AN EXPERIMENTAL DINNER PARTY BY EVAN HANCZOR & HEIDI JULAVITS
breads & butters | long-fermented sourdough, Bakke's Soda Bread, DECAYndles
congestione | country ham, melon, aji dulce
gravel greens | smoked trout, radish
'nduja | agnolotti, last of the corn
peach | sorbet, black pepper oil
Cocktail Hour || The Oldest Recorded Voices in History
Robert Browning; Florence Nightengale; PT Barnum; Edwin Booth; Andrew Carnegie; Thomas Edison; William Howard Taft; Arthur Conan Doyle; Theodore Roosevelt
Dinner || Acetate records
While acetate records are now rare, musicians routinely used them for demos and personal recordings in the 1930s-50s. Like vinyl, acetates play on record players, but were infrequently sold because they degrade so quickly with use.
Late Night || The Velvet Underground, The Quine Tapes
In 1969, the Velvet Underground toured the U.S. and Canada, playing over 70 dates. Robert Quine, an enthusiastic fan, went to as many of those concerts as possible, and befriended the band so that eventually they let him take lo-fi mono recordings of shows and rehearsals using a musicasette recorder. Cassettes gradually wear down through repeated playback, and as Quine's tapes of the Velvet Underground began to denature, he compiled four reels of the best material, which were released in 2001. The original musicasettes no longer exist.
I’m a little uncomfortable tagging food as art, mainly because food’s essential nature seems to disqualify its artistic ambitions. When I started cooking professionally, I was also an aspiring poet. I was living in Connecticut, my day & mind split pretty neatly between reading & writing in the morning and cooking at night. As I dug deeper into food the balance shifted, and though I was primarily engaged with exceedingly chef-like things — rolling pasta, cutting lots of meat, making fires — I still identified as a poet, and resisted this transition. The two pursuits seemed inherently separate. I’m more agnostic about culinary art these days, but what’s clear is that I can’t stop myself from ramming food again and again up against some legitimate art form to see what cracks emerge.
The most successful of these collisions has been our dinner seriesTables of Contents, where we select a novel (The Sun Also Rises, My Side of the Mountain, To Kill a Mockingbird) and create a multi-course meal inspired by passages in the book (trout wrapped in ferns, acorn flour flatbread, Lane cake loaded with shinny). Something about this pairing allows the food to tap more deeply into the channels of nostalgia/memory that taste and aroma are already pretty adept at accessing, and creates an enriched experience of both meal and text. That effect, the reading of a passage affecting how you experience a bite of food consumed immediately afterwards, is fascinating to observe. They’ve been some of our favorite meals to prepare and serve.
So. Decay. The culinary context is clear — rotten potatoes, sour milk— but our approach tonight was musical. My girlfriend is a musician, and in our discussions she’ll eventually drop a music term I don’t know, and sometimes those terms struck me as if they were almost designed not for music, but for food. The title of this intro text is one of them. Decay is another, referring to “the amount of time it takes for a note, once played, to fade from the audible spectrum”. This, of course, leapt in my mind directly to a consideration of flavor. Controlling decay is essentially the entirety of cooking - whether you’re cooking a vegetable or piece of meat to break down its cell structure a certain degree, or using a controlled environment to encourage the growth of certain bacteria (as in fermentation or charcuterie), or preserving foods in ways that forestall decay, like pickles, or butter. Every culture in the world has a cuisine based on decay: it is our beer and wine, our miso and balsamic, our jamon and our ketchup. And these instances of controlledrot also tend to provide us with our most savory, memorable flavors —rivaling the bright, piercing flavor of the freshest radish or bluefish is the dark, lingering umami of dry aged beef, the long sour tang of well-made bread.
None of this is new, but that word, decay, was a revelation for me; my Goldilocks word for it all. That feeling must be familiar to most - finding some language to be a snugger fit in its repurposing than for the thing it was made to describe, the perfect consignment store find. When Jordan and I first spoke about working on a Bellwether event together, this exploration came to mind.
