On any given Sunday, receiving an invite to a “secret supper” in a foreclosed Victorian home somewhere in Oakland would usually elicit a raised eyebrow about the event’s authenticity. The city, after all, has received its fair share of bad press over the past year, leaving one more cautious than usual about entering parts of the city at night.
But this past Sunday, the last day of February, was different. We were joining a bunch of strangers in an unknown house to be fed by a chef on his day off. Organized by Canvas Underground, the proceeds from the dinner would benefit Agrariana, a non-profit dedicated to creating a “truly sustainable food system” through programs like the Food and Farming Film Festival, workshops on sauerkraut- and leather-making and working tours of local farms. It was our initiation into the Bay Area’s “underground dining” scene, and apart from the menu and instructions to bring our choice of wine, we didn’t know what to expect.
Which, as it turns out, was the most appropriate mindset. Serendipity is the name of the game – from the people you’ll meet to the food on your table and your appreciation of hitherto unknown local bands. The fewer preconceptions you arrive with, the better, because there’s nothing worse than having a “Know-It-All” for dining companions when the true essence of this experience is all about the conversations you’ll have for that evening.
Arriving promptly at six, we were greeted by the street’s gritty welcoming party: a racuous bunch of German Shepherds barking a little too enthusiastically as we walked down the block.
After catching a glimpse of the Victorian façade that would be our address for the evening, we were directed towards an inconspicuous path through grass and old wooden boards to the backyard where a modest crowd had gathered and consumed the better half of Slow Jams‘ shockingly delicious Meyer Lemon Curd. Made from “urban foraged” lemons, i.e., from one of the many lemon trees in Oakland, this curd doesn’t just walk, but struts the fine line between sweet and sour true to its savvy, urban roots. Fortunately, their Honey Cinnamon Persimmon Butter was equally lip-smacking, providing us with an adequate supply of sweet nibbles before the main event.
Driven by Shakirah and Martha, this entrepreneurial pair produces seasonal preserves made from locally-sourced ingredients. Just three months old, Slow Jams is already making waves in the Bay Area’s artisan scene, selling out at the San Francisco Underground Farmers’ Market last December and partnering with La Cocina to bring their jams to San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. After Sunday’s tasting, I can’t wait for them to open a stall at our Farmers’ Market soon enough!
The overgrown backyard with its cherry tree in bloom, provided a rustic backdrop for musical duo The Sweet Trade as we sipped our Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, finding mutual connections or making new ones. Despite its casual disguise, this is an important part of the program given the ‘free for all’ seating mantra for the main dinner – this is where you’ll get to know potential dining companions and hopefully establish a rapport that would only solidify the rest of the evening. We were fortunate to connect with S, world traveler and regular at Canvas Underground dinners, and promptly settled in a cosy corner of the main dining room, securing a good vantage point to observe the proceedings of the evening.
Before dinner kicked off, Vera and David, our hosts for the evening, briefed us on the two (and only) rules of the night: Giving Thanks for the people who grew, prepared and brought the food to our table, and to Hold On To Our Forks, because they were the only ones we would have the entire dinner.
We began with a Shaved Asparagus salad served with Lacto-Fermented Golden Beets, mixed greens and a Saffron-Honey vinaigrette which was followed by a Green Garlic Soup with Yogurt and Vegetable Shards that, by all accounts, was the winner for me. Yes, there was still a meltingly tender seven-hour Braised Pork Shoulder to come and a Ginger Sponge Cake with Citrus Gratin and Vanilla Sabayon that would silence our table, but the soup hit all the right spots. Light and comforting, yet subtly spicy and sweet, I was tempted to risk an Oliver Twist moment by asking for more. Fortunately, Chef Peter Jackson was kind enough to share the list of ingredients which I’ve scribbled down and plan on replicating in my home kitchen pretty soon.
Dinner entertainment came in the form of Oakland band Vagabondage with their foot-stomping, head-nodding, glass-lifting songs. While no one actually got up to stomp around with them, Cindy Emchy and John Flaw’s effusive enthusiasm coupled with their accordion and guitar notes were infectious enough to make us raise our glasses, Throw The Goat and join in the musical fun.
Happily fed, entertained and socialized, we left with smiles plastered over our faces at the respectable time of 9:30 pm. Who wouldn’t, after an evening of honest food prepared for a worthy cause, shared over excellent conversation and entertainment? In this age of manufactured experiences and contrived environments all geared towards making one “happy”, authenticity in any shape or form is hard to come by, so when you get your chance to immerse yourself in it, you grab it.
Just remember to leave your preconceptions at the door and hold on to your forks.
Full disclosure: This dinner was at my own expense.