"The secret word is buenas tardes. Greet the two accordion players with that phrase outside the address and they will let you in. The dress code is all black."
That and an address were the only instructions received the night before heading to House of Plate's collaboration with Cafe Momentum and Chad Houser for La Cena. An underground dinner and Day of the Dead celebration, all cloaked in House of Plates' signature mystery.
Once inside there was music playing and barely any light on the sculpture shrouded in candlelight. Two mimes were waiting to escort my date and me to the dining room proper. One mime outdoing the other, taking second and third looks at photo identification and making a flourish about communicating sans words. A long line of guests in black was forming. Perhaps it was the dim lighting, the quiet mimes or the woman watching Pink Flamingos repeatedly shushing guests as they were escorted to a back room, but we all stood in silence. Waving hello to friends who had stumbled in past the accordion players, taking in the stimuli and quietly shaking our heads and shrugging, and now miming to one another, "We don't know either?!"
Walking back into the dining room we had to pass a mannequin, robed and seated in a chair. As though we were creeping through some haunted house, I kept waiting for him to jump at me.
We had found ourselves in one of the back rooms of an empty space owned by Deep Ellum 42, a real-estate company that has let Dallas creatives take over while these rooms sit in wait. It started last spring when artists and gallerists started taking over the windows for exhibitions. Since then you may have found yourself at designer and vintage purveyors Tracey Popkin's Summer Sock Hop, a Ten Over Six fashion show or this summer's Caviar Club Under the Chandelier benefit exhibition. Creative incubation, it seems, is happening behind 42's doors in a fairly rapid succession. This wasn't the first time the keys had been turned over to House of Plates. But it might be the most memorable.
Walking back to our shared table things got even darker, if that was possible. Our, um, mime, flicked a lighter in front of our place cards. Quickly, in the light of a flame I could see my name over the blacked out eyes of some stranger's portrait, all housed in a tiny little gold frame. Details, y'all.
My date at the head of the table easily had the most impressive view of the whole affair. It was like the ghost of a dinner party. I could see the outlines of more than 50 wineglasses, I could see the shadow of a server against a wall. I could see and hear people making their way to the outlines of chairs. A figure approached our wineglasses. When she turned to describe the pour to me, I looked up to be greeted by the moving and speaking face of a sugar skull.
Gathered here on All Souls' Day, that feeling of ghostly otherworldliness was fitting. Dinner in an unfamiliar place, seated with unfamiliar companions, some of whom I could barely see, and the filmic music curation from guest DJ Ronnie Heart meant that despite the John Waters playing in the entryway, we'd all actually found ourselves in a rather Argento-Catholic nightdream.
And just as my eyes promised to adjust and some of the ghosts nearby started transforming into eyes, noses, polite handshakes and introductions, a priest silenced us first with his presence, then a blessing:
"Tonight we remember the saints ..." each stanza of this liturgy would begin,
"... and give thanks for the way they loved us."
"... and savor their memory as we do this meal."
And then the first course. Land. But a real piece of land with dirt and grass and primly atop it a salad. Everyone poked and made eye contact daring each other to take the first bite. To my right, he picked it up with his hands. To my left, she stabbed past the salad and into the dirt.
"Did anyone eat a rock?" asked the woman across from me. "Yes," we all replied. It was a showstopper of a communion, forcing us through stages of politeness, then humor, then adventure so that the rest of the night would have the sense of camaraderie that only comes from breaking rocks together.
Cafe Momentum's empowering mission is to provide post-release paid internships for juvenile offenders while they receive culinary, job, and life-skills training. Jordan, one of the teen interns, walked us through a few of the courses. When we couldn't quite read the gorgeous menu scrawled across the back wall of the space, he'd clue us in on the flavors.
When I inquired about a potato "thing," he described the flavors perfectly, including his prep work. And when I can't find the words to respond, he assists me: "Yeah, it's like a really fancy tater tot. But with some pork."
The food kept being good. Very good. At some point we passed around a snuck-in peace pipe of vodka, which we drank from a skull. A pumpkin soup served in a hollowed-out pumpkin is still lingering in my memory. Toward the end of the night a Michael Jackson cover came on that was so jarring I made sugar skull makeup artist Gabby Rosenberg introduce me to Ronnie Heart. I asked about the song and as soon as I heard myself ask the question out loud, I realized: It was no cover. He merely slowed down the track. Details, y'all.
From earth to flesh and wine to water, La Cena was aspirational in the ways I wish I could be in all my endeavors. If I could get over the fear of the mere exhaustion required to be that intentional. A reminder that dinner can be so much more than dinner. And that all things are haunted by some hidden potential if we'd just remember. I visited the last few years in my mind, what and whom I had lost. What and whom I had gained. And what might still be out there waiting. Earlier the man dressed like a priest had said to us all, "This fleeting flesh will not last, but the fossil remain of our work will surely remain and give shape to the coming age."
The fossil remain of our work. Of something, maybe, you made. Or some experience you allowed. I came for dinner and this, this is now what's on my mind.
I relished that last bit of chocolate. A girl has to eat.
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