Santa Cruz California has long been a hotbed of funky, slightly dilapitated victorians that serve as auxiliary housing for college students, ex college students, and middle aged renters not ready or able to leave the disposable income lifestyle of youth behind. Our house embodied the hippie co-op that had seen better days. Still charming, still a little communal, it seemed to serve as a way station for people going somewhere, someday…maybe.
We were living there for over a year when we met Dave and Amber. A couple younger than my wife and I and wise in the ways of Slow Food, they exemplified an understanding of the true value of food in the garden they made and the meals they prepared.
Housemate meals of one kind or another usually happened once a month, occasionally devolving into Foodie feasts. It was one such evening, after several bottles of wine, when the idea of Guerrilla Dining was born. To the best of my wine clouded memory the conversation went something like this:
“One of us should start a restaurant.”
“No way are you kidding? None of us have the money to go broke doing something like that.”
“How about something mobile then? Something small.”
“The permits alone cost a fortune. Especially if you want to serve wine.”
“Fuck the permits!”
“You can’t open a business in town without permits.”
“We’ll change locations. We’ll do it wherever the hell we want to.”
“Yeah we could do it at the beach one day, and on top of a warehouse the next.”
“Like those people who show the movies on the sides of buildings in town. What are they called?”
“Yeah that’s it, Guerrilla Dining!”
We were all ready to dream big, wine-inflated dreams. We planned a series of meals with locations announced the day of the event. Showing up at the last minute with tables, chairs and the best organic local dishes we could make, our meal would be as much theater as fine, adventurous dining. Our sites would be both picturesque and novel. The footbridge to a park could fit one row of tables. The top of a warehouse with a view of the ocean was gritty and yet graceful. Each meal would have a theme, the food would be delicious and nourishing.
Where would we get the money? Who cares (says the wine!) Over the following months we prepared a series of experimental meals designed to yield the menu for our first Guerrilla Dining adventure. In hindsight this may have been Dave and Ambers way of vetting our cooking skills. Given my background I could have insisted on burgers and fries. Our other housemates were treated to our experiments, I can only imagine how much money we blew through at that time.
Through this process our own unique skills surfaced. Terry became the hostess and setting consultant. Amber was the baker, dessert chef and all around epicurean. Dave and I followed up with cooking guided by Dave’s palate for food pairing and knowledge of aperitif. Of course we lacked the enormous staff of assistants that would be required to actually setup for the meals and serve them, but why allow reality to creep in?
As Autumn neared we settled on a seven course Italian dinner comprised of organic food and imported Italian wine, meats and cheeses. After offering up our best ideas to months of scrutiny this is what we came up with:
Amber and Dave, being more in touch with the food industry and reality itself, suggested we charge for the meal (I bargained them down to $25 per guest.) Terry then suggested we hold the first one in our own backyard. There would be no black masked, clandestined assaults on public places in the name of decent food, Guerrilla Dining would become Guerrilla Cafe. I was sad to give up the adventure of venue hunting and a gratis meal, but the choices made sense.
With most of our summer gone the idea of a four hour outdoor feast was starting to sound chilly. When we all sat down with our calendars November 19th was the day. I imagined our guests bundled head to toe chomping on frozen pastasicles.
Next it was time to find the tribe who would enjoy our Guerrilla food. There are a handful of movies sacred to Foodies. “The Big Night” tops the list for many. It details the trials of two Italian immigrant brothers struggling to start an authentic Italian restaurant in America shortly after the end of WWII. They wind up putting everything on the line for one night of magnificent, family style dining. We named our first event in its honor: Guerrilla Café Presents “THE BIG NIGHT”.
It took us only a week or so to sell out, we’d limited the guest count to 20. All in attendance would be friends and family, some had already benefited from our preparation experiments. We had time for one final dress rehearsal. With Amber taking copious notes we roughed out a production schedule. We’d need every burner from both of our antique gas stoves. Did I forget to mention Terry and I lived at the top of a thirty stair narrow ski slope? Carrying a fifty pound pot of overflowing scalding hot Chicken Cacciatore down a dark slick staircase was one of the more exciting prospects of the evening.
The 19th showed up as one of the hottest November days on record. The temperature was just dipping below 80 degrees when the first guests arrived in the early evening. True to our schedule we started cooking the day before – preparing pasta, sourdough and other ingredients. The setting turned out beautifully – our funky overgrown backyard garden gave a feeling of magical intimacy.
The first thing I noticed about our guests was how excited each one was. They weren’t just going out to dinner, they were going to be a part of something. I don’t think I saw a face without a smile on it the entire evening. The dating couples were the cutest, they all looked to me like they were out on their first high school date though none were under thirty.
