Marcelle Richards has her hair pushed back with a blue bandana and is stirring a southern-style, cream-based gravy made with crumbled organic chicken-and-apple sausage, while oil heats in two pots in preparation for deep-frying chicken.
"I really wanted emu sausage for the gravy, but I couldn't find any," says Richards, as she adds some fresh thyme to the mix.
This is the inaugural dinner in a series of food events that Richards is calling "Marcelle's Gastropacalypse Test Kitchen," trying out her recipes for a cookbook she'd like to write called Gastropacalypse: Last Meals to Live By. She'd previously told me that she'd be theme-dressed in a wife beater t-shirt for the occasion, but her plaid shirt, bandana, and apron seem to be a more benevolent take on trailer culture.
"I was inspired by Isa Moskowitz's cookbook Vegan with a Vengeance," says Richards, who is no longer vegan or vegetarian but advocates cooking with local and organic ingredients. Moskowitz, who's written three vegan cookbooks and hosted a vegan cooking show called The Post Punk Kitchen, also used dinner parties as a low-key way of testing recipes -- one of the hardest things to do, says Richards.
Her gastropacalypse theme comes from a "a daydream I had about what I'd like to eat if the world were about to end." The recipes are "reinventions of favorites, or re-combinations of flavors and ingredients I hold dear to my heart."
What might be termed "alternative dining" (underground restaurants, private supper clubs, communal tables, ad hoc test kitchens, experiential eating, interactive meals) is growing nationwide. That's due in part to greater consciousness and enthusiasm about food, which in turn stems from sources as disparate as the Slow Food and "eat local" movements, to the Food Network and reality TV competitions like Top Chef. At the same time, online communication tools like Facebook and blogs with RSS feeds have made the process of spreading the word of dinners among networks of friends or residents of a given area almost effortless. As for the Gastropacalypse Test Kitchen, it's currently just Richards and her friends, "no strangers yet," except for me.
Richards, a December 2008 graduate of UW-Madison with a degree in zoology, is currently waiting tables at Fresco, where she reads the cookbooks in the kitchen during downtime and pays attention to what the chefs are doing. Although zoology wasn't a good fit for her, she thinks "the methodology you learn while getting a science degree has influenced me" in testing versions of her recipes.
Tonight's "Eat Your Soul Food" menu was sparked by Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in Los Angeles, one of Richards' favorite restaurants (she's originally from Southern California.) The centerpiece of the menu is waffle-battered fried chicken, which may well be a Richards invention. "I love chicken. I love waffles. And then I thought, they'd be a superfood if I could only combine them," she writes on her Gastropacalypse Test Kitchen blog.
The plan is to try deep-frying some chicken pieces first, then adding the waffle batter and re-frying them, but also trying a straight waffle-batter-into-the-fryer approach.
Friends are assisting: one dips chicken in the waffle batter while another consults a grits recipe on her iPhone: "How much is a dash of salt times 12?" Richards herself seems unflappable during this process, even though she's not even on her home turf; she's borrowed a friend's house for the occasion.
It is definitely more test kitchen than dinner party as the first chicken pieces emerge from the deep-frier. With the initial batch, most of the batter has fallen off the chicken, but adjustments are made, the batter stays on the second batch, and we sit down to eat at a table in the living room accompanied by the music of Johnny Cash and wonderful handmade, R.Crumb-ish menus designed by Richards' friend Jen Clausen.
Dinner turns into the kind of event that underground diners say they're looking for -- good company, dog- and cat-friendly, interactive, rewarding. And it's far from boring. In fact, it's this refusal to let food be boring that sets the Gastropacalypse Test Kitchen apart from your average meal.
The waffle batter is rich, flaky and absorbs the accompanying maple syrup; the batter really does taste like waffles -- deep-fried waffles, almost a lighter take on hush puppies. The gravy, seasoned with plenty of freshly ground black pepper, goes well on the grits, which have turned out perfectly just with some added butter. A chilled "Japanese-Dixieland spinach salad" that Richards calls "Tokyokel greens" is tangy, mixing shocked spinach greens with a little sesame oil, onions and peanut dressing. The chicken is fine, but it's the waffle batter that's the biggest hit.
That is, until the pie is rolled out. The Ba'can Pie, a.k.a. pecan pie with bacon, was inspired by a couple of bacon sweets that Richards recently ran across: Madison chocolatier David Bacco's bacon truffles and a box of bacon brittle one of her friends received as a Christmas present. The pecan pie, studded with pieces of nitrate-free bacon, also features bourbon, as well as bacon grease in the crust. The play of the sweet with the savory is sublime. And the last buttery-candied pieces of the crust are heaven.
The big surprise is that people haven't always been adding bacon to pecan pie, although I suppose it could be argued that it makes an already delectable but unhealthy foodstuff even unhealthier (but in equal parts more delectable).
Those interested in being future food-testers can contact Richards via her blog. She is going to repeat the "Eat Your Soul Food" menu to refine it, then move on to a menu featuring Buffalo Mac'n' Cheese, made with buffalo mozzarella and shades of spicy buffalo chicken wings. In March, she'll do a hot pastrami eggs benedict brunch with Colman's mustard béarnaise sauce on rye.
"I love Colman's mustard because it's so in-your-face," says Richards. "I'm looking for rye English muffins. But I might have to bake those myself."
If this is experiential dining, give me more.