Erin Orr is a chef, storyteller, puppeteer and educator based in Brooklyn. She endeavors to create experiences that encourage and foster community — whether they are crafted from food, with words or via visual spectacle. She maintains the food blog Big Sis Little Dish, where she shares original, adapted and passed on recipes and stories about the memories and gatherings connected to them. She is currently executive chef for Cynthia von Buhler’s immersive theater excursion “The Illuminati Ball.” For this she’s assembled an eight-course vegan tasting menu that guests of the ongoing event series continue to concur is both delicious and satisfying.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, let’s move over to my next guest, because she is with us, I understand — Erin Orr, and she’s a chef, storyteller, puppeteer, and educator based in Brooklyn. She endeavors to create experiences that encourage and foster community, whether they are crafted from food, with words, or via visual spectacle. She maintains the food blog Big Sis Little Dish, where she shares original, adapted, and passed-on recipes and stories about the memories and gatherings connected to them. She is currently executive chef for Cynthia Von Buhler’s immersive theater excursion The Illuminati Ball, and she has assembled an eight-course vegan tasting menu that guests of the ongoing event series continue to concur is both delicious and satisfying. Erin, how are you today?
Erin Orr: I’m well, thank you for having me!
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet you live in the studio today, but I’m spending a bit of time out west in California, so we have to use cyberspace to connect. You know, I almost had a problem, because we had a power outage here earlier today, and I always like to bring up something I’m grateful for on this program, and today I’m grateful for electricity. When you have it, you have to get very creative when you don’t, because so much of our lives today are built on technology. You know, even cooking — you can cook with fire, but…
Erin Orr: You can cook without electricity, but you need to have a number of things in place that most of us don’t in our current existence.
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. Or you could just go all raw. But even with the high-end raw foods, many raw food chefs are dependent on all those crazy tools, right?
Erin Orr: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
Caryn Hartglass: All right. So Nell Alk, a friend of mine, mentioned The Illuminati Ball, and it sounded very mysterious, to a point where I wasn’t even sure what it was.
Erin Orr: Yeah, it was intended to be a little bit mysterious, so I was hoping we could illuminate it a little bit, but not too much, before the conversation is out.
Caryn Hartglass: Illuminate the Illuminati Ball.
Erin Orr: Exactly. It’s an immersive theater excursion, so it’s definitely not a typical; you know, sit down in a theater and passively receive a story as an audience member sort of experience. The participants are very active within the event. And the events include a very lavish eight-course meal and very beautiful cocktails, as well as a trip to a secret estate outside of the city, so it’s not in a theater; it’s a very beautiful home on beautiful grounds. It’s an unusual setting for this kind of thing.
Caryn Hartglass: And you’ve had how many so far? Because I know they’re ongoing this summer.
Erin Orr: Yes, I think we’ve done seven or eight at this point. We’re doing them more or less twice a month, and we’ll be continuing on to the end of the summer, at least.
Caryn Hartglass: And I imagine since it’s somewhat interactive, my understanding with the participants, that not every event is the same.
Erin Orr: I do believe that they vary. I don’t know a whole lot about exactly what all happens during the show because I am in the kitchen the whole time, but I hear about it afterwards, about different groups of people have different reactions or levels of interactivity, depending on how timid or gung-ho they are, to really participate. So it’s not the sort of thing where you’re going to be forced to do anything you don’t want to do. You very much get to decide how you participate in the feast, and some audiences are extremely involved, and others hang back more, and sometimes there’s a mix. But the story of the piece, overall, remains the same — it’s just what people discover within the story, I think, varies depending on how they participate in it.
Caryn Hartglass: Now let’s step back a little bit and talk about you. You have your food blog Big Sis Little Dish, and you have your own food story.
Erin Orr: As everyone does.
Caryn Hartglass: So please share a little bit of that with us.
