If you've been going to Burning Man and subsisting on Gatorade and Clif bars, you've been doing it all wrong.
Held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, since 1990, Burning Man began as a ragtag assembly of a few hundred artists, miscreants, hippies and pyromaniacs who set out to create an “experiment in temporary community” in the desert — or just to have a good time and set a few things on fire.
In the intervening years, the event has grown from a hundred-or-so-person campout into a fully functioning city with a population hovering around 61,000, complete with its own post office, radio stations, airport and, in more recent years, a burgeoning restaurant scene.
Some of Black Rock City's dining spots welcome all comers, others are invitation-only, but none charge money for their offerings. Burning Man works a “gift economy” — which means that nothing is bought or sold there (with the exception of bags of ice and coffee at Center Camp). Instead, every Burner is expected to give of themselves in some way, and one simple way to do that is to share food. Here, we tour just a few of the myriad desert dining options.
After the food in your own cooler, the most common shared eating experience throughout Black Rock City is to snack on treats shared by neighboring camps. Near the intersection of 3:00 and G, (Burning Man's streets are laid out as concentric circles on a clock), the unclothed members of one camp each morning offered “Naked Bacon” to passersby, who were also required to strip for their strips.
Near the 3:00 Plaza, a sweeter breakfast option was available at “Cereal Thrillers,” a larger camp that specialized in, as one participant described it, “all of the breakfast cereals your mom wouldn't let you eat as a kid.” Cocoa Puffs, Honeycomb, Lucky Charms and just about every other sugar-bomb breakfast treat was on offer.
At the suggestively named Kamaniwannalaya, campers were up before 7:00 a.m., shouting to passersby, “Hot holes! Come eat our hot holes!” as they deep-fried doughnut holes, offered with six different frostings (“all frosting-flavored, but different colors!”) with fresh coffee. The doughnut holes were so hot you couldn't hold them in your fingers, so you had to pop them into your mouth as quickly as possible instead. And after a night of Burning Man-style partying, any doughnut holes would have been good, so incredibly fresh and hot ones, dainty and thumb-sized, were like manna from the fryer.
Pay-To-Play Breakfast at PlayaSkool
Burning Man's answer to all-inclusive resorts, PlayaSkool is but one of the enterprising camps that provide everything to paying customers — shade structures, showers, lights, tents, a bar, an art car and two meals per day plus snacks, all for $750 (single person tent) or $3,500 (2-person RV). PlayaSkool's website, complete with pictures of hot chicks, boasts that “Not all camps are created equal!” Well, of course they're not — they're not working with that kind of budget.
Although some complain that the purchased package Burning Man experience flies in the face of the event's ethos of “radical self-reliance” and a scrappy, DIY spirit, no one can say you'll go hungry there. For Wednesday's breakfast, PlayaSkool was serving French toast, bacon, pork sausage, yogurt, watermelon, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini-Wheats, coffee, tea and Gatorade. “And we might do pancakes,” said one of the unpaid volunteer cooks.
The Staff Commissary
“Today, we'll be serving 2200 people,” said Shelly, head of the Burning Man commissary that feeds the workers who build and run the city and all of its central structures. Meals here are fairly straightforward: Wednesday's lunch was baked chicken, broccoli and tater tots; and for vegetarians, butternut squash with quinoa and tofu, plus a salad bar, ice cream, cookies, and coffee. It's challenging to serve that number of people, especially when some of them are vegans or have allergies. “But we do the best we can with what we have out here,” Shelly said.
In addition to a trailer full of sinks with running water (a luxury at Burning Man) and foamy soap for mandatory pre-meal hand washing, the commissary also features an elaborate recycling system, with separate bins for wet and dry compost, recyclables and landfill trash. Since waste-hauling is not a simple matter in the remote desert, it's a necessary adaptation that at once feels distinctly un-cafeteria-like, yet completely logical.
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The French Quarter
The impressive French Quarter complex of camps, complete with New Orleans-style filigreed balcony railings, is one of the premier dining destinations in Black Rock City — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, home to the event's most serious chefs. Here Yehonatan Koenig and partner Adam Gross are cooking up a North-African lamb stew with couscous for about 150 lucky Burners who find themselves at the right place at the right time. Koenig and Gross, who named their Burning Man restaurant Le Maison Prophete Paresseaux (House of the Lazy Prophet) are not professional chefs, but serious cooks nonetheless. Koenig, an L.A. resident who grew up in Israel, likes to cook “the Mediterranean influenced dishes I grew up with.” At this year's event, they've made coq au vin, Yemeni fish stew and a seafood gumbo. To get in on the meal, Burners have to sing for their supper — or tell a joke. If you're smart enough to bring your own bowl, you get to cut to the front of the line.
Next door at Black Rock Bakery, chef Dave Weidman, who supplied cheesecakes to the now-defunct Netty's Restaurant in Silver Lake and Il Sole on Sunset, is making lime sorbet with jasmine tea and violet essence, and Turkish coffee and bananas Foster ice creams for a few stunned and lucky Burners. It's the element of surprise that makes the experience all the more magical — few event newbies expect to be handed an ice cream in the middle of the desert, and even fewer expect that ice cream to be white chocolate blueberry, but chef Dave makes it happen.
Knut Christiansen of Paella Works Catering used to trade his cooking skills for a Burning Man ticket, but he and partner Michael Nutt have since wrangled a paying gig feeding the120 firefighters and EMTs from the fire station at Camp 3.
Dinner Thursday night was Alaskan salmon with blackberry compote and risotto with roasted apples and mint. Friday morning's breakfast? Alongside the full espresso bar, chocolate chip pancakes, eggs Mornay and currant scones. But the big party was Saturday night — and not just because it was the night of the festival's namesake event, the burning of the man sculpture.
The camp has a long-time Saturday burn night tradition of serving paella, a traditional Spanish festival dish. Firefighters from other camps also join in for the meal, bringing the dinner total to 200 guests enjoying seafood paella with langoustine, Gulf shrimp, sausage, chicken and vegetables. On the side was a stellar salad, incredibly refreshing in the desert heat, of spinach, mint, peaches and a citrus-buttermilk dressing.
“I really enjoy being here supporting a critical service,” Christiansen said, and, overhearing this, firefighter Andrew Pearson chimed in, “We've got over 120 firefighters from all over the world who would all agree that this man and his crew put on better meals here than we do at our fire stations. There's a lot of people who say they eat better here than they do the rest of the year.” Skip Boylan, a firefighter/paramedic from Seattle adds, “These guys are the real heroes. I can start IV's on anybody, but I can't cook like he can.”
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