July 2, 2011, New York City (in the evening): Ben Walmer lives in Northwest New Jersey, in the agricultural countryside known as the Highlands. He is an architect whose interest in building design rests partly in a preoccupation with the structure and patterns of sociality. A house or a building can shape society within its walls. But so can a table and the food laid upon it. Ben, already a food-lover who cares about the sources and substance of what he eats, began to design tables and then meals and then he started to cook them. Now he runs the Highlands Dinner Club, a peripatetic assemblage of available parts that becomes the site of conversation and common cause wherever Ben decides to lay the table. In the past few years he’s cooked and served dinner in empty lots in Harlem, farm fields in the Highlands, and the streets of Manhattan, among many other places. I had never heard of him until June 15 when my friend Michael Hebb stepped in to help me fill a gap in a series of ambitious plans I’d made for dinners in Hudson, NY, and New York City.
“Matthew meet Ben,” the email read. Within an hour I had a chef and an excited collaborator. Ben posseses what I call a “can-do attitude,” the most potent form of capital I’ve ever encountered. Has anyone ever measured the economic impact of optimism or trust? The most moneyed societies can be crippled by the niggardly distrust of strangers or risk. Conversely, the cash-poor economies in which I typically function are vibrantly enriched by the simple presence of a default “yes.” I’ll never forget my first collaboration with Michael Hebb, the genius maker-of-tables and erstwhile restaurateur, into whose posh North Portland, OR, gastropub, The Gotham Tavern, I had wandered one lovely March day. Eating one of chef Tommy Habetz’s exquisite frisee salads, I said to Michael, co-owner and founder of the joint, “you need a writer-in-residence at this restaurant. Let me eat and drink all I want and I’ll do that for you.” And he said “I don’t know what that means, but let’s find out.” He said “yes.” From there sprang a project called “the back room,” and scores of dinners and new work from artists and writers, including Gore Vidal, Mary Gaitskill, Sutapa Biswas, Gregory Crewdson, Dodie Bellamy, Walid Raad, Anne Focke, and many more, all of which followed from Michael’s simple “yes.” And now Michael had delivered me to Ben Walmer and the Highlands Dinner Club.
The day I met Ben, the Hudson dinner I wanted him to cook fell apart. He weathered this sudden change in plans and listened sympathetically to my complaints about the lack of any chef for New York City. Last year Ben built a table in the middle of a one-acre rooftop farm in New York, an unusual place called The Brooklyn Grange. It’s actually in Long Island City, in Queens, but the Brooklyn Grange floats a verdant farm on the roof of a six-story industrial building, covering a full acre of Long Island City’s densely-built terrain. The sun sets over the Manhattan skyline, immediately to the West. When Ben and I hooked up and he heard what Publication Studio was doing, he said we should have our New York meal there, and we did.
I had spent most of the sultry July 2 afternoon wandering the West Village with a small troupe of bibliophiles who wanted to review the recent, sometimes-sad, history of bookstores by touring a few sites with me. Around 6 pm we concluded our tour and took the “R” train to Queens. Navigating the almost-empty sidewalks we found the Brooklyn Grange and took the elevator up to a small doorway that opened onto the farm. The soil of the Brooklyn Grange is less than two-feet deep and the crops are modest — lettuce, arugula, herbs, pole beans, cauliflower, broccoli; but the sight of one-acre of verdantly productive farmland on top of a Long Island City industrial building was just as stunning and transformative as it sounds. Walking through the sixth-floor door into the neatly tended rows of greens, was like walking into a vision of the future. Why can’t the food we eat be grown and cultivated within walking distance of where we eat it? Here was a vivid, irrefutable field of plenty, full of food we would be eating that night.
Ben had shaped his menu around the rooftop farm and around my book. His meal would be the meeting place of the two. When we arrived, Ben’s friend was extending the table with lengths of bamboo, twined into place one-at-a-time, adding room for six or seven more diners. Brian Quinn was mixing drinks on a small TV-tray at the West end of the farm. In the elevator on the way up, I’d met Carlos Cuestas, carrying his guitar, which he played for us before and after dinner.
All of the guests, save three, were strangers to me. This was very unusual, especially in a city where I’d lived for eight years. No matter what the outreach, almost every dinner I host begins with a core group of friends and family, intimates who have been looking forward to something special, and are happy to support my work with something less tedious or plain than attending another reading. Maybe it was the holiday weekend, or the fractured path leading up to the event, but the crowd around the table were an unfamiliar motley of strangers — lively, unrestrained, and further animated by Brian Quinn’s superb Palomas, Cuba Libres, and Honeydew cocktails. Most had come in pairs or groups; few of them had read my work before, or ever sat down at a table this size, let alone found a hand-made book on their plates. This many strangers at a single table is ideal for publication. It was possible to know no one going in and to come out with layered, enduring bonds. At the very least we all left with the same food in our bellies, the same stories in our heads, and the same book in hand.