We sat everyone at the same table, serving family style. All of our guests chatted with each other as if they’d come here just to meet each other. Several of our dishes inspired oohhs and ahhhs. Dave and Ambers food shined the brightest that evening. I can still picture Dave presenting his trio of sauces. By the time we brought out Ambers trio of ice cream everyone was suitably blown away. We had made our tribal mark on the hearts of everyone there. Eventually the four of us joined the guests for grappa and coffee, eating perhaps our first food since breakfast.
The meal lasted at least six hours with stragglers huddled around our chiminea smoking, laughing and not wanting to leave. It did not turn out to be our original vision of Guerrilla dining, instead it was something much more intimate, and in every way better than I had imagined. I slept satisfied, exhausted, spent. Happy.
The day after such an event is always a moment of reckoning. Dave and Amber wandered upstairs in the early afternoon, we’d all collapsed into bed at around three or four am. We set out the leftovers from the meal in our upstairs kitchen and made chai and coffee. I felt we’d succeeded magnificently but waited nervously for the group verdict.
They broke the news to me gently but firmly. There would be no more Guerrilla dining events for Amber and Dave. We had all lost money putting it on, but more so it was the amount of time and energy we all had to put in and the resulting quality of event. A great achievement in Slow Food cuisine it was not. My sense was that Dave and Amber had different goals in mind than losing money on meals that were good, but not great. Events like “Outstanding in the Field” are probably closer to the quality of endeavours they aim for.
I argued and pleaded only a little. Terry realized as well the impracticality of our venture. While it was successful it was not sustainable. That was the final guage by which we had to judge the furture of Guerrilla Dining.
When I look back on that period I’m amazed by how much each one of us gave to the first and last Guerrilla Cafe event. Trips to San Francisco, buying furniture, cooking, cooking and more cooking. Were we insane? Its not surprising that the day after I was the only bleary eyed Geurrilla sitting around the table trying to think of ways to make it happen again. I understand now it was a compulsion – an insatiable need to kindle the fires of tribe through food.
I love looking at each of the guests faces in my photos from that night. I see the delight they felt sitting with strangers who had easily become their friends, bound together by some of the most lovingly prepared food they’d had in a long time. It may not have been the best meal they’d ever eaten, but I know they will remember it more than better food, better wine or even better company. It was an epic tribal meal.
Amber started a small cookie company and was hired to write restaurant reviews during the few years she lived on Younglove Ave with us. Her career as a food writer continues to bloom today. She and Dave went on to run a small coffee shop for a while, Amber made the pastries. After marrying they purchase land with a fruitful orchard and room to fulfill all their Slow Food visions. We’re starting in on our homestead as well, slowly beginning the process of developing a fruitful relationship with it.
Terry and I still talk about the possibility of another Guerrilla meal. The other day we were up on the protected watershed behind our house, looking over a fallow organic raspberry farm thats up for rent.
“Wouldn’t this make a great place for a Guerrilla meal” Terry asks me.
I’m surprised at that strength of the desire in her voice.
“Maybe someday, in a few years when our land is in better shape…” I think to myself, but I can’t really imagine pulling something like that off again. We’re a little older and can barely keep up with our toddler.Yet I’m infected by one of Dave’s ideas Amber mentioned: building a community bread oven. It would be great to do a monthly baking party.Of course there would have to be food as well.
Looking through the photos of that night I’m most struck by a blurry one of me pulling plates off the table as the next course is about to arrive. I look really happy.
Pasta Rosettes (course # IV):
This is a very flexible recipe – play with your filling.
Start with 1 lb of fresh pasta dough.
Roll it out into rectangles about three inches across and six inches long.
Spread riccotta cheese evenly over each rectangle, leaving 1/4 bear at each of the long ends. Don’t be afraid to have the cheese overflow from the sides.
Next add your favorite ingredients. Some ideas:
sliced red peppers
Gently roll your dough up like cinnamon role. Wet the end so you can seal your pasta log.
Cut the dough into two or three rosettes. This really depends upon the depth of your casserole dish. Oil the dish and set them in so their sliced base is faced down. Don’t squeeze them together too tightly – they’ll expand during the cooking process and they need a little room to grow.
Take your favorite stock – could be chicken or vegetable. Add in whole milk – 1 part milk to 2 parts stock. Pasta should be barely submerged.
Cover pasta with Parmesan. Cover casserole dish (I sometimes use a deep pan than can go in the oven.) Cook at 375 for 30-40 min, the pasta should look done (swollen and tender) – then remove the lid to allow the tops to brown and extra stock to evaporate off.