The following is an excerpt from The New Yorker. Specifically, from “The Annals of Gastronomy” section, circa 2012:
It might surprise you that the new epicenter of gastronomy is housed in a ramshackle Victorian in an alphabetically shaped neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana. In a city perhaps best known for black and white checkered flags—and in a neighborhood nearly always described around the fact that Booth Tarkington once lived there—Woodruff Place is now also known as the home of Crow’sest. Crow’sest, pronounced crow’s-zest (as in, what one might do to a lemon…), has changed the perception of what an underground supper club can be.
The article continues:
I met Crowe, the new Prince of Gastronomic Dark Arts, for the first time on a crisp October evening last year. I had been summoned. One of the lucky few. Fourteen, to be exact. Every Tuesday and Thursday, a group of fourteen strangers comes from all over the world to gather around a table Crowe built himself to dine from a meticulous menu over which they have no control. This is the world of Crowe. It is by far the toughest reservation in the world today.
“I got the email last Sunday and immediately booked my flight,” my dinner companion to the left, an attorney named Deana Millacre, originally of Baton Rouge, but now located in Charleston, nearly giggled with excitement. Crowe, the man behind Crow’sest, inspires this kind of emotion. The table responded in kind.
“Fort Wayne,” the man across from me stated, sharing his location of origin, but not his name nor his occupation.
“Bourbonnais.” And then, “Illinois.”
“Just west of here,” a woman named Anne smiled. “Avon.”
“I was also on the flight from New York,” nodded the easily recognizable blonde foodie/cookbook author/Academy Award-winning actress beside him.
“London,” A man countered from the far right corner, dressed in sublime wool and also recognizable in art (hidden clue here) circles.
“Vegas,” the man across from Deana, Tom Harney, the food blogger, panted. Harney was the last to arrive, just before the door was closed and the first plates came out. “My flight touched down an hour ago. I just had to make it. I couldn’t miss this opportunity.”
They come, these devotees, they sign release forms; they leave lives and families, jobs and duties, and even vacations behind. They come for one night only. Summoned from Seattle and Seoul (or, perhaps more surprisingly, from San Francisco and South Dakota), from Illinois and Indonesia they arrive, finally, to Indiana, to dine, to photograph the plating, to experience everything Crowe.
Born Coby Bennett to a drug-addicted fifteen-year-old mother in 1974, Crowe feels that his life is proof itself of possibility.
“For the first two years of my life, my grandmother was still alive—which is probably how I made it. I shouldn’t have even lived a year. Most crows don’t. Most die in the nest, in the egg. My grandmother is probably the only reason I made it out of the womb, out of infancy,” Crowe told me, the day after I dined for nearly five hours on his creations. “But when she passed, it was just me.”
His mother spent most of his childhood in a chair watching television or cooking meth instead of meals.
“We had nothing, government food, charity food. Powdered milk, nothing fresh. That’s actually where it all started for me.”
To say Crowe is lean is a vast understatement. Looking vaguely like the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, but with yards of long black hair he wears stuffed under a cap while working, and, no statement about the actor’s physique here, but Crowe makes the Sherlock-famous appear somewhat portly. But then, Crowe makes anyone look portly.
“I don’t eat unless it’s worth it.”
I remembered him.
Of course I remembered him.
A year ago, maybe two, back when I was actually on Facebook, he friended me. I accepted his request. He wrote something like, “It’s good to see you’re happy. You were the only girl in the neighborhood who could really throw a football.” And I knew what he meant. I knew what he remembered. The other girls giggled. They were worried about their hair. They thought about kissing. I wasn’t thinking about kissing. Of course I knew how to throw a football; my mother taught me. I accepted his friend request.
I wanted to be nice. He was a boy from the neighborhood. We’d grown up together. We’d shared the same table in art class. We rode the same school bus for eight years (until I was allowed to ride my bike home). I graduated and moved East and eventually West. He dropped out of school the second year I rode my bike, and left our small childhood town.
