I stand in a carpeted room where the walls are lined with lit candelabras. The center is crowded with 55 people seated at two large fold-out tables covered in brown construction paper. We're all waiting for this pop-up dinner to happen. Patrons are invited to sit wherever they want, Old Milwaukee is the only drink on the menu, there is no cutlery, there are no plates, plastic sheets are taped to the floor to protect it from the dirty dinner to come, and a jar sits next to the door that people can slip 20s in when they leave.
We're all here for a low-country seafood boil, a type of shellfish cookout native to the American South, but this venue, which is located in Vancouver's Chinatown, couldn't be further from its roots. Using a milder seasoning than the cayenne-heavy variations found in Louisiana, boils from these regions mix all their shellfish together, cook them with corn, potatoes, and sausage, and dump them out for the whole community to enjoy. The seafood boil and all its various regional takes were initially designed to feed large amounts of people for special gatherings and social occasions. This ethos—to bring large groups together with food— has long been the mission statement of Todd Graham, the orchestrator of tonight's boil. "One of the biggest reasons why I wanted to do this here is because I found Vancouver really lonely. I grew up pretty much just going to punk shows, which was all I knew. But now, I'm 40. I still go to shows and do stuff, but I'm a little slower than I used to be at being socially active. At a certain point I thought, I can't find the community, so maybe I can create it," explains Graham.
When dinner is served, the guests are asked to grab their beers and stand back from the table. Two massive pots full of boiling-hot seafood are dumped on the construction paper, loaves of bread are thrown on top, and pots of cocktail sauce are strategically placed throughout. I tear apart a pregnant prawn and spray some sort of bodily fluid all over my white T-shirt. The strangers on all sides of me laugh, salt water dripping down our chins.
Graham got his start fermenting as a down-and-out punk living in Portland, Oregon, using Dole Fruit cups from the food bank and 25-cent packets of Champagne yeast to make alcohol. He explains, "That was kind of the first time I realized that you could make something out of regular waste." Years later, between jobs back in his hometown of Vancouver, he lied his way into a job re-cementing the floor of a local brewery. At this point in his life, Graham had elevated his home-brewing game to homemade wine and moonshine. Once the foundation was laid, he approached the business, East Van's R&B Brewing Company, and landed himself a job making beer. Five years later, his passion for fermentation reached a boiling point, and he applied to participate in the five-week fermentation residency program hosted by DIY food activist Sandor Katz.
Famous for his food activism, Katz preaches more than just fermentation to the students who participate in his residency program. "Sandy has a really radical attitude. For a guy who knows as much as he does and is in the kind of position that he's in, he's just got a really rad outlook on food. He's still that guy that thinks food should be eaten together and is meant to be communal, is meant to be cheap," explains Graham.
While he was doing his residency with Katz in Tennessee, Graham was simultaneously planning the first seafood boil he dreamed of hosting back in Vancouver. From that boil onward, Graham's childhood dreams of becoming a chef slowly manifested into reality. He quit the brewery, started a company called HandTaste Ferments, and began cobbling together a living selling sauerkraut and doing bi-monthly pop up dinners.
From fried chicken to perogi brunches to nights when refugee families took the reins to teach Graham how to make Afghani food, the HandTaste Ferments dinners slowly evolved from a hodgepodge of different cultures, all with an overarching focus on fermentation. These days, the chef chooses dishes that will challenge him so that he can spend weeks learning a new skill. He also attempts to use the supper as a conduit for fostering community and connection.
With this ethos, Graham is working to return the pop-up dinner to its roots: as meals for those who can't or don't frequent restaurants. "No disrespect to anyone that's doing it the way they choose to do it, but I always thought pop-ups were meant to be an alternative to high-end dinners. I thought that was the point. I wish it didn't always have to be attached to a higher economic ratio, which is something we're trying not to do. We're trying to make it affordable, which makes it tough for me to survive on, but I tried doing the other way and I'd rather be poor. I don't get happier with money in the bank. Making it accessible is the biggest thing, because different people at a table make it way more interesting," explains Graham.
As I sit wedged between strangers up to our elbows in clam shells and crab claws, teaching each other how to suck out every last morsel of meat, soggy cloves of garlic are passed around to spread on fresh slices of bread. Next to me, a few are gossiping about Graham. "I don't think he's asking for enough money. He could really be capitalizing on this," one woman explains. Tonight's feast, which includes a fermented ramen egg appetizer, a full seafood boil, a maple shortbread pie with crème fraîche for dessert, and a can of Old Milwaukee, is only $20. They're right. Graham could be capitalizing on this, and for most of us in the room, it's hard to understand why he isn't. Rent in Vancouver is high, owning property is nearly impossible, and there's even rumours floating around that the BC government intends to raise the price of beer. So if you have the chance to climb above the struggling minimum wage line by jacking up the price of shrimp and making bored rich people pick up the tab, why not take it?
As dinner winds down, Graham starts to explain his frustrations with the economic struggle between the rich and poor in Vancouver. "It's one of those really fucking frustrating things living out here. Why do only the rich people get the bounty that's literally five feet away? It's ours, too. It belongs to everyone that lives here. I feel like people deserve to eat what we have here. This is really the only food we have in this part of BC—this is our food."
With every dinner and fermentation workshop, Graham tries to lead his guests back to a time before selvedge denim tablecloths and douchebag tweezer food existed. In his perfect world, this place is a large communal backyard dinner with neighbours, where everyone brings their favorite dish, and you will get yelled at for forgetting to wash your hands before supper.