Thursday, September 22, 2016

Welcoming Darkness

(In which I babble about all things strange from mushrooms to shipwrecks to bizarre Yule traditions. )

Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, the point of time between the longest day of the year and the shortest. The period of time between now and the Solstice can be difficult for many as the expanse of the dark void of winter spreads out in front of them. But I'm actually pretty excited.

Have you ever noticed how every season has a different feeling?
In spring, I can't focus because I'm just too alive and busy and curious and overwhelmed. It's the season to be running around outside taking in all of the new life because things change so FAST!

But fall is quite different.

August always feels stagnant, wistful, and nostalgic. I get restless and moody. Time seems to move very slowly in late summer and I become stuck on memories and the past and the future and the question of where I am in life and if I'm happy. But once the cold air of September starts trickling in, that mood changes.

Because fall is Trickster Time.

It seems entirely fitting to me that my culture celebrates Halloween in the middle of this changing season. The way to survive the dark is to embrace it, to question the shadows at the edge of our field of understanding, and to pursue them.


Fall is also mushroom season. Have I mentioned that I go a little crazy during mushroom season? Mushrooms are, hands down, the most enticing wild food I forage for. They are not a plant (their DNA is actually more closely related to that of animals than plants), and they seem to carry with them an energy that is just, well, mischievous. Mushrooms can play many roles: some are healing, some are delicious, some are mind-altering, and some are even deadly. Some mushrooms can be all of those things, depending on environment and preparation! You have to be really focused to hunt mushrooms; one wrong identification could have deadly consequences. It took me a long time to even begin because I was so intimidated by that, but now I fully understand the allure. Guys, mushroom hunting is FUN. Mushrooms flirt and hide and draw you deeper into the woods. They bring out the superstition in all of us. "Maybe if I just walk quieter, they won't hear me coming," you think to yourself before catching how ridiculous that sounds. "Maybe I should carry a smaller basket so they don't hide." Good mushrooms spots are carefully-guarded secrets. Any mushroom hunter worth his salt knows it goes against the code to ask another mycophile about their hunting grounds. Don't ask, don't tell, it's every person for themselves out there.

And did you know there is a whole theory about mushrooms being the true root of our modern-day Christmas? Whether or not you believe this theory, it makes for a pretty compelling story! When I first heard about this I became absolutely fascinated. I often feel that bright and happy yuletide parties about cheer have felt a little off considering the darkness of the season. That maybe we try a little too hard to pretend the darkness doesn't exist, and that just makes an already-tough time of year even worse. There is something deeply satisfying to me to embrace the dark mysteries of midwinter in the setting of a warm and cheery yuletide party.

It was thoughts like that that inspired Grovfor, an interactive installation I designed a couple of years ago. I was initially inspired by the bouche de noel (a tradition of making a yule log cake to eat on the longest night of the year), which are often decorated with confectionary mushrooms. While planning to make one I realized that I was actually far more interested in the confectionary mushrooms than the cake itself, so I decided to focus my energy in that direction and explore the idea more thoroughly. What resulted was a Willy Wonka-esque installation where guests were invited to pluck their own mushrooms from gnarled stumps in a dark forest environment. Dark, mysterious, and a little mischievous. Just the way I like it.

Mysteries and Shipwrecks: 

As the crisp September days fade into October and the darkness of midwinter looms, I move beyond the exciting treasure hunt into a deeper level of mystery. This time of year I am drawn to stories of buried treasure and unsolved mysteries....of secrets hidden beyond my reach and questions that just can't be answered. 

Lately, I've become obsessed with Shipwrecks. Living closer to the coast this year has been a wonderful experience and many times I have gone out very early in the morning and stared at the vast expanse of water as the sun came up behind me. I find it incredibly humbling to consider all of the strange things buried under the ocean's weight. "The ocean remembers all. She gives and she takes." was a thought that echoed around in my head when I'd stare out at the choppy seas of December and realize just how small and fragile one human life is when faced with the almost-infinite vastness of water ahead of me. What lurks in the deeps? What secrets are lost to the depths? 

I read an article a while ago about a 108-year-old message in a bottle washing up on shore. While this story lacks the romance of love letters washed ashore, the thought that something could be riding ocean waves for over a century and then just randomly wash up somewhere is astounding to me. Speaking of bottles, another article mentioned 200-year-old beer being recovered from a ship intact. They even sampled it! Can you imagine tasting beer that had sat on the bottom of the ocean for centuries? What a fascinating curiosity us humans have. Apparently it's not the first time that's been done, either. 

