The Man Who Came to Dinner

If you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, take the first right for the Marin Headlands, and stop briefly to admire the extraordinary view of our fair little city, you'll probably be filled with a warm, fuzzy feeling about living in San Francisco.

Yippee.
But if you proceed beyond the ordinary tourist limits, continuing past the scenic vista pull-offs and the Pacific Ocean views, along the windy narrow road that leads deeper and deeper into the pristine rolling hills that are the historic Marin Headlands, you'll see the lighthouse, the military barracks, and eventually come upon the little-known village that is the Headlands Center for the Arts.

That's exactly what I had to do, at least if I wanted to set myself up with a free dinner with one of San Francisco's most prominent independent dance companies: the Joe Goode Performance Group.

Joe and his dancers had taken up temporary residency at the Center for the Arts in order to hone their latest creation, Gender Heroes -- Part I, which will premiere Thursday, June 3, in a four-day run at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

I located the large barrackslike building in which the group was housed during its retreat. Joe was in the kitchen, along with company members Vong Phrommala, Liz Burritt, and Jennifer Wright Cook. Joe and I took a seat at the old kitchen table as Vong graciously poured us each a glass of red wine. Meanwhile, a loaf of pre-garlic-ed bread was readied for the oven.

Joe explained that the center is available for artists of all kinds to apply for free residencies. That's right: free. Although their group stayed only a week, many artists work for several months, sharing housing, meals, studio space, and artistic energy. It's a sort of Walden Pond for those who want peace and quiet without having to venture more than 15 minutes from a major urban center.

I wondered briefly about the application process. How does one communicate the subtle artistic textures and discipline required to execute the perfect solitary act of grubbing a weekly meal?

Ah, fuck it -- I'll just keep writing at the coffee shop.
My official skills as "food-related columnist" were called into service as I self-appointed myself arbitrator in an intense culinary debate -- to add oil to the boiling pasta water, or not? Vong said yes. Liz said no, insisting, "I've heard from more Italian men: no oil in the water."

As I myself am only one-quarter Italian -- and that's a recessive quarter -- I had to just make it up. "No oil in the water," I decided confidently. "A little oil after draining." They bought it, and we all moved on. In the dining room next door I met my final host for the evening, Marit Brook-Kothlow, as she set the large oak table. (Felipe Barrueto was the only missing member of the group.)

"We don't have any napkins," Marit lamented.
"You didn't bring any with you, did you?" Vong asked me.
"Actually ... I have a roll of paper towels in my car, if you want them," I offered.

They all thought I was kidding. I wasn't.
On my return from the car, we all took our places and Joe said, "You know, even though we're not far from the city, we really don't leave here. So last night when we realized we were missing a few things we joked, 'Hey, let's call that guy who's coming for dinner.' "

"I just sensed your need for paper products," I replied.
Liz served up enormous plates of angel-hair pasta and an interesting tomato-based sauce.

"What is this, sausage?" I asked.
"No."
I tasted it.
"Is it meat?" I asked.
"No."

I tried to guess what the main ingredient in these non-meatballs was. Mushrooms? Seitan? Tofu?

Ding! "Tofu, carrots, onion, garlic, fennel seeds, bread crumbs, egg, oregano, basil, red pepper," recited Liz. "You grind it all up. It takes eight hours."

"Eight hours!" I exclaimed. "Can't you just throw it all in the Cuisinart and push Meatball?"

Even Joe, who told us he wasn't a big fan of tofu, was duly impressed.
As we ate, the group let me in on a little-known artistic secret: Boggle. Each night of the retreat they played Boggle.

"I beat him badly last night," said Joe, referring to Vong.
"Did not," Vong retorted.
"I showed him what a real champion is," joked Joe.

After a remedial lesson in Boggle (I'd never played) the conversation turned to more serious discussions on dance and art.

Joe told me a little about the Gender Heroes piece the group was working on, which includes a segment based on three dairy-farming sisters in Vermont. "They're actually pretty famous," he explained, "If you want to meet them, as many people do, you have to follow them around while they work, because they never stop. They walk all hunched over from the work, carrying 70-pound buckets in each hand. And it's difficult to tell whether they're male or female. So we were talking about that idea -- that agrarian society created a kind of necessity. You didn't have to decide what you were going to do or what you were going to be. If you were born into a family with no sons, on land that was so precious, you just did that.

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