Erin Orr: The food blog was started actually by my sister, hence the name. She is 12 years younger than I am, and she used to come live with me fairly often for little spurts of time, and we’d get to cook together and eat together. And you know, now she’s an adult, she has her own life in Vancouver, Canada, and can’t just come and visit me for months at a time. And she had this idea that we could have a food blog where we basically just wrote about whatever we were cooking. So it really started out as a way to continue cooking together across a very long distance. It wasn’t intended necessarily for public consumption, so it started out between the two of us and our family members and friends, and has sort of grown from there. And actually, Silvi doesn’t post — Silvi’s my sister — she doesn’t post to the blog very often anymore. She was cooking professionally in a chocolate shop, a gourmet chocolatier, for a while, and I think she was not as excited about coming home and writing down recipes. And also, the way she’s eaten has changed a lot over these years. She’s become vegetarian and then vegan, and I, for health reasons, have to eat gluten-free, so there’s a kind of wild variety of recipes on the blog that spans all the ways that she and I have eaten over the last five or six years. Because it really is about how we eat, how we share food, how we make sure that even if we are needing to eat certain ways, choosing to eat certain ways, that we’re all sort of having that community together. So even if Silvi doesn’t post anymore, I still think of it the same way.
Erin Orr: Proud sharing how people are doing their eating, yes.
Caryn Hartglass: All it is, really, is I post what my partner Gary and I eat every day.
Erin Orr: That’s fantastic.
Caryn Hartglass: And it came out of the fact that, as a vegan, people so often ask, “What do you eat?” And I just direct them to the blog now, because it’s all right there. Nothing special about it, it’s just what I eat. What’s fun, and what I felt was a little bit like what you’ve done with your sister, is occasionally when I’m apart from Gary, which isn’t too often, I do the blog and then I hand it over to him, and he does his part about what he’s been eating while he’s away or while I’m away. And I’ve just found it fun to do that, just between he and I, but it’s open to anyone who wants to read the blog as well.
Erin Orr: And I imagine it’s probably a really great resource for people who are feeling intimidated about that, transitioning into eating that way, to be able to look how people are feeding themselves over a long period of time in a satisfying and successful way. Any kind of dietary choice that you’re making, making it sustainable and really doable is a huge part of it.
Caryn Hartglass: So we do have some very fancy, sophisticated, complicated recipes on our website, but in the blog, I don’t want to say that it’s boring, but there’s a lot of food that we eat that we repeat over and over during the week, that we enjoy, that we find easy, that’s satisfying. So people can just see how doable it is.
Erin Orr: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: So you were asked to provide the tasting menu for this event, and you’re not vegan, but you made this menu. So was that a learning experience, or had you already moved into this area of vegan food?
Erin Orr: A little bit of both. It’s certainly been a learning experience, absolutely. It’s a huge menu — eight courses is a lot to provide in a way that really all works together as a complete arc, as a work of art unto itself. There are a lot of bits and pieces that go into it that have to all balance out. The vegan aspect, because my sister is vegan and because my mother doesn’t eat eggs or dairy, also for health reasons, or gluten, and probably, truthfully, eventually I will have to give up eggs and dairy as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Yay!
Erin Orr: Because I can sort of look at the people in my family and what they’re dealing with health-wise and sort of predict my future, if I’m utterly reasonable about it. So particularly in summers when I go home to visit my family, we’re pretty much eating vegan, because that’s what everybody can have together. And I enjoy making vegan food; it’s a whole other alchemical challenge, because part of my interest in cooking is the alchemy aspect of how to transform ingredients in various ways, what they can do, or what they can make that’s surprising. That’s really interesting to me. And it’s been wonderful to have an excuse to, during the year, actually play more with that kind of food alchemy with vegan food, and discover more about it. So some of the things I’ve put on the menu for The Illuminati Ball are things that I have made for my family that I know are really delicious and wonderful. And I’m plating them very beautifully and making them a little fancier than I would for home food, obviously, because the goal is to have a really luxurious and decadent experience. But I started with some things that I knew were good, that people would love, and then there have been other things that I really had to learn how to make. Most notably, there’s a very beautiful Yuba dish that plays on a traditional Chinese mock duck dish. I’ve never really been a giant fan of foods that try to emulate meat. I think there’s a lot of amazing food in the world, and if you don’t want to eat meat, there’s plenty of delicious incredible flavors to choose from. I’ve never been super interested in fake meat, myself, partially also because I have all of these health issues around gluten and other mystery ingredients, and fake meat can get very complicated, in terms of you reading the ingredient list. I’ve found that’s not what my body wants, but I have to say, this very traditional Chinese Yuba duck is wonderful. It’s such a beautiful, elegant, interesting dish; it has an incredible texture, an incredible set of flavors, and it is not easy to make. That would be in the category of complicated, very, very complicated, but well worth it if you want to make something really spectacular for guests or for special occasions.
