I'm glad to be finally back after an extended absence! My old faithful laptop crashed more than once, dying in slow increments, and it’s hard to keep up blogging from random computers without my stash of recipes and pic’s to keep things going! Be as it may, I have promised many of you an update so here we go! :-)
I have had plenty of adventures over the last few months. The most unique, and first of its kind for me, being a trip out to Nevada for the Burning Man event. Burning Man -- to the uninitiated -- basically translates as a 24/7 week long arts carnival, with a city of 50,000 peeps camping in a dried out lake bed, in the middle of nowhere, and decompressing in every imaginable way!! Burning Man is described by its organisers an annual art event and temporary community based on radical self expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Yep, you heard me right! I did indeed go, and stayed there for one week, helping a few friends out in Krishna Kitchen, where we cooked up a storm, amidst dust storms and all!
Krishna Kitchen was stationed in the Red Lightening camp, who are a great crew to be with. It was quite the operation to work with no running water, and with a small, often sleep-deprived crew of cooks and helpers, to create meals for 800+ hungry Burners every day!! All credit to Nitai and his team for doing this stint year in and year out. It was wild, crazy, fun and a great big adventure from beginning to end, and yep, I’d do it again!! This little report may also serve anyone who might want to do what I did i.e. volunteer in a Kitchen, so you may be more mentally prepared for the event.
In the mornings I'd help out my friend Nanda, who was one of our core cooks. She would typically prepare 2 or 3 items for the 11am brunch e.g. one day she made chocolate pancakes with a fantastic sweet fenugreek syrup, and a big fruit salad, and another day it was fluffy muffins and a hot veggie soup. The evening meals were created by our other cooks -- Puspavan and Sunanda -- and they always had a gourmet dinner menu of 5 or 6 items up their sleeves. Typically there would be a grain e.g. rice, a subji (Indian veg stew), a savory e.g. pakora’s (veggie fritters), chutney, salad, and a sweet dish. One day, on top of our regular cooking, Krishna Kitchen also catered finger food for the TED conference, and on another day - the meal for the organizers of the Burning Man event. So we were a very busy team indeed!
Apart from brunch help, I created the salads for dinner every day, and whoa, for someone like me who has never cooked for more than 200 before, that’s a hell of a lots of chop-up to do! To give you an idea, this is an approximation of what you might use for one salad; 8 heads of cabbage, 20 - 30 heads of lettuce, 50 sticks of celery, 30 carrots, 30 apples, 20 avocado's, 10 sweet potatoes, 20 bell peppers, 10 cucumbers, 20 mini boxes of cherry tomatoes, 20 handfuls raisins or cranberries, 20 handfuls sunflower seeds, a few bunches of grapes, 16 bags of mixed salad greens, etc., etc., etc. And prepping the salad dressing, of course!
Now that may not to be too big a deal, but add to it the following; you probably need to locate water, and the transfer containers from the previous meal, wash those in a sink already stacked with dishes where the faucets didn’t work because the pump motor had burned out, and it cost a fortune to repair - never mind find a fix-it man in the middle of nowhere (and cell phones don't work). Then find, clean and set up multiple containers to wash and rinse off the salad veggies (no running water remember), cooperate with the other cooks over how many of the limited chopping boards, knives and other utensils you need to use, dust off surfaces and disinfect, and set everything up so you can actually begin prepping.
And essential to the success of all this, you need to find, beg and cajole a minimum of three Burners wandering around in the vicinity to help you prep all of the items, turning a blind eye to external appearances, whether someone is dressed as a fairy, a horned devil, or in nothing at all and wants to hug you!! :-O (As an umarried and thus celibate Krishna girl that was sometimes embarrassingly awkward ).The camps signed up with Krishna Kichen had an agreement to provide two volunteers to help out per meal, but volunteers arent always easy to find, hence the search. Once I had a crew it was my task to make sure everyone followed the conscientious Krishna Kitchen protocol of cleanliness, including not eating any of the items as we prepped, etc. Thankfully most of the time I had a willing crew of volunteers, and the people I engaged with were genuinely friendly, helpful, open minded and good fun! Some were so sweet they came back the next day to help out again of their own accord, and you know who you are! :-)
Given all of the above, if you began prepping the salad by 3pm with a good, steady crew of helpers, you would be ready in time for the 6pm dinner serve out. Of course, most of the time there would be some kind of unexpected hitch or delay e.g. running out of water. And, as Murphy's Law says, on that day, all camps will promptly send their people to pick up their meals at once and suddenly you feel like you are expected to be supermen and superwomen in all regards. Learning not to take it personal if someone loses their cool with you, when you are just a volunteer yourself, was one lesson I had to encounter. I found that to remain functional it was important to take some quiet time out for myself each day. Key to functioning smoothly was to keep hydrated, be proactive and ask for help, keep a cool head, a loving heart and the patience of a saint.
Oh, and if you do decide to go, be sure to bring ear plugs so you can sleep through the pumping music at night and remain sane. And good comfy goggles to wear, so your eyes don’t burn like hellfire from the corrosive dust everywhere - or you'll have to go to a medical camp and get your poor 'ol peepers washed out with a saline wash and liquid painkiller like I did! I sure was glad there was a medical camp nearby. One unique feature of Burning Man is that there is no monetary exchange on site, so everything is more focused upon offering and receiving in a spirit of service and friendly reciprocation. I was also impressed with the degree of environmental awareness as far as the ecosystem there was concerned e.g. no garbage lying around. Burning Man is great exposure for all exhibiting artists, and there is alot of cool stuff to see and do.
If you are busy all day serving in a camp somewhere like I was, make sure to get a couple of hours out in the evening to relax and see some of the fun exhibits e.g. art cars in the form of dragons shooting fire from their noses, to pirate ships, octopuses, and whatnot. One of my favorite experiences was heading over to the huge wooden temple in the morning and participating in a meditative Kirtan, with some hardcore Krishna Kitchen crew and other random Burners. The temple looked like a labor of love, beautifully constructed with 5 domes, decorative cut out panels, and arching walkways bridging up either side.
On the last night of the camp the temple was burned down, which was a spectacular fire to say the least. The temple had served many functions from a place of cathartic release where people wrote their pain on the walls, to a place of meditation. I even saw several marriages and other rites of passage take place there. Although to me it initially seemed counter-intuitive to burn down a temple structure, on reflection, given that nothing can be left behind when the Burning Man event is over, and given the nature of the event itself, it seemed a fitting end to the whole week. And interestingly, everyone was reverentially silent as the structure burned. It was like a digestive pause before transitioning back into the world of norms.