'Fodder' dinners want you to eat like a cow

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On Saturday night in a loft in Brooklyn, a group of 10 seated diners and 15 standing observers gathered for Fodder's premiere pop-up event. In a borough rife with farm-to-table restaurants, it was unlike any other ethically sourced meal served that night. For one, guests gathered around a communal feeding basin. In common parlance, a trough.

One part restaurant pop-up, one part art installation, and one part political demonstration, Fodder is the vision of Misha Volf, a master's candidate in design studies at Parsons School of Design, and chef Aimee Hunter. Each of the six courses was designed to correspond to a cow's diet at different points in its lifespan, from calf to "finisher," including a salt lick to start, raw colostrum ricotta, and tempura of hay and grasses. Then the main course, a chuck roast, was presented to the diners.

"One of the guests said, 'Oh gosh, now we're going to eat ourselves,' " Volf said. "Which is of course the point. I didn't need to say it."

The goal was not a "gotcha!" moment of vegetarian didacticism—Volf himself is not one, though he said he eats very little meat—but an exercise in empathy. Can meat eaters connect with what they're consuming by being fed its feed?

Related: We Don't All Have to Go Vegan to Stop Climate Change

"It seems like a lot of emphasis in the conversations about food is that knowing is a kind of first step to becoming a political activist in pursuing sustainable food systems," Volf said. Only instead of calling red meat "the SUV of the food system" or quoting statistics that chalk up 65 percent of global agricultural livestock's greenhouse gas emissions to cattle, Volf's approach is through the stomach.

"What this meal proposes is a knowing of the animal through its diet," he said.

In producing the event, Volf came to know the players in the supply chain by traveling its short length. Like Jake Dickson, owner of Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market, who chatted with Volf about"the intricacies of what it means to eat animals." Dickson sent Volf to Martin Tessarzik of Wrighteous Organics, who came to cattle ranching as a farmer of organic grains that now comprise the feed for his beef. Tessarzik was able to provide details about the animal served at the dinner: "Yahoo" was an Angus beef steer, ear tag #022B, raised in Schoharie, New York, and slaughtered at the Double L Ranch in Altamont, New York. Instead of a vague, bucolic nod to the farm where an animal was raised, which is now common at many restaurants, Volk included these more specific details on the event's menu.

"The effort is to link my eaters with the animal, with the beast," Volf said. "Not as a food consumer but as a creature, as a living individual."

What keeps the project safe from the realm of well-designed stunt is Volf's interest in ambiguities and the inherent symbolism of food. It's the essential—and essentially mundane—medium itself that allows Fodder its hybrid effects.

"Is it art? Is it politics? It's all of it," he said. "What I really enjoy about food and eating—and, really, the meal as a social, cultural form—is that it's all of those things at the same time, yet it continues to exist in the 'real world.' "

The events, which will highlight other animals we commonly consume at future dinners, aim to highlight the nature of a consciously consuming carnivore's relationship to meat. That it is, in a word, complicated.

"If I can mix desire with a kind of empathy for the animal, then the act of eating becomes a different kind of consumption. I wanted the sensory experience to complicate the intellectual experience," Volf said.

But as someone not accustomed to paying $50 for a seat at an arty pop-up meal in a loft might ask: To what end?

"It's become almost trendy to be down on raising awareness," Volf said. "All great social shifts happened with a conversation." He mentioned Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus in 1955 was a thoroughly planned event.

"She was not 'raising awareness.' She was performing an action, and that action had consequences, and the consequences had, and continue to have, profound implications," he said. The consequences of those actions led to conversations our nation is still having.

"All that is to say that providing a forum and providing an object around which and in which statements can be made has incredible value," Volf said.

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