Last night, during the A Sors performance, our Master of Ceremonies, Norma, told us all about the “trust fall” that was performed, many years ago, by the Freemasons—right there in the very same room in the north alcove of the Lodge at the Regency on Sutter Street here in San Francisco.
Norma described how, at the hour of initiation, the Freemason candidate would be blindfolded, and how a noose would be placed around his neck. Of his own volition, the candidate would then jump into an opening in the floor … and his cloaked brethren would catch him, saving his life.
Norma described this exercise in trust because we were asking the same of our guests. While not as dramatically, and certainly not as literally, we were nonetheless asking them to entrust, participate, and engage. We were asking them to make a leap.
A Sors is a meal-as-art-project that employs food, libation, live music, and scent to tell a lost story of Emperor Maximilian I of México. A Sors investigates Maximilian’s brief, tragic rule of México, from 1864 to 1867, through the vantage of his most intimate and trusting relationship: the one with his imperial chef and confidant, a Hungarian known as Tudos.
A Sors translates from Hungarian as “destiny.” The bloody end of Maximilian’s reign yielded numerous conspiratorial recountings: he was ushered out of the country after his Freemasons brethren faked his death; he bribed the firing squad with gold to aim at his heart; he wore the 41.94-carat diamond that bears his name to tempt, or mock, his executioners. Maximilian today exists in the popular imagination primarily as a victim of Napoleon’s rule, and as the subject (mid-execution) of Manet’s famed painting.
In the operatic version that informs the A Sors meal, Maximilian dies, but at the hands of his friend Tudos, who accompanies him by carriage to the execution site and, at Maximilian’s request, kills him before they reach their destination.
A Sors is a performance with four courses. The first three sum up the constituent parts of modern Mexican cooking: Spanish, French, and Mexican. The fourth and final course, a Hungarian dessert, acknowledges the bond between Maximilian and Tudos.
Scent: Burning cinnamon, orange oil ignited into a flame, orange water
Sound: North African influence, tone-based, fantasy, voyage, optimism
This introductory course set the foundation for Course 1, Spain, by referencing flavors, spices and ingredients that originated in Africa and the Middle East, and that were transferred by the Moors. Each course in the meal involved hybrid ingredients, something that resulted from cultures clashing. The Spanish brought the process of distillation to México and the result of this merging of technology and culture was mezcal, highlighted this evening in Course 0 in a cocktail built by Jennifer Frederiksen, served with traditional Spanish tortillas, chorizo and oranges.
Scent: Cannon fire, roses, toasted almonds
Sound: Dry percussion, blood, loss, risk
After everyone moved to the main Lodge, the evening opened with the pop of distant and nearby cannons, the whiz and whistle of cannon balls over our heads, and powerful sulfured smoke. Great Willow, a sonic collaboration between Jonathan Wong (Mbryo) and Erik Wilson (Softserve), began their live performance with dynamic looping systems to create an organic blend of electro-acoustic soundscapes. Served was ajoblanco, an ancient almond and bread soup that originated during Islamic Spain, and which is said to be enjoyed by Spanish country laborers in Andalusia during the harvest months due to its high caloric value. Transforming this drinkable allioli into a hybrid, we added fava beans, chili and lime as illustrated in El Cocinero Mexicano, México’s first printed cookbook, published in 1831 by Mariano Galván Rivera.
Scent: Salt air, yerba buena
Sound: Repetitive patterns, movement, hope, trust
The empire of Maximilian was influential in promoting French-style cooking (“la comida afrancescada”) in Mexican cuisine, and native Mexican ingredients like squash blossoms and avocados fit perfectly with French mousses, crepes and soups. For the second course, a traditional and familiar lardon-style salad with avocado—the hybrid addition—was served, and a bowl of eggs was placed in the center of the table. Norma asked for the guests’ trust, instructing them to each take an egg, strike it on their plate and crack it over the salad. What might have been a raw egg was revealed to be poached: our rendition of the Freemason “trust fall.”
Scent: Soil, burnt corn threads
Sound: Nationhood, vengeance, sadness
On Norma’s cue, all 198 guests rose from their seats and the Freemason pipe organ came to life. At first there were low chords you could feel in your chest. Then the organ started its journey as the guests climbed onto the wings of the Lodge. Mark Bruce, our organist, took us through Dies Irae (Plainsong, Mode 1), a sequence hymn from the Gregorian Requiem, the Mass of the Dead to Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (the Kayser Lied, music by F.J. Haydn), to “La Marseillaise” (by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle), ending triumphantly on Himno Nacional Mexicano (National Anthem of México). As the music unfolded, we brought out platters of earth roast goat (“barbacoa”) with three salsas (drunken, raw and prickly pear) for each table. While barbacoa is itself a hybrid, originating from the Caribbean and Africa, it here represents the heart and soul of México at a time when foreign invaders were, with the execution of Maximilian, abolished from México for good.
Scent: Fire, coffee, cognac
Sound: Fear, chance, emptiness
Maximilian, before becoming Emperor of México, was an Austro-Hungarian Archduke. In México he immediately bonded with his Hungarian chef, Tudos, with whom he came to converse almost solely in Hungarian. Early on, Tudos struck an intimate chord with Maximilian by making a Hungarian dessert from his childhood, máglyarakás (“pyer”), a bread pudding with apples to which Tudos added local goat-milk caramel, our hybrid ingredient for this course. Mark Bruce played us out of dinner on the 1909 Austin pipe organ with a tenderhearted, and sometimes somber, improvisation.
Norma, Julio and I were honored to share this history with the 198 guests of A Sors. This project will now shift as we investigate the high-ranking Freemason and novelist, Justo Armas, who appeared in San Salvador during the late 19th century with a Mexican wife and “dozens of objects of Maximilian of Hapsburg which an invisible hand had managed to convey from Mexico”—and who, by all accounts, looked exactly like Emperor Maximilian.
Design notes from Brian Scott.
The inspiration for the menu design came out of conversations with Max and Julio about the story of Maximilliano. His Hungarian roots created an opportunity to create a bespoke wordmark for A SORS that felt historically eastern European, yet contemporary. The choice to render the wordmark in silver foil reflects both the image of the person holding the menu and also the environmental tones of red in the Masonic Lodge, intensifying the drama that unfolds through the meal.
The menu was typeset in Dala Floda, a typeface designed by Paul Barnes, of Commercial Type. The letterforms feel as if they have been worn away by human touch, similar to gravestones or a cathedral floor. A Sors may be viewed as a contemporary interpretation of legends, and Dala Floda expressed this approach beautifully, especially when printed letterpress.
Thank you again for all your support, energy, collaboration and talent: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Miles Ake, Rebecca Jean Alonzi, Carmen Benavides, Mark Bruce, Natalia Bushyager, Rocket Caleshu, Ella Crawford, Danielle Cronis, Tina Dang, Arpad Dobriban, Alexandra Franco, Jennifer Frederiksen, Norma Listman, Andria Lo, Jennifer McCabe, Conrad Meyers II, Bailey Nakano, Paolo Salvagione, Brian Scott, Kim Silva, Ian Treasure, Erik Wilson, Jenifer Wofford, Jonathan Wong, Marc Weidenbaum, and Kathryn Williamson.