Culinary Camps of Black Rock City
Culinary excellence in a temporary city in the dry desert? Oh yes, and some decadent offerings too. Andie and Vav rebroadcast a delicious episode about culinary camps at Black Rock City from the podcast “Food Wine & the Culinary Mind.” It’s a montage of interviews from theme camps that gift the perfect food at the perfect time and place. The perspectives on creativity, community and cuisine bring us back to what it’s like to be together in the dust.
Mat Schuster interviews “fascinating culinary badasses” at the most recent Black Rock City, and it’s about more than just food; featuring Black Rock Bakery, Bao Chicka Wow Wow, Feed the Artists, Awful’s Gas & Snack, Midnight Poutine, Dust City Diner, Lovin’ Oven, and Abstininthe.
BML INTRO: Coming to you from the many worlds of the multiverse, it’s the podcast that’s never the same twice, and always two things at once.
LARRY HARVEY: We don’t dictate what people express at Burning Man, thousands of Theme Camps fill the streets. No one’s selling anything. They’re giving you something for the sheer sake of expression and as a pure gift, something that has an unconditional value. Not a transaction, but socially very, very connected.
ANDIE: Welcome back to Burning Man Live. I’m your host, Andie Grace. And today I’m joined by our technical director and story editor, Michael Vav. Hi Vav. As we record this, it’s elections in the United States and with all the other anxiety of 2020, I gotta admit, I’m letting myself get a little excited about the holiday season. I need something.
VAV: Yeah. As we record this, we’re in the throes of the election. And, uh, I think it’s great to look back at the Black Rock City of 2019 before COVID started. And to look forward to the future of the harvest, the autumn, the beginning of settling in with blankets for the colder winter, and enjoying food. We love food.
ANDIE: Yeah. I mean, even if it doesn’t get cold where you are, a lot of people associate food with the holidays. At my house, this is like a three month festivity-bender because we have Halloween, which we go big on, then my kid’s birthday, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Year’s. And they’re all in rapid succession.
Of course, one of the major throughlines of that is food. Even in a year like this, where only my immediate family is going to be able to be with us probably, I’m already thinking about what I’m going to be making for Thanksgiving . Vav, what’s your favorite thing you ever ate in Black Rock City?
VAV: I think for me, my favorite thing is the context, when it’s a surprise when I really need it. I have seen people handing out delicious, amazing treats at dawn at the trash fence, and found hungry people just relieved and thrilled. I’ve had people making gourmet meals outside of my own camp and I just walk right into it, and then they offer me something amazing., and I can’t believe it.
ANDIE: Yeah, everything tastes better outside anyway. Right? They say that about camping food.
But when you’re walking down the street and you’re hungry in Black Rock City, and somebody walks by with a whole hot pizza in a box, or pulls up to your camp and they’ve just arrived and they brought a bunch of hamburgers, or there are so many camps that give away food as a gift, I’ve had some amazing experiences being famished out on the deep playa and running into let’s say the Dust City Diner, or just somebody on a bike that’s handing out little sandwiches from a hot plate that they made. It’s crazy. People love to share food in Black Rock City.
VAV: I have been at the Dust City Diner and watched my girlfriend jump the counter and become a greasy diner waitress, and run with it for a long time, while I chatted with other patrons. That was great. And I have been one of the crazy people in the crazy line at Midnight Poutine waiting anxiously for delicious chili and cheese on fries at one in the morning.
ANDIE: Worth every minute of waiting and you meet nice people in the line along the way. Yeah, that’s good stuff. So this week, we’re sharing a special rebroadcast of a podcast that’s a friend of Burning Man Live. It’s called Food, Wine & the Culinary Mind.
It’s hosted by Burner and restaurateur Mat Schuster. Although Burning Man Live is more about Burning Man in the rest of our lives than reminiscing about Black Rock City, once we heard this episode with the sounds of Black Rock City humming in the background, we just had to share it with our listeners.
Mat went to Black Rock City in 2019, and he recorded interviews with Black Rock Bakery., BaoChickaWowWow, Feed the Artists. There’s a delightful appearance from Frank at Awful’s Gas & Snack, Midnight Poutine, Dust City Diner, Lovin’ Oven, Abstininthe. These are just a taste of the fabulous food found in fantastic places out there.
VAV: Mat’s podcast episode is also a glimpse into how theme camps work, how interactive art offerings work. It takes me back. The lofty goals, the background sounds of music, generators and people in various states of their daily toil and glory at Black Rock City. It’s a real taste of the effort that people put into providing delicious foods and dynamic experiences, and to prove that they can do it, even when they themselves think sometimes that they cannot get it done. They feed the artists, they feed the masses, they feed those in disbelief that something so delicious can be baked, cooked, served, in such a stark environment.
ANDIE: Yep. I really think Mat did a great job diving in deep with these experts. They kind of reveal the challenges and the triumphs, epic failures, and the glory found underneath the shade and the kitchens of Black Rock City. And they do it all for the love of gifting. We hope you enjoy it.
MAT: Welcome to a very special episode of Food, Wine & the Culinary Mind. This episode is on the food of Burning Man. I had such an incredible time going around to all the different camps and exploring what everybody was offering for food. It really ranged so much, and there were so many things to focus on and there were so many interviews that I got that didn’t fit into this episode.
So be on the lookout for more to come. Because of COVID right now, Burning Man can not be held this year. So listening to all of the interviews that I did is bringing back a lot of really great memories. It’s a little bit bittersweet, but hopefully you will find it more sweet than bitter.
