Guest Post: Dining for the End of the World
Los Angeles, CA. In honor of humanity surviving the end of the world (for this round anyway), I asked my musician cousin Mariana Bell to recount what could well have been her last meal on earth. After reading about an underground restaurant by the ominous name of Wolvesmouth in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Mariana sent in an “application” to dine at LA’s most coveted table du moment. Here is her story.
A Song On the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz translated by Anthony Milosz.
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.
This is the poem I sent in to the creators of the strange, underground dining experience called Wolvesmouth. Like many others, I had read about it in The New Yorker‘s wonderful food issue this year. Unlike most others, however, I was invited to the meal on my first try. Call it absurd luck, some very good “food karma,” or perhaps a mutual recognition of some anarchist streak, but I was glad to be selected to go and jumped on the opportunity quickly. Attached to this poem, I simply added that if the world should end on December 21st, I would very much appreciate my last meal to be with them, and that I would bring some really good wine if they’d have me.
For those who don’t know, Wolvesmouth is part of a nation-wide trend of pop-up dining, which is either a fabulous culinary experience without the hassle of a fixed location or a subversive undermining of insurance and health and safety codes, depending on how you look at it.
Like the Flynn McGarrys of the world, chef Craig Thornton is a highly skilled young chef, who for one reason or another doesn’t feel compelled to take on the nuisances of normal restaurant life. Bucking convention is in his blood- as a teenager Thornton legally emancipated himself from a difficult home – and as a chef he seems most interested in making the food he likes for people who are happy to be surprised by what approaches the table. If it happens in his LA loft, so be it.
The beauty of his method is manifold: there is no one telling him how to run his kitchen, no substitutions or high-maintenance ordering from obnoxious diners, and with only one seating a few times a month, Thornton is able to shop at farmers’ market and create his menu according to his mood. The way his kitchen gets around most regulations is by serving a “family” meal with donations as payment and a BYO drinking policy. What makes this special – and highly desirable to elitist foodies and voracious diners alike – is Wolvesmouth’s ever-elusive guest list.
Nothing says LA like the exclusive, the VIP, that red velvet rope. If you are on the right side of it, you feel the ultimate cool, as though part of some cache of celebrity above commingling with the plebs. When I arrived that night, I asked the email manager (handler of @dimsumpup whose dubiously esteemed job it is to curate the guest-list), “Really, how selective is this thing? How many emails do you get for a given dinner?” To which he smoothly replied, “between 600-1000.”
So when the 18 or so diners began trickling into that downtown loft, I was grateful that my sommelier fiancé had given me some really good wine to appease the masses. The group consisted of all kinds of people, a beautiful aggregation of types, ages, styles, and opinions with only food in common. As we meandered throughout the space, easily wandering through the kitchen, chatting with the chefs – of which there were seven – in the small-for-LA, huge-for-NYC space, I met a lovely older couple, who appreciated the 2008 Jean-Noel Gagnard Blanchot Dessous I offered them. I spoke with a talent agent who had come with a friend who had waited an entire year to be invited. I ran into my hairstylist and his girlfriend. I met a gorgeous young woman from Mexico and her husband, both regulars of the LA eatery where my fiancé pours, a lone travel writer, and – next to me at the long table – a professor of philosophy and her husband who specializes in CGI aftereffects.
With the menu posted on the fridge, and the first course about to arrive, my rocker/writer guest and I aimlessly sampled the wine everyone had brought as Thornton’s pet dogs sat in our laps, hoping for scraps.
The meal, of course, was wonderful. Nine courses, each brought to the table in well-timed succession, flouting “normal” rules of coursing. (Red meat for the first course!? Oh the sacrilege!) We were encouraged to help bus the table which had a secondary benefit of stretching the legs and belly between courses. The democratic sense of community, the smoky, visible kitchen, the privileged strangers brought together for a random evening; it couldn’t have been more elegantly assembled. Thornton came to the table and unassumingly announced each artful dish with the same earnest exhaustion and pleasure that he brought to his gentle conversation with these people he’d allowed into his space. Though sometimes painfully shy, he seemed genuinely pleased to be meeting new people, to steal a moment to overhear the satisfied grunting of the most essential of human endeavors: eating.
Although pretentiousness often trails this sort of occasion like a beaten dog, most guests echoed my feeling of unabashed elation and palpable excitement as one plated Pollock after another was placed before us. My favorite was the Barbie-pink ocean trout with the perfect swath of lavender-colored squid ink horseradish, covered in luxurious, bright beet slices (though the coffee-sprinkled sweet potato and scallop ran a close second). From the diners around me, a rousing cheer was up for the lobster dish, as well as the magnificently bright first course, a study in 80’s neon surrounding perfectly rare rib-eye caps.
After the last course was gone – a Pop Rocks-studded black sesame cake sticking the final glitter to my expanded belly – my hairstylist friend accompanied me in search of an ATM in order to contribute my donation. On the long walk in the cool downtown breeze, we stumbled and smiled till we found a working cash machine. We returned to the loft to find our little group was the last one standing. The four of us and the whole staff chatted a while, and after a not-so-necessary shot of really good tequila with the chefs, we said our thank-you’s and farewells.
We fed well that night and survived, gnawing our way through the end of the world like a pack of wolves.
Mind. Body. Spirit.
Strike. Tear. Chew.
Musician Mariana Bell lives with her wonderful oenophile of a fiancé and a foxhound/great dane mix in Los Angeles where she writes and performs soulful music and bakes elaborate muffins from scratch every morning. Check out her music here.