Food Matters: The Gift of Food in Black Rock City and Beyond
September 14, 2017
WONDER AND DELIGHT: These emotions best sum up my first few moments in Aspen, on Sept. 10, 2011. I cruised into town via Independence Pass beneath a brilliant bluebird sky just in time, to my surprise, for the first annual Aspen Mac and Cheese Festival. Crowds on Restaurant Row were blissfully munching from tiny tasting cups of ooey, gooey, savory noodles from some 16 competing eateries. I recall weaving through the block full of grinning attendees to witness volunteers in bright yellow aprons passing out sporks and a guy in a Velveeta-colored top hat corralling judges. Best of all, the event was free.
That my introduction to our mountain paradise happened alongside a favorite snack — offered as a gift to the community by City of Aspen Parks and Recreation supervisor and passionate turophile Keith Bulicz, dude in the cheesy headpiece —enchants me to this day. Yet in five-and-a-half years living here I'm reminded regularly that Aspen always seems to give us what we need.
Despite collective bellyaching about overpriced essentials and absurd luxuries, Aspen celebrates gifting in many ways, from Soupsköl and Bud Light Hi-Fi free concerts to the Snowmass summer music series, Benedict Music Tent lawn at the Aspen Music Festival and School, Belly Up offseason shows sans cover, complimentary Wednesday parking at Highlands, hot chocolate gratis at the gondola, compost buckets from City Hall, even Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus rides. Our freebies are first-rate.
Gifting is one of the guiding standards behind another remote oasis that has captured my heart: Black Rock City. The "conscious community" nearly 70,000 strong springs up in the northern Nevada desert for one week every summer to host the world-renowned Burning Man festival, now 30-plus years old. A spectacular, mystical swirl of art, music, creativity, friendship and love, Burning Man — this year held Aug. 27 to Sept. 4 — is a utopian, off-grid wonderland where money is useless (except to purchase ice). Instead, attendees arrive armed with offerings —booze and food, especially.
WHILE SWELTERING HEAT, HARSH NATURAL ELEMENTS, AND COPIOUS MIND-ALTERING SUBSTANCES MAY RENDER APPETITES NONEXISTENT, EATING IS ESSENTIAL TO SURVIVAL AT BURNING MAN. INDEED, “THE BLACK ROCK DESERT IS TRYING ITS BEST TO KILL YOU.
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While many fans might claim that a combination of sweltering heat, harsh natural elements and copious mind-altering substances (also heavily gifted and/or stumbled upon, quite literally) render appetites nonexistent, eating is essential to survival. The Burning Man website ain't joking when it cautions, "The Black Rock Desert is trying its best to kill you. Radical self-reliance is one of Burning Man's core principles, and it is YOUR responsibility to see to it that it doesn't succeed." Black Rock City's freewheeling tribe of imaginative maniacs counts on each member to make it through the week together.
This year conditions were plain brutal: veteran Burners I spoke to agreed unanimously that 2017 was the hottest they'd seen. Daytime temperatures easily exceeded 100 degrees; nighttime offered little solace, repeatedly cooling to no further than 65 or 70 degrees. The leggings, suits, furs and fuzzy garments we packed in anticipation of chilly desert evenings sat untouched for the week. Scorching heat and lack of humidity mean that ample sustenance and hydration are crucial to minimize suffering and maximize enjoyment.
On top of this, Burning Man is unlike any other festival in that it presents a legit physical challenge, too. Black Rock City's footprint is mind-bogglingly massive: approximately 7 square miles, about the size of mainland San Francisco (Aspen, by comparison, spans 3.88 square miles). A bicycle is mandatory to navigate even a fraction of the funky metropolis.
So, in addition to playing around and partying faces off day and night, you're pedaling constantly. This adds up to miles upon miles daily, often amid epic clay-dust storms, cycling to visit a constellation of far-flung outdoor art installations scattered across the playa.
One needs stamina to explore this vast expanse, perhaps to observe an early-morning laser-and-bass showdown between two DJs on gargantuan robots, surrounded by herds of quirky art cars (think: sculptures on wheels) thumping beats and spitting flames into the inky sky. One needs strength to climb atop a four-story scaffolding and glimpse a panoramic view of the dazzling, fluorescent-lit nirvana at night through a pair of special 3-D glasses that turn every twinkling light into a floating heart. One needs energy to search for friends who will likely never be found, to hula hoop, throw knives, bounce on trampolines, roller skate in figure eights, swing from trapezes, crawl up the Tree of Life, bike joust, bunny march, spank strangers, or sashay wearing crow wings atop an RV in farewell to the setting sun. And one certainly needs endurance to brave the Twerkshop, Turkish Oil Wrestling, or famed Orgy Dome (never found it, better luck next year).
Just as throughout human history, sharing food and drink at Burning Man cuts a fast path toward camaraderie. Communal effort and participation being other key tenets, theme camps abound, serving bites including grilled cheese, crêpes, cereal, Bundt cake, bánh mì and bubble tea, blintzes, waffles and falafel. We found fresh fruit on a platter, bacon-fat popcorn by a bar, pistachios passed by a fellow nomad, and Holy Grail-level sno cones by chance. There's Taco Tuesday, Bacon Brigade Wednesday, Hip Hop and Hotdogs on Thursday, Frito Pie Friday. A Lemonade Disco existed, as well as a camp that churned out thin-crust pies from a half-dozen Breville Crispy Crust Pizza Makers.
Meanwhile, back at camp with Aspen friends old and new, we made many treats: breakfast burritos chased with spicy bloody marys; peanut butter, banana, and strawberry jam sandwiches; buttery brioche Croque Madame. We toasted to Nevada's nascent recreational marijuana legalization by inventing a silly-delicious amuse-bouche: Kraft mac on Ruffles. We feasted on fresh pasta primavera with garlic bread one night; grilled steak tips with burrata, marinated tomatoes, and fluffy couscous the next.
We devoured oxtail, goat stew, coconut rice, and roasted vegetables packed in from Caribe Star Caribbean Grill in Glenwood Springs, wowza. Friendship formed over a hand-delivered platter of chicken drumsticks and salad —so rare! Elsewhere I heard that a personal chef pal had sent a client with 18 watermelons' worth of compressed cubes for his 50th birthday bash. Drooling ensued.
Beverages flowed: mimosas and margaritas, Moroccan tea service, malty homebrew, crisp British cider, chocolate martinis, Fireball shots, vodka from the bottle, wine on ice, and rosé all day at the Duck Pond. My campmate mixed iced coffee with Baileys for us each morning. We guzzled Gatorade like Mike, chased coconut water with LaCroix. Our charming hosts at the Rat Trap even broke out a secret bottle of 18-year Scotch in honor of my birthday. Swoon.
While I don't recommend going "Home" with little more than a tent, cooler, reusable cup, and potable H2O, it could be done. After all, Burning Man's oft-repeated saying is, "The playa provides." Back in the real world — or Aspen, at least — the same is true. Food, water, and love: All we need to ride out this crazy life, right?
Amanda Rae lost her cup but found nourishment on the playa. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Aug. 26 to Sept. 3, 2018
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