“Burning Man’s pretty shit, but, um, the fucking baked goods are amazing.”
One of the most well-known food camps at Burning Man is the Black Rock Bakery. I had the pleasure of talking to several members of their camp and it’s really a very impressive operation. They are right on the Esplanade, meaning they’re right up front in the middle of everything. They are in the French Quarter, which is modeled after the French Quarter in New Orleans and one of the oldest neighborhoods in Black Rock City.
We’re going to start with a few words from Golden Rose, one of the lead bakers at the bakery.
I’m with Golden Rose of the Black Rock Bakery. You came all the way from Brooklyn.
GOLDEN ROSE: All the way, 37 hours.
MAT: So why did you come all the way out to Burning Man to work making pastries?
GOLDEN ROSE: People think of Burning Man as this huge party, like you just go out and get fucked up in the desert and that’s the outside view of it. But once you’re here, you get a little more engaged on what actually has to happen in order for any of this to happen. Literally nothing is here beforehand. So someone is responsible for building all the structures. Bringing all the water, all the foods. None of this work would happen if people didn’t truly love the community to make it happen.
MAT: What do you think your biggest challenge is going to be out here?
GOLDEN ROSE: Biggest challenge is proofing dough at 110 degrees.
MAT: Okay. So remember that biggest challenge because that comes up another time later. So now I talked to Justin who is the lead pastry chef at Black Rock Bakery. Take a listen.
MAT: Well, how’s it going so far?
JUSTIN: I don’t know how to answer that question. What’s it like to open a bakery in the middle of the desert and have it work? I don’t, that’s the feeling I’m having right now. It’s kinda like a panda trying to drive a race car, and it’s really confused about what’s going on, but it’s doing it pretty well. So it’s like, oh, I’m really excited. That’s my life right now.
MAT: Any big snafus so far?
JUSTIN: No, of course not. How dare… I ate all of my snafus. There are no mistakes in the kitchen if you can eat them.
MAT: I’ll agree with that. What was on the menu today?
JUSTIN: So today we had black sesame, twice baked croissants with mushroom-truffle biscuits. Yesterday we had matcha financiers, with yuzu mousse piped on top and cheesy cornbread muffins. What is the most outrageous thing we could do this year? Let’s do that. And next year let’s do something even more outrageous.
MAT: So how old is the bakery?
JUSTIN: The bakery’s about 10 years old; I took over as pastry chef about two years ago. About three years ago and before, people would pay us to make cake for them, and we really decided to decommodify the bakery. So every morning we have people coming in, baking their own cakes. We think that you are a participant, not a consumer. You are a participant of Black Rock City, and baking your own cake is part of that. At the same time, when we gift our baked goods later in the afternoon, that is also a participant thing. We want people to do something. We want them to participate. So if you go into our front room, the thing you’re going to see is a bunch of stickers on the wall. And we said, hey, if you’re going to get a baked good from us, the very least we want you to do is answer a meaningful question from us. People have written the most amazing, nostalgic, sad, anxious stories on that board. It is a cathedral of human emotion, and I absolutely adore that.
MAT: Yeah. We were out there talking to the folks in line and we saw people laughing, crying, certainly enjoying their pastries, but it was more than just standing at a pastry shop, waiting in line.
JUSTIN: You know, one of my favorite articles, it says something like by opening up a small-town bakery, I got to know people I would never get to know otherwise. And I really feel like that’s true for Black Rock City Bakery. This is a small town, we’re 70,000 people and opening up a bakery, opening up this small space where we get to really do something special, I think that really gave me an insight into other people here.
MAT: Do you think that this is a total shock to people who do not know that you exist? Ones that are just passing by and just hopping into line?
JUSTIN: Well, that’s the magic of it, right? This is part of why we debated for so long if we want to publish our menu online or not. It’s well, we want to be magical, we want to be a surprise. At the same time, we want people to actually eat this food. So it’s like finding that balance, but the most wonderful, magical moments happen when people are like, “Wait, you just made a twice baked croissant in the middle of the desert? Are you a crazy person?” And I’m like, “Yes, I am.”
I traveled with five black truffles in my bag wrapped up. And I was like driving to Black Rock City with that is not the best idea anyone’s ever had. But it’s those little moments where we get to share that with people, do a little theatrics, have a little participation. That’s what it’s really all about for us.
MAT: How many pastries do you think you will make over the course of the week?
JUSTIN: Every day we make about a thousand pastries; 500 savory, 500 desserts. So by the end of the week, we’ll make 5,000 pastries. Last year we were at about 750 a day. Now we’re at a thousand a day. So you can see the assembly line here behind you is part of that. Everyone really knows what they’re doing, everyone came here to get a free cooking class from a pastry shop, and I really appreciate everyone stepping up and doing what they need to do. We are also part of, about, I want to say, 50 weddings and birthdays, they’ve booked to come in and bake their cakes, and we’re probably going to be more than that number.
MAT: Well, this setup is insane. It’s definitely one of the most useful and professional setups that I’ve seen on the playa.
JUSTIN: I really appreciate that. Yeah. So we have four refrigerators, we have seven prep tables. We trucked in 1500 pounds of dry ingredients, 800 pounds of wet ingredients. We have three ovens converted to run on propane, which by the way, you don’t want to know what it’s like to convert from gas to propane. Uh, we have a three-part sink. We have amenities you would expect in a modern kitchen. I would run an actual bakery like this, if I could. This bakery really changed my life in a positive way. It made me break out of my narratives.
