Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler: Fall Foraged Feast

Clockwise from top: 3 varieties of feral apples, sumac, grape leaves, false Solomon's seal berries, goldenrod (decorative), high bush cranberries, dandelion greens

Clock­wise from top: 3 vari­eties of feral apples, sumac, grape leaves, false Solomon’s seal berries, gold­en­rod (dec­o­ra­tive), high bush cran­ber­ries, crabap­ples, dan­de­lion greens

This may have been the most elab­o­rate Piranha Club yet, I mean we did gather 75% of the ingre­di­ents our­selves! Jenny Kendler and I had been mutual admir­ers of each other’s work, but it was pics of her for­ag­ing adven­tures on Insta­gram ~that social media thing once again~ that led me to finally approach her about work­ing together. The col­lab­o­ra­tive for­ag­ing began in early August at ACRE res­i­dency in West­ern Wis­con­sin where Jenny and I both served as vis­it­ing artists (she is also a board mem­ber). I joined her for a group for­ag­ing walk around ACRE’s cam­pus and I was pretty damned impressed by her knowl­edge of nearly every plant we encoun­tered, latin names and all! I am no expert, I would call myself an enthu­si­ast– with a cov­etous drive to col­lect exotic ingre­di­ents, pri­mar­ily mush­rooms. My approach begins from a culi­nary per­spec­tive– I’ve learned how to iden­tify mush­rooms that I like to eat first and fore­most and then I brush up on the tax­on­omy of dif­fer­ent species. Jenny takes a more empir­i­cal approach, though is also more prag­matic in what she col­lects. She sees the value in weeds, stuff like lamb’s quar­ters or oxalis that grow in “dis­turbed” areas (devel­oped land), but equally knows her way around the deep dank cor­ners of the woods where I usu­ally like to hang out. So she’s helped me pay a lit­tle bit more atten­tion to lit­tle hum­ble side-of-the-road stuff that I might oth­er­wise just tram­ple right over in pur­suit of the big score.

Watercress from the bracing stream at ACRE. Steuben, WI. 8/7 (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Water­cress from the brac­ing stream at ACRE. Steuben, WI. 8/7 (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Nature can be unpre­dictable, of course. And also fickle in terms of tim­ing. So it was good we got an early start to find a breadth of ingre­di­ents as they made their appear­ances through­out the sea­son. And this meant that we had to find cre­ative ways to pre­serve cer­tain ingre­di­ents. The remark­ably spicy water­cress above was pureed with olive oil and a bit of oxalis for acid­ity, yield­ing a chimichurri of sorts, that main­tained its emer­ald glow for two months. This worked its way into an aioli for dip­ping puff­ball mush­room fries and a driz­zle gar­nish­ing the bisque. Del­i­cate oys­ter mush­rooms gath­ered in mid-August were both pick­led and sautéed, then frozen and employed in a cros­tini appe­tizer. The gor­geous young chicken-of-the-woods below were also frozen, which altered the tex­ture of the flesh mak­ing it more ten­der, ideal for the bisque they pro­duced. In one instance pre­serv­ing meth­ods failed– an attempt at lacto-fermenting grape leaves des­tined for dolma came out just slightly alco­holic and prickly on the tongue. Later con­sult­ing edi­ble plants guide­books, we real­ized that the leaves were too old on the vine to be suit­ably edi­ble at that point in the sea­son. We should have known by how tough they were.

Chicken-of-the-woods, 8/26

Chicken-of-the-woods (Laeti­porus sul­phureus), 8/26

Oyster mushrooms, 9/14

Oys­ter mush­rooms (Pleu­ro­tus ostrea­tus), 9/14

Hen-of-the-woods (maitake) 9/26

Hen-of-the-woods (Gri­fola Fron­dosa) 9/14

Giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea), 9/28

Giant puff­ball (Cal­va­tia gigan­tea), 9/28, which clearly grew under the light of the super moon.

Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

Honey mush­room (Armil­laria mel­lea) 9/28

The bulk of the mush­rooms for the din­ner were found in the woods around my home in west­ern DuPage county, where I am enjoy­ing my first for­ag­ing sea­son (we moved here in Feb). The area is remark­ably boun­ti­ful– we came across almost all of the major sus­pects in terms of late summer/ autumn edi­ble mush­rooms. Even the wooded back end of our prop­erty turned up honey mush­rooms and a few suc­cu­lent wood ble­wits (both of these mush­rooms did not make it to the din­ing table that evening, I cooked them up with pasta them up for our “staff meal”).

Three tow­er­ing black wal­nut trees have been thun­der­ously bom­bard­ing the house with their lime-looking fruit since late August. Despite their abun­dance, they’re a huge pain in the ass to har­vest– after tor­tur­ing my hands first with their tobacco-colored stain­ing pig­ment, then their arthritis-inducing armor-like shells, 80 fruits only yielded about a cup and a half of frag­ments of nut meat. Heav­ily per­fumed, gor­geously rich nut meat. This made its way into a deca­dent paté and as a lily-gilding gar­nish for the dessert.

Speak­ing of trees and dessert, we stum­bled across a feral apple orchard in the mid­dle of the woods. For a few weeks, I’d been try­ing to scale this tall gnarly old tree just off the main road to pluck its apples. After a few aborted climb­ing attempts with scraped up fore­arms and a head full of falling fears, I resorted to glean­ing around on the ground with the chip­munks, sort­ing out fruit not too badly rid­den with worms. On our sec­ond walk through those woods Jenny spot­ted, hid­ing in plain sight (from me), three more man­age­able trees chock full of apples, the fruit from each tast­ing dif­fer­ently than the next from bright and crisp to deeply sweet. We found plenty of untouched fruit in the soft grass and shook some pris­tine spec­i­mens from the trees. We stuffed our tote with over 40 apples and left behind so many more. I see a cider project in the cards for fall ’16.

Black walnuts from our property, hen, oysters

Black wal­nuts from our prop­erty, hen, oysters

Puffball, wood blewits, & honey mushrooms.

Puff­ball, wood ble­wits, & honey mushrooms.

Yes even the flowers were foraged- Jenny's gorgeous fall bouquets for the tables. (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Yes even the flow­ers were for­aged– Jenny’s gor­geous fall bou­quets for the tables. (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)


This was the first Piranha Club for which the procur­ing of the ingre­di­ents, both time­wise and expe­ri­en­tially, eclipsed the cook­ing and the meal itself. It was freak­ing deli­cious, of course, but by the time we got to the day of, it felt like the bulk of the labor was behind us. Some of the ingre­di­ents had been gath­ered way before the din­ner was even planned– Jenny was gen­er­ous enough to open up her larder of wild good­ies col­lected through­out her trav­els, which pro­vided the aro­matic fla­vors for her wildly deli­cious cock­tails. I pinched a bit of wild white sage (the stuff you typ­i­cally smudge with) for the cros­tini and pleas­antly astrin­gent spice­bush berries added a new world sweet spice note to the crisp.

The eye-opening show stop­per of the meal was the candy cap mush­room gelato that Jenny made for the dessert. I knew these shrooms sup­pos­edly tasted of maple syrup, but even I couldn’t believe that their seri­ous French toast-y whal­lop was fun­gal in ori­gin. The inter­play of the sweet and sour from the wild apple vari­etals mar­ried with the rich maple-y sump­tu­ous­ness of the gelato made for a quin­tes­sen­tially com­fort­ing fall dessert.

Washing and sorting dandelion greens and liberating castaway leafhoppers

Wash­ing and sort­ing dan­de­lion greens and lib­er­at­ing cast­away leafhoppers

Lobotomizing the puffball

Lobot­o­miz­ing the puffball

Watercress gnocchi madness

Water­cress gnoc­chi mad­ness from this poetic, yet amor­phous recipe.

