Burning Man is a Food Festival.
When you hear about Burning Man, the week-long event in the middle of the Nevada desert in August, it's often referred to as an art festival, or a huge rave with tons of DJs spinning EDM everywhere, a week long fantasia event, or it's a hippie love-in where everyone is radically self-expressing their creativity in costumes or being nude. But the real secret is, which I discovered going for the first time this past summer, is that it's actually a food festival!
This secret has been well kept. First, Tickets to this mobile feast are no longer easy to obtain. You sign up on their site months in advance. Many who have gone before have special codes to ID one another (known as "Playa" names. The special, engaged patrons receive these. Others make up their own. Some are given them, but like olive oil on a Teflon pan it slides right off.) The next step in obtaining a ticket is to win the lottery the day they go on sale. If you don't, you spend the next few months either hoping someone sells you their ticket through the official re-sale program, or that your network of friends in-the-know help you get your hands on this valuable asset. Sometimes during the waiting period you slip into the privilege thought line of 'I should have bought a ticket at the much higher "guaranteed" price sale.' The one that you've heard the billionaires of Silicon Valley have their "plug and play" "Sherpas" buy for them in early January. The difficulty in obtaining a ticket may be quite similar to many of the trendy food festivals around the world.
One of the ten key tenets of the Burning Man food festival is "radical self-reliance" (Burning Man principals). Living in the NYC area, where gourmet dining is as easy as clicking a button on your Seamless account, getting ready takes months. Radical self reliance means that although you're heading to a place where food is the main event, you need to be prepared to bring enough food, water and libations to feed yourself for the week. Getting all that out to the desert, along with your cooking tools, dining accoutrements (no one has the bad manners to offer disposable dinnerware! Of course you bring your own!), and proper attire for each day (the truly expressive diners have multiple costumes for each day) takes much advance planning. This includes either creating a camp with like-minded friends, or finding a camp to join. We joined the camp, established 15 years ago by a fellow with the Playa name of Costume Jim, called Kostume Kult. It was through this camp we learned about shipping needed gear in our personal plastic storage bins in a collectively purchased container. (The NY Container camp sends out three of these huge metal boxes, stuffed to the brim with goodies galore! Oh, some of the delights that are hidden in those bins. Some to be used as party favors for the very select foodies who have heightened senses during the week away.)
Burning Man Secret
Our first glimpse at the secret food nature of Burning Man was when we went to a premiere of an indie film called "Taking My Parents to Burning Man.". This is where we learned about The Tuna Guys- tuna fisherman from Oregon who set up camp every year and gift fresh tuna! Fresh caught tuna, specially processed and delivered by the men serving it. Sushi and custom cooked tuna steaks never sounded as appetizing as it did then. We also learned before going about a neighboring camp whose specialty is craft beer. They made a tremendous amount, and wanted to be sure that campers of Kostume Kult would stop by. Oh my. This trip was getting tastier and tastier.
Kostume Kult is an outrageously deceptive cover for the their part in the food festival. Another key principal of Burning Man is gifting. Do not mistake this as barter, or trading or outright purchasing. The only places at Burning Man you can spend cash is Center Camp for coffee
and Artica for ice (which has various locations throughout the semi-sphere layout of camps). Radical self-reliance means packing enough food for oneself. Gifting means bringing more to gift to others while there. To follow this principal, every camp (as well as individuals) decides ahead of time what it will gift to attendees (also known as "burners"). Kostume Kult gifts costumes. Two truckloads are brought out and are gifted to help burners transform during their stay. But for those on the inside of the camp, their personal part of the food festivities await each day at dinner time.
The kitchen is run by two chefs well versed in feeding large crowds. Sippycup Mark, in the "default world" (the term used by burners to describe everyday life not on the Playa) works in the restaurant business in the highly competitive locale of lower Manhattan. Dorothy (her Playa name, coming from a time she and the kitchen blew away in a nasty wind storm funnel in a previous year, like Dorothy of Oz) hails from internationally acclaimed catering in Hong Kong. Feeding dinner daily to a camp of 160 people is right up their alley. They coordinated Indian food (the spices almost didn't make it due to a truck fire en route to the Burn), shish kabobs, stews, salads, fruit as well as adapting dishes for vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-free. They oversaw multiple shifts of prep work, serving and clean-up. Impressively, they made work fun.
The camp provides drinking water and bathing water. Everyone brings their own plates and utensils to meals, and cleans their own too. In the RV we were able to clean using hot water and dish soap. People in tents (or domes, or yurts, campers etc) usually used unscented baby wipes or paper towels with a little water from their bottles. At the end of the week, our fearless leader, Isa, discovered some camp mates had used the communal "sun" showers to clean their grubby plates...so the scraps drained into our groups evap pond (Event Survival - Grey Water). Yuck! This is the dark side of food festivities for sure!
