Last Sunday I wore a slip, faked pregnancy, drenched myself in beer, and ate five brunches in four hours. Sure, behavior that doesn't raise an eyebrow on those of us who have seen the dark side of a bottomless mimosa, but this time my bedlam brunch behavior was part of a carefully devised social eating event focused on community building and celebrating local food. Improbable, no? May I present to you: The Urban Eating League.
The league was born one night when Morgan Fitzgibbons and Rose Johnson, two of the neighborhood's most inventive and resourceful characters, were sitting around a Panhandle table, tossing ideas back and forth. Johnson runs a one-woman bicycle delivery service named Apothocurious, through which she peddles hummus, salad, salsa, pesto, and the like around the city to hungry, green-minded customers. Fitzgibbons helped to found The Wigg Party, a neighborhood group dedicated to advocating for sustainability through local currency, strengthening strong businesses, and partying among neighbors. The two shared their mutual desire to eat more locally-sourced meals communally. Fitzgibbons knew they were on to something.
“At first our idea was just to have a progressive dinner where we could involve big groups of people, but then I started thinking that I wanted to have some element of fun competition to it,” he says, remarking that after the two hit on the idea for a league, he embarked upon outlining the basic structure and rules that would soon become the signature tenets of The Urban Eating League.
A UEL eater prove style and substance can go hand in hand. Photo by Hannah Tepper
Speaking of basic structure, here's what they came up with: teams of three go from host house to host house, eating food that each group of cooks prepares for the event. The cooks are given a set amount from eaters' $15 to $20 entry fees, and must make sure that their ingredients are 90 percent local.
The hosts at each house are competing against each other in three categories: “flavor slam,” creativity, and hospitality, titles determined by votes cast by each team of eaters. At day's end, all participants regroup – often for a dessert potluck, or games in the park – and the winning hosts get prizes and informal awards.
The competition is further animated by the fact that every team of eaters and hosts must have a team name and theme, e.g. Team Snow Pants or No Pants (a popular moniker from a recent UEL). A general sense of wackiness works to make the event read more like a big, food-related costume party than stone-cold competition.
The first event took place in February, a dinner competition that involved three host sites and 18 eaters. Since then Johnson, Fitzgibbons, and a crew of dedicated friends have expanded the event and come up with new ideas to refine it. Last Sunday’s brunch event was the league’s third. It was composed of five hosts cooking for 30 eaters who were split into ten teams.
I showed up with my team, Shotgun Wedding, dressed in a slapshod manner as two brides and a priest, hauling a 30-rack of beer with which we planned to honor the spirit of the shotgun. We congregated with the other eating teams at a Fulton street Victorian affectionately dubbed the Sunshine Castle by Fitzgibbons and the others that call the place home. After some brief warm-ups and ice-breakers, our team took off, armed with a map showing us our meal plans.
At our first house we dined on edible flower-filled spring rolls in a sidewalk picnic. Next up, a home where hosts would speak only in French and Spanish and fed us delicious French toast in a meditative ceremony. Then, the hippie-neon-inspired meal: biscuits and “wavy gravy” made from vegetables grown in their garden. Our hippie hosts presented us with (unplugged) electric Kool-Aid and the 1970 UC Berkeley yearbook to peruse.
The fourth stop was a breezy, well-furnished Scott street apartment where we dined on mini-quiche and Meyer lemon-infused water, refreshments that gave us strength for our final brunch: another French toast plate, this time with a tomato salad and sweet potatoes. Our hosts, dressed from head to toe in orange, told us a Russian Easter parable (in Russian) as we ate.
It was exhausting – but well worth the shotgunning. I found that the Urban Eating League to be a creative way to bring sustainable eating and socializing under one auspice. And despite the silliness, these folks are passionate about sharing local foods.
“I've participated in the event as an eater and chef,” said Rachel Caine, an ex-organic farmer and one of the hippies. “I love doing both actually. Being an eater is full of surprises – it's really great to see people's homes and meet new neighbors. But it's been eye-opening to be able to feed 30 people with such a low budget.”
While the league has been limited to the Panhandle thus far, Johnson and Fitzgibbons say they are working towards expanding the event to other neighborhoods, and a wider group of participants. They are currently working with potential facilitators to stage Urban Eating League events in the Mission and Sunset.
The next Urban Eating League will take place on May 14. Sign ups take place on May 8 at the Divisadero farmer’s market, starting at 10 a.m. Visit www.wiggparty.org for more information