Eating is a solitary, harried event; it is seldom the basis for a leisurely expanse of time with friends and loved ones. It’s the rare family that eats a home-cooked meal together every night at the kitchen table with the television turned off. And it’s even less common for a group of families and friends to cook and eat together, turning a meal into an evening-long event for which good food is integral to the enjoyment of good company.
The Underground Food Collective (UFC) does this every night. Composed of a group of friends and families (including little ones and babes-in-arms), the UFC cooks and eats every meal together on a farm in
So on the very day the swine flu was announced F and I braved death and attended
We drove through a torrential downpour to
We found ourselves in the midst of a bustling throng of chefs, farmers, and waiters, whirling through a professional kitchen with an island that stretched as far as the eye could see. The kitchen was every home-cook’s dream: stainless steel shelving, hanging pot racks, acres of cabinets, and gleaming pots and pans.
Awe-struck and awkward, F and I dodged chefs carrying chopping boards and pig parts, and shuffled to the side of the room. A waiter greeted us, “Two this evening?” and led us to the back of the spacious brick front room to a table set for six. We were among the first to arrive, and by the number of tables scattered through the room, James looked to be expecting around 60 people.
We took our seats against the far wall in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows lined with flower boxes and surveyed the room. Long pine tables were set with mismatched china and flickering candles. There was a stone fireplace to the left, and a canoe hung from the ceiling to the right. The bookcase behind me held Ulysses, a Spanish dictionary, and a smattering of philosophers. Carved wooden ducks perched on various ledges and rested on shelves that held more candles, pieces of driftwood and a set of antlers. A colonial iron chandelier with still more flickering candles hung above the next table. As the thunderstorm raged outside, F and I relaxed in James’s warm, rustic apartment, anticipating our pig.
The meal was very good. Not extraordinary, but definitely very good. I’m sure that you could find a gourmet porcine meal of finer quality at one of the many lauded restaurants throughout the
Lisa and Chuck were a few years older than us and at first I found them aloof and a little intimidating. She wore a gray turtleneck sweater and pearl earrings and was well put-together with a sophisticated style that I have never quite been able to master. He was a little rumpled with square-framed glasses and wayward hair. But as the night progressed and we shared plate after plate of pig and glass after glass of wine, we found that Lisa was endearingly silly and Chuck was a rumpled intellect. The other places at our table were occupied in time by Kurt and Rory, both startlingly beautiful college students from
The six of us ate a lot of pig—the seven-course dinner included bacon, pork belly, pulled pork, pork fat, pork broth, pork sausages, and other bits and pieces of swine (plus dessert, which was not pig). Among our favorites: pulled pork with golden raisins and white radishes, pork sausage and micro-greens, white beans in pork broth, and my new weakness—fried pork fat with toasted black walnuts. This dish was crispy and strangely sweet, almost like candied orange peel. It was utterly surprising and delicious, and I could have eaten a heaping plate of fat, against my better judgment. Luckily, the family-style plate was small and I limited myself to a sensible portion. The dishes were augmented with products from local suppliers: Red Hen baguettes, fresh
After three and a half hours of pig plates and scintillating conversation with our new friends, F and I were reluctant to leave James’s beautiful apartment. As we gathered our coats and opened our umbrellas, I wondered why we considered getting together with nice people to eat good food a “Special Event.” The concept is pretty simple, really, and it would be simple to put into practice in our every-day lives, if we were so inclined. But are we inclined?
When I posed these questions to F on the way home, he replied with a pithy flash of wisdom,
“Eating is private.”
And it’s true. In many European countries, mealtime is a celebration of togetherness, of letting go of the day’s frustrations, and of enjoying the company of friends and neighbors over food and wine. But here in
I will admit that I am a private person. When reading about the UFC’s collective meals, my first thought was that you’d have to really love these people to eat your every meal with them. While I long for more dinners with my friends and family, I wouldn’t want to make them nightly events. I would miss my dinners alone on the couch with F. It’s difficult, but it must be possible to find a fulfilling balance between privacy and community.
The UFC has a good thing going here and, while I definitely think the evening was worth the price, I can recreate the same experience in my own apartment for free. I may not have access to a fresh hog, but I do have my own collective of friends and family to celebrate with from time to time.