Perks of RV camping
Bringing the RV afforded us luxury in the hot desert. We had a fridge and freezer to keep our food fresh. Campers in tents/domes/yurts/buses/trailers with coolers had to prepare with natures way of melting or wilting food fast. Jessica, the purple-haired beauty who had been to burns before, learned the hard way that her wheel of ultra-delicious cheese would not survive long enough to be properly savoured. It didn't even last her ride into the camp grounds! We stored cold-pressed green drinks (to balance the fact we may not have fresh greens daily), wine for Costume Jim's Playa wedding, bottles of Gatorade and limes (of course! For the beer and for the tequila!). We had shelf space for tortilla chips, soups, prepared tuna in an easy open pack, and extra beer. (Beer for the crew who built the camp and beer for Reverend Pooh Bear, who was at another camp and gifted his time to us). I had my gourmet tea, but we forgot to bring coffee!
The hunt for breakfast
The time for Adventure was upon us. Go out of the safety of our RV and our camp in search of coffee. Our own cups in hand, we received our first clue from Kimmy - the artist who created King Kong for the camp frontage, and the art cars that look like oversized "My Little Ponies" (she named them Flame and Sparkle). We headed out in the direction of "B and 2:30. Black Rock City is set up in a clock pattern, with the Man being 12 o'clock and the camps starting at the 2 o'clock and 10 o'clock positions.
Center Camp, where you can buy delicious coffees lattes, cappuccinos, hot chocolate and chai teas, is located directly opposite The Man at 6 o'clock. We never did find "that breakfast camp" but we did find so much more on our daily adventures. One coffee place touted "Strongman coffee served lukewarm" in a circus atmosphere. Another place offered high end espresso, served by a short, white man who went by the Playa name Sweet n Low. His camp's art car had a sonic cannon that made sound bombs during the during the dark nights out by the very loud DJs spinning in deep Playa. Another camp, run by Silicon Valley types gifted office type java, but added extra kick through Kaluha, Baileys or other sweet libations. A particularly fun camp, that has been at the event for years and received prominent placement, is called Scarbutts (definitely not Starbucks!). In exchange for the coffee of your choice (and they had real milk too), patrons must first be spanked. The menu was quite extensive. I went for the "double tap" (to be honest, it was gentle and I'm sure I've slapped a bug harder). I did ask what a "Flapjack Paddle" was, and I believe they were pulling my leg when they said that they used fresh pancakes from the camp next door...
The menu of delights don't end with coffee. On the list of Ten Burning Man Principals is Immediacy. One way to look at this principal lies in the fact that nothing lasts forever (the Man itself is burned at the end of the week, as is the awe-inspiring Temple of Grace and other art installations). When it comes to savouring the pleasures of Burning Man, enjoying the delights when you come upon them at that moment (not something "I'll return to later") is paramount. You may miss the opportunity either because the gifter's schedule changes, they run out, or even a dust storm can interfere.
Winner of "Best crepes on the Nevada desert" 4 years in a row! Just down from huge sounds camps, a camp filled with tipis, and a camp filled by VW buses, we came across a camp offering crepes. Delicious, award-winning, crepes. Under the atmospheric shade structure stood 4' tall cafe tables with ingenious lighting. At the end of the line, behind grills and counters, were multiple beauties creating and serving crepes. You could choose from 'savory' (ham, bacon, cheese) or 'sweet' (with choices of jam, powdered sugar or my option of Nutella). Nothing is more sinful than a mouthful of melty Nutella. Standing at the cafe tables, entertained by the wranglers
we connected with another burner. Mentioning this could only get better with bacon (bacon!), the Superman becostumed fellow said there was bacon at a camp just up the street. Naked bacon.
Naked bacon. My mind reeled with creative images of raw (aka "naked") bacon. I'd already learned how this city was filled with amazing perspective and creations masterminded by individuals of any and all sorts of backgrounds from Wall Street gurus to chemistry teachers to media "corporate box" types just like me. The camp is officially called Lost Boys. They gifted slices of bacon (bacon!) that one could cook on their hot griddles...but in order to do so, one must be naked. Even so, this was a popular eatery. The most impressive thing, even more than how good the bacon tasted, was the woman who, in her role as volunteer there, took the hot griddle filled with loads of hot bacon grease- and still pieces of bacon frying away- and was able to lift it, bring it to the edge where there was a gallon-sized can sitting on the ground, and carefully poured the boiling hot excess into the can. While not a perfect pour, she managed to not get one little hot splatter on her unclad figure!
More culinary finds
Another wonderful happenstance we took advantage of in the moment was a cute little cafe. The wrangler was dressed as a maître d'. He took our reservations, and while we waited there was a separate area where we crafted fun decorations (I made one for my camelbak - a backpack equipped with a water bladder excellent for hydration in the desert- and my partner made one for his hat- another desert necessity). Our waiter was delightful and service was prompt and efficient. The choices were refreshing and worth the short wait. The tablecloths and the appropriate chairs really added to the quaint, dare I say it, almost Parisian bistro.