The Blood Moon– frozen mulberry puree, Letherbee gin, champagne, garnish of ground cherry (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

The Blood Moon– frozen mul­berry puree, Lether­bee gin, cham­pagne, gar­nish of ground cherry (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Puffball fries with watercress aioli

Puff­ball fries with water­cress aioli

Crostini with black walnut/ oyster mushroom paté and pickled oyster mushroom

Cros­tini with black walnut/ oys­ter mush­room paté and pick­led oys­ter mushroom

Watercress gnocchi with roasted hen-of-the-woods with a side of dandelion greens

Water­cress gnoc­chi with roasted hen-of-the-woods with a side of dan­de­lion greens

Feral apple crisp with candy cap mushroom gelato (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Feral apple crisp with candy cap mush­room gelato (photo c/o Jenny Kendler)

Kindred spirits in the woods, kitchen, and for a crowd! (photo c/o Dana Bassett)

We for­age, we cook, we look good in front of a crowd! (photo c/o Dana Bassett)

In many ways this could have been the essen­tial Piranha Club. For­aged ingre­di­ents have crept their way into past meals– this was the third time I’ve served that chicken-of-the-woods bisque. My very first grad school project was an all for­aged mush­room din­ner (tasty was the food, def­i­nitely not was the cri­tique). Jenny and I talked at length about our rela­tion­ships to for­ag­ing and we both agreed that while the activ­ity informs the parts of our art that speak to rela­tion­ships with the land and its ecolo­gies, this really is more of an every­day prac­tice for us. After two months of this, I thought I’d need a break, but I’m still find­ing myself col­lect­ing those labo­ri­ous wal­nuts and can’t help myself but peer around the stumps of old oak trees on my morn­ing jog hop­ing to score another hen-of-the-woods. This is cer­tainly about con­nect­ing to that basic hunter-gatherer instinct of under­stand­ing how to fend for one­self off the land, though it doesn’t have to be that roman­tic nor zeal­ous. Notice we used con­ve­nient pantry sta­ples like flour, but­ter, and sugar for this meal. We mean to sug­gest a com­mon sense approach to learn­ing about and incor­po­rat­ing wild foods into one’s life. We hope that by serv­ing deli­cious, unfussy dishes pre­pared with for­aged ingre­di­ents that it might demys­tify the idea that there is deli­cious food to be found all around us. Just remem­ber kids, get the book, read it, and don’t go stick­ing ran­dom berries and toad­stools into your mouth!

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10/1: Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler present: Fall Foraged Feast

Foraged Feast Image

The Piranha Club X Jenny Kendler present:

Fall For­aged Feast

Thurs­day Octo­ber 1st, 7 PM

1034 N Mil­wau­kee Ave.

$40 for 5 courses + drinks


For­ag­ing is a lifestyle, once you real­ize that there is free food lurk­ing around the cor­ner on your morn­ing walk, it’s hard not to notice lit­tle gems of oxalis sprout­ing up around that park bench. It is a way of see­ing– it’s about per­ceiv­ing the total­ity of your sur­round­ings, notic­ing tiny details and pat­terns in the way nature unfolds.

For­ag­ing is also hot! From tables in Copen­hagen to San Fran­cisco to here in Chicago, the world’s most esteemed chefs are includ­ing for­ag­ing pro­grams on their menus. What is more sea­sonal and local than being imme­di­ately beholden to the whims of mother nature? The spon­tane­ity of the search is the nov­elty and the challenge.

Join two of the Chicago art world’s pre­em­i­nent for­agers, Jenny Kendler & Eric May, for a five course meal of delights made almost entirely with ingre­di­ents scooped from the ankle numb­ing streams of West­ern Wis­con­sin, plucked from branches 15 feet from the for­est floor, and found on other count­less wanderings!

Menu ~which may be sub­ject to change accord­ing to those whims of nature we just mentioned~

Grape leaf kim­chi dolma

Chicken-of-the-woods bisque

Green weeds with pick­led oys­ter mushrooms

ACRE water­cress gnoc­chi with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms

Baked wild apples with candy cap mush­room gelato

$40 includes cock­tails made from Jenny’s cab­i­net of syrups, tinc­tures, and bit­ters and wild brews made by friends of the Piranha Club.

100% veg­e­tar­ian.

Limit 20 seats.

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Piranha Club: Advantages in Electronic Cooking


More like Adven­tures in Elec­tronic Cook­ing. Per­son­ally, I swore off the microwave right after the instant ramen years of early col­lege (1998). I hon­estly never touched one of the things until Jes­sica moved in with hers four years ago. It cer­tainly was an indis­pens­able mem­ber of our kitchen appli­ance team in my house­hold grow­ing up, which was just about right on the microwave pop­u­lar­ity time­line (got big in the mid to late 70s). Reheat­ing left­overs, of course (and my pri­mary use for the one we’ve got at the house); after school nachos, you bet; I even cooked my first dish ever in the micro… dan­de­lion soup (the unsus­pect­ing neigh­bor girl got to enjoy that one). And at some point mom started to nuke all of our veg­gies, which it turns out actu­ally does pre­serve their nutri­ents bet­ter than other meth­ods of cooking.

But you see, as soon as I fan­cied myself a seri­ous cook, who pre­pared every­thing from scratch– no short­cuts for me– I denounced cook­ing with elec­tro­mag­netic radi­a­tion as ama­teur­ish and too easy. So when my bud and prior PClub col­lab­o­ra­tor, Matt Zatkoff pitched the idea to pre­pare a sev­eral course meal ~actual gas­tron­omy~ using noth­ing but the microwave, it sounded absurd enough to be worth a shot. Plus he had all these groovy old school cook­books with soft lit 1970’s food porn and destined-to-become-hip-again retro recipes like Turkey Divan and Noo­dles Romanoff. Turns out it was not such a con­ve­nient and time effi­cient method to cook com­pli­cated recipes for a crowd, but chal­leng­ing is the Piranha Club trip, so let’s have at it…


.gif c/o Melissa Mcewen

Photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

Photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

We sautéed, sim­mered, deep fried, roasted, and baked using three microwaves for each and every ele­ment of the meal (except for one emer­gency assist from the micro’s older cousin, the toaster oven (leav­ing it up to you to fig­ure out how we used it)). For one of the apps, cur­ried meat­balls, we fol­lowed a recipe ver­ba­tim from the cook­book at the top of this post. The sec­ond course, $5000 Fiesta Chicken Kiev was inter­preted from an “award win­ning” recipe in this lovely vol­ume above, the Hot­point Coun­ter­top Microwave Oven Cook­book. We kept the cheese cracker crust (Cheez­its, of course), but subbed in real minced onions rather than dehy­drated and (microwave) roasted poblanos, sub­bing for canned green chiles. Matt applied expert tech­niques from this tome writ­ten by the fore­most author­ity on the sub­ject to his favorite recipes for stuffed mush­room caps (with a Thanks­giv­ing stuff­ing pro­file) and Fet­tucine Gam­beretti, for which he hand made pasta and tossed it in vodka cream sauce with gulf shrimp and his home­made guan­ciale. A side of Toma­toes au Gratin and the dessert, Pineap­ple Upside Down Cake were made fol­low­ing recipes from, again, the Hot­point cookbook.

Curried Meatballs

Cur­ried Meatballs

Stuffed Mushrooms

Stuffed Mush­rooms

As I’ve alluded to, cook­ing this many com­plex dishes was not a breeze. Some reflec­tions on cook­ing (pretty much) only using the microwave oven:

* Nuk­ing veg­eta­bles, until just cooked, not only pre­serves nutri­ents, but also fla­vor. Our in-season corn that we zapped for about 2 min­utes for a salsa cruda we served with the 5K chicken was per­fectly crisp and as sweet as can be. The mush­rooms and in-season toma­toes also sang true to their inher­ent savorinesses.

