Photography by Sinna Nasseri.
As an experiment, I’d decided to bring no food at all to Burning Man—just my favorite liquids: water, Cherry Coke, and a 12-pack of Pacifico. For four days, I would depend on the hundreds of camps that gave out free food and drink to any and all. I was egregiously flaunting the event’s principle of “radical self-reliance,” which calls for attendees to individually survive in the alkaline salt flat that is Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
I had come to this remote place to photograph what people ate and drank on the “playa,” as the gathering’s 70,000 attendees (“Burners”) call it. For the first three days, I feasted on meals such as brick-oven pizza, poutine, and kimchi fried rice.
Then, more than two months’ worth of rain fell in one day and the playa dust turned to impassably sticky mud. Burning Man’s organizers announced a shelter-in-place order—no one could enter or leave the city—and advised everyone to conserve food and water. I should have at least brought some trail mix, I thought as water began to seep into my cheap tent that day.
My first meal at this year’s Burning Man proved to be the richest. As I biked on the playa’s esplanade on Tuesday’s early evening (biking was the way most Burners got around), I stumbled upon Disorient Camp. There, Jon Blaufard, an entertainment attorney from San Francisco, graciously fed me (and hundreds of others) smoked ribs with a crispy exterior, thin-sliced brisket, and deep-fried whole chicken with sides of corn, biscuits, and a green salad.
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The next morning, I pedaled 20 minutes from my temporary home at Camp Journeylizm (a comparably buttoned-up camp for writers and photographers) to Camp Congee Central, itself a short ride to Black Rock City’s Center Camp. The makeshift city, built anew and completely torn down each year, is designed with dirt roads laid out in a radial fashion.
At Congee Central, Monica Chey, a self-taught cook from Oakland, was serving rice porridge. It was a tribute to her father, a victim of the Khmer Rouge massacre in Cambodia. To salvage broken rice during hard times, he made porridge, Chey told me.
The congee came with Chinese sausage, duck and century eggs, chili bamboo shoots, and your choice of a dozen other ingredients such as dried shrimp, pork floss, and condensed milk. “Everything is either cured, fermented, or dried,” Chey said. The salty meal didn’t need any refrigeration: “The perfect food for the desert.”
Afterward, I made a stop for vegetarian churrasco and caipirinhas at Brasa Camp, built to resemble a boteco, a kind of small Brazilian pub. Then, at Elsewhere Camp where several residents had made the pilgrimage all the way from Chongqing, China, I had impromptu shots of fancy Baiju and Chinese plum wine.
At night, I biked to Golden Guy Alley. Within the two-story maze of tiny bars and restaurants, modeled after Tokyo’s Golden Gai area, I found the Czech restaurant Nanna’s Kitchen. Not sure of what to do with her late mother’s kitchen, Rachel Thiele decided to pack it up from Nebraska and bring it to the playa. Surrounded by antediluvian furnishings, including a rotary phone and a black-and-white television, she and her husband Jason ask diners to share stories about their own grandmothers over kolaches and kielbasa.
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On Thursday morning, I traveled across the playa to the northern part of Black Rock City, where a loose grouping of camps dubbed Breakfast Alley offered beignets, waffles, blintzes, breakfast tacos, and coffee.
The uninitiated might wonder if there’s a catch: Why would anyone take such great pains to tow in commercial-grade equipment and construct elaborate kitchens in order to prepare thousands of free meals in such an unforgiving environment? The event has 10 principles, two of them being Gifting and Decommodification. Burners treat these principles as gospel—any exchange of money would be anathema to the spirit of the gathering. More fundamentally, though, the event attracts a certain type of person—those who like to build something from nothing just to watch with satisfaction as it rumbles the ground beneath them.
And even though no money was on the line, I found that a friendly competition among the camps of Breakfast Alley had sprung up.
“I feed our beignets to the people waiting in [other] lines,” said Phoenix, the acerbic head chef of Camp Playa Beignet Love Project who gave me only his playa name. “I troll them.”