MAT: You’re getting back some of that magic that you’re giving out to other people.
JUSTIN: Tell me more about that magic. I’m sitting here in this kitchen and I’m like, sometimes I go peek out the line. I don’t know. What’s inside people’s hearts when they eat a twice-baked croissant or a matcha financier with yuzu mousse and tablet in the middle of the desert? I don’t know. This to me is normal. This to me is saying “We’re adults. We get to decide that this is like ‘The Normal’.”
MAT: I can’t imagine that when Burning Man started on Baker Beach in San Francisco, many years ago, they were thinking about matcha financiers in the Black Rock Desert. So it’s really – the evolution is insane.
JUSTIN: I mean, that’s under ambitious, right? Like right now, all you can see is the matcha financier with yuzu mousse. And you’re like, “That’s crazy, that’s way over the top.” Next year is going to be even way more of a double. Every year we want to be just that tiny bit more crazy than we were last year and we could do it. We have an amazing leadership team. Every single volunteer and every single camper are amazing in this kitchen. They’re all working their asses off. And next year we might do frozen desserts on playa. We might decide to do plated desserts. I don’t know. I’m a crazy person. We’ll see what’s on the menu for next year.
MAT: Well Chef, thank you so much for taking the time.
JUSTIN: Of course, Mat, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
MAT: So one day I walked around Center Camp, which is the main camp in the middle of Burning Man, as it sounds, and I asked a lot of people, their favorite food memories and food experiences for that Burning Man or previous Burning Mans. I got some really great answers.Take a listen.
Any favorite foods so far?
GIRL: Oh fuck yes. I’ve been on a food tour. So, The Dumpling Trap…
MAT: Where the hell is ?
GIRL: …dumplings. I think it’s like 7:30 and something. Mmmm.
MAT: Did you, did you know about it or you just stumbled upon it?
GIRL: Um, a girl was yelling Dumplings! And I said “Fuck yes.” It’s called The Dumpling Trap. It is a trap, because they make you sit down and talk to strangers! But then you get to eat delicious dumplings and drink tea, so it’s amazing.
MAT: You guys are eating great out here.
WOMAN: Yeah we are! If there’s one thing we can control: delicious food.
MAT: You know what? I’ll agree. I’ll say an amen to that.
ALL: A-men! (laughter)
WOMAN: Because here’s the thing: it’s dusty, it’s dirty, you can’t shower, your nose hurts. Eat something good and warm and fills your belly, and you can control that.
MAT: Can I ask you a question? (Yes.) Food you’ve eaten at Burning Man so far, or food memory?
MAN: We went out to Robot Heart last night and we gave away 300 hot dogs that we had made; and they were all pre-made nice, warm hot dog. And then we had condiments on the pedicab. I have a rickshaw with the rickshaw trailer, and so we had all of the coolers full of the hot dogs with the blanket insulation on ‘em, and then all the condiments, and they were very shocked and surprised to get a snack in the middle of the night or early sunrise, rather. One girl fell to her knees and looked up at the sky and clenched her hands together and was like, “Thank God. Oh my God, I can’t believe this is real.”
MAT: I talked to one person who said that they were in the middle of nowhere and got a hot dog, and it was the best memory of Burning Man so far. It could have been one of your hotdogs.
MAN: It could have been us.
MAT: It could have been you.
MAN: It very well could have been.
MAT: So, well, thank you for doing that.
MAT: Can I ask you two a quick question? Favorite Burning Man food memory or food that you’ve eaten so far?
WOMAN: Probably at the French Quarter, years ago, when we had that stew.
MAN: It was really, really good. And they asked us to do a trick for it. And so I proposed.
MAT: Oh my God.
MAN: And here we are.
MAT: I would say that’s a damn good food memory.
MAT: Best food or food memory from Burning Man so far?
WOMAN: So there was a camp called BaoChickaWowWow…
MAT: So that was unprompted and unscripted, but it does lead me into my next interview with camp BaoChickaWowWow.
MAN: We still have to get Department of Health permits and all that stuff. We’re technically, I think, a licensed restaurant in the state of Nevada right now.
MAT: I’m here with Stephanie Hua. She is one of the original founders of BaoChickaWowWow camp at Burning Man. So thank you for doing that.
STEPHANIE: Food is a gift, is a thing that my life has revolved around. And so it made a lot of sense, as my husband and I were thinking, you know what would we want out there, right? At four in the morning, deep playa, and for us the perfect food, it would be bao. So my husband and I are both Chinese and char siu, bao steamed pork buns, we were like, this is like the perfect meal for out there. You know, it’s hot, it’s sustaining, you can steam them, it’s portable…
MAT: Portable. Self-contained.
STEPHANIE: … self-contained, yeah. It’s like sweet salty.., so, so for let’s figure out a way to do that. And so it really… BaoChickaWowWow, our camp, was born from this idea of gifting steamed buns.
MAT: And from what I understand last year, you gifted out 7,000 bao. Wow. And they’re made here in San Francisco.
STEPHANIE: They are, they’re made here in San Francisco. It’s a little mom and pop shop in Chinatown. That’s down the street from where I live.
MAT: So how did that relationship come about? Number one, and number two, do they know exactly where the bao is going?
STEPHANIE: I’m pretty sure they have no idea what’s going on.
