Little known fact about the victim of the most notorious unsolved murder in Los Angeles history: Elizabeth Short — aka the Black Dahlia — had terrible teeth.
That’s why Sunday night’s Black Dahlia installment of the ongoing food-and-art dinner series Los Angeles Eats Itself featured a six-course menu that didn’t require much chewing. The sophisticated comfort food was prepared by chef Jonathan Moulton of City Tavern and was served in a noirish but elegant atmosphere created by artist Julie Orser and production coordinator Rebecca Swanner.
The general premise for this ridiculously ambitious (and resoundingly successful) project was to re-create — OK, speculate on — the food Short might have eaten on the last day she was alive. In case you're not up on your gruesome L.A. crime history, Short was found cut in half at the waist and posed with a hideous death grin near the sidewalk bordering an open field on Norton Avenue in Leimert Park on January 15, 1947.
In the months after the discovery of Short’s mutilated body, her death became the most sensational in a string of unsolved murders that plagued L.A. By 1950, the so-called Black Dahlia killing had generated so many “prime suspects” that Jack Webb, while introducing William Holden at a New Year’s Eve party in the classic film Sunset Boulevard, described him, among other things, as a Black Dahlia suspect — to general laughter from the well-lubricated party goers.
Over the years, as it continued to go unsolved, the Black Dahlia case evolved, first into a cottage industry for books on the horrific murder and gradually into the ultimate symbol of L.A.'s noir period, which lasted from around the mid-'40s until the mid-'50s.
That period was effectively reimagined by Los Angeles Eats Itself at the Wuho Gallery Sunday night, with touches as obvious as a giant wall video screening 1946 footage of cars driving along Olive, Flower and Fifth streets (taken from a Rita Hayworth film) and as subtle as soft background music from Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
Throw in a seven-minute segment from a 1950 CBS radio broadcast of the show Someone Knows seeking Black Dahlia information, and it was easy to transport yourself back to a time to when L.A. was a company town and Short was just one of the thousands of attractive young women who got off the bus from Small Town USA hoping to hit the cinematic jackpot.
But it was the soft, sumptuous food served at the dinner that really humanized Short, who died at age 22 and in the decades since has been described as everything from a prostitute (she wasn’t) to someone who suffered from deformed genitalia that made her unable to have intercourse (she was).
“The softness of the food really resonated with me,” said Rossen Ventzislavov, a philosophy professor at Woodbury University who was one of about 50 people that paid $65 each for the meal and the immersive art that went with it. “It brought everything about her home to me as a diner, in that it registered as fancy food but at the same time there was an insistence on simplicity because of her bad teeth.”
After the 45-minute pre-dinner cocktail party, the production started with a slow-cooked egg yolk mixed with celeriac mousse, sherry crème and caviar, with a few potato chips on the side. The menu, designed by Orser to mimic the first police bulletin issued on the Black Dahlia murder, described the egg under the title “San Diego to Los Angeles” — the last trip Short took before disappearing after her last confirmed sighting at the Biltmore Hotel.
Next up, under the title “5th & Grand” — one of the corners she may have visited on her last day on earth — were two exquisite mushroom-crusted scallops, served with shaved asparagus, mustard greens and red pepper sauce.
Then came a stop on “Main Street” for two thin slices of lighter-than-air orange and cocoa chiffon cake with thick whipped cream and rich dark chocolate sauce on the side, prepared by production coordinator Swanner, who has a side career as a baker.
The fourth course, at “8th & Olive,” was a cup of French onion soup, with gruyere espuma and a brioche crostini floating on top of the rich broth.
The highlight of the meal, at “Hope Street,” was the braised beef short rib, sitting on top of a potato puree and blanketed with a black mole demi-glace. A meal that had started with an all-white egg yolk had gradually morphed into a nearly all-black entrée.
The dinner ended, appropriately enough, with a deadly nightshade cocktail of bourbon, black cherry juice, simple syrup, crème de cassis and red grape. “I wanted to show her sinking into darkness,” said Swanner.
Most of the credit for the dinner goes to co-creators Marco Rios, 38, and Jason Keller, 34. Rios, who works as the gallery curator at the Luckman Fine Arts complex on the Cal State L.A. campus, said he and Keller, who teaches art history at Woodbury University, had been working on it since last September.
“I’m exhausted,” Rios said after the last of his guests had left. “But I feel great about what we accomplished.”
Those guests included Sara Johannes, dressed in the type of all-black dress that Short herself favored, and her companion, Eric Posey, who was scrolling through his phone seeking additional information on the Black Dahlia while eating his dinner.
“We’re fascinated by anything macabre,” Posey said. “We can’t get enough of it.”
The first dinner in the Los Angeles Eats Itself project, centered on Richard Ramirez, also known as the Nightstalker, was held nearly a year ago. The next one, built around the Northridge earthquake of 1994, shouldn’t take nearly as long as the Black Dahlia to design and produce.
“We’re starting to get the hang of it now,” Rios said. “The main goal is we want people to have a good time.”