We all want to know where our food comes from, right? Or anyway we find it soothing, when dining out, to see a list of farms on the menu. That way, we can pretend that every item on our plate – even the Tater Tots! – was grown by a jolly hipster with a pitchfork.
One Brooklyn eatery is building its brand around providing patrons with even more information about their food’s origins – some might say, too much.
The first thing you see, when you step through the door of Poop to Table, is a series of vitrines displaying different kinds of shit: goose turds like splurts of olive-green oil paint; tidy piles of goat pellets (think clumped-up Raisinets); a greenish-brown mound of “road apples” (horse crap); a cow patty the size of a dinner plate. On the wall above the display is a circular arrow inscribed with the steps in the cycle of life: Eat. Shit. Fertilize. Harvest. Eat some more.
Anna Brown, 36, Poop to Table’s founder, owner, and executive chef, is no stranger to exhibiting shit. As a sculpture student at Pratt, she gained notoriety by installing a luxury port-a-potty on the quad, featuring red velvet walls, radiant floor heat, and a marble seat. The catch was that poops dropped into a clear glass chamber, in one corner of the stall, for all to see. She called it “Everybody Shits (Sometimes).”
After graduating with honors, Brown headed north to apprentice for the summer on a biodynamic farm near Red Hook, New York. There, her interest in poop broadened and deepened. Making her daily rounds – mucking the barn, feeding the chickens, mowing between orchard rows – she found herself pausing to admire one perfectly formed shit-pile after another. “It was like each animal was a sculptor, doing the Andy-Warhol multiple thing, but not to make money, or build some brand – just to authentically express its unique identity. Like, hey world, here I am! And I’m beautiful.”
That fall, when she returned to Brooklyn, Brown found that she could no longer self-consciously make art objects. Her next step, she saw, was to collaborate with farm animals on a more organic creative process – by starting a restaurant themed around their poop.
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After examining – and Instagramming – each specimen on view in the foyer, I entered Poop to Table’s busy dining room (rustically appointed with a sawdust floor and real soot staining the exposed brick) and settled onto a stool at a table for one. Perusing the menu (printed on card stock made from elephant-dung), I noted that the dishes were grouped not by course, but by the type of poop used to fertilize their star ingredients. Eager for the varieties of scatalogical experience, I chose one dish per section: macadamia-crusted squash blossoms (goose), paprika-steamed beets (cow), cover-crop porridge (horse), and dandelion stew (goat).
Each was excellent in its own way. But in a sense this medley of savory delicacies was merely a prelude to the main event: sampling from the list of sweets, labeled “Humans.”
That’s right, humans. We poop too. And our poop can be useful.
Did you know that for centuries, in rural China, farmers competed for travelers’ “night soil” by erecting supremely inviting privies by the side of the road? Who needs a blackwater system, when you can feed your crops “the other black gold”?
Sure, the food at Poop to Table is good. But the real reason the place is packed, night after night, is that it offers the farm-fetish set the only chance they may ever get to shit in an outhouse. And the roughage-rich menu, combined with free refills on coffee (cockatiel), ensures that most patrons will indeed go home with the hippest selfie ever.
In a far corner of the back yard stands a weathered wooden shack, sided with mill ends. A hand-lettered sign on the door reads, “Welcome to the Poopenheim. Donations gratefully accepted.” (To avoid shutdown by the health department, Brown registered the outhouse as a museum, with a single interactive exhibit; in her Pratt days, she fended off hygiene complaints by proving that poop is a form of speech.) Inside, there’s a toilet seat attached to a bench concealing a five-gallon bucket; there’s also a supply of coffee husks, for covering your offering once you’re done.
The rest of the yard is dominated by a half dozen wire enclosures (where the poop, covered with straw, rots untouched for a year or more) and bed after bed of kale, Brooklyn’s national vegetable. The “humanure” (as it’s called, once it composts) feeds the kale, which the cooks – in a bid to elicit contributions from those who’ve yet to give – use as the base for every Poop to Table dessert.
Eager to do my part – and bag that selfie – I ordered “The Steamroller” (kale truffles, made with super dark chocolate), promising myself I’d return sometime for “The Green Tutu” (kale chiffon pie) and “The Scrubber” (steamed kale topped with toasted hazelnuts and a drizzle of maple syrup). Sure enough, as I washed down my last bite of truffle with a gulp of “Smooth Move” herb tea, I felt a welcome rumble down below.
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The day after my meal at Poop to Table, Brooklyn was drenched by torrential rains. After the sun came out, I headed to Haz-Mat Whole Foods (the one plopped down on a brownfield, at Third Avenue and Third Street) to sip kelp-kale kombucha on a patio overlooking the Gowanus Canal. Pinching my nose against the stench of combined sewer overflow (poop to table, in a different way?), I pulled out my phone and studied the image I’d captured of my moment of glory on that backyard throne.
Damn, I looked hip! Yet I felt sad. Soon the kelp-kale would work its magic, and I’d rush for the nearest flush toilet. Most of us care where our food comes from. But who cares where it goes?