Caryn Hartglass: You posted pictures of all of these items on your blog, and I was looking at the pictures, and that’s definitely my favorite. I love Yuba, which is also called bean curd skin, and fortunately you’re in an area where purchasing bean curd skin is an easy thing to do.
Erin Orr: Yes, it’s not easy everywhere. And also, Yuba can come in different forms. You can buy it more easily in dry sheets, but often those sheets are crumbled, which makes it kind of useless to work with as an ingredient, unfortunately. But if you can find a source for the frozen sheets, that are still, when you thaw them, they’re still damp and pliable. That’s an incredible ingredient to work with, and here in New York, we have several large Asian shopping areas where you can get huge, big, round sheets of frozen Yuba. One of the things that I love about Yuba is that it’s this incredibly thrifty ingredient. It’s a byproduct of making soymilk. So you can sort of imagine how they were making this wonderful, milky substance from soybeans, and, as with any milk, when you heat it up it makes this skin across the top, and they removed the skin and were thrifty enough and resourceful enough to decide to see what would happen if they laid it out to dry, and invented this incredible, simple, clean, wonderful…
Caryn Hartglass: When I was a little girl and I would make pudding with cow’s milk, because I did consume that when I was young, when I would get the skin on top, it would just freak me out. I thought it was disgusting.
Erin Orr: Right, it is kind of scary.
Caryn Hartglass: But the soybean skin, I think it’s a beautiful thing, I love it when it’s seasoned properly and prepared, so I was excited to see that dish. Now I’m wondering, did you use any websites or recipe books for resources? We live in a time right now where it’s easier than ever to prepare vegan foods, and there’s so much information and resources that are free, accessible online, to do just about anything, and I’m just curious what path you took.
Erin Orr: I do read a lot of food blogs. For a number of fancier, trickier vegan things that I include on a menu, the ideas came from things I had read on other people’s food blogs when I was reading around, like how to make cashew cream, how to make really delicious frozen, almost ice-cream-like desserts from cashews. I actually have a really amazing Chinese cookbook that I’ve had for years, that I used as the main source for how to do the Yuba duck, although all of the recipes, for The Illuminati Ball, at least, were sort of adjusted. But one that isn’t — my favorite blog source for vegan food is the blog My New Roots, which you’re probably familiar with, but it’s a spectacular collection of recipes. It’s written by a woman with an immense amount of knowledge about of nutrition that she shares as part of her posts, with beautiful, beautiful photographs. The seeded nut bread recipe that I make for the table is actually a recipe directly from her blog. Nuts are a really great source.
Caryn Hartglass: Some of my favorite ingredients to make incredible things come from the simple chickpea. Using chickpea flour or garbanzo bean flour — it is just crazy what it can do.
Erin Orr: It’s amazing.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s gluten-free.
Erin Orr: It is gluten-free. And chickpea flour makes some of the most wonderful cake textures. It’s a really good flour, a good gluten-free flour for making cakes. Some people don’t like detecting the chickpea flavor in their baked goods, and that’s one of the pitfalls for using chickpea flour, for desserts at least. But I find that if you’re seasoning it with cocoa powder, or extract, lemon, any kind of strong flavoring in the dessert, you won’t detect the flavor at all. I actually just made chickpea-brine meringues for the first time last week.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that was my next question, aquafaba! Aquafaba, aquafaba.