* While its hard to get any caramelized color on meat, if you cook it, again, for the right length of time, it retains mois­ture and has a great tex­ture. Worth not­ing: Matt has a small col­lec­tion of old fan­gled microwave cook­ing sup­plies like Miro­crisp brand brown­ing wrap, which didn’t prove to be very effec­tive. A brown­ing pan with a built in heat­ing coil, really did heat up faster and retained heat. We used this to sauté veg­gies and deep fry the chicken.

* Some­how, the roux in a flour thick­ened sauce binds to the liq­uid with barely any babysit­ting. For the curry sauce, I merely stirred the sauce with a spoon once in the mid­dle of its cook­ing time. It came out vel­vety smooth.

* When cook­ing in liq­uids, its tricky to get the water or oil back up to temp as fast as you can with a scream­ing hot burner, after you’ve sub­merged the ingre­di­ents. This is what fucked us the most, par­tic­u­larly since at this vol­ume, we were adding too much cold chicken to the oil. So, if you’re going to deep fry (and we sug­gest the brown­ing pan for this) use the oil with the high­est smoke point pos­si­ble and mon­i­tor its temp. 350 degree oil will drop con­sid­er­ably when you add 40 degree chicken and the micro takes a few min­utes to regain the heat. We also lost a batch of pasta to water that had not reached a boil, water­log­ging the noo­dles. Also, we really crowded our pans, this is a sim­ple les­son in cook­ing, give your ingre­di­ents space to be enveloped in heat. Maybe we should have used 5 micros.


Check them temps, espe­cially if you have a fancy gadget.

* A 9″ X 9″ pan of cake cooked unevenly, pretty clas­sic– cooked edges, gooey center.

* Finally, and this may have been a thread amongst all our woes jug­gling 3 dif­fer­ent microwave ovens– not all microwaves are built the same, they range in power from 700 to 1600 watts and older mod­els, like the ones used in our fancy old cook­books could have been as low as 600 watts. Learn your power set­tings (I let Matt do this), you can adjust them at sev­eral lev­els on most microwaves.


Sweat­ing, photo c/o Melissa Mcewen

Fettucine Gamberetti

Fet­tucine Gamberetti

5K Fiesta Chicken Kiev, Tomato Au Gratin, Sweet Corn Salsa Cruda

5K Fiesta Chicken Kiev, Tomato Au Gratin, Sweet Corn Salsa Cruda

Despite a har­ried ser­vice, every­one seemed stoked on the meal. Basi­cally 100% clean plates. I even received the high­est com­pli­ment a chef can receive these days, Amaze­balls.

Just like mom used to make

Just like mom used to make

Lovely crowd (and Scott)

Lovely crowd (and ~ruggedly hand­some~ Scott)

Boyz 'n their toyz

Boyz ‘n their toyz

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8/23: Piranha Club: Advantages of Electronic Cooking


Sun­day, August 23rd, 7PM

The Piranha Club Presents: Advan­tages of Elec­tronic Cooking

1034 N Mil­wau­kee Ave.

$30 for 5 courses with drinks
Buy tick­ets HERE

Microwave cook­ing is speedy!

Easy to operate!

Microwave ovens can save you energy!

And will not heat up the house!

Microwave cook­ing pre­serves the nutri­ents in your food!

The microwave oven deliv­ered on the promise of post-war tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment to lighten domes­tic labor for work­ing fam­i­lies. Though com­mer­cially avail­able since the late 1940’s, the microwave would not be pop­u­lar­ized until the mid-1970’s when the tech­nol­ogy became afford­able to mid­dle class con­sumers (the orig­i­nal 750 lb. microwave cost $5K in 1947!). Forty years later and the microwave is still here, in over 90% of Amer­i­can homes. But has the microwave fallen out of fash­ion? Are we tak­ing it for granted? We’re all hip to slow food now– for many mid­dle class Amer­i­cans, cook­ing is no longer a weary­ing chore, but an obsessed-over past time. How are you sup­posed to caramelize those brus­sel sprouts?! You can’t get a good sear on your ahi tuna! Re-heat a cup of tea, maybe.

On Sun­day, August 23rd, the Piranha Club (with Chef Matt Zatkoff) will har­ness the elec­tro­mag­netic radi­a­tion and reassess the value of the once cel­e­brated, now hum­ble microwave. With a wink towards the retro, we are reviv­ing some campy old school recipes, though ditch­ing the Campbell’s soup cans for scratch made dishes pre­pared with pre­mium ingredients.

$30 with san­gria and Brew­ery Zatkoff beer.

Limit 20 seats.

Hors d’oeuvres:

Cur­ried Meatballs

Stuffed Mush­room Caps


$5000 Fiesta Chicken Kiev

Lin­guine Gamberetti

Toma­toes au Gratin


Pineap­ple Upside Down Cake

Video by Matt Zatkoff

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Eric’s Germany Kitchen presents: Gestanken Lunchen


I was gra­ciously invited to ACRE artist res­i­dency in Steuben, Wis­con­sin as a vis­it­ing artist this sum­mer. I was asked to run some sort of pro­gram­ming and they offered me use of their amaz­ing kitchen. Hav­ing grown up and iden­ti­fy­ing as a (sum­mer­time) Michi­gan boy, the state of Wis­con­sin has always held some­what of an exotic mys­tique for me. I have found that this won­der­ful state has a cer­tain estab­lished cul­ture that can be found statewide– the Pack; bratwurst; cheese and more cheese; beer; beer served at one of the thou­sands of small road­side tav­erns found in even the tini­est of small towns; bars where even in these tini­est of small towns you’re never greeted with a glar­ing look of “who-the-hell-is-this-tourist”, maybe a good-spirited rib­bing about your whiskey pref­er­ence, but always a smil­ing greet­ing and a chat about what you’re doing up ‘dere. Wis­con­sin is one of the friend­liest states I can think of. And where does this con­vivial, beer swill­ing, encased sausage scarf­ing cul­ture orig­i­nate? From the old coun­try, tra­di­tions that have sur­vived gen­er­a­tions brought to the fecund lands of the upper mid­west by peas­ant north­ern Euro­peans, includ­ing one of the larger pop­u­la­tions, the Ger­mans (30% of the pop­u­la­tion by 1900 after three cycles of immi­gra­tion since the mid-1800s).

My ~some­what tongue-in-cheek~ project, Eric’s Ger­many Kitchen explores the unfash­ion­able cul­ture and cui­sine of my 68% Ger­man her­itage. Grow­ing up, I under­stood lim­burger cheese as the punch­line of school­yard jokes about foot odor. I never knew any­one that actu­ally ate the stuff nor had ever seen it at any gro­cery store. A few years ago, we stopped in the kitschy Swiss fairy tale town of Mon­roe on the ride home from a camp­ing trip. Right in the down­town square, I fell in love with one of my favorite Wis­con­sin water­ing holes, Baumgartner’s, which is actu­ally Wisconsin’s old­est cheese store, with the bar and sand­wich shop in the back. The lim­burger lore ran deep at this spot, which I recalled as I was research­ing Ger­man cui­sine in south­west Wis­con­sin for my ACRE project.
It turns out that Mon­roe is home to the old­est and one of two lim­burger pro­duc­ers in the coun­try, Chalet cheese, which under their Coun­try Cas­tle label, has been pro­duc­ing the stinky stuff since 1885. A stop in Mon­roe would begin our foot-odored jour­ney (it turns out that, in fact, limburger’s sig­na­ture aroma is caused by Bre­vibac­terium linens, which also causes body odors includ­ing the ones ema­nat­ing from our sneakers).

What’s the dif­fer­ence between lim­burger cheese and my friend Ted?

One is white & stinks, the other is cheese.