I knew he’d spent time in prison—I wasn’t sure what for—maybe my mother said something about fraud. And I had children now; I posted pictures of them even if I didn’t share their names. I worried. I imagined him doing unspeakable acts, like printing out our pictures and pinning them to a wall and other stuff. I unfriended him.
He sent me another message: “sad we’ve lost touch.” And that freaked me out even more. It was all about the words sad and touch and nothing about the word lost. The we troubled me too.
What had I done? I left Facebook. He wasn’t the only reason. It was a relief.
A few months passed. Then I opened the Sunday New York Times:
Coby Bennett, the underground gastronomy impresario known as Crowe, died yesterday during one of his meticulously created events, known as Crow’sest. He was thirty-nine years old. Police are still investigating.
That’s when I googled him. The thing is, I’d already read about him. I just didn’t know it. I got that issue of Juxtapoz and I’d read the New Yorker piece. I just never made the connection between Coby and Crowe. His Facebook page said nothing about food. He used his real name, the one I remembered. He didn’t even have many friends; just a few people from our old hometown, some of his cousins in Crawfordsville, some former classmates of ours. And he never posted anything about himself, about his life—this in itself was a creep mark against him. He posted verses from the Bible. Nothing more, nothing less. Looking back now, I see that they were mostly about the power of nature, almost completely about birds of prey.
Found in Crowe’s journal:
Three weeks before Thanksgiving, the neighborhood is filled with every crow from the north. It’s the meeting place. The place they all fly to on their migration south. It’s the coming together joint, the stopping spot where they all meet and sit for a moment as a mass. It is a spectacular sight, a noise beyond description. And it never happens on the weekends. It always happens on a Thursday. They fly in all that afternoon and they sit on the bare black limbs of all the trees in the neighborhood. These trees that have lost their leaves. And dusk falls as they cackle and caw, first orange, then purple behind them. It is so loud my neighbors wear earplugs. I open all my windows to the sound and the new cold. Last year I even taped it. But I couldn’t really capture the sound or the way it feels. As if they have taken over the neighborhood from us, or we from them.
I usually take that one Thursday off every year. But not next year. Next year, I’m going to make something big. I’m going to make the meal of my life. One night. Once. On Crow’s night. And I’m not going to tell anyone that it’s special.
“He made us sign a release form. He makes everyone sign one,” the woman told the reporter. “It wasn’t just this time.”
My search for Crowe continued through YouTube. On Vimeo even. There were short films concerning his plating. But now, in death, his name was accompanied with the search term: salvia.
My friend once went to a Crows’est event with her husband. She is Pakastani-French, so she eats everything—especially gluten and meat. Her husband (a rare native Californian)—MIT and Berkley—has tattoos of Linux code and a Carl Sagan quote near his left elbow. She is a wonderful home cook. I crave her lentils. He has several specific hobbies including home distilling and long distance barefoot running (once across the Sahara). They were a shoe-in.
She even told me about it, the day after, at school pick-up: “You’ll never guess where we were last night. Indiana! Where you are from! We took the red-eye. I’m headed to bed now.
And then she looked at me. Her eyes shifted to my shoulder.
“The food—it was extraordinary. It was everything. The flavors (imagine her pronunciation), the plating. And, of course, he is hot. For just a moment, after the fifth course, I saw him in the corner of the kitchen. He took off his cap and his hair came down. It was beautiful. But like that, he tucked it. Gone. Back to business.”
It was she who described the house where he lived—where they ate. She said it was almost empty. “This enormous table and all these mismatched chairs. Various cushions, a rug in the corner. He’d taken down nearly all the walls. This old Victorian was open. And then this kitchen—it looked hand-built. As if it was created for just this experience.” It was the way she said it—accented, as if the word itself was made of smoke. “And yet, it all seemed to have been there forever. As if it had grown that way.”
She kept talking.