Erin Orr: Praise aquafaba! I need to play with it more; they turned out delicious. They were fantastic. They weren’t exactly like meringues, but they were delicious. And I guess, something I should say about The Illuminati Ball is that, obviously we were talking very openly about the fact that the menu is vegan, but it’s not actually advertised that way. For people who buy tickets for The Illuminati Ball, it doesn’t say anywhere that it’s a vegan meal. They know that they’re getting a sumptuous, delicious multi-course meal, but we don’t go into any details. We ask them what their allergies are, so that they know that they’re not going to be eating anything that will hurt them, but it’s actually not revealed. I think many of the diners won’t probably register that it’s a vegan meal until they’ve received the thank-you email after the show from Cynthia, with the links to the recipes.
Caryn Hartglass: So that leads me to two questions. The first question is, do some of the participants figure out that they’re not going to be served animals, and what is their reaction to that?
Erin Orr: Well, it’s actually part of the action of the piece. The question of consuming meat, and many other moral questions. So it comes up in a conversation in the piece intentionally. Some attention is drawn to the fact that there have been a lot of vegetables at some point in the meal — certainly some people are aware of it — but when we bring out the duck, sometimes there’s argument about whether it’s duck or not. It’s interesting. And to tie that back to the aquafaba argument, I probably wouldn’t ask for aquafaba meringues until I got a handle on how to really do them so that they could pass as meringues that somebody who’s been eating egg-white meringues recently would — you know?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. It’s definitely doable, though.
Erin Orr: I think it is doable; I just have to play around with it a bit more. Part of the goal of this piece is that there’s a bit of subtle — not so subtle, even — activism happening, where there’s a perception that in order to have a really luxurious experience, some types of animals need to be involved. It’s a cultural perception — some people wouldn’t necessarily voice it in quite those terms, but it’s underlying their assumptions about what makes something luxurious or not. And part of what I’m trying to do dramaturgically for this meal is to really create this decadent, luxurious, beautiful meal that satisfies the needs and the palate of somebody who has eaten meat recently, so that when they do discover, or realize, that the meal is vegan, it gets them to question that underlying assumption.
Caryn Hartglass: This is a very important point. It’s a part of our culture that definitely needs to change, and unfortunately this culture is spread all around the world, globally, so that communities that have been poor, in poverty, and are suddenly realizing new affluence, they want to include more animal foods in their diet. And it’s not good for their health, it’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for the animals. We need to make this change, and it’s so easy, I think. Maybe easy is not the right word. But it’s definitely doable, and maybe more people need to experience the luxurious, delicious foods that are made from plant ingredients. I had interviewed a couple of people who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Mendocino called The Stanford Inn. They’ve had it for decades, and they were talking about how when they were moving to make it all vegan, how some of their clients were complaining. So this event that you’re doing, The Illuminati Ball, it’s expensive.
Erin Orr: It is expensive. I mean, if you think about the fact that you get an eight-course meal and several really incredibly beautifully crafted cocktails — they are serious, the bartender, our mixologist, Greg, is an artist — and then there’s a whole theatrical experience with aerial work, with opera, and burlesque, and incredible hand-crafted masks that people are wearing — the participants as well as the actors — and access to this very beautiful piece of property, and a trip out of the city… If you add all of that stuff together, it isn’t such a crazy ticket price, really. But it’s still more than I, for example, could afford to spend on an evening. I wouldn’t be able to do it myself. The people who are able to come are people who spend money on luxury experiences.
Caryn Hartglass: The reason why I brought it up, that it’s expensive, is that often, as you mention, when people are going to event that’s high-end, they’re expecting a luxurious meal, and that, in their mind, equals animal foods.
Erin Orr: Yes, it does.
Caryn Hartglass: And it’s not true.
