Dining in the Dark at Polly’s Paladar | TheUnion.com

Dining in the Dark at Polly’s Paladar

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union

This month, Megan McCollam will open her living room to guests hungry for a taste of foods of the frontier during the fourth anniversary dinner of her private Nevada City supper club, Polly's Paladar.

Half of her guests will eat blindfolded.

"So many people have been asking to do blindfolded seatings again," said McCollam, who invited Chef Shanan Manuel of local organic farm-to-table catering company, Feast and Gather, to return to the Paladar for the event.

Manuel will prepare a six-course feast for a frontier meal, "The Wild Gamble — A Real Shot in the Dark," on Feb. 26 and 27.

People can "choose their own adventure" between a sighted seating at 5 p.m. and a blindfolded seating at 8 p.m., both days.

Manuel first offered "Dining in the Dark," another sightless experience, when she served up waffles and fried chicken to blindfolded diners in 2012, during the underground supper club's founding year.

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Reactions were unexpected.

"It was deep intimacy happening that you don't normally see. None of us expected such a profound emotional reaction," said McCollam of the guests that held hands or fed each other throughout the meal.

"It's really special being blindfolded and people didn't realize until they experienced it. It's like an adventure," said Manuel who first explored eating in the dark when working with a nutritionist at a retreat in Lake County for women working on their relationships with food.

Growing up with a scarcity and clean your plate culture, some of the participants were at the retreat after developing food-related psychological habits.

Eating food without seeing it resulted in fuller enjoyment of the textures and flavors — a cathartic moment when participants found satisfaction with eating less.

"We wanted them to slow down and have a new experience with food. It was totally eye opening," Manuel said.

A fifth generation Californian, Manuel spent hours and hours researching early frontier cooking to create the special homage menu to be served up at the Paladar — gourmet and seasonal foods with a wild twist.

At the time her own family first came to the young state, California and the cowboy country of the wild West was a melting pot of cultures where people ate a combination of foraged wild things, game, domesticated animals and sometimes new luxury commercial foods like canned meat, fruit and milk.

Two decades ago, Manuel fell in love with food while working on an organic farm and has been a highly sought-after chef ever since.

Many know her as one of the organizers of the Nevada City Farm to Table Banquet held outdoors in summer on Commercial Street.

In some ways, her latest cooking challenge at the Paladar is a culmination of her life's work.

"I think it's everything I've been wanting to do," she said.

For this feast, Manuel explored the early days when food storage relied on curing with salt, brines, pickling, dehydration and dugout "coolers" around the yard.

This was a time when cooks perfected the art of "making do" depending on the resources at hand — what herbs and bitter greens could be gathered and hunted from the wild, combined with seasonings and condiments from the chuck wagon. All of the ingredients then came together over open fires in Dutch ovens, skillets, griddles and "stewers."

While Manuel unearthed many Texas-origin recipes, she had a more difficult time tracing any from early California.

So she reached out to friends.

Wild food author of Living Wild Alicia Funk shared a list of wild foods that grow in the region.

A friend involved with the Clampers shared some over the fire techniques.

Aaron Thompson, a homesteading friend from the San Juan Ridge known for living off the land, making his own goat cheese and his ability to shoot and butcher a pig, has been the "genius" and Manuel's support person through the menu creation process.

"What we're trying to do is give them this experience of stepping back in time to this whole other world," Manuel said, who, during her research, simultaneously discovered a connection to the winemaking family, Chacewater, in her own bloodline.

One inspiration for the frontier meal was local cowboy Jim Gates of Nevada County Free Range Beef, who claims his favorite part of the animal is the heart.

"He just seems like he's from the 1800s," said Manuel, who developed the anniversary dinner's third course with Gates in mind: "Son of a Bitch Stew" made with beef heart, molasses, bacon and cabbage served alongside Colonial Bread Sourdough Rye.

Other culinary delights include:

Crispy Baked Potato Skins with Nettle Pesto and Pickled Radish, Smoked & Salted Trout with Parsley & Fennel Seed Butter/ Winter Greens with Elderberry Dressing, Wild Mushroom and Rabbit Chestnut Ravioli Slow Churned Butter and Fried Sage, and "Oliekoek" — balls of sweetened Acorn dough fried in hogs' fat seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and orange served with fried apples.

Topping off the meal is House-made Root Beer and Cowboy Coffee Floats.

In the dark, with heightened senses, the meal is sure to be intensified and full of surprises.

"It's really creating this microclimate where everything is being considered," Manuel said.

Four years ago when McCollam first started the pop-up catering company in her living room, she was a newly divorced single mom creatively trying to pay the rent.

Her idea struck a nerve, and, month after month, has attracted a steady stream of high end international chefs.

Since then, she has grown her membership base from 200 that first year to 1,500 today.

"I'm just lucky that a lot of people say yes to me," said McCollam.

To reserve a seat and learn more about Polly's Paladar, visit: http://www.pollyspaladar.com/

Contact Freelance Writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.

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