“I sat beside a man who raised rabbits. He was…interesting, actually. His father came from Russia and his mother was the man’s third wife. Jamacian. He shared a recipe with me that looks very promising.”
“That’s the thing about this Crowe,” my friend said. “You think you’ve already met everyone. That we, here, we are the ones who truly love food. And then you realize there are so many more. On the other side of me was a very young man—a boy really—from Minneapolis. He’d hitchhiked across the country last year in search of the perfect sandwich. He flew in just for Crowe’s event. Used up all his money, this boy. ‘I couldn’t believe,’ he told me, ‘when my name was chosen.’”
“Did you hear?” my friend said, after it happened. “He is dead.”
She thinks my only connection to this chef is a shared home state. She knows nothing else. She has no idea that she was once the friend of a friended friend of Crowe.
“What are you doing?” My husband called. I was bent at the waist, searching through plastic bins. I crouched low, the ceiling just above my head, careful of the pipes, careful of the spiders.
“Looking for something,” I answered.
I was looking for an invitation to a party I went to in 1981. I was looking for a paper mache dinosaur. I found only pieces. A mouse had eaten much of the dinosaur. All that was left was a shoulder, no longer lime green.
But the invitation was still intact.
I’d kept it.
It was the best party I ever went to. Just the two of us, a fact that concerned me—at first—even at age seven. I was concerned not about safety, but about the fact that I might become responsible for the success of the event.
It was held in my own backyard, in full view of our back door and my mother’s occasional line of sight out the kitchen window as she made hot crossed buns. Easter was late that year, the first week of real warmth. He’d brought a fitted sheet; the ground was still damp. The sheet had faded orange flowers on it and was stained, but seemed clean and he’d folded it carefully. He shook it out, and we sat, neither smiling. He placed a rusted cookie sheet at the corner and out of a bag set out a few stalks of rhubarb that I guessed had been taken from our neighbor’s patch. He also had three feathers. “Hawk,” he said. He opened up his notebook (worn, coverless) and I opened mine (Laura Ashley fabric-covered) and we pulled out our pencils. I dumped my set into the middle as if it was something I always did. They looked like pick-up-sticks. I knew he didn’t have green or blue or yellow or orange. I’d brought some crayons too and pastels. I laid everything out and we began.
Imagine his nails. That’s the part of him I always remember, in the corner of every memory I have of him. It’s there in the football scene and at art class and also in my backyard, as we sat on that sheet, drawing. He was known in my family for winning the award every year for no absences and for his nails. My little brother hated having his nails trimmed and he used to cry when my mother trimmed them.
“Coby down the street never gets his nails trimmed!” my brother cried. My mother was tired that one time she said, “ You should be thankful that you have a mother who trims yours.” I could tell she regretted saying it. But it was said.
I never saw his mother. She never came out of the house. I heard her voice sometimes—the doors were always left open. I thought of his life even as a child. I imagined he was like Pippi Longstocking, but knew he wasn’t. I re-read the articles.
I had a mother who made bread twice a week, who made fresh juice for us after school. I had a mother who let me paint next to her, who taught me how to clean my brushes properly. I had a mother who taught me how to throw a football in a perfect spiral.
I looked at his plates online. Someone built a website dedicated to his plating. And that’s when I saw it. He’d called it Good Friday. The blogger described it like this:
There was this depth of flavor. Metal. Yeast. A kind of blossom. But also something green, like sticks. A crunch, yes, an earthy sweet, then sour. And a kind of ethereal softness. A kind of veil.
I looked at the plate and saw three feathers.
Eliza Tudor is an Indiana writer in Silicon Valley. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, PANK, Annalemma, specs, Weave, and Paper Darts. Obsessions include: nomads, other people’s obsessions, stop motion animation, farming, longboards, piccalilli, mapmaking, surf/spy/detective/alien movies, Mexico, farming, beverages, ukuleles, passwords, and handmade books.