Black Market Foodie

This story appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 


Brilliant young chefs test out their culinary ingenuity on an adventurous group who have paid for a slice of shared purpose. The resurgence of this foodie fad culture is like most other fresh concepts — a revamped version of the past.

But whatever innocent fanfare there may be surrounding the modern covert supper club, people seem to omit that the desired activity is, in fact, unlawful. Much like the 1920s prohibition era, this illicit activity is only more provocative and appealing as a result. The most fashionable socialites are now making reservations weeks in advance for a $90-a-head prix fixe experience set on a rustic table or decked out to the nines in an old warehouse. What was once a country-road-fruit-stand operation of homemade preserves and butters, custom-infused alcohols and herb-inspired tinctures has begun to thrive in the back-alley Tumblrs of cyberspace.

“Certain things you just can’t do and be legal,” says Dave Sturgis, an Atlanta cook who hosts a notable underground supper club. “It’s illegal to farm venison in Georgia, so if you want to serve it, you have to source it from Texas, or farther, which is so expensive.” This also makes implementing local scouring measures and sustainable menus difficult to achieve — especially in the South where deer are plentiful. “I want to serve the food I believe in without Big Brother looking over my shoulder,” Sturgis explains. "I’m trying to promote looking back to move forward, through our rich, diverse culinary history.”

Time has shown that suffering economies give rise to prosperous black markets, which could explain our newer obsession with informally purchasing handcrafted wares out of someone’s basement. Of course, some shady markets are born out of a desire to supply the forbidden (i.e. endangered animals), but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Most commodities typically go underground simply to evade controls of the government such as hefty taxes or expensive regulations. And, to be honest, there’s no real fear of headlines reading “Cops Raid Supper Club” these days.

No, the persecution of small food crafters has been reserved, it seems, for food trucks. These mobile restaurants have had to fight an uphill battle to serve their loyal clientele. Mobile food vendor licenses, vending unit permits — these are just a few of the many taxable holdups that legalization can put on a small business. Organizations like The Street Vendor Project in NYC helps lower street vending fines and demystify the regulations which are “both arbitrary and difficult to understand,” and can cost a whopping $1,000 per violation — enough to break the back of struggling vendors. Such harsh realities make it easy to follow why ambitious artisans are loading up Sprinters and informally hitting the road.

In the era of celebrity cooks, “Food Network” and “Top Chef,” the interest in culinary artistry has never been more hyped. Cooks like Sturgis — who says, "we do it for the experience, not the industry" — remind us to find comfort in a different direction. Infusions, foams and reductions are words in our modern dietary vocabulary where “sauce” used to be. With the elitism surrounding a decent meal these days, it’s not surprising people are hungry for a little black market substance: great conversation around an unfussy table, a memorable bottle of wine and a plate of damn good food.

Black Market Foodie