Burning Man 2012: The Pilgrimage

If you’ve been following me since my season of MasterChef aired last summer, you know how fanatical I am about the Burning Man festival.  Trying to describe this event is practically impossible.  Each summer 60,000 people from all over the world assemble on a dry desert lake bed in northern Nevada and build a city dedicated to “radical self expression.”  For the week that this city exists, it is filled with incredible art, dazzling performances, and workshops on everything from solar power to shamanic healing to community development.  Money is not allowed in this city.  Everything is free.  And the experience perpetuates itself through a “culture of gifting,” where you are expected to contribute to the city in whatever way you can.  If you’re a penniless artist, the city will offer you an art grant, and your contribution is a work of art.  If you’re a massage therapist, you’re expected to gift random massages to tired-looking people on the street, or to set up a massage booth several hours a day.  If you’re a wealthy dot-com magnate, you bring a massive dance club and bar, or a restaurant, or you sponsor tickets for those who can’t afford them.

This was my fourth year at Burning Man, and I can’t really imagine my life without it.  Immersing yourself in a city that completely rejects our societal norms…gender roles…decorum and formality and pomp and circumstance…is incredibly refreshing.  At Burning Man, you are expected to be completely and utterly yourself.  No one is going to criticize you for looking and acting however you want.  Burning Man is a place of supreme acceptance, peace, and joy.

But it’s no easy task getting there.  I left for Burning Man 6 days before its gates opened.  2 days before that, though, I was cooking up a storm.  I smoked 2 pork shoulders.  I turned 2 briskets into beef jerky.  And I made GALLONS of hummus and babaganouj (smoked eggplant and sesame dip).  I froze everything, put it into 2 coffin-sized coolers along with all my gear for a month, and headed west.

I made a small detour to visit my parents, way out in Snyder, Texas.  Since MasterChef, I don’t get to visit them as often as I used to because my schedule is so busy.  Mom made a delicious breakfast of farm eggs, blueberry pancakes, and fresh raw goat milk.  Delicious!

All too soon, back to the road.  I wanted to make Tucson that night, so I could arrive in Phoenix for lunch with the incomparable Monti Carlo, so that I could arrive in Apple Valley, CA in time for dinner with Stacey.  By the time I arrived at Monti’s house, though, she was in tears, frantically cooking.

“What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“My watch party is tonight and all these people are coming…”

But I could tell that wasn’t what was bothering her.  I gave her that “tell me what’s REALLY wrong” look.

“Tonight’s my night to go.”

I felt like such a terrible friend at that moment.  Here I am, rushing to get to Stacey’s house, and tonight is a really big, scary night for Monti.  The night she gets eliminated from MasterChef.

“I have to stay, then,” I said.

“Are you crazy, dude?!?  Stacey’s husband just went deep sea fishing and has pounds and pounds of tuna for you guys to eat.  You have to go.  I’ll be fine.”

We chatted about Burning Man for a bit and I convinced her that she HAD to come next year.  We’re gonna have a MasterChef camp with a full kitchen and have mystery box challenges, and feed the good people of Burning Man INCREDIBLE food.  That cheered her up a bit, but I still felt like a dirtbag when I drove off.

It’s about 6 hours from Monti’s house to Stacey’s house, through the barren Mojave Desert.  Stacey lives (…or, rather, lived) in Apple Valley, California.  A tiny village (by California standards) that most people have never heard of.  But *I* know it well, as it’s the closest town to the Deep Creek hot springs…an extraordinary set of wilderness hot springs in a wild canyon, only a few short hours from Los Angeles.  I’ve soaked there so often, it’s entirely possible that I been there at the same time Stacey was there…even a decade ago, when she was still in high school.  She and her friends frequented the hot springs back then, which is when I was soaking there most frequently.  How crazy is that?!?

Stacey lives (er…lived) at the end of a long dirt road, smack dab up against a big granite mountain, in one of the coolest houses I’ve ever seen.  Small, cozy, eclectic, absolutely FILLED with fresh produce.  Stacey manages a farmer’s market, so she’s always bringing home gifts from the farmers.  Her decorations are literally almost entirely edible.  Lemons and avocados were stuffed in every available corner of every room, even the bathroom.

And then, of course, there was Stacey.  Her personality on the show was so big and bold, that I was completely taken aback by how tiny she is.  She must weigh 80 pounds soaking wet.  But one of the brightest and most joyful souls I’ve ever met.  The first thing she did was shove a bowl of poke into my arms.  THEN she hugged me.  (Poke is pronounced “PO-kay” and it’s a Hawaiian specialty of raw fish marinated with soy and citrus, mixed with a variety of ingredients like onion, seaweed, sesame seeds, etc.  It’s one of my favorite things in all the world.)

Her fridge and several coolers were overflowing with fresh tuna and other fish that her hubby Mike and his buddies had caught.  And Stacey pulled out the stops and created a menu based entirely around raw fish.  Take a look:

The party was going in full force out in her backyard, which is easily the coolest entertaining space I’ve seen.  Funky, hippy, Bohemian, southwestern shabby chic.  I felt right at home.