Lim­burger gar­nished with the Andie’s mint; the other, salami (sum­mer sausage) and (brick) cheese

I ordered a lim­burger sand­wich with onions at Baumgartner’s. The incred­i­bly hos­pitable bar­keep dou­ble checked with me to make sure that I knew what I was get­ting into. I ordered a sum­mer sausage and brick cheese sand­wich as a chaser. So how did I do? It was def­i­nitely one of the stanki­est things I have ever put in my mouth and I have a high tol­er­ance for funky cheeses like mor­bier. This sand­wich con­tained like half inch thick slabs of the stuff and though I choked the whole thing down, drain­ing a pitcher of Spot­ted Cow in the process, it was tough for me. The nos­tril cav­ity– fill­ing, ammonia-ish pun­gency kind of oblit­er­ates any nuance and in such dense vol­ume on this sand­wich, it was just too much. I can see dab­bing this on a cracker, maybe with some fruit pre­serves, but I’ll pass on 4 oz. of the stuff all at once.
For my lunch at ACRE, Caitlin and the crew were kind enough to source both the Chalet prod­uct and a Ger­man vari­ety, which was sur­pris­ingly, much, much eas­ier going. Appar­ently lim­burger is sold accord­ing to its age and at one month of aging it has a mild, nutty brie– like char­ac­ter­is­tic, whereas just a month later it takes on its more unwashed tem­pera­ment. We served open-faced lim­burger sand­wiches along­side another pop­u­lar Scon­nie sand­wich fill­ing and less-than-hip offer­ing, braun­schweiger, aka liv­er­wurst, which also has a bit of an olfac­tory reputation.
Round­ing things out, I made a cou­ple of other EGK’s main­stay dishes, my Aunt Helen’s favorite lentil soup with frank­furters and a bacon-y Ger­man potato salad.
I had an absolute blast work­ing with Brian, Billy, Vir­ginia, and co. Despite a woozy hang­over from the dance party the night before, we trooped through a rather odif­er­ous prep ses­sion. I know some of the bleary-eyed campers may have had a hard time fac­ing these old timey treats first thing, but no one went hun­gry. Thanks Acre, let’s do it again sometime!!!
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July 4th, 2015: Cheese Your Face

"Not as big of a Dead fan as I might look"

Not as big of a Dead fan as I might look”

My ever-helpful hippie mama

My ever-helpful hip­pie mama

Shakedown street

Shake­down street

Jerry would approve

Jerry would approve

Acid Rollins Your Face?

Acid Rollins Your Face?

Still got it

Still got it

Gotta start em young!

Gotta start em young!

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The Piranha Club Presents: Cheese Your Face: 7/4


Sat­ur­day, July 4th. 1–4 PM

@ Roots & Cul­ture, 1034 N Mil­wau­kee Ave.

Before I devel­oped a taste for Jerry’s end­less mean­der­ing riffs, Bobby’s good old boy (not always in tune) har­mo­niz­ing, and Phil’s psych the­atrics, I was drawn to the idea of the park­ing lot. An unreg­u­lated open air mar­ket, where con­cert venues seem­ingly turned a blind eye toward the ped­dling of illicit sub­stances, hip­pie crafts, expen­sive beer, and a cer­tain genre of veg­gie stoner junk food. I found my call­ing in the hawk­ing of the more whole­some lat­ter cat­e­gory, my spe­cialty: the grilled cheese.

Before I got into the hand­painted PVC didgeri­doo game, I’d hap­pily pocket hun­dreds of dol­lars a day sling­ing but­tery, gooey grilled cheese sand­wiches con­structed the way most of our moms made them out of cheap squishy white bread and Amer­i­can cheese sin­gles. That would set you back a buck back in ’95. Look­ing for a more gour­mand expe­ri­ence? Add tomato for 50¢. What really lured in the munchie– addled hordes of patch­work clad, patchouli stink­ing col­lege kids was a lit­tle trick I dis­cov­ered smok­ing my way through my family’s spice rack– a sprin­kle of oregano would not only add a classy touch to the sand­wich, but the over-spill off the sand­wich would inevitably burn on the hot pan, releas­ing a musky herbal scent in the vicin­ity, entic­ing more and more hippies.

So to cel­e­brate the Dead’s “final” shows this 4th of July hol­i­day at Sol­dier Field as well as the spirit of hip­pie entre­pre­neur­ship, I’m dust­ing off the old Cole­man camp stove and The Piranha Club will host a grilled cheese party. $5 for a grilled cheese, chips, & a drink. Your choice of the “junkie” made the way mom would on squishy white bread with sin­gles or the “crusty” made on a crusty sour­dough with a pro­pri­etary arti­sanal cheese blend. $1 add ons include tomato, avo­cado, ham, or bacon. There will prob­a­bly be some Sierra Nevadas and Sammy Smiths on hand as well. Ven­dors wel­come, so bring your cus­tom devil sticks, hemp neck­laces, and patch­work pipe totes on down! It’ll be a reg­u­lar shake down street!

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The World’s Largest ~Artisanal~ Jim Shoe


Fre­quent read­ers of this blog will rec­og­nize my fix­a­tion with the Jim Shoe sand­wich. This sand­wich could be described as a culi­nary abom­i­na­tion, a wrong idea in most every sense, a prank that could have been con­cocted by any num­ber of ~stoned~ caloric thrill seek­ers, not too far astray from the street food fan­tasies of its booze-sopping Latin Amer­i­can cousins. A sub roll + grid­dled “corn” beef, roast beef, AND gyros + mayo and mus­tard + let­tuce and tomato, gilded with guy-ro sauce (aka tzatziki), some­times with optional cheese, grilled onions, and requisite-for-me giardiniera.

But its pure Chicago– born behind the bul­let proof glass of South­side sub shops, ubiq­ui­tous spots that seem to do more of their busi­ness in low rent grease (gyros, burg­ers, deep fried stuff) than their name­sake sand­wiches. The his­tory of the thing is dubi­ous, likely born out of some sort of mani­a­cal hunger-distorted vision that became the stuff of urban leg­end that sub­se­quently went viral over the past few decades. Like most northside-dwelling inter­net food hounds, I was turned on to them by Dr. Peter Engler, a Chicago food his­to­rian and a true leg­end of the food inter­net under­ground. I’d heard whis­pers about this sand­wich from mutual friends, but patiently waited for Peter to unleash this decade-in-the-making trea­tise on the subject.

Bad idea or not, it turned out I actu­ally quite like these mon­strosi­ties. Best in mea­sured doses– shared amongst friends, this is a true exam­ple of the sum-equals-more-than-its-parts the­ory. I’ve sam­pled them across the south and west sides, in all of their forms: meats sliced or chopped on the grid­dle; spilling out of a pita; wrapped in a bur­rito shell and deep fried; and even made with higher qual­ity ingre­di­ents up in Milwaukee.

This last form sparked a con­ver­sa­tion amongst a few of my food pals on a day trip up to Chicago’s north­ern­most neigh­bor­hood. What would a truly arti­sanal Shoe taste like? Made with the best ingre­di­ents of their class: a proper Ital­ian sub roll stuffed with home made meats and gia­r­diniera. The per­fect oppor­tu­nity arose last week­end when my bud Matt “laikom” Zatkoff hosted a Chicago themed potluck BBQ. I was mak­ing 7 lbs. of my famous Ital­ian beef any­how and also had to make a stop at the cor­ner of Grand and May for a 1–2 punch of D’Amatos crusty 3 ft. extra long Ital­ian rolls and Bari’s deeply mar­i­nated hot gia­r­diniere. Ital­ian beef is not typ­i­cal on Chicago shoes, but had fea­tured in that ren­di­tion at Milwaukee’s House of Corned beef, upping the Chicago ter­roir of this sand­wich a notch. So my Ital­ian beef would fill in for the roast beef. Mark “fro­pones” Sie­gal painstak­ingly crafted a house-cured corned beef and PIGMON and trixie-pea were kind enough to cruise up the Edens to grab a few pounds of the favored house made gyros (and tztaziki) from Psis­tria on Touhy in Lin­col­nwood. And while, there are some pretty mas­sive Jim Shoes already on the mar­ket, since we had a 3 foot long sub roll we could dub this the “world’s largest Jim Shoe”, I’ll insert “arti­sanal” as a descrip­tor before folks start call­ing afoul.