So here we are, Fall, the most idyllic season in the Northeast - harvest and foliage all set to overwhelm us, the smell of smoke finding its way back into the sky. I love it: the strange jubilant melancholy of a season that is a celebration of decay; the lush, fully alive fury of spring and summer backing off stage, bowing majestically. The ‘meal’ tonight will not be a ‘celebration of the season’ (in a nutmeg-y sort of way), but the timing feels appropriate nonetheless. The courses approach decay in different ways — memory, form, technique, and taste — and in context with Heidi’s approaches should give you plenty to chew on. All will, necessarily, have something to offer on the idea of flavor ‘decaying’ on the palate, though of course every bite you take is food for thought there, if you care to consider it.
I ACKNOWLEDGE RECEIPT OF YOUR SIGNAL
I spend the summers in rural coastal Maine where, instead of museums, we have historical societies. These societies are often housed in barns. The items on display—old clothing, old hoes, old tobacco tins, old steamship menus— are basically junk. The junk is indistinguishable from the junk sold at the yard sales held every weekend around our peninsula, save that this junk is not for sale.
Often the junk, while never disinteresting, feels inert; it doesn’t interact with its fellow junk and it doesn’t reach forward to the present and make you feel like you’re part of a human time continuum, i.e. that someday your junk will be on display in a barn. These objects long ago ceased broadcasting. The primary communicative mode I have with these objects is generic nostalgia for a time that does not belong to me. I wish I were alive in the time of steamship menus. I wish I were alive in the time of hoes.
But occasionally there is compelling junk, junk that sticks with me and follows me out of the barn. At a keeping society a few summers ago I found, among the rusted wool carding tools and the pictures of Main Street before the elms died, a vitrine of postcards. These were not the typical vacationland postcards of colorized pine forests; they were both mysteriously encoded (“KCT-3854”) and mysteriously intimate (“with waves from the ‘cornpicker and his yellow rose’”). The vitrine text identified them as “QSL Cards.” QSL cards, I later learned, were sent between amateur radio hobbyists to confirm receipt of a radio transmission. QSL literally means, “I acknowledge receipt of that message/signal.” The QSL Card Wikipedia page uses the word “pride” in describing this community of card-mailing radio enthusiasts, as in “the ability for a radio set to receive distant signals was a source of pride for many consumers and hobbyists” and “QSL cards are a ham radio operator's calling card and are frequently an expression of individual creativity — from a photo of the operator at his station to original artwork, images of the operator's home town or surrounding countryside, etc. They are frequently created with a good dose of individual pride.”
I’ve been thinking about the desire to verify what is abstract and often unverifiable and thus often instantly forgotten—the sound of a conversation between two people; how a person felt at the time (pride or sadness or whatever). When I first met with Evan Hanczor (and Jordan Kisner and Dani Lencioni), Evan said that his interest in decay was not only connected to taste—how long a flavor lasts on the palate before it fades completely—but also to music, and how long a note remains audible. The fade is part of the experience, inseparable from what we understand, in the more immediate sense, as “the experience.” The fade should be taken into account—even harnessed and controlled (Evan talked, in food terms, about “controlled decay”). The QSL cards are a way to extend an experience and harness the fade. They are controlled decay.
I’ve been using QSL cards as part of a project to document, and thus hopefully extend, what is sharp and immediate and quickly extinct—an email exchange (and how it made me feel); an Instagram encounter (ditto). I am sending these postcards to myself at a distant PO Box. I will receive them six months from now. I will then send a QSL card to the “broadcaster” of the original message. In the same way that Evan is interested in controlling the decay of sound in the ear and flavors on the tongue, I’m interested in the controlled decay of memory and feelings on the brain, especially those that might qualify, in the grand scheme of a day, as mundane and unmemorable.
The three QSL cards distributed tonight are an attempt to extend the decay of this evening into the future. Inspired by the original QSL cards, they will focus on geographical location, time and date, and the identities of the communicating parties. The first (“Where”) asks you to draw the map of your day—the shape you traveled, from waking up to arriving at this dinner table. The second (“When”) asks you to check your phones at a specific time and provide a psychological status report. The third (“Who”) asks you to document the names of people you made contact with over dinner, and what you were eating at the time. You’ll be receiving these cards at different times over the next year. Please leave a forwarding address if you move.