A snow cone in the middle of the desert? Yes! The Lost Penguin offered these daily, with new flavors each day. I'll admit to wanting to add tequila to my margarita flavored icy treat. Yum.
Who would have thought one could have freshly fried, right out of the fryer French Fries? And to add to the wonder, cooked by a man in a blue tutu, served by a woman in a patterned apron and multicolored tutu and the wrangler announcing the arrival of fresh batches in a black tutu (with hand made heart. And he gracefully answered about his feet not hurting in his high heeled boots!)
There were plenty of camps we passed on, or missed their dining hours, or just plain didn't go to. We had on our list wanting to find the Tuna camp (mentioned earlier, as seen in the movie). Jessica, who stayed the extra day to help break down camp and hyper-clean the area ("Leave No Trace" principal) said she came across the fisherman still gifting tuna up to the very end, and they were a blast to be around. We biked by KFC. Though their Kentucky hospitality was inviting, their offer of bourbon and fried custom-smoked bologna sandwiches for breakfast did not appeal to our palate. The Black Rock French Quarter was something I had heard about beforehand, and had even joined their Face Book group, but completely forgot about once there. I hear their Black Rock Bakery has exquisite French pastries. The Shady Waffle, despite it's name, did not serve waffles. But it did offer a solid breakfast that those with hangovers often crave.
The Shady Waffle was also where the founder of Face Book Mark Zuckerburg camped (apparently pitching his own tent and enthusiastically participating.). While exploring the Playa we came across a grill cheese stand in what seems to be the middle of no where. I discovered later that this was Mark's gift - making grilled cheese sandwiches for passerbys in the cold nights.
While exploring Burning Man's Playa, we discovered other random nourishment gifters. One cannot call them vendors, as no food is sold. Only made, created and offered to others from the spirit, from the giving heart. One stand is the Hug Deli. No food, but how warm and wonderful to receive someone taking time to connect and give a meaningful hug.
One cold night we happened upon a group offering "suspiciously delicious chili" both vegetarian and beef. Both were delicious, and we suspended our suspicions. Early in the week (while the skies were still clear after the rains kept the dust down and the sound camp lasers had yet to cloud the skies), when we were waiting to see the Andromeda galaxy through the most amazingly huge telescope at the "science meets art" Black Rock Observatory we were treated to a cart offering "make your own PB&J.
Another treat of sumptuous homemade baked cookies appeared that night while we chatted with our friend Wabi, dressed in her bright orange Nasa jump suit. Wabi also treated us by bringing over her Black Rock Observatory co-volunteer who had a foot-long meteorite!
Another aspect of culinary adventures at the Burning Man food festival is the wide variety of libations and their presentations. There were day bars and night bars. Drinking events such as the Billion Bunny March, the Naked Bike Ride or the Red Dress Bar Crawl. The art cars had their own creative mobile parties. But to cover them would take another trip back, and many more blog entries.
The Man Burns & After
The Man burns on Saturday night. A festive occasion with fire dancers, fire works and a 105' bonfire lasting for hours (literally, it took hours for the Man to finally fall with a face-plant thud). The energy of the night buzzes all night. In the morning I went to explore what was left of the Man. What I found was a sunrise barbecue! Grilled panini sandwiches to hand held roasting of marshmallows to a spit with a seasoned lamb roasting (! How did they get that out there?) my favorite was the pop-up ice cream cart offering frozen coconut drinks (mostly boozy ones, but cold nonetheless)
At the end of the burn our pod (our group within the bigger Kostume Kult camp) had leftover food. From salty treats (with the recommended gallons of water consumed daily, adding salt to keep you hydrated is a good plan), to left over vodka and mixers, to those two cute little watermelons no one could quite get around to eating...we had a collection that needed dispersing. Since we were in the RV (and not taking a shuttle bus out), we offered to pack out most of it.
On the drive out of Black Rock City, we came across a DMV food donation station. The DMV is a group of hired people who come out in the months before to set up the road work and other important infrastructure to the city, and then stay after to clean up the desert to its previous untouched state (Leave No Trace!). They gladly and gratefully (though we are the grateful ones) helped us with most of our unwanted foods. However, they couldn't take the watermelons (which would spoil too fast in that desert heat). Funny how things work out. As we passed through the California vegetation inspection station, we offered up the watermelons to the inspectors. They were a tad puzzled at our gifting, but happy for the treat.
So, I've let the secret out. Burning Man is a food festival. Food just tastes better out in the desert. Maybe it's something in the Playa dust. Maybe it's the near-impossible conditions that people overcome to create and gift a wide variety of epicurean experiences. This amazing event offers not only gourmet feats not found anywhere else, but nourishment of the mind and soul. Who knew when I started Adventure Wednesdays years ago that it would bring me such delicious surprises. Next time I go back, I will be better prepared to not only partake of the bacchanalia of feasts, but to participate in the mosaic of adventurous, delectable delights.