SEPTEMBER 2008

RV Eatin': Trailer hooks people up to nostalgia, art, yummy local food
By Moriah Balingit, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 25, 2008

Alyssa ReuterSome people are wary of eating food from a food truck or trailer, because it can be hastily prepared and unhealthy.

But three Carnegie Mellon University art students are taking the concept and turning it inside-out -- literally -- with their mobile dining venue RV Eatin', which co-founder Claire Hoch calls "an inverted food truck."

RV Eatin' is a diner housed in an old aluminum recreational trailer that brings its cozy dining room and outdoor kitchen -- basically a couple of tables, a small barbecue and a camping stove -- to its patrons.

The project was conceived last spring by friends Laura Miller, who has made food sculptures; Dawn Weleski, who worked her way through school waiting tables, and Ms. Hoch, who is an apprentice at Mildred's Daughters Farm in Stanton Heights and grows and harvests nearly all of the ingredients herself.

RV Eatin' debuted last month on a Saturday morning in the Strip District, where they hauled the trailer into the parking lot of a veterinary clinic, fired up their barbecue and gave out free appetizers to curious market-goers. The clinic soon kicked them out, but they managed to get a handful of tentative reservations and have fulfilled two thus far.

RV Eatin' was designed as a social experiment of sorts and an art installation, so the women, who charge $25 a head, just break even and occasionally struggle to fit the work into their busy lives. Ms. Hoch, 23, and Ms. Miller, 22, both graduated last spring, and Ms. Weleski, 26, is in her final term. (Ms. Miller manages the cafe Drawn In and a budding art center in Wilkinsburg. Ms. Weleski, who holds three campus jobs, is currently directing a team of thirty musicians for a project called "Bus Stop Opera," which will take conversations recorded at bus stops and turn them into librettos to be performed at bus stops and on buses.)

This past Saturday, the trio set up the trailer in a parking lot in Lawrenceville for Allen Benson, who recently moved here to get his Ph.D in information science at the University of Pittsburgh. He'd invited two of his new neighbors so he could get to know them, but they failed to show after deciding to stay at a bar.

Mr. Benson, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, signed up at the diner's debut because he liked the women's unique approach.

Ms. Miller's technique and culinary creations are all her own. She views herself as an artist first, and has difficulty describing the spontaneous ways the food comes together, as she follows no recipes.

"It's hard for me to speak about because I'm thinking about the flavors," she said. She adjusts her dishes with whatever she feels necessary, which is how some of her dishes come to contain unusual combinations of herbs and vegetables.

"It's just so intuitive."

Ms. Weleski, who is in charge of printing the menus, often has trouble naming Ms. Miller's bizarre creations. On Saturday, the main dish, which contained potatoes, tomatillos and corn, became the "Potomatorn Mash."

The chef starts with what's in season and then adds in what the patrons have requested -- in Mr. Benson's case, olives and cheese.

The result: Summer Stack, or raw summer squash sliced thin and spread with a pate-like spread of pureed goat cheese, olives and a variety of peppers before being reassembled and topped with chopped chives.

Next came the Tri-Pepo Soup, a golden brown puree of butternut, acorn and summer squash garnished with the purple flowers of a lemon-mint plant.

The main dish, the Potomatorn Mash, was baked squares of mashed purple potatoes, corn and tomatillos, layered with heirloom tomatoes and topped with crushed oat cereal and herbs.

Finally, there was Grilled Pumpkin glazed with honey and Puddin' Pear, rich chilled rice pudding made with chunks of pear, to which the basil garnish added an interesting and delicious twist.

More than just a diner on wheels, RV Eatin' is meant to be a traveling art installation that creates "forced intimacy," in part because the trailer is so small. The food provides "a common ground to find those connections," explains Ms. Weleski.

The trailer was furnished by CMU art professor Jon Rubin, who bought it online for $800 in January to provide a setting for students to create these kinds of public art installations.

Certainly they achieved intimacy with their first reservation, when they served food for a couple and their parents, who had only met once previously. And on Saturday, the conversation always came back to food, from raving about the dishes, to discussing scurvy and how canned meat poisoned soldiers in the Spanish-American War.

At one point in the meal, a curious pair of pedestrians stopped by to ask what was going on.

"Y'all tailgatin'?" asked the man.

The women explained what they were doing and offered him food, and when they told him he could not take it to go because they had no disposable plates, he was on his way. Ideally, said Ms. Weleski, the walkers would have stopped and come inside the trailer to engage in conversation.

Though the group takes reservations for friends and families, their ultimate goal is to engage people of different backgrounds, especially those who might not otherwise be interested in their food.

For their next guerilla marketing session, they plan to tailgate at a Steelers game. "The idea is that we're trying to engage different types of audiences," said Ms. Weleski.

Ms. Hoch said the project was never meant to be a sustainable business venture and said it will likely close when the growing season ends in mid-October of this year.

To make a reservation, call Ms. Weleski at 724-681-3886. Read more about the project at its blog, rveatin.blogspot.com.

Moriah Balingit can be reached at mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.
First published on September 25, 2008 at 12:00 am