I love researching famous shipwrecks and what was recovered from them; amphorae full of garum (a fermented fish sauce the Romans used to season everything, worth much more than good wine!); perfectly preserved stacks of china plates from the Titanic; pirate treasure and casks full of wine. It's chilling to think of the many lives claimed by the sea over the centuries. Even more chilling is the thought that there are many ships laying on the bottom of the ocean that haven't been seen since the day they sank (at least not by any humans.) 

These mysteries, both frightening and beautiful, are what tug at my inspiration these days. I'm hoping to incorporate some of this inspiration into a project eventually, but until then I'll leave you with the fascinating works of another artist: 

Andreas Franke photographs shipwrecks and then photoshops characters into them to create surreal visions of life at the bottom of the ocean. These images are then exhibited on the shipwrecks themselves and grow upon them a layer of sea-bottom detritus further adding to their story. I find them haunting and beautiful, definitely a juicy feast for the imagination. It makes me think of the rumored underwater city of Atlantis, proof that the mysteries below the waves have excited human imaginations for centuries. 

Oh, winter oceans, how I love you. 


And after the mushrooms and shipwrecks of the fall comes Julklapp. What is this thing, you ask? Well, as this blogger so eloquently puts it: 

"Julklapp was so impressive to me I had to share it with everyone. Julklapp encompasses quite a few things that interest me into one fantastic act. It includes the following:
  1. Christmas
  2. Mischief
  3. Violence"
Sounds pretty intriguing, eh? I first read about julklapp in an obscure little book on Norwegian recipes. It was a tiny paragraph, almost a footnote, but it has stuck with me for YEARS. Just googling it won't get you much- apparently the very loose translation is "gift." Seems a little more fitting when you factor in that the German word "gift" means "poison..." 

Okay, now I'll tell you about it. So you begin with a small gift, and you wrap it. And then you wrap it some more. And then you tuck in some riddles or jokes, and then wrap it more. Perhaps you roll it in a ball of yarn to make it seem as though the yarn is the gift. Maybe you even wrap it in dough and bake it like a cake but then when the recipient bites into it- surprise! But I'm getting ahead of myself. So you have this gift that you've wrapped like a gazillion times in many different misleading layers, but you're still not done. The last layer should be something rather squishy like tissue paper or yarn or hay. Then comes the fun part: dodgeball. The goal of julklapp is rather like Secret Santa- you want your identity as gift giver to remain a secret. The way the presents are delivered is that sometime during the day of celebration they are unexpectedly thrown at the recipient as the giver quickly runs away so as not to be seen. Yep, that means that anytime during the yule celebration you could be suddenly pelted with your surprise gift, which is actually more of a puzzle. 


It is always a let-down on Christmas morning when gifts are unwrapped with such abandon that the whole scene becomes a blur of torn paper and ribbons and then you're left sitting there in a haze wondering what just happened. It all goes by so FAST! I love the idea of prolonging the process of exchanging gifts. Throw in some mischief to match the season, and I'm totally sold. 

So, there are a few of the things I'm thinking about tonight as I prepare myself mentally for the dark days ahead. I wrote this mostly for my own reference but if you're reading along that's cool too. What kind of energy do YOU think fall and winter carry? Are you excited to embrace the darkness? 


Moss Gazing

In Japan there is a tradition called “Hanami” that means tree-blossom observing. During a short period in the spring when the trees are in bloom, people gather to admire their beauty together. The delicate flowers are fleeting and ephemeral, offering lots of inspiration for poetry and artwork about the fleeting nature of life itself. I often think of this while doing a similar activity here in the Northwest- “moss gazing.” But I think that the lessons learned from this are quite different from the ones the sakura blossoms teach Japanese poets.

You see, moss is not fleeting. Moss is constant. Moss is ancient. Mosses were the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land. They range in size drastically and can be found in almost every ecosystem on earth. They have been here far longer than humans have existed and they blanket our world with the memories of some of the first life forms on Earth. Instead of reminding  you of the frailty of life, they remind you of the constancy of life. That you are just one little blip in the timeline of something much bigger than you, or me, or anyone.

