Mystery Meal

It’s funny – I really think my best writing comes when I plan to write about one thing, but end up writing about another. Which is hard to operationalize; I mean, it’s like the Douglas Adams technique for flying: “throw yourself at the ground and miss.” Right?

But what I’m intending to write about – and I think I really do have to make an honest go at it for the magic to work – is the joy of throwing yourself into the unknown. Like agreeing to show up at a warehouse in an unknown location in the Mission district to join an eclectic group of total strangers on a Friday evening gastronomical exploration of local seafood and other unknowns. Organized by a group called “ForageSF” you heard about from a mailing list you’d just joined.

“So… any idea what people wear to these things?” Devon was always ready to pose reasonable questions that never would have occurred to me.

“None. None whatsoever.”

“Okay.” Devon was also always ready to accept my lack of forethought and interpret it as a sense of adventure. I think most good marriages are based on this sort of misunderstanding.

We aimed for middle of the road casual – a pair of khakis and a nice shirt are generally safe; the red tennis added that San Francisco edge to keep me from looking too serious. We pointed the kids at a fresh pot of mac and cheese, told them to clean up any blood or messes they created in our absence (got to keep the instructions simple) and headed north for the adventure.

We were among the first to arrive, made our way upstairs and looked around. The décor just screamed “Mission District”. Second floor warehouse with …

Y’know, this isn’t working. I guess I spent too much at the Julie Andrews “Let’s start at the very beginning” school of narrative. Keep forgetting that it never works for me. Got to dive in, go for the juicy bit right in the middle, and let everything else come along for the ride.

Like the bit where Rob was explaining his theory on uni dreams. That’s “oo-knee”, meaning sea urchin innards, not “you-knee”, meaning “singular”. Rob was explaining his theory about how you had to make sure the uni was really fresh (“looks like it’s covered with a million little yellow taste buds, no glossy shine”) or you’d get the “bad” uni dreams, rather than the good ones. You don’t want the bad ones. And how the uni from Hokkaido gave you qualitatively different dreams than the Santa Barbara ones. Not better or worse, just different.

Now, I didn’t know Rob, any more than I knew Belinda and Adam, the other two uniphiles across from me at our section of the 70 or so feet of table stretched out along the length of the abandoned Mission District warehouse. (“Uniphile”, by the way? We just made that up over the bottle of sake Rob was passing around to anyone who wouldn’t cover their glass.) Anyhow, as I said, I didn’t know Rob, or anyone else there but Devon, who was doing her best to field conversation with … well, you know how I am with names. The two women and earnest young couple across at her end of the table. But Rob and I had done the introductory “my stories are better than yours” manly chestbeating shows party strength, and his stories were damned good. Better than mine, by an arm’s length. No, I hadn’t dropped the that-reminds-me-of-something-that-happened-to-me-at-the-South-Pole haymaker; it was more fun keeping that one under the table for the time being.

So we listened while Rob told us of crazy stories of his youth – the music and getting stoned out of his mind and getting sent off to Berklee (not Berkeley) as a teenager. And marrying a woman from Finland and turning into a foodie, and … I don’t remember many of the details, but damn, could he spin a story.

I expect there were stories like this flowing across the table up and down the length of the room. We were total strangers, all of us. We had answered an ad, or seen something on a mailing list, or just heard from a friend of a friend, and decided to take one small step on the wild side (forshadowing play on words here). We really had no idea what “ForageSF” was – at least I didn’t – but the note said that if we came to a soon-to-be-announced mystery location at the pre-arranged time, we would be fed an 8-course tasting menu of locally-foraged vegetables and seafood. There was mention of morels and chanterelles. Sea beans and “fries with eyes”. Fennel, wild onion, nettle soup and yes, uni.

Now, I don’t want to go all food critic on you, so I’ll just say the food was great. Every hour or so – the meal went on for three and a half hours – Iso (pronounced “eye-so”) would stand up and explain then next couple of dishes coming out. We would ooh and ah, then clear our shoulders as a swarm of volunteers streamed up through the open stairwell at the end of the room bearing trays of the next scrumptious surprise. By the time we got to the plum and lemon glace, we were stuffed.

We took a few moments to reflect as we stumbled our way down the stairs and into the cool night air of the Mission. This wasn’t so odd, was it? Somewhere we’d never been before, spending the evening eating unknown foods prepared by mystery chefs among a crowd of total strangers – fascinating strangers. This was just San Francisco. We wondered how many of them we’d see next month. Because, of course, we are going next month.

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