name is Phil Ross then broke out his mason jar of black chanterelle vodka to pass around, which he introduced thus: “It tastes like socks to some, and like the forest to others.... It has the taste of the forest floor.”
I have yet to come up with a valid justification for the inclusion of mushrooms into the weird vegetable universe except for the fact that mushrooms are unambiguously the weirrrdest non-animal organisms that we put into our mouths and incorporate into our bodies (though they're not really plants and hence not really vegetables). Just watch some of Zoey's interviews with Phil and you'll be convinced--if you aren't already. I'm obsessed with his project, Mycotecture, in which he coaxes ganoderma fungi into brick shapes that he then forms into buildings to be visited and gradually broken down chunk by chunk to make into tea that visitors can drink.
Phil: "So when you come to visit this building, you will actually take it away with you... inside of yourself.” Eek! [That last exclamation is me, not him. One day I will possess Phil's Zen calm. Maybe.]
The mycological master also provided my favorite conversational morsel of the evening, which Zoey managed to catch on video like a cunning paparazzo. We were talking about the difference between cultivated and wild mushrooms and he expressed his preference for the latter, saying:
"You get what I’d call more of a 'rock ‘n’ roll' experience when you have wild things--wild anything: like a worm ate this part, it’s rotting a little bit, you get a teeny bit of bitter, or even some poisonous things in your body... It just activates so much more of your soul..."
I'm not 100% sure that he actually said "soul" at the end, but you can check it out for yourself here. Thanks again to Leif for the food and networking skills, to Zoey for helping me to remember some of our conversational wanderings, and to all who were gathered that night for nerding out about food and art in such a satisfying way.