Stacey and Mike love to entertain, and I enjoyed reading her “Party Rules” board:

She has a pond where rosemary (a desert plant) and ginger (a tropical plant) are growing side-by-side.  Over in the corner is her extensive container garden:

Stacey lives next door to her parents, who are delightful people.  Their backyard is also incredible, with a huge waterfall, and an outdoor kitchen to rival anything I’ve ever seen.   Stacey is Italian, so her family obviously has to have a pizza oven, and this one puts my little homemade oven to shame:

After a tour, we were back in the kitchen cooking and eating.  One of Stacey’s favorite things to make is sushi.  (Ironic, because she was eliminated from MasterChef after a sushi challenge.)  Her spicy tuna rolls were absolutely divine.

We literally gorged on raw fish.  MasterChef was playing in the background, but I wanted to watch Monti’s farewell episode in private rather than a party setting, so I ignored it.  We talked long into the night about how MasterChef had changed our lives.  Stacey and I felt like we’d known each other all our lives…I felt so connected to her so quickly.  She and Mike are definitely my kinda people.  Eventually I drifted off to sleep on her couch, and I awoke the next morning to this:

If that’s not being pampered, I don’t what what is!  It’s a plate of cheeses, fruit, and nuts, and on the side is a serving of poke, underneath of which is a shot of smoked tomato water.  !!!  Lucky me!

It was a busy morning.  Stacey was canning her homemade barbeque sauce, which I was lucky enough to taste (and then get a pint of!).  Stacey puts even more ingredients in her sauce than I do.  Her base is smoked tomatoes, which is totally genius.  And one of her many “secret” spices is fenugreek.  Her sauce is EASILY the most complex and delicious I’ve ever tasted.

In addition to BBQ sauce, there was a whole yellowtail left from the night before, and it had to be dealt with.  Stacey stuffed it full of lemons from her grandmother’s tree and herbs from her garden, filled the body cavity with aromatics, and Mike smoked it out back.  While it was smoking, though, Stacey had plans.

“See that mountain behind the house?  Let’s climb it!”

I strapped on my hiking boots and she and I headed for the hills.  20 minutes later (it seemed MUCH longer), we topped out about 800 feet above her house on the pinnacle of the granite crag.  I had been driving for 2 days, and it felt so good to use by body for a change.  But by the time we got back down, we were sweating like crazy, so we plunged into her parents’ saltwater pool and talked about her impending move to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where she’s going to start a restaurant and sell her BBQ sauce and several other artisan items in the farmers’ market.  She was sad to leave this incredible place that she and Mike have truly made their own.  But excited to be moving to a place exploding with life and abundance, where life moves at a slower pace, and where food and the land are considered sacred.

I was sad to leave Stacey’s house.  We spent barely 20 hours together, but I had grown incredibly fond of her and Mike both.  There are some people you meet in this world who share the same soul…the same ideals.  I am so excited to visit Stacey in Kauai (where she already is!) and see how she’s putting down her new Hawaiian roots!  Follow Stacey’s adventure here.

Then I drove into Los Angeles to meet…FELIX!  I don’t think ANY contestant this year on MasterChef was more intriguing to be from the start.  I absolutely adored Felix.  I don’t think they featured her enough, and I don’t think she was eliminated fairly.  From talking to my friends from this season, they all just raved about Felix and what a unique person she is.

Moments after arriving at her West Hollywood apartment, she had a katana at my throat.  *giggle*

Felix is a fascinating girl.  Hysterically funny with one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen.  She’s sexy and brassy and bold, but at the same time, shy and quiet and diminutive.  Felix has been working as a food runner at one of LA’s most famous fine-dining restaurants for awhile, and has just been promoted to a server, which means the potential for a BIG increase in pay.  So I’m really happy for her.  Of course, she wants to be in the kitchen, and with her determination, she’ll be there in no time.  But she’s such a people person, like me, I’m not sure being cooped up in a commercial kitchen is for her.  Maybe she should be doing underground dinners, like Jennie Kelley and I are with FRANK, where she can interact with the people she’s cooking for…

Felix and Tanya and I met up with my sweet little Peanut (Esther, from my season) and had dinner in Korea Town.  Tanya has been living in LA, staging (the culinary equivalent of interning) at restaurants and has now gotten a paid job at a bakery.  Tanya, like David Martinez and Michael Chen, plunged head-first into the culinary world after MasterChef ended, and is serious about turning her passion for food into her career.  I’m so proud of her!

It was fun having this little cross-season dinner.  Esther hasn’t had time to watch the current season, so she had no idea who Tanya and Felix were.  But they shared the same intense experience that Esther and I did, and Tanya and Felix are very close, like Esther and I are.

After dinner, I got to meet Felix’s adorable boyfriend.  They’ve known each other for years, since they both lived in Puna…the southeastern district of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where I’m trying to move to start my farm.  They are an adorable couple.  But all too early, I had to leave for San Diego, because the clock was ticking, and I still had to cook a week’s worth of food for 30 people before Burning Man.