So when life gets overwhelming and my problems seem larger than myself, I escape into the woods and practice the art of moss-gazing. That’s what I invited my guests to do with me this magical night- to make a point to notice the minute and the tiny; the dramatic landscapes found within the soft carpet of moss underfoot and the diversity of flavors hidden under a rotten log. Everything they dined on (and dined out of) was inspired by the delicate wonders of the forest floor, transformed through the poetry of manipulated ingredients and manipulated silica. Just remember, if you’re having trouble seeing the big picture, just look closer. 

I had such a wonderful time planning and executing this magical event. I hand-made all of the serving vessels and plates of out glass and ceramic, dyed all of the napkins, and even made the mossy installation hanging over the table to remind guests of being in green woods dripping with moss. I foraged most of the food for the menu and prepared all the food as well (with a little help from my mom in making the rolls!) 

The menu was full of foresty goodness, from roasts cooked in "Forest floor" to secret buried chocolate treasure, to mushrooms for dessert (really!) Here are the courses: 

1st course: A blank canvas of herb-enriched soft bread; a cracked texture reminiscent of the first stages of decay and peeling bark. The smallest zesty moss balls with which to dress it - fresh bright herbs and tangy goat cheese. Things that are salty, sour, smoky on the tongue. Time to wake up and get present. 
Dutch Crunch rolls make with spinach and nettle powders, zesty goat cheese balls rolled in wild herbs, pickled fiddlehead ferns, alder-smoked sea salt, and fresh butter, all served in homemade glass and ceramic vessels. 

2nd course: A cluster of cool asparagus moss dusted in powdered flavor. A slice of forest floor hugs a fungi cluster- a conference of umami turns into a meeting with wine which evolves into one hell of a party in the woods. 
Spinach crepe filled with a white wine, butter, and parmesan wild mushroom filling. Plated on a handmade stoneware plate with marinated asparagus, a dusting of nettle powder, and a sprinkle of parsley. 

3rd course: A deer rests in the moss, nibbling on acorns. A westerly breeze brings with it the far-off spiciness of juniper. The winds are changing. The soil underfoot carries with it the secrets of new life, of dormant seeds, of one last show before winter's snows. 
Juniper-Infused cream and bright green herb oil; edible soil flavored with olives and juniper; spiced pickled acorns; mint-spruce pea puree; sunflower and pea sprouts; and forest floor roasted beef with a sprinkle of alder-smoked salt. 

Dessert: The intoxicating perfume of nature's gold fills the air. The damp woods smell of almonds and apricots and the dew-covered plants drip as bare feet walk over soft moss. The treasure hunt begins. 
This special dessert is in honor of chanterelle mushrooms, and is made of: almond-lemon moss cake; spherified chanterelle cream anglaise; browned butter and peach/apricot ball covered in saffron spheres; candied chanterelle mushrooms; matcha-almond pudding dots; and a tapioca crisp with matcha powdered sugar. Lots of delightful apricot flavors with undertones of almonds, grassiness, and caramel earthiness. 

After Dinner Treats: A dive into the soil's bitter, dark, earthy flavors. A symphony of licorice notes from the depths of the woods: mushrooms, roots, rhizomes. What treats will you find gracing the bark? Hiding under the moss? 
Lots of special licorice and bitter-sweet treats to nibble on after the feast. I infused a special digestif liquor just for the event, made with many wild plants including licorice fern rhizome and sweet cicily roots for their licorice flavor blended with my "first" bitters blend. I also served coffee brewed with anise shelf mushrooms and juniper cream. A large, bark-covered silver tray accompanied these drinks and on it were lots of other sweet little nibbles: nutmeg, vanilla, and anise shelf mushroom meringues; pine nut matcha bon bon; and cacao nib balls with pistachio and lions' mane mushrooms. After nibbling on these little bites, the guests discovered that the bark they were served on was actually cinnamon, and began nibbling on that as well! There were still a couple of surprises left, too,... 

One final surprise for the guests at Moss Gazing were little gold foil-wrapped treasures hidden under the moss on the table. Inside were my "chocolate truffle truffles"- silky chocolate ganache infused with real Perigord black truffles marbled with fondant to mimic the patterns found inside the fungi for which truffles get their name. I watched as excited guests unearthed the moss on the table with glee to find these treats to take home and remember the evening by. 

To see more pictures from this event, visit my website or my Facebook page
To learn more about what I do and why I do it, visit my Patreon page.