Photo c/o Matt Zatkoff

I’m a huge fan of the chopped style of Jim Shoe, for which the meats are chopped on the grid­dle as they brown, often with onions and gia­rdiera. Watch­ing a true grid­dle mas­ter at a sub shop offers quite the show, a brisk and aggres­sive, yet finessed dance. A term that comes up in Jim Shoe lore is kat-a-kat, the name of a Pak­istani dish of offal that is fried and chopped, the word an ono­matopoeia for the sound of two blades hit­ting the grid­dle as they cut up the meat. Since many of the grid­dle men at these sub shops are Pak­istani natives, this makes sense.

I’ve noticed that the cook­ing imple­ments often employed look like (or prob­a­bly are) spackle knives, so I chipped any resid­ual joint com­pound off a cou­ple of spat­u­las from my paint­ing toolkit and proudly wielded them as my kat-a-kat weaponry. Our slow cooked meats broke down into an almost hash-like con­sis­tency and as I let the meat crisp up real nice, a good hash might be a fair anal­ogy. You can see my spackle knife in the photo below.


Photo c/o Matt Zatkoff

So how was this? Deli­cious of course, the sum-of-its-parts as a true Shoe should be. But was it as good as the real thing? I might argue no, at least not as good as the best ren­di­tions from Super Sub in Mar­quette Park or Stony Sub down on Stony Island. An authen­tic Jim Shoe takes hum­ble, mass pro­duced, (and impor­tant here) sodium-laden prod­ucts that on their own have lit­tle merit to a dis­cern­ing palate and ele­vate them into some­thing wor­thy. We took prod­ucts that were deli­cious in their own right and while Voltron-ed together were still delec­table, they lost their own inherit qual­i­ties a bit in the mix. A lack of salt whal­lop was the most dis­cernible dif­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly in the gyros, which sev­eral BBQ-goers were quick to note. Even the Bari gia­r­diniere had a cer­tain dain­ti­ness com­pared to its more processed coun­ter­parts. Sat­is­fy­ing, but not quite on that down ‘n dirty.

Look at this shit eating grin

Look at this shit eat­ing grin. Photo c/o Justin Oesterreich

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I’m From Ox-Bow


Photo c/o Skip Bal­lou

I’m from Ox-Bow.

I’ve been say­ing this a lot lately. I’m okay with some bugs in the house, spi­ders, a wel­come vis­i­tor. That hole in the screen? It can wait a few weeks. The old, the rot­ting– famil­iar and com­fort­ing. Just give it a fly paint job.

Jes­sica & I bought a house a few months ago, which sig­naled a major shift in my lifestyle. After 15 full sum­mers of work­ing at Ox-Bow, it’s finally time to hang up my chef’s hat. If you could see our house though, its more than a lit­tle rem­i­nis­cent of the quirky, over­grown, vibrantly painted col­lec­tion of shacks on the lagoon~ with prob­a­bly a few less bugs inside. Though I can’t say that I con­sciously chose the house because of its campy-ness, Jes­sica says that she knew imme­di­ately that it was going to be our house because it felt like Ox-Bow. It felt like home.


There was a time when I con­sid­ered Ox-Bow my home. I was in my early 20s and oth­er­wise itin­er­ant in where I laid my head. I was still in the needing-to-feel-as-far-away-from-my-parent’s-nest phase. That moment I first set eyes on the lagoon on that balmy after­noon in late July of 1998 is the sin­gu­lar most strik­ing mem­ory I have of the place. Expe­ri­enc­ing that view for 100 days straight is prob­a­bly the one thing I’ll miss most. The place felt totally famil­iar, I had spent a chunk of every sum­mer of my child­hood and ado­les­cence in the sandy dunes and lakeshore of West Michi­gan. But there was a cer­tain sense of grandeur– the vista of the mean­der­ing lagoon set against a dra­matic back­drop of tow­er­ing, densely wooded dunes. A pal­pa­ble spirit quak­ing in the wind.

And those funny cab­ins, I got to live in four of them and had count­less laughs, beers, and weird sleep­overs in just about the rest of them. The buzz of campers in the old inn, entic­ing food smells, humid lazy lunches on the side porch. Cool grown ups. All those crazy artists everywhere.

I’m going to keep the sen­ti­men­tal­ity in check. The place is fueled by it. You’re liv­ing in your best mem­o­ries in real time. Every­one feels like, well, your broth­ers and sis­ters. Time both flies by and feels like it’s last­ing for­ever at once. You yearn for the place Sep­tem­ber through May, count­ing down the days. The magic, blah, blah, blah.

I think that for a lot of us (and I mean every­one who falls in love with the place), Ox-Bow pro­vides us with what we strug­gle to find else­where in life. A con­nec­tion to nature, belief in the unseen, magic. A feel­ing of com­mu­nity, fam­ily, home. Noth­ing wrong with that. I think for me, it was just that my par­ents never sent me away to sum­mer camp. It was my place to be the me I felt unsafe being in the real world– to wear a dress and make up, to run around naked, to get wasted every night. A per­pet­ual state of ado­les­cent rebel­lion. But I swear I grew up at Ox-Bow, I really did…

I fell in love at Ox-Bow for the first time and maybe a cou­ple more times. I met about ¾ of my best friends there. I got mar­ried at Ox-Bow! I felt a sense of com­mu­nity that has inspired and dri­ven all of the work in my life since. I learned to work at Ox-Bow. I was a lazy kid, always look­ing for short­cuts, averse to hard work. As a work study dish­washer at Ox-Bow, for the first time in my life, I felt pride in labor– my sweat, a con­tri­bu­tion to the col­lec­tive endeavor. I learned that ser­vice and work­ing with food were my life’s work.

But I also had my heart bro­ken there. I fought with friends. Friend­ships col­lapsed. I buried pets there. My friend drowned.

Life in sharp focus.

I watched Ox-Bow grow up with me. The days of drum cir­cles, day­time skinny dip­ping, and day drink­ing gave way to a more but­toned up pro­fes­sion­al­ism. I was there, man, but shortly came ren­o­va­tion and expan­sion. And oh boy, did we not like it. How dare they bull­doze our sacred ground. What do you mean we can’t smoke joints when­ever and wher­ever we want? But alas, the rebel­lion was short­sighted. We were lifted up out of hippy provin­cial­ism and became a world class insti­tu­tion. It was good that a hand­ful of us old timers car­ried some of the old spirit into the new era, shar­ing our com­mu­nal­ism and funky old ways. And I like to think that we passed down some of our knowl­edge to a new gen­er­a­tion. That’s the thing, even though we had new big shiny build­ings and dozens more campers, the vibe didn’t change all that much. But some of that sense of com­mu­nity was lost, things just got geo­graph­i­cally spread out more, it was harder to get to know all those new faces.

There were big­ger per­sonal shifts going on as I grew up at Ox-Bow. As I was pro­moted to a man­age­ment posi­tion and then wit­nessed the pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing of the ser­vices we offered, some of my roman­tic rela­tion­ship with the place and feel­ings of “home” and “fam­ily” started to wane. But this was all okay. I was there to serve. Serve the mis­sion of Ox-Bow. I took great pride in my job. The cush­est ser­vice indus­try gig ever– a free place to live, sur­rounded by nature, free access to world class ped­a­gogy, feed­ing and mak­ing happy friends and respected col­leagues. In the end of the day, I came to terms with the fact that Ox-Bow was just a job, best gig in the world or not.

Back to that home and fam­ily thing. As I grew up I real­ized that Ox-Bow was only 3 months of my life and the other ¾ of the year inevitably had to take pri­or­ity. I found a new home and fam­ily. Back at camp I started to crave pri­vacy, nor­malcy, a good wifi con­nec­tion. I missed my wifey.