MAT: It’s like a caterer and it’s like a party?…How’d you find them?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, they’re really good sports about it. Yeah. So we’ve actually been to them for years. We live right kind of on the cusp of North Beach and Chinatown and just, they’re great. You know, we, they’re our neighborhood little dim sum shop. And so we were thinking, cause there was no way I was going to make thousands of these myself…
MAT: Well, I mean, you’d need, you’d need a commercial operation to make that happen; it’s not like you’re doing all that on your, on your, on your electric stove at home.
STEPHANIE: Exactly, so we thought of them immediately and kind of just the first year, I think it was a couple thousand and then, slowly but surely, it’s ramped up to like 5,000, 7,000. Um, and we just roll up with tons of coolers, like the week prior, and we give them notice, so they start making them and they freeze them all for us. So we bring them up frozen and we pack them in dry ice, and then they get steamed.
MAT: That’s a lot of coolers.
STEPHANIE: It’s a lot of coolers. I think we’re thinking of graduating to like a refrigerated truck next year.
MAT: Yeah. You would almost have to because you guys want to do 10,000 next year.
STEPHANIE: Yeah. I think the goal, the camp goal is to get to 10% of Burning Man.
MAT: Wow. Man. That’s crazy. That is crazy. So what are some stories that you remember from gifting these bao?
STEPHANIE: Oh, I mean, one of our favorite, I think, memories, was we brought the mobile a couple of years ago and brought them out to, do you remember the Embrace? It was a sunrise Burn. So we brought a bunch of bao out for that Burn and it was the best breakfast ever. This year we did a Bao-bassador program. So we’ve been mobile. So now you have bao gifted on demand, right? So we brought him out to about 20, 22 different camps this year and just delivered. And it’s always… The delivery aspect I think is just so delightful. Because you’re not expecting it. It’s not like you’re going somewhere waiting, waiting in line for something, right?
It’s just, it’s this kind of delightful surprise. It’s the joy of gifting. Our camp is about 100, almost 150 people now, right? And one of the prerequisites of joining our camp is, like, you have to do bao service. And it’s the best part, you know? Bao service is the best part.
We did, this past year, brunch bao. So every day at noon and then every day at midnight. And those are the times when I think people, they need it. First of all, they need it. And then second of all, it’s just, it’s like just a great party time.
So, this year is the first year we did a night market, which was really exciting. And so Wednesday night we brought together about a dozen other food camps in the area – we’re located at 3:00 and D this year – and so it was the three o’clock sector. And it was just so much fun. It was all these other camps, bringing whatever food gift they were bringing to the playa. And we had a night market, a full on night market. And it was just super fun.
MAT: And when you go out there and are gifting out 7,000 bao, it’s a good amount of your time. So you’re not exploring…
STEPHANIE: So it’s fun to have them to kind of come to you. I mean, you gather everyone together. I mean, yeah, it’s really great. It’s just a whole different kind of community that has started to build around this, this concept.
MAT: It’s just, it’s honestly, it’s amazing to me how much work people are doing out there just based on the fact that they’re receiving a smile from somebody else. You know, it’s magical. You’ve been doing a lot in the culinary world. Not everyone at Burning Man who’s doing these really crazy culinary gifts and culinary art has a food background, but you do. So I want to highlight that.
So you were a food writer. You had a blog called Lick My Spoon. You went to San Francisco Cooking School, and then you and your husband went down the cannabis route. You have a marshmallow company now called Mellows, making marshmallows.
Also the recent author of Edible: Small Bites for the Modern Cannabis Kitchen. If you want to shout out to Stephanie, you can find her on Instagram @getmellows, G E T M E L L O W S. Thank you again. I cannot wait until next year to try the bao.
STEPHANIE: Oh, thank you so much.
MAT: My next interview is with Feed the Artists, a very organized group of chefs and amazing people who are feeding a lot of the artists during build week. Build week is the week prior to the opening of Burning Man, where as you guessed, everything is being built. And I was introduced to the camp by Murray and Gemma, a really great couple who are caterers in the Bay Area and they hosted this crazy dinner in the middle of the desert for, there must’ve been at least a hundred people there. Murray who’s a really talented chef, made a giant paella, actually two giant paellas and I stood with him while he served his guests in the line. And Gemma, his wife and amazing host, set a giant table with cutlery and plates and candles, and it was really just something so amazing to see out in the middle of nowhere.
MAT: I’ve never seen something this elaborate in the dust.
MURRAY: Oh, it’s not that bad.
MAT: I liked the blue tucked shirt better than the chef coat for tonight.
MURRAY: Well, I mean, it goes with the kilt., and my pretty blue eyes.
MAN: Murray is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s the most loving, caring. He gives everything through food here. Such a beautiful person.
WOMAN: Murray and Gemma are the best. I don’t know how they do it.
MAT: How was it?
MAN: So good. I came back for a seconds and said, how can you not? Oh my God, there’s so much food Murray. Oh my God. Thank you. Take back the chicken. Thank you. I’m going to crush this. I love it.
MAT: This is Durian he’s one of the camp leads for Feed the Artists. He’s going to talk a little bit about what they do.
DURIAN: So feed the artists has been, uh, on the playa for, I think, 12 to 14 years and we really got started, uh, for the very simple purpose that we saw the artists struggling to get their art done before the gates opened. And often they’re working 12, 18 hours straight. They don’t have time to eat, and they get completely burnt out. So we started making meals as a gift, as an art form, and then driving it out to the playa. Today, I’m making a whole Indonesian Rijsttafel, and when you’re cooking together, it’s the great equalizer. We’re cooking in the desert for artists. And it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone is just here to serve that purpose.
And it’s a great, it’s a great binder.
MAT: And now let’s hear from Daniel, another camp lead.
