The driver, a middle-aged Greek man, who I’m pretty sure understands half of what I just said, looks at me in the rear view mirror and asks, “Is this really your life?” and I say, “Yes sir, yes it is.” He replies, “Well, my wife gives me hard time every morning. That is my life. Lucky you.”
The cab pulls up outside Homespun Bikes in Oakland and I rush inside to find a relaxed environment: the lilting sound of spinning wheels, a wooden shelf with fresh berries and verdant pesto, and a woman standing over a pot of boiling water in the corner of the room. I introduce myself, “I’m so sorry I’m late.” The woman, Yasmin Golan, dressed loosely in a plaid shirt and jeans, with her hair tied back in casual beauty says, “Oh, we’re nowhere near starting. Relax.”
When the event finally begins, Yasmin stands in front of the class flanked by two cases of peaches from Blossom Bluff farms. The svelte, graceful Frida Kahloesque beauty is the brain behind this new solo culinary project, The Vegan Pig Roast.
A traditional pig roast is where an entire pig is eaten “nose to tail.” What happens when that philosophy of eating something in its entirety is applied to fruits and vegetables? Well, then you get a “vegan pig roast.” It’s a stretch, but Yasmin explains, “It’s my critical response and humorous send-up of what I would call ‘macho meat culture’ in America.” A self-proclaimed queer feminist chef who co-founded SF-based pop-up restaurant, Queer Food For Love, Yasmin is interested in how people “use food to construct gender roles,” and getting people to focus on what’s truly sustainable – eating plants. Each class in her Vegan Pig Roast series focuses on one fruit or vegetable in its entirety. Forget nose to tail; this is seed to sprout. Today’s “pig”? The peach.
Most of us consume a peach by taking one juicy bite after another until we hit the core, tossing it away (into the compost if we’re good). Let’s get real – we’re a wasteful people. Who among us has dried the fresh leaves? Cracked open the center?
We begin with the pickling of peaches. We’re instructed to score an x in the top of the fruit with a small chef’s knife, then place them into the boiling water for a few seconds to loosen their skins. We let them cool for a minute before slipping their skins off. When Yasmin says that phrase, “slip their skins off” a small wave of sensual excitement takes over. “This feels really good,” utters one of the lovey waifs in the class. It’s true; there’s something erotic about taking their skins off. The naked peaches are slick and we roll them around in our hands.
We then take our knives and split the peaches down the middle. Perfectly halved and pitted, we then pack them into mason jars. We decide on a pickling liquid, which is hard given the myriad of choices for spices and herbs.
Because we don’t know what we’re doing, we throw in a bit of everything: fennel, black, white, and pink peppercorns, star anise, bay leaves, cloves, nutmeg, and at least 10 more things that I won’t confuse your palate with. We pour the hot, sweet and sour liquid over the peaches and screw the tops on. All of us stand around beaming at our bright jars of pickled peaches.
In a twist of irony, the leftover peach skins look like slivers of bloody pig meat. The cutting board is soaked with peach blood. So much for writing off macho meat culture.
What’s left when you’ve used up all of the peach meat? The pits. Peach pits look like strange wooden brains that most of us normally throw away, but what overlooked magic lies therein? It turns out that inside each pit rests a kernel that looks, smells, and tastes exactly like a petite almond. Except for the fact that it’s highly toxic. But if you roast the pits, or in this case, smash them and put them in alcohol, the result is an infused liqueur known as noyau. The alcohol neutralizes the toxicity of the kernel, and the kernel in return infuses the liquor with a lovely almond flavor, like a mild amaretto.
So we get to work cracking the pits, and to be honest, we look fairly badass at the moment, wielding hammers and mallets, obliterating peach pits, so we can extract the kernels within. The girls are smashing the pits to smithereens, and suddenly the whole disavowal of masculine meat culture seems funny, because we’re definitely getting pretty aggressive in here. In a moment of ingenuity, one of the girls, a French beauty, takes a pair of pliers off the bike shop’s walls and begins prying open a few cherry pits to throw into the mix. Who are these girls? So resourceful!
When all the kernels are piled up, we sprinkle a few of them at the bottom of the jars, and top them with Californian A R Morrow brandy. But before we do that, Yasmin gives each one of us a shot of brandy. A little for the pot. A little more for the chefs. Even the bike mechanics join in the celebration.
Now that we’ve used the peaches and their pits, is there anything possibly left? Ah yes, leaves. It turns out that peaches grow on trees.
Yasmin informs us that consuming fresh peach leaves will make you violently nauseous, and can even kill you. At the moment there are enough peach leaves on the table in front of us to bring each single lovely lady in the room to her knees. The green leaves look so innocuous, and it’s worth nothing that we only know they’re poisonous because some brave soul ate them and died. Thank you strange martyr!
Yasmin adds that while fresh leaves cause nausea, when dried they serve as a cure for nausea. This homeopathic conundrum is often found in the plant world. Pregnant mothers drink peach leaf tea for morning sickness, and eating apricot kernels is a practice some employ when battling cancer. It’s this tenuous line between poison and medicine that Yasmin finds so fascinating. For food is not only sustenance, it can heal and kill us too.
We gather handfuls of the leaves and pack them into brown paper lunch bags, tie them with a string and antique tag, label them, “peach leaves,” and put them into our pile of goods to take home.
When the class is over, we casually disperse, taking our bounty with us. It’s been almost five hours of hanging out, eating, cooking, and learning. Yasmin offers me a ride home in her turquoise 1984 Mercedes-Benz packed with knives, cutting boards, burners, and jars of pickled peaches. It’s warm in the car. On the way home, over the bridge and through the fog, we talk about how to live a life that stands in awe of all the wondrous beauty that surrounds us. She talks about how she’s built a life where she’s not beholden to anyone, a life where she can spend her days doing what she loves – cooking and teaching people about food. I realize that I’m more hopeful than when I woke up this morning. We spent the day coming together around food, and we wasted nothing.
I’m home now, and there’s a jar of noyau on the counter, and two screens of peach leaves drying on the table. I open the fridge, and there’s that glorious, glowing jar of pickled peaches. Not a single thing has gone to waste, except my former ignorance of the noble peach and all its wonder. I sit at my kitchen table and look out the window at the sun setting over the bay. It’s a bright, orange stone fruit writing the poem that is summer. I think of my cab driver. I want to tell him that life is just peachy keen.
Vegan Pig Roasts take place at various locations throughout the Bay Area. The main ingredient for each VPR is dependent on the season. Visit Yasmin’s blog to find out when the next one will happen.