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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
If you live in the Bay Area and don't know what Burning Man is, try throwing a stone -- then go ask the person it hits. Alternately, you might surf over to, where you'll find a wealth of information and a shining example of the Web's much-lauded interactive potential.

Of course, if you're the Man Who Came to Dinner, you can simply insinuate yourself into the home of Larry Harvey, the eccentric, outspoken founder of this unique pagan-esque ritual turned experiment in temporary communal living.

What began as an offbeat way for two friends to kill a cool June 1986 evening -- burning an 8-foot wooden man out on San Francisco's Baker Beach -- has grown into an annual five-day convention of what Larry calls "radical self-expression." Last year's event, which now centers around a 50-foot neon-accessorized man, attracted an estimated 15,000 expressers.

Tonight I'm standing in front of Larry's giant Edwardian apartment building on Alamo Square with a bottle of wine and a certain amount of apprehension about what I'll encounter upstairs.

My imagination has been given a shove by members of Larry's advance team, who've told me in slow, deliberate voices: "Oh, I know where Larry lives ... that should be quite an experience for you," and, "We'd like to join you but his place can really only accommodate two people at a time. You'll see."

Oh, mommy.
I prepare myself for the worst: ritual cleansing, pre- or post-meal sacrifice, cauliflower.

Once upstairs, of course, Larry Harvey proves to be nothing but a highly intelligent and passionately articulate human being. The apartment is small. Sure. And cluttered. Very. But beyond that it's a simple San Francisco home.

Larry shares the place with his 16-year-old son, Tristan, and a roommate, Dan Miller, who holds a proud title within the Burning Man organization -- Chief Erector.

After he greets me in the hallway I follow Larry into the tiny kitchen where, owing to a layer of white pastry dough on his fingers, we engage in the first ritual of the evening: the traditional Can't Shake Your Hand 'Cause Mine Is Doughy dance. Still, I force the issue, grabbing Larry's hand, intuitively aware that in order to bolster our mutual comfort levels we'll need to begin with a genuine act of human connection.

But I sense it may take Larry a fair while to warm up to me. "How long you been here?" I begin, hoping to break the ice. "Twenty years," he replies. "You kidding? I could never afford to move."

As Larry returns to his labor at the stove I settle into one of the patchwork-covered chairs that he seems to have squeezed in for the occasion. He's a bit younger-looking than his 50 years, with a sloppy, childlike air about him. His wrinkled dress shirt hangs out over black jeans and shoes.

"So what are you up to lately?" I ask, in a second attempt to get the conversation going. As Larry begins talking about a recent trip to Houston I remember an interview I read in which he condemns all reporters who stare mindlessly at him with "raisin" eyes. I self-consciously attempt to contort my pupils into a variety of shapes and sizes, silently trying to figure out: What the hell is the opposite of raisin?

I fade back into the conversation as Larry pours me some white wine in a handleless ceramic mug. "I want to talk to the mayor," he says, "about what's happening in this city."

Since inadvertently founding this modern social movement -- which is Burning Man: The Project -- Larry has also fallen into the occasional role of spokesman for the current generation of, let's call them, nonconformists.

"Basically San Francisco is the bohemian capital of the world," says Larry. "That's what it's always been known as. We [Burning Man, et al.] are the bohemian community. We're not asking for very much. We're incredibly self-reliant. We have our own sources of income. It has nothing to do with asking the city for money or the NEA for money. It never has."

As he talks Larry is dipping his hands into a bowl of thick white paste, then scraping his fingers to let heavy blobs drop into the lone steaming pot on the stove.

This, it seems, will be my dinner.
Larry goes on to justify his agenda as a critical element in the long-term image and prosperity of San Francisco. "Because if you take away the grass-roots culture in this town," he argues, "you take away the bohemian tradition -- and it's Sacramento West. That's all it is. It's just a little Podunk town with only 600,000 people." He cuts the ends off a bunch of fresh asparagus, setting them in a separate pan of water to boil.