Speak­ing of pri­vacy, the hard­est part of the job is sort­ing out the inevitably blurry bound­aries between pri­vate and pub­lic. Where work begins and ends and really doesn’t. This is where all the trou­ble hap­pens. My fatal flaw with my job was try­ing to keep every­one happy. Kinda fucked up to have to man­age your friends– your broth­ers and sis­ters– though. My only regret is not telling my friends that they were bad work­ers some­times and not telling my work­ers that they were bad friends other times. I could have been more forth­right, less con­fronta­tion– averse and it could have saved me a lot of grief.

But all I ever wanted was to keep the peace. Seri­ously folks, lis­ten up haters. Even though you can blame me for walk­ing around with too much swag­ger for my own good and inces­santly turn­ing the vol­ume up, some­times at the expense of the peace of my neigh­bors, every­thing I did at Ox-Bow on the clock, ever, I did for the realm.

I grew up at Ox-Bow. And many other wily young artists will for gen­er­a­tions to come. Some­how the place takes care of it self, it’s about regen­er­a­tion. My best pal, Car­men said this at a sum­mer end bur­ial. My other best pal Sarah Workneh shared a ker­nal of wis­dom passed down to her as she was part­ing with the place, by the astute elder, Ellen Lanyon, “Ox-Bow will always be okay.” As I walk away from this cush­est of jobs, I remind myself this. After spend­ing every sum­mer of my adult life at the place, it’s hard to not get a lit­tle hung up on legacy or fret what will hap­pen in my absence. But I know its gonna be great. The place takes care of itself.

Okay, I’ll end with sen­ti­men­tal­ity. Of course I’ll miss the damned place. I love Ox-Bow like a liv­ing, breath­ing per­son. This is not good­bye. I will be back time and time again through­out my life to enjoy the caress of the warm sum­mer breeze com­ing in off the lagoon. I know she’ll wel­come me back. After­all, I am from Ox-Bow.

I’d like to thank all you beau­ti­ful campers, who I had a beer or a thou­sand with:

George Liebert, Jakub Kuchar­czyk, Rafael Vera, James Schnei­der, Olivia Petrides, Molly Muste, Mar­garet Her­bert, Karl “Ze Moon Belongs to Ze Peo­ple”, John Rossi, Heather Mac­in­tyre, Lani John­son, Rachel Fenker (Vera), Beylka Krupp, Mikey Hen­der­berg, Spe­cial K, Hank Adams, Maryann Lipaj, Chain­saw Dave, Andrew Win­ship, Scott Win­ship, Linda Char­vat, Winslow & Gus Liebert, Mike Noise, Janel Rouge, Yoh, Draga Susanj, Matt Fed­erico, Cather­ine Sky, David Baker, Kath­leen Mark­land, Sally & Liz, Lind­say Mad­den, Alex Her­zog, Shari Doyel, Becky Wehmer, Dawn Stafford, Bill Pad­nos, Tim Straub­ing, Matt Helander, Rick Malette, Liz Wheeler, Ken Burak, Nick Hig­bee, Zack Peavler, Katie Her­zog, Erin Zona, Jess Bohus, Jerry Cata­nia, Rob McClurg, EW Ross & fam­ily, Sheila O’Donnell, Mark Pas­cale, Jea­nine Coupe– Ryd­ing, Holly Green­berg, Michael Ryan, Mar­ion Kryczka & fam­ily, Andrea Peter­son & fam­ily, Colin Browne, Mike Wolf, Liz Nielsen, Dan Mackessy, Peter Bar­rett, Ted­ders Nathanson, Matt “Skip” Bal­lou, Lind­sey Brash­ler, Pam Zim­mer­man, Reid Thomp­son, Amanda Cohen, Amy Buc­ci­ferro, Sarah, Lisa Wain­wright, John Cor­bett, Lane Relyea, Mikro­naut, Matt Mars­den, Siebren Ver­steeg, Joe Klee­man, Dahlia Tulett, Jesse Baker, Luba Hal­icki, Mon­ica Marin, Jeremy Holden, Steamer Sea­mons, Ryan Fenchel, Andy Mal­one, Melissa Hogan, Shan­non Mustipher, Liz Nuren­burg, Leslie Vega, Maria Stubbs, Sarah Workneh, Lau­rie Price, Anna Mayer, Shara Hughes, Katie Ham­mond (Hal­ton), Lau­ren Cas­teel, Stacy Shier­holz, Jamisen Ogg, Rob Bell, Eric Mirabito, Al Hal­ton, Pauly Lukachin­ski Men­doza, Rachel Clark, Rich Fos­hay, Michelle Grab­ner & fam­ily, Tom Bar­tel, Cas­san­dra Cham­bers, Chresten Sorensen, Kate Gron­ner, Phil Han­son, Alex Han­son, Deirdre McConnell, Jes­sica Williams, Lon­nie Pot­ter, Shanna Shearer, Stacy Hol­loway, Caleb Lyons, CJ Math­erne, Nate Wolf, Pat Rios, Kelly Reeves, John Phillips, Israel Davis, Jeff Blan­ford, Kevin Puta­lik, Andrea Oleniczak, Steve & Bobbi Meier & fam­ily, Betsy Rup­precht & Jan Cun­ning­ham, Todd Warnock, Norm & Con­nie Deam, Phil & Cindy Visser & Fam­ily, Scott & Nancy Bru­ursema, The Sev­er­ances, The Leutzingers, The Suarez Fam­ily, Pete Pala­zollo, Dave Sei­del, Emily Wal­lace, Todd Knight & Michael Leonard, Mike Rossi, Car­men Price, Michelle Froh, Lakela Brown, Ram­bler, Tyler Poni, Grandma, Mar­i­anne McGrath, Danny Z, Miles Votek, Lau­ren Ander­son, Vanesa Zen­de­jas, Megan Reilly, Oli Watt, Aline Cautis, Piper Brett, Daniel Petraitis, Frog, Mus­tache Phil, Tay­lor Kur­rle, Tony Amato, Kelsey, Chris & Sam Fer­ris, Jason Kala­jainen, Richard Deutsch, Jimmy Wright, Eliz­a­beth Cho­dos, Brian McN­ear­ney, George Git­tens, Ji, Erin Cun­ning­ham, Alex who was into house music, Julianne Shi­bata, Jerry Saltz, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder, Jim Lutes, Carl Baratta, Rut Baratta, Kate Naka­mura, Kara Hall, Sara Cof­fin, Trash­ley, Efren Arcoiris, Geof­frey Hamer­linck, Teena McCle­land, Dan John­son, Tony & Tina Lar­son & fam­ily, Melanie Schiff, Erin Chapla, Dempsey, Katie Scan­lan, Ash­leigh Burskey, Car­o­line Woolard, Kari Rinn, Nate Doro­tiak, Amy Stibich, Stu­art Snoddy, Teruko Nimura, Vic­tor Sun, Mike Andrews, Alex Chitty, Rachel Nif­f­eneg­ger, Justin Swin­burne, Dan Ose­di­acz, John Parot, Justin Goodall, Andrew Svec, Nick John­ston, Chris Pow­ers, Julia Ash­er­man, Nate Ton­ning, Mari Miller, Kathy Leisen, Becca Bald­win, Rob Doran, Gor­don Hall, Hugh Zei­gler, Caiti Hack­ett, Chris Mrozik, Sarah Faux, Anja, Beau & Lily, Alec Appl, Met­als tech John, Joel Dean, Craig Doty, Aspen Mays, Michael Thibault, Sara Condo, Stephanie Nadeau, Max Hege­dus, Mar­tin Basher, Arlen Austin, Kelly Kaczyn­ski, John Bart­lang, Adam Eck­strom, Lau­ren Was, Tim Roby, Lisa Rybovich– Crallé, , Kari Rear­don, Andy Pomylka­ski, Tommy Cole­man, Daniel Lane, Chris Bost­wick, Kate Clark, Ben Love, Eric Steen, Sarah Rabeda, Mac Kat­ter, Evan Jenk­ins, Moira O’Neil. Casey McG­o­na­gle, Mark Ben­son, Jonah Groeneboer, Kate Rug­geri, Car­son Fisk– Vit­tori, Arend deGruyter– Helfer, McK­eever Dono­van, Sofia Leiby, Tiana Tucker, Betsy O’Brien, Mickey Pom­frey, Blake, Oliver Apte, Ben Medan­ski, Ben McCarthy, Natalie Edwards, Stephanie Brooks, Isak Applin, Lone Wolf & Cub, Han­nah Tarr, Priya Wittman, Ye Qin Zhu, Henry Criss­man, Ginny Tor­rance, Dul­cee Boehm, James Payne, Jonas Sebura, Jill Mason, Jovan­nah Nichol­son, Theaster Gates, Bill O’Brien, Chris Johansen & Jo Jack­son, Erin Nel­son, Sally Jerome, Peter Lin­den, David Schmitt, Scott Carter, Joven­cio De La Paz, Anthony Cree­den, Sophie Roessler, Alex Gartel­man, Har­rell Fletcher, Crys­tal Bax­ley, Rimas Simaitis, Tre Reis­ing, Neal Van­den­bergh, Andrew Mausert– Mooney, Biff Bolen, Danny Giles, Mar­i­anne Fair­banks, Jessie Edel­man, Sam Davis, Jamie Steele, Eileen Mueller, Jenny Drum­goole, Patrick Sarmiento, Miah Jones, Kirk Faber, Eli­jah Burgher, Rebecca Walz, Ryan Pfeif­fer, Jesse Har­rod, Rebecca Rin­quist, Ector Gar­cia, Amanda Wong, Rachel Brown­ing, Kendell Harbin, Nate Ellef­son, Carol Hu, Stephen Kent, Will Sieruta, Olivia Blan­chard, Molly Hewitt, Lau­ren Tay­lor, Mar­cel Alcala, Dana Carter, Paula Wil­son, Jo Dery, Car­rie Vinarsky, Lori Felker, Jesse McLean, Andy Hall, Andy Yang, Mac Akin, Woo­bie Bogus, Susan­nah Dot­son, Crys­tal Hei­den, Jackie Fur­tado, Andy Jor­dan, Sara Green­berger Raf­ferty, Jon Bru­mit, Judith Roden­bach, Eric Fleis­chauer, Aline Cautis, Heather Mekkel­son, Chris Kerr, Cauleen Smth, Ali Chit­saz, Dan Con­way, Lind­say Cashews, David Tor­res, Ryan Shrum, Lau­rel Shear, Diana Lozano, David Alekhougie, Moe Beitiks, Rachel Ger­vais, Bran­don Mathis, Kim­ber Shaw, Paul Warfield, MC Richard­son, JR Magsaysay Stan­ley, Andy Roche, Jason Lazarus, Noah Singer, Richard Hull, Shan­non Strat­ton, Michael Milano, Etta Sandry, Tegan Brace, Jesse Malmed, Raven Mun­sell, Anthony Stepter, Julie Ault, Zach Cahill, Abby Satin­sky, Andrew Doty, Krzysztof Lower, Emma Pryde, John Elio Reit­man, Nick Grasso, Osiris Zuniga, Carly Conel­ley, Winslow Funaki, Annie Miller, Sofia McDou­gal, Howard Fonda, Claire Ash­ley, Erin Wash­ing­ton, Ben Fain, Car­rie Schnei­der, Jayne Glick, Nate Large, Alyx Harch, Anthony Renda, Dash Sheffield, Rebecca Parker, Chris Ren­ton, Aay Pre­ston– Myint, Alex Valen­tine, Dan Gunn, Karolina Gna­towski, Meg, Lupe Ros­ales, and finally to the love of my life, who put up with this for six sum­mers and will be by my side, finally, for the rest of the sum­mers of my life, Jes­sica Labatte.