DANIEL: We probably serve total burn week, probably about maybe 2000 artists’ meals out there. Uh, so you know, that’s a lot, and our kitchen faces the playa, so our chefs and our volunteers can look out over a magnificent scape. This kitchen, you will never find on planet earth, that you, with this view, I don’t care if you’re on top of some skyscraper, but this is the most amazing kitchen view of all…
MAT: And because this is, this is audio. You have to describe it to people.
DANIEL: Well, we are on a prehistoric lake bed that is about. 20 to 30 miles wide by 95 miles long. It’s called the Black Rock playa and it’s ringed by about five or six mountain ranges. And you can see, um, things actually disappear, because of the curvature of the earth. So the only place that happens is probably on the ocean and maybe in Salt Lake. You feel small and you, you feel your place on planet earth.
What we do is not only feed artists, but we build a platform for really intimate personal connections when we’re cooking the food, when we’re bringing artists in. It’s very strong here. And we permeate that out to the artists. The love floats around the food, it floats around us and, that’s big. That’s big.
We introduce ourselves, we ask the artist to come out to the truck to feed, and we say to the artist, “We want to know about your art”. So you need to tell us about it. It isn’t just, here’s your food and we’re going to go, bye. So, very connected. All of us come around. They describe the art for us. They walk around the art, they take their half hour, 40 minutes of eating and talking about it. It makes them feel really wonderful. And then we just evaporate.
MAT: So I got to ride out with the Feed the Artists crew a few nights before Burning Man opened. It was a nightly run of feeding artists who were building installations, and we came upon an artist who was building a gas station, a full sized gas station, deep out in the desert called Awful’s Gas and Snack. And the artist Mathew really got into it. Take a listen.
MAT: All right. So we are on the Feed the Artists vehicle going out onto the open playa to feed some of the artists. This is an open top truck and there’s food on the bottom. And we’re going out for an experience here.
Tell me your name?
FRANK: My name’s Frank Runderson.
FRANK: Hi, Frank. Tell me about what you have going on here.
FRANK: Well, I built this nice little tourist stop gas station along the old highway for everybody who wants a taste of the good old days, you know? And, uh, all these hippies just showed up. I don’t know where y’all came from, I’m sure. It’s nice to see you.
MAT: So what was your inspiration?
FRANK: It’s inspired by my grandfather’s generation. He was one of the last long haul truckers in America. One of the, he kept that cab in his driveway till the day that he died. They had to pry the keys out of his cold dead hands, and he told me all these stories about the open road and the fellowship of the long haul trucker and all those things that we lost with the end of the age of fossil fuels, and I just want the kids to remember!
MAT: Well, I think this is definitely homage to him and you’re going to light it on fire.
FRANK: Excuse me. Any rumors about… listen, I had an insurance policy on this building for 10 years. And any changes to that insurance policy were entirely documented by my lawyer Chip Gypsum. And I won’t hear any other vicious rumors. Thank you.
MAT: So as with many of the art installations at Burning Man, yes, it actually was burned, and Frank, you did a great job. Thank you very much.
MAT: So now we move on to meet a really crazy group of Burners out of Canada called Midnight Poutine. They are somewhat infamous. And if you haven’t had poutine, then now is your chance. Come check it out.
I’m here with Sarah of Midnight Poutine.
MAT: Tell everybody what’s going on.
SARAH: Okay. So we’ve been going to Burning Man for about 10 years, and we are a Canadian camp, and we serve poutine every day at Midnight. So poutine is a Quebecois dish, and it’s a french fries, cheese curds and gravy sauce.
MAT: So how many do you think you will give out tonight?
SARAH: Uh, about four hundreds.
MAT: That’s a lot.
SARAH: That’s a lot. We serve about 2000 poutines per year.
MAT: That’s amazing. And it’s quite the scene. I mean, there’s tons of people here. There’s music, your, your crew is dancing.
SARAH: And why not? That sound that you could hear was the chainsaw margarita guys were serving margaritas in the line too.
MAT: Chainsaw margarita?
SARAH: Yes, and so they put a blender incorporated to the chainsaw and it just blend it and then serve it to you, and it’s fucking awesome.
MAT: That’s amazing. Okay. So now walk everybody through what’s going on here in the line.
SARAH: Okay. So Charles has the most important role. He is our master fryer, so he’s very busy right now.
MAT: He has one, two, three, four, five, six, six fryer baskets.
SARAH: Six fryer baskets. Exactly. And then we have one person on the basket, so he puts fries in the basket, one person for the cheese and the bacon, one person for the sauce and one person who’s cooking the sauce. And then we have people in the line to tell me what’s going on, like how many people are waiting, when do we need to cut the line, et cetera. And then we have one person for the beers and the entertainment.
MAT: That’s a lot of work. It’s tiring.
SARAH: It’s extremely intense, but we love it. And it’s really rewarding because people just love it. Sometimes it looks like we’re giving them like heaven. So it’s a super nice feeling.
MAT: Thank you. Midnight Poutine camp. That was a lot of fun. That poutine also really was delicious. So now we’re about to talk to Michael Brown from Dust City Diner. Dust City Diner is almost like a desert mirage, and that will make sense as you listen to
Michael. Here we go.
I’m here with Michael Brown with Dust City Diner diner.
MICHAEL BROWN: Hi, how are you?
MAT: Tell me a little bit about Dust City Diner.