Including the book in our tout compris pricing is an essential strategy for Publication Studio. The single ticket makes payment for the labor of writers and book-makers a given — a natural thing that no one is invited to question or negotiate. And so (while also offering hundreds of free events) Publication Studio regularly invites people into rich, convivial settings, like the NAFTA dinners, where a single tout compris ticket price effectively isolates the “consumer moment.” Having paid, we all cross the threshold into the event shorn of consumer habits or obligations. Everything is taken care of, and there’s is plenty of it. There’s nothing left to buy. Given the ubiquitous pressures of consumer choice and “smart shopping” this sort of deliberate isolation of a non-shopping social space — a fence thrown up to keep the pressures of shopping at bay — is needed.
Many observe these fundamental pressures and argue for more radical change. Money itself is criticized as alienating, and its hegemony as the token of our exchanges is displaced by “time banks,” “local currencies,” or systems of barter. I ardently do not want that kind of change. I want money for my work. I want it without question, as a matter of human rights. Where there is no money, I want barter and fair exchange. But where there is any money involved, I don’t want fake dollars. I want to be paid for my work.
By contrast, my attempt to isolate certain social spaces from money — or, more accurately, to make rich spaces of interaction that are free of shopping — is a tactic anchored specifically in literature and what I understand as publication. Literature is diminished by shopping. The greatest potentials within a literary text — its ability to embed its strangeness and reach deep into the synapses of a mind that cannot then pull the self apart from what has entered it; its permanent confounding of the division between what is ours and what is shared — gets compromised or eaten away at by the corrosive gaze of the “smart shopper.” The smart shopper approaches a book, looking for legible signs of its value. He tries to calculate its worth and gauge its potential impact. The interaction is succesful if he accurately assesses what he’s buying, and then finds a way to pay as little as possible for it. He wants to have without giving. This is the opposite of literature.
It is no wonder that bookstores are in crisis. The attempt to make books function as attractive commodities, to move vast acres of them at discount prices, to convince smart shoppers of their value, is doomed. Never have shoppers been smarter than they are now. And no low-down dirty trickster of a literary book is going to fool them. Yet literature is essential. It and the public that it shapes will only thrive if we strategize and sustain other relationships — not shopping, but reading; exchanging; understanding — and create the social space to host them. Ben Walmer’s table on the rooftop farm was such a space.
The pictures tell a better story than I can. Talk was loud, constant, filled with bursts of laughter and decorated with Carlos Cuestas’s lovely guitar playing. I drank. I had no plate, so I circulated around the table as guests offered me tastes and bites, empeñadas, tamales, and pig. The pleasure of standing on my chair near dusk and reading as loudly as possible to carry the words of my book across the great length of the table and into the night was considerable. We discussed NAFTA, money, and labor…all the subjects I’ve spent time on here. I can assure you, without any doubt or hesitation, that the next time Ben Walmer or Brian Quinn (our bartender) sets a table, it should not be missed.
The menu: Brooklyn Grange Farm greens dressed with chive blossom vinaigrette; vegetable empanadas w/ mole and queso cotija; ceviche with grilled shrimp; whole roasted suckling pig (set whole at table center); polenta/huitlacoche tamales; chipotle/coffee braised shoulder of lamb with fresh currants served on flatbread with mint/citrus salsa; various condiments (Brooklyn Grange radishes; pickled mustard greens; Brooklyn Grange cauliflower and broccoli leaf curtido; pickled garlic scapes; salsas; local sheeps milk yogurt sauce; grilled jersey sweet corn with chili powder); flan with fresh local raspberries. Drinks: Honeysuckle cocktail (tequila reposado, lime, honey); micheladas (light beer, with lime, worchestershire sauce, cholula sauce, Maggi); Palomas (tequila Blanco, fresh grapefruit, lime, agave syrup, soda); Cuba Libres (151 rum, fresh lime, simple syrup, Mexican Coke); Sancerre white wine, Sommet Doré 2009; Bordeaux red wine, Ch. La Grolet, Côtes du Bourg 2008; Mexican red wine, L.A. Cetto, Nebbiolo 2005 from Baja Sur; El Presidente and Negro Modelo beers; Corralejo reposado tequila after.
(btw, these photos are mostly by Tae Won Yu, which is why they’re so good.)