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Piranha Club: Xaymaca/Queens


Photo c/o Lyn­nette Miranda

Wow, where to begin? The NY debut of the Piranha Club was fit­tingly, the most intense din­ner we’ve ever done.

Our trip up the Hud­son to pro­cure beaver meat is most likely the best entry point into this story…

I’m a big fan of of Baron Ambrosia, the self-styled “Quaf­fer of Culi­nary Con­scious­ness” and “Culi­nary Ambas­sador to the Bronx”. I first stum­bled across the fine Baron in this 2012 Seri­ous Eats piece about his leg­endary Bronx Pipe Smok­ing Society’s Annual Small Game Din­ner for which (in its 2nd iter­a­tion of the annual event) he assem­bled a crack team of local chefs to tackle a range of wild game meats for an invite only secret society-like mas­quer­ade ball. I’ve fol­lowed his exploits ever since from his Cook­ing Chan­nel show, The Culi­nary Adven­tures of Baron Ambrosia, to his pro­duc­tions and col­lab­o­ra­tions with Hip-hop roy­alty like Grand­mas­ter Melle Melle and the Ultra­m­ag­netic MCs to his recent spot on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Bronx episode. Weird meats, rap lore, and neigh­bor­hood rep­ping– you can see how I find this guy to be a kin­dred spirit. So how excited was I when I received an e-mail from the man him­self after I tweeted to him about sourc­ing beaver meat in NY for our Queens/Xaymaca din­ner with Paul Anthony Smith~ I guess social media can actu­ally lead to mean­ing­ful IRL expe­ri­ences. And even bet­ter a per­sonal invi­ta­tion to his home to pick up our loins of largest-rodent-in-America…

My respect for this guy was val­i­dated emphat­i­cally when we vis­ited his home. While his schtick may seem pretty thick on cam­era, the line between his art and life is all but invis­i­ble. Intense and excited, but drip­ping with an almost for­mal social grace and gen­uine charm, the Baron was the finest of hosts, open­ing the doors of his world to us. His Vic­to­rian man­sion was stun­ning– gothic, sur­real, with New Orleans-y vibe– every sur­face treated with fan­ci­ful adorn­ment. He escorted us into the par­lor and on a table adja­cent to a crushed vel­vet couch, omi­nously sat three empty wine glasses. In our cor­re­spon­dence before the trip, I’d been aware of his exper­i­ments with beaver gland vodka and ner­vously antic­i­pated the fact that he might serve us one of his potions. As he pulled a spec­i­men jar from behind his bar, he pro­claimed that he’d start us off with the begin­ner stuff. I could see two omi­nous furry shapes rolling about in the jar filled up with about three inches of liq­uid. Bear paws. Baron ran to the kitchen to grab a turkey baster and his adorable ginger-haired daugh­ter in an entirely casual tone after peep­ing at the scary-to-us busi­ness pro­claimed “oh, its grown up stuff” and cheer­fully skipped away into another room with her stuffed bunny.