MICHAEL BROWN: So the Dust City Diner was created in 2008 and the theme that year was the American Dream. And so we thought what’s more perfect besides a diner out in the middle of nowhere? So we built this 1940s style diner. We roll it out to a different place every night so you really don’t know where to find it. We serve grilled cheese sandwiches with a pickle, and beautiful coffee urn that we make our coffee with. And our goal is always to create an oasis in the middle of nowhere, just like any diner you would find as you’re headed down the highway. So that’s kind of the baseline then, because we started it so long ago, it’s evolved over the years. And so now what happens is we come out a whole week early, as we would like to serve the crews building the big art projects, and we get a chance to do that.
And then when the week actually starts, we gift the diner to different camps and allow them to imagine they just purchased a 1950s diner and they can do whatever they want. So we’ve had everything from a sushi restaurant – the sushi restaurant was one of my favorites because they took a toy train and mounted sushi boats on the toy train, and it moved around the counter with the fish on it.
MAT: That’s amazing.
MICHAEL BROWN: It’s a funky art piece we made many years ago. So it’s got its own little funk. So one of us is always with it and we’ll drive it out. We’ll set it up for them. And then they are just responsible for the menu. We help fundraise with them so that we can help pay for the food that they’re going to be serving. But the idea is it’s a gift to the citizens of Black Rock City.
MAT: And so what are some good memories of years past?
MICHAEL BROWN: The crazy thing is, if you talk to anybody who’s ever sat on the Dust City Diner, or if I do, anytime I run into anybody out here and they go, “Oh my God, you’re from the Dust City Diner Diner! There was this one time…” and everybody has this story about where, they were out in the middle, they were exhausted, they were tired, and all of a sudden they rolled up and we served them a grilled cheese sandwich, a pickle, a lot of sass, you know, and we’ll spike their coffee if it needs it. The whole idea is – yeah, well, when it needs it – and it really is just this – it’s a place, you know, it’s a feeling, it’s a, it’s an environment.
They sit down next to somebody. One of my favorite stories was two people came from two different directions. They literally and walked up, sat on the bar next to each other. And one of them said to the other one, “What are you hauling?” And the other guy said,”Pork and bolts. What are you hauling?” And they started this conversation of the two of them as truckers. Like, they just assumed this personality for the whole time until they left. Like that was it. They assumed a role.
We all assume a role. We all wear beehives. We have our little aprons and we just are there to have a really good time and just sort of inspire that particular time. The music we play is generally all from the forties, fifties, some stuff from the sixties, but it’s that, you know, we use ceramic plates and dishes. We have a dishwashing station, you hear the clanking, there’s this whole general feeling of this place.
MAT: That it’s real.
MICHAEL BROWN: It’s real. Yeah. And surreal.
MAT: So, why food? You could gift other things, and why a diner?
MICHAEL BROWN: Why not? Food is – it’s your grandmother, it’s your mother. It’s just the soul. Well, it’s that what happens is you’ve got these, the ones who’ve been up all night partying, and they’re sitting there next to the people who, who are early risers, the elderly couple that comes in. So it’s like, that’s what you see. Interesting. Except they’re sitting next to each other. So they’re talking to each other and they’re all Burners. So they have that automatically, they’re completely comfortable talking to other people. So the conversations are rich and people laugh and it’s just, it’s just a magical place.
MAT: And it’s not like you’re at a loss of things to talk about out here.
MICHAEL BROWN: And people don’t really ask, like what you do for a living. They’re asking about your burn. They’re asking about your experiences.
MAT: So, explain that.
MICHAEL BROWN: Out of here, people, it’s kind of, I wouldn’t say they let go of what’s happening out in the default world. But what they do do is they are present here. And what they do out here is generally a creative endeavor. They’ve brought a gift. It’s all about gifting out here and I’ll talk to people who’ve never been here before and they go, “Oh, it’s a place where you barter with people.” And it’s like, “No, you don’t barter. You never expect anything in return. You’re always there to give a gift to somebody.” I mean, the gift can be as simple as riding your bicycle down the street and smiling at somebody.
What I hope is that, and I try to encourage people out here, it’s like, when you leave, you go back to wherever you’re from, continue that, give that gift, tell somebody their shoes look fabulous. You know, anything like that raises everybody’s spirits. It’s so simple to do. And we get so caught up in our, like our grind. And we’re not in the grind out here. We’re in the moment completely in the moment.
MAT: One of the most heartfelt things you can do for someone who’s cook for them, right. Is to take the time, cook them something and sit down and watch them enjoy it. So that is in essence what you’re doing, but in a mobile version here at Burning Man.
MICHAEL BROWN: Right. One of the fun things about building it was how do we make it, how do we make it so we can move it around and place it? Cause it’s going to be in one place all night. So we know that we can basically set it up so we can do that. We’re working off of propane and we’re working off all the water we carry out. The refrigeration is basically ice chests keeping everything cold. So all that kind of comes into this sort of the infrastructure of getting stuff out here. Then the magic really is just sort of like, okay, we’re there. We’re all going to be here. We’re going to cook you up something, we’re here. It really is about just being with other people and just sharing that, that time and being really present.
MAT: Yeah. And, in an environment where people sometimes forget to eat, or they’re too busy looking at all the art and meeting people to feed themselves. And so to have someone come up almost instinctively and just say, “Hey, you look hungry. Here’s something, here’s something delicious to eat.” Not just not, here’s like a granola bar. So I really commend you.
MICHAEL BROWN: Thank you.
MAT: Thank you for, for doing this out here. How many years has it been?
MICHAEL BROWN: Well, last year was the 10th birthday of the Dust City Diner.