Larry excuses himself to go knock on his son's bedroom door -- "Dinner's almost ready!" -- and I liberate myself from the chair to sneak a peak inside the mysterious steaming pot. The paste has expanded into doughy clouds, taking on some brownish hue from the bubbling substance below. "I knew it," I think, briefly panicking. "Brains. We're having brains."

Larry returns to catch me with lid in hand. "What's cooking?" I ask matter-of-factly. He responds with what I may come to know as three of the most desirable words in the English language: "Chicken and dumplings."

"Excellent," I exclaim, never having tried the dish. "So, what?" I ask. "You make a kind of chicken stew in the bottom, and then cook the dumplings on top?"

"That's it," says Larry, reaching in with a ladle to divide and serve the fluffy mass. "You're supposed to use cream but I use half-and-half. That's my concession to-ward health."

Moments later, Larry squeezes a plastic lemon over the asparagus as Tristan, emerging from the sanctity of his teenage room, pulls up a footstool to join us.

"He was at the first Burning Man," Larry tells me. "At the age of 4."
"Really. Do you go every year?" I ask. "Just about," says Tristan, seemingly bored with the idea. He musters a less than convincing: "It's pretty crazy."

Meanwhile, the food is delicious. Tender chunks of predominantly dark chicken meat float in a savory pepper-filled broth, capped with pillows of tasty dumplings. "This is great," I tell Larry. "The dumplings are amazing. Now what exactly goes into them?" Larry stares at me deadpan for a moment before revealing his secret recipe:

"Bisquick," he says. "Bisquick and water."
Tristan retreats back to the darkness but is replaced by late arrival Marian Goodell.

Maid Marian, as she's known within the Burning Man community, is Larry's promotionally minded girlfriend, whose official title is Mistress of Communication.

With white hair and red cowboy boots, Marian sits down to join us as Larry innocently begins serving coffee along with a great-looking coconut-pumpkin tart from Just Desserts. His action sets off a chain of events that provides me with a rare view inside the shadowy world of the Burning Man hierarchy.

Marian: "Are there any dumplings left?"
Larry: "No."
Marian: "You ate them all?"
Larry: "I'm sorry, there's only so many I can fit into that pot."
Marian: "Oh! You told me you'd make extra."
Larry: "No I didn't."

Marian: "You did too. I said I would come over for leftovers and you said there would be plenty."

Larry: "Did I say that?"
Marian: "You did."
Me: "Well, what about the chicken at the bottom of the pot?"
Marian: "I'm going home. I haven't eaten. I was waiting."

Larry: "I'll make you some dumplings. You want me to make you some dumplings?"

Marian: "You creep."
Larry: "I'll make you dumplings."
Marian: "No, no. You're in the middle of an interview. You do your interview."

Larry: "I'll make you dumplings."
Marian: "No. I'm just your promotionally minded girlfriend."
(Larry attempts to serve her a slice of dessert.)

Marian: "This is my favorite meal. I can't believe Barry's getting my favorite meal and I'm not getting my favorite meal."

Me: (with a piece of tart in my mouth) "It was so good."
Larry: "It will just take a second."
Marian: "No, no, no, no, no. I'll just eat from the slop that's left."
Larry: "Well, then. Let me give you a proper plate for the slop."

This ugliness behind us, Marian and Larry go on to regale me with endless stories from the front lines of the annual Burning Man event. Each year the Black Rock Desert, the site of the burn since it outgrew Baker Beach eight years ago, becomes a temporary home to a bizarre group of citizens attempting to pioneer new means of radical coexistence.

Considering the long-term growth of Burning Man, Larry notes: "No one has to use their imagination to project it to 20,000. That's simple math now. I guess if you can do that, you can project it to 40,000. It's still not very many people. But it's a lot of people if those people all act like leaders in some sense, charged with so much initiative, and go back out into the world and act on those principles. Then those figures become actually kind of impressive."

"Hey! I got a little piece of dumpling," shouts Marian.

By Barry Levine

Want to host The Man Who Came to Dinner? E-mail and tell us what's cookin'.

About The Author

Barry Levine


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