Paul, Jes­sica (thanks for being such a trooper, baby), and I were all game. The just slightly cloudy liq­uid, inspired by a tonic Baron had wit­nessed in Viet­nam, had an aroma and after­taste of nutty Jamón Ibérico, a lit­tle sweet up front and less musty than you might think. We sur­vived the first round. I knew what was com­ing next. The Baron pro­duced a bell jar with a snotty look­ing node bob­bling around. The beaver gland vodka. This one had a med­i­c­i­nal, though quite aro­matic, vibe. If you peruse the linked arti­cle above, you’ll learn that the extrac­tions from beaver cas­tor gland– used by the ani­mal to mark its turf– is FDA approved and has been used in arti­fi­cial fla­vor­ings and per­fumes for a real long time. I thought it had a menthol-y after­taste. So then we were ready to sam­ple the real “grown up stuff” but unfor­tu­nately I can­not recount the expe­ri­ence here, since this last tinc­ture fea­tures as the grand finalé of this year’s Small Game Din­ner to be held in a few weeks. Let’s just say, other than the Baron, none of us tried this one…

We then took care of busi­ness in Baron’s office, which was even denser full of visual eccen­tric­i­ties– equal parts the Wizard’s cham­ber, shrine to Kali, and film noir detective’s desk. We got to sam­ple deli­cious birch sap wine, made with noth­ing but the flo­ral, early spring nec­tar of the birch tree. I wasn’t shocked when the Baron spon­ta­neously pre­sented us with a frozen por­cu­pine. And by the time he fetched a cru­cible filled to the brim with beaver hams, the exotic meat looked down­right scrump­tious. Its impor­tant to note that Baron shared the story of how his prac­tice of cham­pi­oning wild meats came to be. He met a trap­per named Bill Guiles, a back-to-the-lander who traps ani­mals for pelts in the old school way in the deep woods of the Adiron­dacks. Baron met him at a party and invited him­self along for a hunt. He saw an oppor­tu­nity in the meat often-times dis­carded in the process of skin­ning these ani­mals. Baron reminded us that we also had Trap­per Bill to thank for our six beau­ti­ful crim­son beaver hams. Baron sent us off with a part­ing gift of a beaver’s tail and a pint of cas­toreum vodka for the party and we were on our way. The whole thing still feels like a dream.

I was respect­ful of the Baron not to shoot pic­tures of his home with my iPhone, but Jes­sica snuck in one of the beaver meat in his office:


And down to Queens:


The Knock­down Cen­ter. This place is a for­mer dec­o­ra­tive glass, turned door fac­tory. 50,000 square feet in Maspeth, Queens, though basi­cally right across the street from rapidly-gentrifying Bush­wick, Brook­lyn . It was ren­o­vated and opened as a multi-purpose event space about two years ago. It is owned by a jovial, but no-bullshit, New York answer to “The Dude” and his fam­ily. And it is man­aged by my best bud from grad school, Tyler Myers. Tyler’s wife, Sta­cie John­son with Gabrielle Gar­land– who I should note have both worked with me at Roots & Cul­ture– invited me to be a part of their cura­to­r­ial project, Neg­a­tive Space, which explores art that ref­er­ences aspects of domes­tic­ity. I guess we can call my project domes­tic, since at least now we know that beaver is reg­u­larly on the menu at someone’s house.

Knock­down Cen­ter is badass, a gor­geous win­dowed post-industrial cathe­dral with sur­prises around every cor­ner, like a seri­ously well equipped kitchen with an adja­cent spa­cious, but cozy din­ing space. It had a nicely lived in vibe and quite reminded me of the Piranha Club’s home base at R&C.


Paul and his flow

My part­ner in crime for this Piranha Club was Paul Anthony Smith, who I met at a bar in Kansas City in 2012 while I was down there for my Mid­west­ern BBQ Migra­tion project at Char­lotte St. Foun­da­tion. I’d already known about this guy, though, from mutual friends in both KC and Chicago. Our paths had not really crossed that often since. He’d done a killer show of paint­ings in Chicago called “Man­gos and Crabs”, but mostly we’ve com­mu­ni­cated from afar as mutual fans of each other’s food obsessed Insta­gram feeds. There’s that social media con­nect­ing peo­ple in real ways again.

You prob­a­bly know that I’m a Jamaica-phile, or per­haps a recov­er­ing one. The stony one-two of reg­gae music has long been at the heart of my record col­lec­tion and I have a deep rev­er­ence for its ances­try to my other favorite rhythm of hip hop. I also love the slow cooked, deeply spiced fla­vors of the English-colonized, African-cultured Caribbean. Chicago is not the spot for that food though. And I’ve never been to Jamaica. I have come to real­ize that the Amer­i­can roman­ti­ciza­tion of trop­i­cal par­adises in colo­nial places + the col­lege escapism of Bob Mar­ley “Leg­end” sing-a-longs and the real­ity of life on the island is not some­thing that I can reconcile.


Paul was a great trav­el­ing com­pan­ion for West Indian Brook­lyn. He pointed out Jamaican ladies with their faces bleached. I knew about Man­nish waters but not much about ackee. Jamaicans cook with a lot of ketchup. We cured our hang­overs with sub­lime roti at Rama’s Roti House and I won­dered about their Hindu shrine. As we cruised up Flat­bush Ave. we watched the demo­graph­ics quickly go hip­ster. Brook­lyn is a lit­tle more inte­grated than Chicago at least.

Venison curry about to go in for a braise

Veni­son curry about to go in for a braise

The premise of the menu riffed on the ety­mol­ogy of the word Jamaica. To quote the press release “Just down Queens Blvd from the Knock­down Cen­ter (which at one point was actu­ally named “Jamaica Estates”), there hap­pens to be a neigh­bor­hood called Jamaica, which many Jamaican peo­ple call home. The name how­ever, is not derived from the native-to-Caribbean-Jamaica Arawak peo­ple, who named their land Xay­maca, “land of wood and water”, but from the native-to-Jamaica-Queens Lenape peo­ple who called their land Yameco, which trans­lates to “beaver”. Join us for a Caribbean– inflected feast fea­tur­ing Arawak and Lenape tech­niques and ingredients.”

For chicken foot soup

For chicken foot soup

Cassava (yucca). Paul drank the boiling water like tea

Cas­sava (yucca). Paul drank the boil­ing water like tea

Cook­ing with Paul was pro­found. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a But­ter­fly” was our sound­track, which not only under­lined the urban real­i­ties that are in such sharp focus in gen­tri­fy­ing Brook­lyn, but brought up the idea of flow, which we deter­mined was a praxis of wis­dom and knowl­edge. Paul’s got flow in the kitchen. I hope maybe I do too. But its a grace of move­ments and an intu­ition of know­ing how to trans­form raw mate­r­ial into some­thing aes­thet­i­cally tran­scen­dent. That whole thing of curry pow­der? That much all­spice? Dude, Paul’s sauces were off the hook.


The beaver hams after a pre­lim­i­nary browning

But of course the big deal was the crazy meat no one had eaten before. Some­times I do won­der why I choose to cook things I’ve never cooked let alone eaten for these rel­a­tively high pro­file pub­lic meals. Per­haps its a humil­ity, a need to feel as vul­ner­a­ble as the din­ers about to put some­thing in their mouths maybe they never even con­sid­ered could be food. The beaver meat was pretty easy going actu­ally. The fat had a waxy fla­vor to it, but the flesh was kinda beefy, kinda gamy (what­ever that means, can we really define the fla­vor of gamy? Iron-rich blood tast­ing like veni­son or duck? Musky like goat?). At any rate, it wasn’t chal­leng­ing by my stan­dards. It cooked really well, brais­ing in Paul’s “brown stew” style of gravy for about five hours. Even though we worked with 1″ cubed veni­son for the curry, that lean­est of meats actu­ally took a few more hours to become fork ten­der than the com­par­a­tively fatty beaver.

Venison patties (gotta say, that meat gets dry)

Veni­son pat­ties (gotta say, that meat gets dry)

Succotash, to pay homage to the "three sisters" of Native horticulture

Suc­co­tash, to pay homage to the “three sis­ters” of Native horticulture

Hot stuff- venison curry

Hot stuff– veni­son curry

The main event- brown stew beaver

The main event– brown stew beaver. Photo c/o Lyn­nette Miranda

The scene

The scene

Paul's coveted sweet potato pudding. Seriously dank, yo!

Paul cov­et­ing the sweet potato pud­ding. Seri­ously dank, yo!

#JODI showed up on the sprayer

#JODI showed up on the sprayer

The tail.

The tail.

Regard­less of the shock/ courage fac­tor of our ingre­di­ents, what this is about is dia­logue about food, around food, and a com­ing together of dif­fer­ent folks. Thanks to all the beau­ti­ful peo­ple that made this happen.


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