Caught in a moment picking venison out of your back molars under a candle lit chandelier you could swear you’re seated at a the grand feast in a locavore’s fairy tale. This foraged community meal episode of Issue Project Room‘s Species of Space series was a collaboration of SUNY New Paltz and Temple fine art grad students and Sperse design team. Table, food, utensils, and ambient sounds of the Cuyahoga River were foraged from the New York and New Jersey area setting a dinner party artisan dreams are made of. Eating squirrel in the company of Brooklyn’s art and foodie community has never been so chic.

February as unproductive a month as it gets for naturally foraged food. There is more than would imagine waiting to be foraged or perhaps hunted. Meat was the main ingredient at the meal. Venison provided by a SUNY New Paltz grad student’s family farm made up the bulk of the meal. Goose, squirrel, apples, winter squash, turnips, onions, cat tails, radishes, curly dock, pine needles, and a reed know as phragmites make for a nice spread. A number of other ingredients such as oil, salt , spices, and flour had been “gleaned” from kitchen cupboards in sparing amounts.

Guests were ushered into a candle lit room and offered hot buttered rum served hollowed out maple logs, with a pine branch swivel stick as a warming welcome. Participants picked out their own hollowed out maple logs to be used as drinking vessels–a cute little log I felt sentimental towards the rest of the night. Drinking from a log was my first man versus nature dinner party challenge. Opaque and dark, its hard to tell when a log cup is at capacity, and easy to overfill. Another challenge is finding the right edge to sip from, as 1/4 inch glass lip is also conducive to dripping drops of wine on one’s shirt. All is forgiven after you hear the muted hollow satisfying clunk the log cups make when toasting other guests.

Nuts and seeds were laid out on table decorated with snail trail patterns for guests to forage themselves around the grand hall Issue Project room is recently located in. Appetizers were brought around as guest began to mingle and unwind. Vension jerky wrapped in apple leather spiked with whole pine needles came first. Apple flavor dominated the small bite with chewy venison sneaking right up after it. The pine needles flavor was absent, and I found chomping the needles not worth the effort. Next up was were whole squirrels roasted and presented in bite-sized pieces served simply as it came, on cutting boards. The dark squirrel meat is juicy with a light chew, and a subtle savory meat flavor that’s not very gamey. Now we know: Squirrels are fleshy delicious little guys. Bones in every nibble are the only thing preventing it from being better than chicken. Likewise, Venison sausage is a succulent success and one of the best uses of the meat. Perhaps the higher level of preparation of sausage makes it more palatable, contrasted with the bare reality of eating a splayed roasted squirrel on a platter.

The seated meal was divided up into mini courses between which the guests continue to sip wine from the maple log vessels. However, as the evening progressed, a number of guests opted to forgo drinking from logs over scavenged (but real glass) wine glasses. Meanwhile, I was barely able to keep track of how much I consumed out of my seemingly endlessly full log. Does 5 logs full equal 1 or 2 glasses of wine? Ground venison patties on turnip chips with grilled onions were laid around the tables as an amuse bouche, followed by a platter of charred frozen venison with what they were calling “seal oil.”  The result of a frozen char is a brown crust and a tender, very rare center. And fret not, “seal oil” was just a combination of sardine and olive oil. Goose broth with curly dock was served  as a palate cleanser before proceeding to the venison stew with winter squash. Hearty and satisfying, the slow cooked venison fell apart in your mouth. Slow cooking venison in water is a great way to break down the meat and bring out its true savory flavor. Spicy cinnamon pickled turnips, the only vegetarian option, came around between several courses for guest to grab out of large silver bowls. Venison tartar was also offered to each out of a large, family style bowl. Were told to use our fingers to grab and eat as much as we pleased. For dessert we were treated to candied goose with apple served out of an edible section of phragmities reed. After eating the meat you can suck some sweet reed flesh from the inside of the reed. Venison coffee complimented the candied goose. Just kidding. The venison was all eaten up by the time coffee came around.

The table was a sculpturally inspired free-form combination of re-purposed lumber and rail ties gathered in the meadow lands. Downed branches from last fall’s Hurricane Irene poked in out and above the tables for a dynamic and ever changing view of what was happening over at your neighbor’s neck of the table. Plates, forks, and napkins were absent from the table. Guests were left to forage their own devices using chopsticks and ceramics decorating the table. In designing the event, students were asked to collect food related objects: wrappers, bones, vegetables and other eating paraphernalia were then scanned in a 3-d scanner, tweaked and combined, printed with a 3-d printer cast in silicone and molded with clay. No two ceramics containers were similar, making each portion and access to each dish unique. The less convenient ceramics forced guests to focus on their food for fear of spilling.

Though food was on showcase, it was conversation that was the real center piece at this event. Hosts suggested guests recall their own scavenging experiences to be shared while eating and in front of the group. Between courses the organizers would lament on what they had learned from the exercise of planning the event and the values of collecting their own food. Foraging is a bonding experience within your natural habitat. You must learn what to kill and eat, and what to live alongside. The food you forage from your environment becomes a part of you. It’s the opposite of a consumer based food system, when you are left your own devices to feed yourself with only what you have.

The night went on for 3 hours. Strangers became friends. Information and inspiration about food mantras, gardening, hunting tales, and more were digested. The culmination  of thought, community, art, design, and food to one big beautiful night. It was an honor to attend such a thoroughly inventive and planned out event, and harder yet to drag my sleepy bones home.

– Naomi Donabedian

(writer, food blogger and photographer de cuisine)