MAT: Happy birthday.
MICHAEL BROWN: Thank you.
MAT: Thank you for Michael for talking with us.
MAT: Again, one of the hardest things you can do out there is bake. And I love talking to bakers because they are so meticulous and so many times anal, which is a good thing for baking, but it’s crazy to take such a controlled process and put it out into a place where there is little to no control. So let’s meet Walt from Lovin’ Oven and see how they make bread.
WALT: Bread has always been somewhat magical to me because when you think about some of the greatest breads from all over the world to have such few ingredients, I mean, think about it. Water and salt, yeast and flour, and look at the variety of breads that get made by just adjusting the kind of flour. Even the kind of salt for some people, where the yeast is from, whether you’re using natural yeast. We have to accommodate unusual conditions here, the very things as a baker that you would like to have control over, we have no control over here. When I bake, I want to know I have some control over temperature. The temperature of the room I’m building the dough in, the temperature of the proofing. All of these things have a huge effect. Um, the timing – I like long proofs where I can cool the dough way down in a refrigerator. Well, out here we don’t have any control over temperature. We don’t have any control over humidity. And by the way, we don’t have a lot of control over the people that do this every day.
It’s done in an organized way, but at the same time, it’s done in a playa way, and somebody forgets that they’re supposed to fold the dough before they go to sleep. Or somebody that was supposed to build the dough at five in the afternoon, oh, they get home from something and there it is 10:00 and they have to do it then. And you’d say, “Well,10:00, isn’t that plenty of time?” Well, because nobody here will get up early enough to make the dough, and then bake the same day, because everybody’s out so late, we have to build our dough hours and hours before the ideal time.
So one of our challenges is just to slow the whole process down. We use less yeast. We try to keep the dough boxes in the shade. At night when it’s cold we pull them out, anything to slow that down. But we’re dealing with often young people that are joyous and excited. This is a world of wonder out here and they need and have to go out and explore, and sometimes, well, we just deal with it.
MAT: So how many people do you think you serve? How much bread do you think you make during the course of Burning Man?
WALT: We baked a one-third test bake today, and now we’ve sent those breads out as gifts to camps. Tomorrow is our official opening. We begin serving bread around 10:30 and we serve until 2:00. When we finish our last bake, which will be on Sunday, we will have served 10,000 portions.
MAT: Wow. That’s amazing. I mean, coming out here and doing it on that scale out of your own heart and out of your own pocket is always amazing to me because it takes a lot of work.
WALT: One of the reasons for me, I joined this camp six years ago, it’s because there’s something symbolic about the desert and bread. In the Bible, for example, you hear about breaking bread. It was always the gift to the stranger and talking about symbolism. Bread shows up in cultures and religions everywhere. I mean, even the wafer, the body of Christ is unleavened bread.
The challah on Friday night for the Jews is tradition. In the arts a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and, and thou. If prisoners, you will live on nothing but bread and water, and you can go on and on and on. And the surprise that you see, the delight you see, in people in the desert out here, on the playa, being handed that little warm piece of bread where it’s least expected. It’s a gift for us more than them, but it’s a pretty wonderful, um, well, surprise to all who come to visit us.
MAT: Any special memories from over the years that you’ve been part of the camp?
WALT: I would say some of the special memories is, I love it here. I mean, I just love Burning Man, love the culture, love the people, love what it has taught me. But some of my strongest memories are the bad memories.
We have fought one oven after another. We started with literally a coal fed oven. And it was this long tube; you filled it with coal and you lit it. And it had this rack and you could get two baking trays in there, and the one that was way in the back, to reach in there, the number of burned forearms in our camp… scalded. And also that was just one disaster after another, and it was slow, we could never keep up with the crowd. So then we got gifted a high-tech oven. It was an old piece of shit and we could never get it to work; it was a deck oven. And so in a panic, they take my paella burners and they put those underneath the deck. They way overheated, and soot’s everywhere and the soot is going up into the air and then the winds come up here as they normally do, and it blows the soot back into the furnace and we get black dots all over our bread. Now, today for the very first time we cooked on our brand new Blodgett commercial convection oven, and this is a major investment for the camp and we can now bake 10 pans at a time. So we’re very excited about that. So this I hope will be a great memory.
MAT: And so do you have that oven hooked up to propane?
WALT: It’s a combination of electricity and propane. There’s quite a large motor that drives the convection fans,and propane for the heat.
MAT: And so the inaugural run did well?
WALT: It did well, uh, there are some adjustments I already want to make for tomorrow’s bake. We’re using a brand new flour this year. It’s a high gluten flour, it’s high protein also, for long fermentations. And I chose that because our fermentations are long here. We make the bread, the dough, the day before, and we don’t deal with it till the next day. So I’m hoping this will help us develop a better product. And for me, that’s part of the fun. Anybody that cooks or bakes part of the great pleasure is trying to, trying to figure out: how can I do this better? What can I do to make this just a little bit better?
MAT: Thank you so much for taking the time to, to share your story and your thoughts and what Lovin’ is and what it means to the playa, I really appreciate it.
WALT: Mat. It’s been a lot of fun.
MAT: As the final interview, we go to Camp Abstininthe. And this was another camp that when I was interviewing people around Center Camp, somebody said that I couldn’t miss. And by the time that I had found out about them, I was only there for one more day. And just as luck or playa magic had it, I managed to be in front of Camp Abstininthe. And I walked in, asked if they wanted to do an interview and it was the right time. So I ran back to my camp, got my equipment and headed back. This is a really great opportunity to learn about absinthe. Rob, one of the camp leads, really does a great job explaining absinthe and the process and how they flavor them. It’s just really super interesting to listen to. So I hope you enjoy it.