In San Diego I met up with my dearest friends Nate and Sandy.  I’ve known them for 17 years, since college.  They just gave birth to their first child scarcely a month before I arrived, and for some reason they decided to play host to our “base camp” for Burning Man this year…as if they didn’t have their hands full with baby!  Normally they go to Burning Man with us, but certainly not this year.  Though it was a bit of torture for them, watching us all get ready for the event, knowing they weren’t going.

My dear friend Raspberry, who I’ve known for more than a decade, and my best buddy Monty (my old college roomie) arrived in town from the Pacific Northwest, and the first order of business upon arrival was hair dyeing.  At Burning Man, if you look “normal,” you’re probably not expressing yourself radically.  So for the past 3 years, I’ve dyed my hair some crazy color, and Raspberry decided to join me this year.  (Raspberry isn’t his real name, but we call each other Raspberry because of a random connection to Carol Channing’s character in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie…long story.)  So we started the laborious transformation which first requires bleaching your hair until it’s almost white.

Classy!

After that, it’s 2 hours of heating the shocking color into your bleached hair, followed by careful washing, followed by an apple cider vinegar soak to raise the pH and seal in the color.  And you end up with this:

Early the next morning, it was grocery shopping time.  Buying enough food, beer, snacks, and camping supplies for 30 people for a week is no small matter.  This was the bill at the FIRST stop:

And that was just the first.  I spent well over $2,000 that morning.  Then we went to the extraordinary home belonging to my friends Mark and Elaine to start cooking.  We had to make Pad Thai, sesame noodles, chicken salad, chicken with saffron rice,  pasta salad, braised cabbage, beans…and then freeze it all with dry ice.  Thankfully, Elaine and Raspberry are both superb cooks, so we made short time of it.  Mark and Elaine’s kids even got involved.

Mark and Elaine are my kinda folks.  They grow much of their own food, they have an AMAZING chicken coop filled with layers, and their kids have incredibly broad palates.  (They were scarfing down my vinegary braised cabbage like it was candy.)  When we were finished, I was able to introduce the kids to the wonders of dry ice…I remember being so mesmerized by it when I was a kid.

With food cooked and frozen solid and our massive infrastructure loaded into the 22′ truck, we headed north to Reno, stopping along the way to pick up my new friend Denis.  I met Denis on my last trip out west, 3 months ago, at a hot spring just south of Yellowstone.  (Blog coming soon.)  He’s one of the more fascinating people I’ve met.  He started college when he was 16, in a quadruple major program: Mathematics, Economics, Russian, and Ceramic Arts.  (???)  After 4 years of intense study, he needed a break, so he had spent the past year working in California’s Youth Conservation Corps, building trails and fighting fires in the wilderness.  Denis is the biggest social butterfly I’ve ever met, so when he decided to come to Burning Man with us, I knew it was going to be an amazing experience for him.  Especially since he would turn 21 during the event!

Sunday morning we rendezvoused with a large contingent from our camp for breakfast at Peg’s Glorified Ham and Eggs, my favorite eatery in Reno.  Promise me that you will NEVER visit Reno without eating there.  They have 3 locations around this VERY small town, and each of them are jam packed every day of the week.  Peg’s is legendary for huge portions…in fact they serve most of their entrees inside a massive skillet.  Denis is legendary for packing away food, so he ordered the full 1-pound ham steak, 3 eggs, hash browns, cabbage slaw, fried bananas, and a thick slice of cantaloupe.  3 minutes after it arrived, it was gone:

And that wasn’t all.  I could only stuff HALF my tamale skillet into my stomach, so Denis finished mine.  And then Raspberry needed help with his plate.  Denis basically polished off about 8 pounds of food for breakfast…a good thing because as much as he was about to bounce around Burning Man, missing half the meals in camp, he’d need all the calories he could get!

After breakfast, a few hours to gather last-minute supplies, and then it was off to Burning Man…about a 2 hour drive northeast of Reno in the high desert.  The route passes Pyramid Lake, a massive inland sea named for a natural rock formation near the shore.  This is the home of the Pyramid Lake tribe, who have lived in this desert for centuries.

Your eyes are weary, and my fingers are sore.  And we have YET to arrive at Burning Man.  So I’ll let you off the hook for now, and pick back up again tomorrow.  I have amazing stories and images and videos about Burning Man to share with you, and perhaps an even more amazing account of the long journey home afterward.  So why don’t you go ahead and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of this page, to make sure you don’t miss another post!

3 Responses to Burning Man 2012: The Pilgrimage

  1. Lovely! And I really like that you look like a younger copy of your mum 😀

  2. Good God…Stacey seems even more awesome than I thought! She was so robbed, it’s nice to know she’s moving on to far better things. Her party rules are amazing.

  3. Sounds like an awesome trip. I can’t wait to hear more.

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