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By EMAY | Published: October 28, 2015
Saturday, November 7th, 9:00– 11:30 PM
Roots & Culture for Brandon Alvendia’s The Great Good Place
@ Threewalls 119 N Peoria
Featuring: DJ Mr. E, liquor, wings, “Super 3X” Jim Shoo, & introducing “The Ace”
Super Sub at 1050 N Ashland has weathered the changing tides of its neighborhood, serving fresh, hot, greasy food until 4 AM to just about everybody for more than 20 years. Their fried chicken wing trays, in 30, 50, and 100 piece sizes are a staple of Roots & Culture’s after parties. Don’t let the bullet proof glass fool you, these guys do it right– Asad and the crew hand bread each and every wing, frying them fresh. Dipped in styrofoam cups of Cajun Chef hot sauce with rounds of cheapo fries and variably tasty garlic bread and chased with shots of Jim Beam, this has been the spread you’ll find on R&C’s trippy aqua blue– tiled counter after 10 PM since the unkempt early days of the “suburban basement of the Chicago art scene”. In 2013, Super Sub added the fabled Southside delicacy, the Jim Shoo sub sandwich, to its menu, which is a subject of research for R&C Director, Eric May and his omnivorous practices.
By EMAY | Published: October 6, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
By EMAY | Published: September 17, 2015
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
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.
Limit 20 seats.
By EMAY | Published: August 25, 2015
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…
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
By EMAY | Published: August 17, 2015
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.
Stuffed Mushroom Caps
$5000 Fiesta Chicken Kiev
Tomatoes au Gratin
Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Video by Matt Zatkoff
By EMAY | Published: August 11, 2015
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.
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!!!
By EMAY | Published: June 22, 2015
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!
By EMAY | Published: June 16, 2015
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.
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.
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.
By EMAY | Published: May 21, 2015
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, Sheri 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.