I’m here with Rob from Camp Abstininthe.
ROB: This camp, Camp Abstininthe, is made up of a bunch of absinthe enthusiasts. We all make our own absinthe, then every year, bring it here to the playa and give it as our gift. This bar is one of the oldest operating bars on the playa, it’s been in existence since 1998.
MAT: Tell me a little bit about absinthe for somebody who doesn’t…
ROB: Sure. Absinthe as a drink that dates back to around the 1800s or so it was popular in Europe. It has quite a history and lore to it. So a lot of people think that if you drink absinthe, that it has psychedelic properties and it would make you see the green fairy, or it was what made van Gogh cut his ear off. Turns out the chemical that’s in absinthe that people thought was responsible for this is called ‘thujone’. And when they studied thujone, they found that it actually is not psychoactive. And they think what was more likely the case was lead poisoning and high, high alcohol proof in the drink. So the combination of those two things was really responsible. Absinthe in the United States was not sellable for a really long time until about 10 years ago or so. In France, they had lobbied to get absinthe banned because it was competing with the wine industry, and that kind of took on a global phenomenon after that. So for the longest time, you could not get absinthe here. You could make it, but you could not sell it. So once that legislation passed, now you can again buy commercial absinthe here.
MAT: You all do how many different infused absinthes?
ROB: This year we have 46 on the menu. Traditionally absinthe is made with wormwood, fennel, and anise. And those three things would give you an absinthe block. If you take a second step, uh, what people call a coloration step, you can add things that have chlorophyll, which give it its characteristic, green color. So mint, basil, tarragon, things like that.
And on our menu, we certainly have a number of traditional absinthes, but from there, like everything these days, beer and wine and other spirits, we’ve really kind of diverged and started to get more creative. So on our menu, in addition to the traditional absinthe, we have a number of herbal absinthes where we use herbs that are not commonly found in absinthe; things like shiso or ginger, cinnamon, and other things like that. From there, we move on to spice, which is spice-full and not spice-y. And there we would add additional spices in, and get different flavor profiles. We move on from there to what we call picante, which is our hot absinthe. And we start with a relatively mild jalapeño infused absinthe and take that all the way up to the Carolina Reaper, which is currently the hottest pepper in the world. So I think we have the hottest absinthe in the world here at Camp Abstininthe. So a lot of fun.
From there, we move on to our fruity absinthes, and in these, the anise is usually backed off because it’s not necessarily a compatible flavor with the other things that we’re doing. So we have absinthe that’s infused with plums, we have absinthe that’s infused with strawberries and figs and a lot of other flavors. And these are hugely, hugely popular. You’ll never find them in a commercial absinthe, it’s something you can only get here at Burning Man. We have a couple of coffee and tea flavored absinthes.
Then we move on to our dessert flavors, including cookie dough.
Absinthe has a really high proof alcohol; most absinthes are between 120 and 150 proof. We don’t want to serve something that’s strong, and traditionally people didn’t serve it that strong. So what we do is we have a special spoon that has slots in it that sits over top of the glass. We set a sugar cube on there, and the sugar was traditionally used to cut the bitterness of the wormwood. But as the distillation process got better, there’s less of that bitterness in modern absinthe, but the sugar cube is still held over.
We use it with most of our absinthes here, and we’ll drip cold water onto that sugar cube until it dissolves into the drink, and that does two things: one, it sweetens it, and two, it lowers the proo. And with a traditional absinthe, as you lower the proof, eventually the oils in the anise and the fennel will drop out of solution and the absinthe will go cloudy. And that phenomenon is called the louche. And that is a characteristic of a decent absinthe.
You’ll also see that same thing happen if you were to drink Ouzo or to drink Pernod, when you add water to them, they go cloudy.
MAT: Wow. Thank you for that very in depth description, that’s very thorough.
MAT: And it was very thorough. I hope you learned a few things today and I really hope you enjoyed this episode of Food, Wine & the Culinary Mind. It was a really fun episode for me to record out there at Burning Man. I want to thank everybody who participated and helped with this project. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to Food, Wine & the Culinary Mind. Find us on all things social @culinarymindcast and on the web: canelasf.com/podcast. Don’t forget to rate us where you found us.
ANDIE: Our big thanks to Mat and his crew for exploring Black Rock City and living to tell the tales and sharing their podcast with us so we could share it with you. Thanks everybody. That’s our show for today.
We’ll be back next week. And every week after with more of our regular shows. Remember to follow us, like us, review us, and subscribe. Our website is live.burningman.org. And you can find us as Burning Man Live on….
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ANDIE: Should I just say it’s social media? So we’re not saying the brand names.
VAV: Yeah, I think you’re right. Since we have the three main ones. Yeah. You know, on social media or the socials or yeah, on the “sosh meeds” but I think that’s…
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VAV: This show has been a production of the Philosophical Center of Burning Man project. Our executive producer is Darryl Van Rhey. Our host is usually Stuart Mangrum. Our producers are Andie Grace and Logan Mirto, and our technical producer and story editor is Michael Vav. We’d like to thank our favorite omnipresent machine architects, Devin from the Internet, Tanner Boeger and Jay Kanizzle. We’d like to thank our correspondents: You! Send your show, ideas, letters, suggestions, comments, fan mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And your donations are always appreciated at donate.burningman.org.