Using commercial fryers with oil heated to 380 degrees, Phoenix claimed to fry and powder over 12,000 hand-rolled beignets (with a perfectly fluffy interior and subtle sweetness) over the course of 10 days. “We’re legends out here,” he said.
“It’s the greatest form of shade,” said a smiling Mikeal Gibson from Reno, whose camp just across the street made both savory and sweet blintzes. “They’re in line for our blintzes, but beignets keep getting pushed on them.”
As night fell on Thursday, I pedaled to Camp Nocino, just a short ride from Breakfast Alley. I watched playa pizzaiolo Gerson Astudillo take a wide-legged stance in front of a massive brick oven filled with burning walnut wood. Wearing a heavy apron, welding sleeves, and nothing else, he rotated five tavern-style pies (smokey and thin, but still nicely chewy) with intense concentration. “At home I’m an engineer, but on the playa I’m the second-best pizza chef around,” the San Diegan told me with a nod to modesty. “I pour my soul into this.”
After staying up all night dancing through a dust storm in the deep playa, I watched the sunrise and slowly made my way back to my tent. The experiment is going really well, I thought. I’d sleep for a few hours and start packing to head for the airport.
And then I felt a drop of rain.
By Friday night, my tent was immersed in a puddle. My shoes were soaked, so I decided to just go barefoot in the wet mud. Biking was no longer an option. Some friends shared a handful of Juanita's tortilla chips and peanut butter pretzels before we headed out to find real food. But the normally reliable Come to Cheesus Camp had canceled their nightly grilled cheese service, and we couldn’t find anything else in our neighborhood.
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I stuffed a few soggy cookies in my mouth as we headed to the source of loud EDM, a party camp that glowed neon red in the night. Burners were still dancing ecstatically and the bar was handing out spiked seltzer. A single party-size bag of Cheetos was being passed around the dance floor, and someone handed me a pre-rolled joint. This could get really bad, I thought.
“Burning Man 2023 turned me from a pescetarian to a cannibal,” my new friend Sophie Hodson, who lives in her van full-time, joked on Saturday as we hungrily plodded through sticky mud. I’d walked eight miles around Black Rock City that day to survey the damage. Camp kitchens were flooded and a few vehicles that had tried to make a run for the fences were stuck.
But the parties continued. Burners wore plastic bags for shoes; Dylan Palmer from Santa Cruz channeled Rick Owens’s punk aesthetic, wearing 20-gallon black trash bags duct-taped over his pant legs.
Eventually, I came across camps still giving out free food. The playa wasn’t as bountiful as it was before the deluge. But Sunrise Diner, whose power grid and refrigeration had survived the storm, served strong coffee and filling breakfast burritos with eggs, cheese, corn, beans, and tomatoes to hundreds of muddy-footed and vocally grateful Burners. And Stellar Dusty Mooners Camp handed out grilled hot dogs (served plain because they’d run out of all condiments) through a hole in a propped-up piece of plywood to a consistently long line of patrons.
Camps were also making meals for their own members. I was welcomed into the camp of the Temple Crew, a group of builders who each year construct the true heart of Burning Man—a giant, wooden Temple in the deep playa that is covered in people’s photos and messages to deceased loved ones and burnt to ash at the end of the event.
The Temple Crew had put down wooden planks on top of the mud and made a vegetarian dinner that featured a rutabaga and potato mash, wok cabbage, a large pot of yellow and black dal, baked kabocha squash, and even a birthday cake. As a member of the press, I had the honor of sounding the air horn announcing to camp members that dinner was served, though I didn’t stay to eat, compelled to keep moving and documenting the flood.
By Sunday morning, with more rain coming, I knew I had to escape or be stuck even longer. The last thing I’d eaten was the breakfast burrito from Sunrise Diner the previous morning. I was hungry and running out of Cherry Cokes; the limits of my experiment were being stretched. I packed up my rented SUV and drove carefully through the edge of the city. The final obstacles before hitting the main road were two newly formed rivers that I had to floor it through. Then I drove off into the muddy morning, my bare feet fully caked. From my shirt pocket, I scooped out the last of some gifted goldfish crackers to munch on. I wondered what the best restaurant in Reno was.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit