A tour bus speeds along a curving highway leading to Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe-the wine country two hours south of the border-passing roadside stands selling birria de res, barbacoa, honey and coconuts.
Inside the bus, the conversation is all things food: preparation, politics and lifestyle.
"In the Bay Area, they dine. In San Diego, they eat." ---
"Craft beer will change everything. Once people know that beer can taste different, they want to know if coffee can taste different, if food can taste different."
"I still think you need a better knife."
Forty restaurateurs, winemakers, brewers, writers and food fans are on their way to the first Valle de Guadalupe Harvest + Feast, an event created by San Diego photographer Jaime Fritsch and his collaborators, including the artists and curators Sean and Stacy Kelley, and food writer/television host Troy Johnson, all working under the name Death for Food. For this meal, they've teamed up with acclaimed Baja Med chef Javier Plascencia, Life & Food bloggers Antonio and Kristin Díaz de Sandi, Monkey Paw Brewery, El Mogor Winery and others.
Death for Food's goal is to produce a book and documentary exploring what Fritsch calls "connected eating." Fritsch, who has gone from meat-eater to vegetarian and back again, wants people to reconnect with the origins of food, becoming mindful about the ecology of consumption.
The bus arrives at Finca Altozano, Plascencia's farm and open-air restaurant. The group surges toward a table set with white wine and cucumber-mint punch. Some stop to catch a few moments of the World Cup, others inspect the vegetable garden. Eventually Fritsch guides them towards an enormous oak tree that shelters multiple tables and lounges. It's idyllic, surrounded by deep green vineyards and golden hills. Guests sip beer made for the occasion while servers pass trays of oysters and smoked fish.
Nearby sits a structure built by Fritsch, the Kelleys and architect Manuel Martinez. Eight feet high, 16 feet long and wrapped in branches, from a distance, the structure resembles a furry house. A closer look shows a path of straw and clover leading towards a constricted entrance. Crosses rise above the opening, and the form begins to feel like an abattoir chute.
Inside is protection from the climbing sun. Straw crunches underfoot. The branches block the view, though, and a visitor instinctively continues moving forward.
At the far end is a shrine. Fritsch's photographs are clipped to the structure, encircling a shelf that holds a bottle of mezcal, a couple shot glasses, and a wooden box filled with blank notecards. The photos show a placid cow, a wary chicken, a lamb being cradled by holistic rancher Pablo Rojas, a lamb being held down while its throat is cut.
The photos flutter in the breeze like flyers posted after a massive disaster. The last remaining image of a loved one, pinned up in remembrance or desperate hope.
Beer and appetizers have softened the group, and it's time to tackle one of the reasons for being here: a quail harvest. Rojas kicks things off, explaining why domesticated animals are necessary for the ecosystem. They restore soils and capture carbon, he says, among other things.
"You raise them, you create a relationship with them, and it is your responsibility to end their lives and harvest your meat," he continues. "You get better meat, healthier meat, and healthier animals. There is less cruelty."
Organic farmer Marco Polo Gutierrez describes the procedure. Tables have been set up under a canopy several yards away. Volunteers will pull off the quails' heads, drain their blood, scald the bodies, cut off feet and necks with scissors, pluck feathers and remove organs. He tries to end on an upbeat note: "The most important thing is that we're going to eat it."
The crowd hesitates for a second. Few want to appear eager, yet enthusiasm builds quickly-the intellectual desire to, in Death for Food's words, "take ownership of killing," with some primal blood-lust thrown in. Adrenaline spikes when the first quail is slaughtered. People pose for pictures, bird head in one hand, body dripping blood in the other. Cheers drift over from the restaurant patrons watching the soccer game, making the scene even more surreal.
Some participants are shaken, especially if their kill didn't go easily. Others congratulate each other.
The process goes on and on. Quail are small and it takes a lot of them to feed 40 people. The smell of blood thickens the summer air. People retreat to the oak tree. They are quiet-for a while. It's hard to maintain reverence when the wind shifts and the scent changes from blood to barbecue.
Eventually Gutierrez is alone under the canopy except for one volunteer, a line cook from a San Diego restaurant, fast and skilled in butchering.
The feast gets underway: platters of smoky, lemony quail followed by roasted suckling pork and lamb; grilled corn, mushrooms and squash; bowls of salsa borracha and baskets of artisan bread. Fritsch, Plascencia, Johnson and Sean Kelley tell stories of their personal journey to connected eating. Johnson brings home the main point.
"Every time you take a bite of meat, you know what it means," he says. "You know that something gave its life. It tastes better. It tastes like nourishment, not just like a Tuesday night out. It doesn't taste like a dinner reservation . It tastes like you're putting your emotions back into the food system."
Handwritten notes start to accumulate in the shrine, reflecting gratitude for the animal's gift, without quite acknowledging that the quail, pig and lamb weren't given a choice.
The feast was promoted as taking place "in an art-filled setting." It's true; the whole trip was art. Head-to-tail art. The kind that breaks down defenses and leaves a mark.
On the bus home, attendee Taylor Masek contemplates. For him, the day delivered a welcome middle ground, falling between the extremes of vegetarianism and industrial farming.
"I'm a meat-eater," he says, nodding affirmation, "but I care."