Erin Orr: It need not, at all. It doesn’t have to. And that’s been a really fun challenge, to work on that. I also went for a tasting menu, just to get a sense for how these meals are typically formed, what the structure of the meal should be. And I went to a very reputable, famous place — I’m not going to mention by name — and it was good, but I did not feel well after the meal. And part of it was that the meal actually had a lot of dairy in it. Even if I hadn’t ended up with an upset stomach, it was just too reliant on dairy. There needed to be more variety, in my opinion. Part of it was that when you’re doing little tiny plates, there’s an urge to really sock in the flavor, because people are only getting a few a bite, and sometimes that socking in of flavor translates to a lot of salt. But at the end of the meal, once you’ve eaten all those little bites and those courses, you’ve still eaten all that salt. So I’ve tried to be also conscious of making sure that people will feel good afterward, that they’ll wake up the next day feeling like they ate real food. I think that that’s rare in a luxury experience. I think frequently, we’re so excited to have this luxury experience, and it actually makes our bodies feel horrible. It’s not food that’s good for people.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it can go one way or another. People can feel horrible or they can feel really hungry.
Erin Orr: Really hungry — that would be awful too. That would be terrible, it would make me so sad. I hope people feel satisfied after the meal.
Caryn Hartglass: So where can people find out about The Illuminati Ball?
Erin Orr: There is a website. I want to make sure I say it the right way before I say it online… You can buy tickets at theilluminatiball.com. That is where the tickets are available. We’ve talked about the food, but the food is really just one aspect of the whole experience; it really is visually and sensually extremely beautiful and worthwhile, I feel.
Caryn Hartglass: And for people that might be more curious about it, you can just Google “Illuminati Ball”, and a number of reviews have come up. You can get teasers with photographs of what’s going on and some very brief descriptions that might give you more of a clue of what’s happening at these events. That’s what I did.
Erin Orr: For your listeners, know that although we don’t mention the vegan menu anywhere on the website or in the press, it is an entirely vegan meal.
Caryn Hartglass: And gluten-free.
Erin Orr: And gluten-free, because I have to be able to eat the food, to taste it, to make sure it tastes good.
Caryn Hartglass: I think a vegan, gluten-free meal is great because it appeals to the least common denominator. Pretty much everyone can eat that. Some people might have some nut allergies, some soy allergies, but…
Erin Orr: Yes, every show we have someone who has nut allergies. They’re fairly common. And we make changes to their plate to make sure that they’re not eating all this food that will make them sick. We accommodate that. There’s a questionnaire process involved in buying the tickets, and you have to actually let us know in advance. The food is not coming from a big catering service or a restaurant, it’s me and my assistants, in the kitchen of a house, so you have to actually answer their questionnaire and let us know what you can and can’t eat, and we’re happy to accommodate you.
Caryn Hartglass: Well that sounds pretty tasty! Sounds pretty magical. Erin, thank you for joining me on It’s All About Food today.
Erin Orr: Thank you for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: I will check out your blog, especially that Yuba duck thing. That looks so tasty. Okay, we have a minute and a half left, and I was planning on talking about a number of things, and if I’m going to do that I’m going to have to talk really fast because I don’t really have any more time. There is an organization — their website is wri.org, they are a global research organization — it’s called the World Resources Institute. They have been putting out these reports on sustainable diets, and they have one that just came out. What I like about it is that they have some really great graphs — you might check them out if you want to share them with people — about the impact of different foods on the environment. They show that meat, of course is so unsustainable, in terms of the water and the energy and the calories put into an animal to get the calories out. And then there are some amusing things that I’ve found on their blog, because people are still afraid to just come out and say, “Go Vegan Already!” They’re still being gentle and saying, “you don’t have to be vegan or vegetarian, you just have to eat more plants”. And I will have to confess that that is probably a good message. We all need to be eating more plants; if you don’t want to give up meat and dairy, you can eat a lot less. So you might check out wri.org and download their report and get some of these cool graphs that you can share if you’re into doing some advocacy and activism. You’ve been listening to It’s All About Food, everybody! I’m Caryn Hartglass, thank you for joining me today, and remember — have a delicious week.
Transcribed by Alia Abiad, 8/6/2016