Sunday, January 20, 2013

bark and grasses and jellyfish (from the barn, circa 2007)

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome, welcome, welcome to the first ever Decatur Area Bark and Grasses Culinary Symposium!  

I would like first to extend our warmest thank yous, yes, plural, to the Rock Springs Wilderness Center or Area for hosting this event and allowing us nearly unlimited access to their various bark and grasses-based resources.  It's not everyday we can all come together as a common body or group, join hands, swap riddles and anecdotes, initiate open-ended give-and-take style discussion, scour the prairies, the woodlands, the wetlands, the gravel pits- yet that is exactly what we have been doing!  The people, the children, the rangers, the citizens- all of them eager, all of them for the most part incredibly personable, excited about the literally infinite grass and bark possibilities, and prepared to share an entire lifetime's worth of knowledge, experience, travel, conjecture- gosh- am I forgetting anything, anyone?  They are, I think it's fair to say, today's modern pioneer stand-ins.  They choose to live, for the most part, as authentic nomads and derelicts.   Our warmest thank yous, again, to the entire wilderness family.   Nobody around does it better.   If some people still accuse us of being extra terrestrials wandering around in human disguise, well then, dad burnit- I'm proud to be an extra terrestrial!  

For today's afternoon session we have set up another round table event centered on an aspect of gastronomy often overlooked and sometimes even derided as a throwback to our pre-human beginnings- namely, eating the bark right off of trees and munching grass directly from our mother, the earth.  Here at Rock Springs Nature Sanctuary we are determined to give it the very best that we have- we are, in effect, determined to do whatever might be required.  Ranger Jack reminded me yesterday of that old Amish saying-  "go the distance"-  and I think it's safe to say that we here at the Sanctuary are mother-fucking prepared to go the distance!!!   

(awkward silence, followed by coughing, followed by faint applause and possibly sarcastic whistling)

Here, off to my right, over there by the fire extinguisher,  is a local committee which has delved deep into the world of what might be called "nature's jellies."  And here, off to my left, by the paper mache beets and carrots, is a group of middle school children who have conducted an entire summer of research on the numerous jams that are available in most people's backyards and neighborhood parks.  Over there by the piano is Mr. Dale Dern and his team of assistants who have created an extensive line of colorful wilderness chutneys.  And finally, scattered haphazardly behind me on the stage is a whole slew of creative culinary pioneers, each of whom has concocted a signature Stone Age sauce or syrup right here on the grounds of the sanctuary.  Karl, why don't you start us off-  tell us a little something about your sauce and why it fits into the larger overall scheme of things, beyond the immediate context of this Bark and Grasses Symposium.

Karl<<< Thanks a lot, Karoline- well, it started back when I was a kid, and had a tire swing set up in the alley.  My dog Kaylie ate a lot of the grasses and weeds that were growing back there, and I guess it...well...golly, I'm not sure how to put this, exactly- gave me a kind of idea, I guess.  I remembered hearing at school once how we could learn certain things from the animals.  This one teacher in particular, always going on and on about "the wisdom of animals."  Anyways, I put some of that alley grass into my dad's vise down in the workshop and simply squeezed out all the juice into an empty coffee can he had lying around.  Some people use those cans to store random nails, bolts, screws, tacks, etc, but for some reason he wanted them kept entirely empty.  We kidded him sometimes about his "collection of air" down in the basement.  We even affixed the label "air" to a few of them, just to generate a few chuckles.  Hundreds and hundreds of coffee cans, all piled up haphazardly next to the workbench.  Looking back on it now, I wonder if he might have had some kind of psychological problem.....well, in any case,  later that night I was fixing myself some macaroni and cheese, and just as an experiment I put a little of the grass sauce on top.  Have to say that it gave this particular dish a really interesting flavor.  A kind of natural, back-to-the-land sort of flavor.  I squeezed a little bit more and took it into school the next day and convinced the lunch ladies to try it on the hot dogs and pizza.  Well, suffice it to say, it was an immediate hit.  The student body was convinced.  It made what I think could be accurately termed "a positive difference."  A lot of us really wanted and needed that extra kick in the pants.  We had long ago become pretty jaded about the whole range of flavors available to us- this kind of woke us all up to a renewed sense of the whole range of taste possibilities out there. 

I guess I'm preaching to the choir when I say the simplest sauce can really work wonders. Can essentially transform people's lives. Doesn't take a lot of time and effort.  Just some grass, a vise, a can, and a dream.  It ended taking me all the way to the top.  I was nominated the next month as student liaison to Governor Blagoevich's Health and Hearty Flavors Commission.  I live in Springfield now, in a small studio apartment a couple blocks from the capitol. 

