Five years ago J. Moses Ceaser found a new way to lighten the human footprint on planet Earth. At the time he himself was barely denting the biosphere, having already achieved considerable levitation through a lifestyle of owning as little as possible. But he wanted others to experience the joy of meeting new people while having fun and stepping lightly, so he started Frugal Foodies in his home town of Berkeley.
With the help of his Web site, each week Ceaser regularly gathers groups of complete strangers to get acquainted by preparing, cooking, and eating a simple vegetarian meal together. Now individuals in San Jose as well as Berkeley, most of whom have never previously met, pay just $8 apiece for ingredients and converge on one of their households to cook a four-course dinner around a random theme. It might be a single ingredient such as beans or potatoes (once it was vodka). It might be "dishes from any country whose name starts with A," which could mix cuisines from Argentina, Algeria, and Albania.
At the Frugal Foodies debut in Seattle on Wednesday night (Jan. 13) the theme was beets. The Seattle hosts happen to be tenants in the small apartment in the basement of my University District home, which is how I scored an invitation. Before heading down I read the 12 gentle Frugal Foodies reminders online and heeded #11, meant to help people work together happily in small spaces: "tend to your cleanliness, dental hygiene, and general aroma."
Ceaser turned out not to be the pious True Believer I'd imagined. "I'm all about lowering expectations," he told the group as we assembled. "Tonight could totally suck. I have many war stories of suckage." For example, a master chef will sometimes host a Frugal Foodies dinner, he said, "and I have to get him drunk so he can stand seeing people wreck his ingredients."
Eleven guests were soon strategically grouped at different workstations to create four courses: bruschetta with beet puree topped by sautéed beet greens in the living room; a salad of sliced golden beets and lettuce with gorgonzola cheese and cranberry dressing in the front hallway; and a main dish of red quinoa with beets and citrus, plus a dessert of beet-and-chocolate cake, in the tiny kitchen. Guests brought their own beverages and knives (the display of cutlery was impressive), and hosts Emily and Shannon had purchased the ingredients. They also roasted the beets in advance. Why beets? "Beets are beautiful, and so is beet pee," explained Shannon.
Wine helped us get down to business, which included getting to know each other. If you don't count me or my friend Sally (co-founder of the fine locavore food blog Mixed Greens), the average age of the guests might have been 35. Among them were several UW grad students, a photographer, a Whole Foods fishmonger, a couple of massage therapists, and a guy about to take a motorcycle trip through South America.
One of us had always hated beets, “But I came tonight because I need to branch out.” Another came because beets reminded her of Zambia, where (insert nostalgic sigh) she had eaten them for the first time while in the Peace Corps. Another used to work at a health food store grinding beets into beet juice, much of it purchased by an artist who painted with it. Another admitted, “I was a virgin to beets. Then I had a housemate who didn’t eat anything else. Literally,” he said. “Bowls of beets with the leaves all boiled up together, lunch and dinner and lunch and....” It was lovely discussing no politics at all.
Ceaser told us that over the past four years he has had dinner with 1,600 individuals. How does word about the dinners get out? "We get YELPed," he said. Seattle's Frugal Foodies debut only got CRAIGed, but this did bring in one guest who introduced herself as "the riffraff from Craigslist." By the end of the evening — and of the marvelous meal, and of a whole lot of wine — she was Stellar Riffraff, and so were the rest of us.