SAN FRANCISCO – Along with big-wave surfing and high-altitude ultra-marathons, eating is an extreme sport here. Which explains why, on a recent Saturday night, Tipay Corpuz, 21, a technology specialist for Apple, took a break from blogging about her obsession with fried chicken-and-waffles to join 2,500 fellow food geeks at the Underground Night Market.
At this quasi-clandestine monthly event, a tribal gathering of young chefs, vendors and their iron-stomached followers are remaking the traditional farmer’s market as an indie food rave.
At midnight, the smell of stir-fried pork bellies was wafting through the Mission district. There was live music, liquor, bouncers, a disco ball – and a line waiting to sample hundreds of delicacies made mostly on location, among them bacon-wrapped mochi (a Japanese rice paste) and ice cream made from red beets, Guinness and chocolate cake.
In a sense it is civil disobedience on a paper plate.
The underground market seeks to encourage food entrepreneurship by helping young vendors avoid roughly $1,000 a year in fees – including those for health permits and liability insurance – required by legitimate farmers’ markets. Here, where the food rave – call it a crave – was born, the market organizers sidestep city health inspections by operating as a private club, requiring that participants become “members” (free) and sign a disclaimer noting that food might not be prepared in a space that has been inspected.
Members of the gathering have few qualms about the sampling. “I want something savoury and awesome,” said David McDonald, who works with Corpuz and estimates that he spends 40 percent of his income on dinners. “I want food that will put me in a coma before I go to sleep.”
Fuelled by retweets and food blogs, the market has spawned a host of underground imitators from Altadena, near Los Angeles, to Atlanta, where 1,000 people joined up for the monthly Saturday night craves – and where Tim Ho, a young Taiwanese-American who cooks part-time, boasted that his jellyfish salad has a crunch he compared to “tendons and ligaments.” There are outposts as far as London and Amsterdam.
Even mainstream farmers’ markets are creeping toward night-time, including a Friday evening market in Nashville near the state Capitol where home-bound workers can drink wine as they chat about kale.
The “underground” strategy adds cachet. Participants “have to know the ins and outs of the belly of the city just to find the place,” said Roger Feely, a San Francisco chef well-known for giving “pop-up” dinner parties in alleyways. (New York City, too, has a plethora of pop-up restaurants of various kinds, but it has been less hospitable to unlicensed vendors.)
Where psychedelic drugs famously transported another self-conscious San Francisco generation, the rebel act of choice by Valerie Luu, a 23 year-old first-generation Vietnamese chef, is deep-frying string cheese in a cast-iron pan.
“When I was their age, I was doing drugs and going to rock shows,” said Novella Carpenter, an urban farmer and author who recently got into a spat with the City of Oakland for selling chard and other produce at a pop-up farm stand without a permit. “That’s not their culture,” she continued. “Their culture is food – incredible yummy-tasting food.”
Some see the growth of the underground markets as part of a high renaissance of awareness for a Fast Food Nation generation, with its antipathy for the industrial food machine. In the recesses of the markets, a certain self-expressive, do-it-yourself “craftness” flourishes.
“It connects the DIY movement with the locavore movement,” said Maya Robinson, an accountant who does work for the U.S. Treasury who founded Grey DC, an underground market in Washington modeled on the San Francisco idea. “That cross-section is what’s so exciting.”
The underground market here, which also has a less-chic daytime component, was started by Iso Rabins, the 30-year-old founder of ForageSF, a company that began with foraging walks and dinners featuring dishes like wild nettle soup with creme fraiche.
Amateur cooks around the country are pushing to have the right to sell unlicensed goods directly to consumers. So-called “cottage food” laws that allow products considered nonhazardous, like pies and cookies, exist in 18 states, with five more considering similar legislation.
Anya Fernald, who produces the Eat Real Festival in Oakland and Los Angeles, sees the phenomenon as a search for healthier alternatives to commercial industrial food. At the San Francisco Night Market in April, which ran until 2 a.m. in a mammoth public events space, Fernald was serving up macaroni made of nutrient-rich spelt flour that she had smothered in cheese. Clad in a June Lockhart-style apron, she said cooks were “aware they need to do something. But undoing those choices is not very simple.”
While offbeat cooking remains just a hobby for some, Kai Kronfield of Nosh This said he was inspired by the economic downturn to forsake his old profession: designing houses in Pacific Heights and Pebble Beach. Kronfield now designs candies – black-pepper scented caramels, for instance, or toffees with sea salt and locally sourced bacon.
He had never made a piece of candy until a year ago, he said, but learned the art by watching a lot of videos. He said he was heading next to the sold-out Baconfest Chicago celebration, billed as a “baconalia.”
“I’m running with this,” he said.