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Friday, July 22, 2011

At SOMArts' Intimate Feast of Words, Eat, Write, and Share

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2011 at 10:59 AM

ANNA DIEM
  • Anna Diem

"Pick a story that you tell all the time -- a story that you tell the same way, with the same words, every time. And it has to revolve around food. You've got 10 minutes to write, and you can't stop writing until time's up."

Heads go down as 35 pens hit paper, and suddenly there's complete silence.

But it's not the eerie quiet of an exam room or the polite silence of strangers in a library. It's a comfortable silence, the sort you get when you're surrounded by friends, but everybody's just doing their own thing. At Feast of Words, SOMArts' monthly "literary potluck," this comfortable intimacy with a group of strangers is exactly what hosts Irina Zadov and Lex Leifheit try to cultivate.

Zadov and Leifheit began Feast of Words with a simple idea -- to create an event that revolved around food and storytelling. Zadov tells SF Weekly it seemed like a perfectly natural pairing.

"I think food and storytelling are so primal," she says. "Our great-great-ancestors sat around the fire and told stories."

So each month, Zadov and Leifheit choose a theme and host a dinner where they feature one writer and one chef.

Since the first Feast of Words in October, themes have included sweet (Home Away from Home), fun (Naughty or Nice?), and grand (On the Shoulders of Giants). Past featured writers include gay erotica author Simon Sheppard and Wandering Spoon blogger Thy Tran. Chefs include Yasmin Golan of Calico Pie Edibles and Delights as well as Peter Jackson of Canvas Underground.

ANNA DIEM
  • Anna Diem

Tuesday night's theme was Deconstruction; reading and cooking were poet Cole Krawitz and chef Justin Belluomini, formerly of Zuni Cafe and 1550 Hyde and now with Taste Catering (and whose surname translates, awesomely, as "Beautiful Men"). Belluomini served a deconstructed paella, complete with fried oysters, lobster confit, peppers cooked three ways, and tomato-water caviar he made by using a turkey baster to squeeze tomato-water into freezing cold olive oil, where it formed little tapiocalike balls.

The audience forgot their food as soon as Krawitz started reading. He shared a series of poems, mostly in the form of epistolaries, reflecting on his experience as a cancer patient and survivor. In Dear Portacath, he traced his love-hate relationship with his portacath, drawing chuckles from the line, "You deserve footsies in bed." Krawitz also talked about the difficulty of even admitting the disease in the first place, perhaps best summed up in the line, "Grandma still thinks I cut my hair."

Yet Feast of Words transcends food tasting and a reading. As Zadov puts it, the goal is to eat, write, and share.

ANNA DIEM
  • Anna Diem

The "share" part means that the second hour is a writing exercise. While this might sound intimidating to a nonwriter, Zadov reassures SF Weekly that the prompts are designed to be accessible.

"Whether it's someone who feels really confident, or someone who just came for the food and social aspect, it's at a level that they can engage," says Zadov.

Tuesday night, Krawitz asked everyone to write down an oft- (or over)told story, then led everyone in brainstorming ways to deconstruct and rewrite it from a fresh perspective or angle. One of my most embarrassing childhood experiences turned into a lighthearted list that I called "7 Steps to Eating Out at a Fancy Restaurant for the First Time, Age 4."

Then came the scary part -- participants were encouraged to approach the microphone and share what they'd just written. There were prizes to motivate the guests (this round's were a glittery pink "gastronomy kit" and Litquake tickets), but it was the bonding between the guests that made it possible for everyone to stand up and share. After more than an hour of eating and chatting and listening together, the room transformed from a collection of strangers to something that more resembled an big extended family dinner party -- with only those family members you like.

Readers ranged from their early 20s to white-haired elders. Glimpses of diverse backgrounds peeked through the readings as well: Jewish, Asian, and African; siblings and parents; childhood embarrassments and family conflicts; teenage escapades; funerals.

When the dinner ended a little after 9 p.m., people were still chatting on the way out. A woman approached Zadov.

"She told me she had a breakthrough," Zadov says, "She had always told the story of growing up in her parents' Chinese restaurant and being a bit resentful because her parents worked so much. But last night, she recalled the fun and joy she felt in the kitchen, learning how to deep fry, and stir fry, and wok. The realization that this was meaningful family time and the seeds of her love of cooking was an insight hidden in her subconscious for over 40 years."

The next Literary Potluck is Tuesday, Aug. 16. The theme is "Blue Ribbon." The featured writer and chef will be announced on Feast of Words' website.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Caroline Chen

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