The Witching Hour may be known for its captivating readings and musical performances, but I was lucky enough to experience another equally as exciting intersection of creative expression: literature and cuisine.
This four-course collaborative dinner event was hosted in the red-lit den of St. Burch, and it worked in tandem with the nationalities of four members of The University of Iowa International Writing Program, all of whom read short pieces from their various projects. Inspired by the acclaimed late chef and travel extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain, the evening was a celebration of the power of food and its ability to bring turn strangers into friends. White notecards with quotes from Bourdain adorned the tables, such as the following: “Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”
I unknowingly took Bourdain’s advice about trying new things (like being a pseudo food critic for the night) when I walked into this event a little before 5 p.m. on Saturday as not only the sole college student, but also the youngest patron by 20 years. I was initially prepared to simply observe the event and not partake in the actual dining since it was a full house, every seat booked.
However, there was a no-show at one table in the corner, and I happily occupied the vacant seat before the second course started (the first course, which I did not taste, was a Fijian dish called Kokoda, served in a coconut while Fijian author Gina Cole read.) My table mates included two couples, one from Des Moines and one from Chicago, and two women flying solo. In the true spirit of the evening, they chatted with me and asked me about school and what brought me to this dinner. Then the second course rolled out.
This Lithuanian dish called Kibinais and Kepta Duona, filled with roasted shiitake mushrooms and creamy potatoes and accompanied by two savory sauces for dipping, reminded me of a refined chicken pot pie. The buttery crust had the same melt-in-your-mouth appeal, and the filling was incredibly flavorful even without the extra sauces. I would have loved one or two more big bites of it, but I had to pace myself for the last two courses. While guests filled their stomachs, Lithuanian writer Aušra Kaziliūnaitė read from her collection of poetry “The Moon is a Pill”.
The real star of the show was the third course, a Venezuelan dish called Asado Negro: a beef roast that’s been prepared in a delectable wine broth and served over a bed of yellow rice, black beans and plantains. Not surprisingly, it beat anything I could whip up in my apartment by a landslide. I feasted on two thinly sliced pieces and all the rice I could take while still being polite to my table-mates. Venezuelan author Jacqueline Goldberg read during this course, both in her native Spanish and English.
To finish out the night, the dessert course and its flavors was unlike anything I had eaten in a long time.
Inspired by Eman AlYousuf, who is from the United Arab Emirates, and her family recipe, this fragrant dessert called Basboussa was a dense sweet cake, garnished with colorful carrot jam and yogurt sauces and candied almonds. AlYousuf was the last of the writers to read, and she expressed her gratitude towards the St. Burch staff, the diners, as well at the IWP. As I said earlier, I was incredibly lucky and grateful to attend this event, to taste dishes from cultures with which I was unfamiliar, and talk with adults who welcomed me into their table.