Eating & Dying
16 July 2018
On July 16, the Firehouse Theatre and EAT collaborated for an entertaining evening built around two of life’s most universal experiences: Eating & Dying. Guests met during a cocktail half-hour in the lobby prior to the lights being flicked on in the auditorium/dining area, indicating that it was time to get the evening underway. The cocktail they enjoyed was, suitably, a Corpse Reviver, a classic cocktail form the 1930s (here’s a bit more on the history of this “undead” libation).
Joining EAT’s guests this evening was a spectre of sorts — Off to the side of the main table was a coffin with a symbolic table setting for a “spirited” guest. Throughout the evening, this ghostly table setting was served the courses, and acted as a “projection” for the ideas we all explored together.
Guiding EAT’s guests through this exploration of the connections between death and food were the hosts of WRIR 97.3 FM’s Death Club Radio, Alane Miles and Phil Ford, who kicked the main event off with a short introduction to the theme of the night. They stayed for the remainder of the dinner, entertaining guests between courses with interspersed activities to get us all thinking about how food, death, and funerary rituals inform one another. For the first of these activities, guests were asked to write down a food item that had disappeared from their lives. Examples were everything from the forgotten candies of yesteryear to great grandmothers’ recipes. While this was going on, the first course was being plated by EAT’s very own Zach McElgunn.
The first course was a consommé, which is a clarified soup made from beef and/or chicken stock, leeks, celery, and carrots, tomatoes, parsley, tarragon, and ground beef. The soup itself is nearly transparent, as the clarification/filtration process removes any cloudiness from the liquid. While the soup simmers, the cook creates a ladle-sized hole in the middle of the “raft,” and ladles the soup out the middle and over the “raft” of ingredients continuously before siphoning out the liquid from underneath the ingredients (here’s a video demonstrating this technique). Garnishing the soup was an assortment of local heirloom tomatoes and peppers.
Zach chose this dish because it is, for all intents and purposes, a dead food due to the degree of difficulty in preparation. Although, there is another, more symbolic way to look at it. The way that a consommé is served, none of the ingredients used to create the soup actually make it to the table. In this way the “ghosts” of the ingredients are there in the flavors, but their physical form is no longer with us. Once this course had been cleared, Alane and Phil had another activity for the guests. Stories were told and laughs were shared.
The second course, Gobi Manchurian, was definitely a crowd favorite for the night. To make this dish, cauliflower is fried, and then after frying, it is sautéed with ginger, chili, and soy sauce to create a spicy, sweet ball of deliciousness. The reason it was included in our evening exploring the connections between death and food is that Gobi Manchurian is one of the first true examples of hybrid or fusion cuisine. The dish takes Chinese culinary techniques and tempers them agains largely Indian ingredients. In this way, the dish can be seen as a keystone on the “family tree” of Eastern cuisines, a demonstration of the constant development and evolution that food provides and facilitates.
Due to the positive reception of the dish, this recipe was included in the thank you notes sent to the guests after the event. Hopefully, some of them have continued the evolution of this food’s “family tree,” injecting their own unique perspective and culture into the gobi!
A popular funerary food from Jamaica came next. Curry goat is a popular dish to bring/serve at Nine Night, which is similar to a wake in other cultures. During Nine Night, the family of a recently deceased family member gather to celebrate the life of the deceased, and usher the duppy or spirit into the next world. Food and drink are shared, music is played, and furniture is rearranged so that the duppy will not recognize the home, and will be comfortable ascending to the next plane. In our preparation, the goat meat was cooked alongside with peppers, ginger, chicken broth, potatoes, and an aromatic spice mixture. It simmered for several hours, allowing the goat to become remarkably tender. The spices included turmeric, garlic, nutmeg, cayenne, and cumin among others.
Between the third and fourth courses was another story session. This time a brief history of “dead” foods was read. After Alane and Phil went over a multitude of foods that have gone out of style over the years, guests talked about their favorite dead foods. Fortunately, there were some groups of relatives that were able to share stories from past family events.
Finally, for dessert guests shared a Pan de Muertos bread pudding. The “Bread of the Dead” is a sweet bread typically found in Mexico during the days leading up to the Día de los Muertos celebration. Cinnamon, anise seed, and orange zest were added as according to the traditional recipe. To finish off the night, the guests each stood up and read the epitaph quote they wrote down earlier. It was a meaningful end to a fun and honest evening.