Sometimes when I'm out strolling aimlessly at night thru the neighborhood I gaze up at the majestic dome, faintly lit, and remember that tire swing, and good ol' Kaylie, and the sense of utter mystery I felt that first night, down alone in my dad's cluttered workshop. Now I'm able to brainstorm new ideas, as many as I can possibly generate.  I jot things down in my notebook.  Every month or so the governor himself asks for a few of my latest suggestions. I hate to toot my own horn, but I don't think I've disappointed him once. His own family uses my grass sauce. They even feed it to their newborn.  The whole thing has been pretty unbelievable.

Karoline<<< indeed it has, Karl.  "Unbelievable" is the very word for it.  So Tony?  What about you? Tell us a little bit about your contribution to society.

Tony<<< ok, Karoline- no problem.  This is a pine cone and sweet maple gum syrup/sauce combination infused with hickory root laced with boscom ivy and mussel shell.  I disappeared into the wilderness for a little while after college to work on my sculptures.  I needed sauce and syrup to keep me in touch with present-day type humanity.  By that time I had let go of most modern traditions in favor of a more caveman or neanderthal type mentality.  Pretty decent mentality, let me tell ya.  Like Karl here, I noticed that a lot of animals simply eat their food raw, and  I actually started doing that too- wasn't as difficult as you might think.  But after a little while I got worried that I was losing my legacy as a human altogether, and needed a little refinement or reminder in the department of sauces, spices, syrups, etc.  I squeezed and combined almost every potential fluid or gum I encountered, boiled them over coals, and let them congeal- this pine cone stuff is just one of a thousand possibilities.  I gathered it all by hand during my 17 years in the wilderness.

Karoline<<< oh, I see that someone in the jelly section would like to make a comment-

Stewart<<< well, it's not so much a comment as a flat-out confession-  our entire project consists in nothing but putting farm raised jellyfish between bread and selling them as "wilderness sandwiches" down at the bowling alley.   These high school kids come in for lunch and frankly, I don't think they give a flying fuck what they put into their mouths.  As long as they have the impression that they are somehow "sticking it to the man", as they call it.  I think that they see the word "wilderness" and make all sort of subversive or anarchistic associations-  they bowl a few games and then they're off- nobody's the wiser but everybody's just a littler bit healthier, maybe.  We've actually stated to turn quite a nice little profit.

Karoline<<< uh, ok...well...that's nice, sir...I suppose it takes some courage to stand up and make a confession like that in front of so many...well...people...

Stewart<<< lady, it's just jellyfish between bread with the word "wilderness" stenciled on our beat up styrofoam cooler!  Ain't the Food Network we've got going on here!  Maybe we belong at this symposium and maybe we don't- I was over at the chutney tent last night, pretty hammered, and they talked me into smearing their product all over my naked, unwashed, unexercised body.  How's that for solidarity?

Karoline<<< well sir, they manufactured their chutney right here on the premises...ingredients gathered right here on the premises...

Stewart<<< I bet the pine woods would say otherwise.

Karoline<<< uh...

Stewart<<< I bet the Prairie Homestead would say otherwise.

Karoline<<< uh...sir, that's all well an

Stewart<<< I went over there afterwards, still hammered, still naked and covered with their fancy wilderness chutney and this old lady in traditional garb started making some pretty interesting suggestions, I'd have to say-

Karoline<<< sir, that just abo

Stewart<<< maybe it would be more accurate to call them pretty interesting enticements-

Karoline<<< sir, that is enough!  How dare you! Walt and Regina have been the pioneer couple for the last 16 years, and to even imply that she would invite you into the privacy and warmth of their cabin for an evening of God only knows what- sir, leave the building this instant!  Gather your nasty little product and get the fuck out!  Get out of the wilderness sanctuary altogether!   

(He continues weaving foul and insulting tapestries with language until several armed security guards appear and escort him off of the premises. Outside the building several gunshots are heard.  After several minutes of hushed whispering Karoline succeeds in restoring the meeting to order)

Karoline<<< ok, sorry about that people- is there still anyone we have not heard from?

(several kids stand up in back and start doing the "tic", an old breakdancing move from the eighties that mimics to a certain extent the convulsions and grimaces that sometimes occur during a seizure.  A broad and honest smile gradually appears on Karoline's face and she starts doing the "tic" as well, albeit a slightly more stilted, conservative version.  People don't seem to mind the sudden interlude and break up into small groups for several hours of give-and-take style conversation.  This is an activity during which information is passed back and forth in verbal form, somewhat spontaneously, with an emphasis on active listening and follow-up-response models designed for heightened fluidity and a shared sense of common value, purpose, and experience.)