OPENfuture: Spinning Marinetti's Wheels

Oh. My. God. Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. OH. MY. GOD. That's what kept racing through my mind as I watched a 650-pound spit-roasted steer get lifted out of a bicycle-powered trailer and unwrapped on an equally massive butcher-block table at the latest OPENrestaurant event this past Saturday October 17th. The large shimmering tapestry that covered it was lifted away--I couldn't help but think of Jesus and the shroud, or weirdly, images of Aslan came to me, being brought to the stone table in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The crowd of people surrounding the table pressed close, buzzing in a combination of excitement and discomfort, not knowing what was going to happen next. It was noisy, exhilarating, and strange.

The corporeality of the steer was surreal, its massive haunches gradually revealed after enough aluminum foil to create a small planet was peeled off its tremendous frame. The smell of meat and fennel started to permeate the atrium of the SFMOMA (the animal's entire cavity was filled with stalks of wild fennel). Yeah, we were in a museum, and there was a huge roasted steer in the middle of the room. Bizarre.

Members of the OPENrestaurant family (because that's really what it is) pedaled the beast through the city on a tricycle, pulling a trailer all the way from Alemany Farm at Alemany and Bayshore, where the steer had been roasting for 20 hours. The steer had two rods that crossed through its hulking frame so it could be properly suspended and maneuvered over a fire; one spit had to be tapped out with a sledgehammer in front of the crowd, it was so deeply embedded (yes, it was grotesque to watch). Morgan Maki of Bi-Rite told me about the elaborate fire pit and process--here are some pictures from Sasha Wizansky, taken over several days, of the transit to Avedano's Meats and then to the pit so you can see how the hell they roasted this thing.

After the foil was peeled away and the spits were extracted, a fleet of white-jacketed female chefs and butchers began to carve and disassemble the steer. It was like a barbaric surgery, a bit shocking in its carnality. Ohmygod, ohmygod. A live video projection on the wall above showing an aerial view of the proceedings looked almost Caravaggio-esque with its dramatic lighting.

As the steer was cut into smaller pieces, the chunks of meat were either slapped down on a long conveyor belt, or placed in metal containers, where the meat was eventually "processed" by chefs to make a variety of dishes. One plate featured slices of the beef topped with "crude oil" mole and "methane bean foam" over pieces of Tartine Bakery bread and wild arugula. I actually scraped the mole off so I could taste the meat, which was juicy and so flavorful, a bit feral tasting. An amazing feat to cook an animal of that size and have it come out so well. It fed an entire room (and I think it's still feeding the event organizers).

The room was full of controlled chaos and cacophony, with video projections on the walls by Chris Sollars, air raid sounds and live audio by sound artist Matt Volla and composer Luciano Chessa, dark and dramatic lighting, and a huge tapestry of the manifesto that originally covered the steer was eventually hung from the second story; I spoke with the artist who made the tapestry, Leslie Terzian Markoff--she didn't sleep the last three days in order to finish weaving the piece, the largest one she had ever done. It had words from the manifesto and even had pieces of tinfoil that she wove into it--an astounding accomplishment, so much texture.

The event was part of a larger series SFMOMA was hosting (Metal + Machine + Manifesto = Futurism's First 100 Years) to celebrate the anniversary of Futurism, an important movement that started Italy a century ago. This specific OPENrestaurant event used F. T. Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook from 1932 for inspiration, modernizing it and turning it on its ear. The room was full of mini installations of food and drink, each rife with symbolism and meaning. For example, "Saving Flavor Tomatoes" stuffed with ceviche were passed around the room to guests, a reference to Monsanto's genetic engineering attempt to splice a gene from a flounder into a tomato (FAIL). St. George Spirits made a grappa from the roasted heart and tongue of the steer (you could taste a little peppery funk to it). A model plane above the butcher-block table started spinning once the carving was done, "crop dusting" with orange blossom water made from oranges planted by the inventor of Agent Orange. There were "meat cones" from 4505 Meats in corn tortilla cones, topped with shaved beef tendon and "marrownaise," served on custom-made resin trays with corn embedded in them. Corn, beef, do the math...

I could go on. (You can view a pdf of the evening's "menu" designed by Sasha Wizansky for an idea of all the contributors.) There were so many details, a tremendous amount of elements and moving parts--it was like a Rube Goldberg machine, and it all magically came together. Well, not magically--there was an immeasurable amount of hours and hard work behind it all. As SFMOMA's curator of the event, Frank Smigiel, said to me, "We didn't want this to be about extreme catering." And it wasn't. It was too smart to be that.

I couldn't help but reflect on how the event felt so very uniquely San Franciscan, in so many ways. The event wasn't about what New York does, or Europe. It was about here, from the beef raised in California to the room full of Chez Panisse cooks to the local female butchers to the bread makers and beer makers and winemakers... Everything was hyper-local, artisanal, political, and edgy, in our own punk rock-culinary-farmer way.

The finale of the night featured propaganda parachutes holding packages of panforte made by Stacie Pierce cast off from the upper floor of the museum onto the crowd below. Each piece of panforte was so beautifully wrapped up in the Futurist manifesto, with manifesto language adhered to the chewy honey cakes with edible rice paper. We were eating Marinetti's words.

At the end of the night, the picked-over carcass was abandoned in the center of the room, left like a wildebeest on the Serengeti. The smell of meat and fennel continued to waft from it, the room heavy with the animal's pungency. Even as a devout meat eater, this particular spectacle was strong, and a lot to watch and process; kind of like the first time I saw Fellini's Satyricon.

Thank you to all the organizers, and especially to Sam White, Jerome Waag, and Stacie Pierce of OPENrestaurant, for putting on ever-more amazing and clever and important installations.

I posted some videos of the event here (start with this one), and images here since words can't describe it all accurately. Sadly my images and video don't either. Please note: some of the images and video are not for the faint of heart, or vegans.

OPENfuture: Spinning Marinetti's Wheels
Sat., Oct. 17th, 2009

Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium
San Francisco, CA

This place has not been formally reviewed by the tablehopper, but it has been mentioned in related articles...