THE CURATED FEAST
Originally published in Edible Monterey Bay Summer 2016 Issue
The conscious eater’s local event series
By Amber Turpin
It’s an accomplishment to embrace all five senses when you eat. It takes focus and diligence. But Liz Birnbaum, creator of The Curated Feast, a high-concept event series based in Santa Cruz, doesn’t just believe in slowing down to taste, smell, hear, feel and see her food. She also practices a sixth sense, if you will, which is experiencing a place in time. Her aim is to take you on this time travel, with food and drink being your mode of transport, and a group of other engaged eaters being your companions.
“It all started almost as a party trick,” she says of her unique outlook and ability to articulate the historical and anthropologic pathways of ingredients.
“I would tell stories over drinks with friends.” But it soon became obvious that there was a bigger calling for this talent. And so, drawing on diverse experience in the food and farm worlds (her beloved current day job is with the Organic Farming Research Foundation), Birnbaum launched The Curated Feast in June 2015 at Event Santa Cruz.
Since then, Birnbaum has hosted more than a half-dozen parties, pop-ups and speaking events, using menus, ingredients, storytelling, props and some theater to explore the supposition that every ingredient has historical meaning that is significant to us today.
“Not everybody is into this kind of didactic feast,” she admitted while staging one of her most recent dinners, 1493—A Feast of Origins, in March. It was her third event tracing cultural history through food, beginning with The Taste of Ancient Greece Feast last July, and following The Silk Road, A Traveler’s Feast, in October.
It takes a certain kind of person who is more than a little bit interested in food to really get into what The Curated Feast is all about. But those of us who geek out on the stories and the linking of history to what we eat are diehard fans. In fact, most people who have attended one of her events are now regulars, waiting for the next delicious journey.
This particular meal, which took place in the upstairs Motiv bar in downtown Santa Cruz, now home to LionFish SupperClub’s Ulterior, took guests over continents as well as through time. “The idea of a New World and an Old World being separate is a very European imperial concept, an illusion,” explains Birnbaum. LionFish co-owners Zachary Mazi and Tighe Melville have been partners and collaborators with Birnbaum since the beginning. Like Birnbaum, they love the process of coming up with a symbolic menu to fit the events’ themes.
To illustrate what The Curated Feast presents, here’s an example.
To begin the 1493 meal, we were served a Botanical Imperial Cocktail, a gin and tonic designed as an “emblem of complex trade,” Birnbaum said. The Bombay Sapphire was meant to illustrate Britain’s crown jewel. Both malaria and scurvy were huge issues facing early global trade, so the tonic water’s relevance came from the quinine—a medicine used to prevent malaria—that it contains, and the lime, from its vitamin C, which addresses scurvy. The Assam tea simple syrup in the drink referenced the tea battles between China and England, and sugar, native to New Guinea and produced with forced labor, was a reminder of the integral role of slavery in the period.
There were seven more courses to ponder, equally layered in meaning. All of this learning while eating very much cultivates conversation, a focus on the relevance of what we are feasting on and a reverence for it, which is really the point of all of it. Birnbaum is encouraging us to look deeper, to keep pulling at the thread, the story, the exploration, transforming the way we eat.
There are many more curated food adventures to come, starting with a traveling feast on June 19 in San Francisco. This may be the beginning of more on-the-road endeavors, possibly with internationally known chefs overseas. Food matters everywhere, but the points of reference are different. Taking the concept of storytelling through a meal to different audiences and seeing how it might resonate in different cultures excites Birnbaum.
Meantime, sign up for Birnbaum’s newsletter to find out when her next local event will happen. Her most recent research has focused on flower mythology, the history of winemaking and more botanical imperialism…all of which will continue to bubble up in a variety of outlets both near and far. Also still simmering is a look at our local food heritage and history close to home.
Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The Curated Feast