A plethora of Durham chefs got to showcase their culinary prowess and demonstrate their artistic skills last Sunday night at The Durham hotel. As part of the “Lobby Call” series curated by Heather Cook, The Durham hosted “O’ Moldy Night” an one-night only exhibition of molded foods many of which were works of Art. The Lobby Call was open to the public. It was both judged and crowned a People’s Choice category winner.
“O’ Moldy Night”
by: Aaron Mandel and Josh Factor
Lobby Call was originally the brainchild of Durham promoter extraordinaire, Heather Cook, and Kristin Bedinger, The Durham’s Director of Events and Community Outreach. Before “O’ Moldy Night” they had already hosted several successful events including the Blind Boys of Alabama, conversations on Art and Identity with the likes of Gemynii and Maya Freelon Asante, and even hosted Tom Petty’s official tour photographer, Andy Tennille.
But the original conversation these women, Cook and Bedinger, had about the Lobby Call series revolved around getting away from the conventional, pushing boundaries, breaking the mold (if you will). When Emily Wallace, Kate Elia, and Kate Medley mentioned to Heather Cook that they had this weird idea floating around for years, but they weren’t sure if was something Lobby Call would like, Cook responded, “Well, try us.” And the ball was set in motion.
Emily Wallace told me that the tradition started with a birthday jelly cake joke between her and the two Kates. The jelly cake was decorated with the bad pun. “I’m Mold”. And this began a series of bad, mold pun related culinary adventures.
For “Oh Moldy Night” there were approximately forty-four pieces on display. The range showcased the depth of Durham’s creative pool. From Pie Pusher’s retro 1980’s Stromboli mold of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Donatello(1) to the Big Spoon Roasters Yin and Yang symbol made out North Carolina Runner Peanuts, almonds, honey, coconut oil, dark and white chocolate.
There was even a performance art piece wherein a woman donned an outfit made of Fruit Roll-ups and proceeded to peel them off one at a time.
One of the comic highlights, but least edible pieces, featured a stapler submerged in a mold of Lemon Jello in reference to a Jim Halperin-Dwight Schrute bit from The Office.
The judges’ grand prize winner featured an unbelievable tiered platter of faux hors d’oeuvres with miniature wheels of cheese, hanging sausage, carrots, pea pods, tomatoes, potatoes, shrimp, fish, and more, constructed out of almonds, confectioners sugar, raw egg whites, almond extract, and rose water. It was an incredible sight to behold, created by Leila Wolfrum and her daughter.
Kristin Bedinger told me the mother-daughter team spent more than six weeks working on the project. Wolfrum, while not strictly a professional chef, is the manager of the Durham Co-op.
The event drew a huge crowd to admire the molded concoctions. Admission to admire the displays was free. The Durham’s lobby, itself, is quite striking. More than a few people brought kids who appeared alternately enthralled and amused by the molded food works of art. The excited on-lookers throughout the night were nearly wall to wall. A great many did a lap, took a look, and left long before the judging and eating. As is true of so many downtown Durham cultural events in our multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, the crowd almost entirely white, although not exclusively. This is not an indictment, but a reminder.
A few of the molded pieces invited deeper discussion such as a Debbie Moose’s Wobbly White House.
There was also a mold that paid tribute to one of the more dismal scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia was buried in a green mold.
Two of the most fascinating molds of the evening were Shannon Healy’s creations. One was a Gin and Tonic, the other a Grapefruit Negroni. Healy is, of course, the creative force behind and the owner of Alley 26, known for its fabulous craft cocktails just across the street from The Durham.
We caught up with him on his way out of the event to ask a few questions. He said that he simply started with the same hand-made, fantastic cocktail recipes they sell at Alley 26 and worked with gelatin. Their gin and tonic uses local Durham Distillery Gin and their own America Dry Alley 26 tonic syrup. But Healy ultimately revealed the real key was Martha Stewart.
“Martha Stewart?” I asked, wrinkling my forehead in naïve confusion.
Healy told the Clarion Content that the Martha Stewart’s wedding planning page has an entire subsection on Jell-O shots. Who knew? This is in addition to her various pages on other gelatin recipes. Healy said he simply took the great Martha’s work, combined with his fabulous cocktails, and started tweeking and experimenting.
If you were inclined to do the same, Parker and Otis,(2) and their gregarious, charismatic leader, Jennings Brody, were set-up for Lobby Call near the DJ Booth, with cookbooks and foodie gear aplenty.
The event culminated with the judging of the molds and the awards’ ceremony. Mayor Steve Schewel was on hand as one of the judges and he regaled the crowd to their great delight with a limerick he composed about aspics. Many of the award categories were pun-ny tributes coined by the team of Emily Wallace, Kate Elia, and Kate Medley such as “Out with the Mold, In with the New” and “America’s Next Top Moldel”. The awards ceremony was followed by the sampling of the various food molds. A solid one-third weren’t so delicious.
However, with so many sui generis treats, it was truly a unique culinary experience for everyone who attended.
We heard that the delicious Pie Pusher’s TMNT Stromboli, the idea of chef Don E. Willey, was the first thing the throngs of foodies finished. We also heard raves for the flavor of Alley 26’s drink molds.
And the story wouldn’t be complete without one real Grandma style mold. Because naturally, like most, when we heard there was a night dedicated to molded foods, we were thinking about the Jell-O and the Tupperware parties of the second half of the 20th century.
Fortunately, there was a green congeal aka “The Green Stuff” perfected by Grandma Hilda Ross of North Myrtle Beach, to fill the bill. Made by Kristin Bedinger in tribute to her Grandmother Ross [age redacted] who has been creating the Green Stuff since the 1960’s out of green Jell-O, cream cheese, pineapple, celery, marshmallows, and pecans. Bedinger said this “side dish” was standard fare at family gatherings for decades. The kids loved it as a non-dessert dessert.
Bedinger made it for the first time for “O’ Moldy Night”. She and Grandma Hilda, who still lives on her own and drives, compared notes this week on Grandma’s visit to Durham for a doctor’s appointment. Grandma Hilda was delighted Kristin Bedinger had given it a go, despite Bedinger’s worries that it was “too grainy”.
Grandma Hilda’s own remarkable story includes returning to college after raising four kids to be college graduates, graduating herself, becoming a nurse, and eventually working in Russia.
The flipside of that story is a night of Jell-O molds and every imaginable riff thereon arising from Durham creatives some five decades later, organized by her granddaughter, who for “O Moldy Night” was sporting hip, green and white, Stan Smith Addidas sneakers that wouldn’t have been de riguer in the repertoire of a mid-20th century homemaker.
Durham’s best cultural events pay homage to the past while carving out the future. This was one of those.
We would recommend keeping a close eye on “Lobby Call” going forward.
(1) Behind the scenes/molds note: The Pie Pushers revealed that the pizza serving board Donatello was resting on was from the original Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street, part of owner Mike Hacker’s personal pizza legacy.
(2) Parker & Otis Owner, Jennings Brody, curates the most Martha Stewart like establishment in town. With an array of great seasonally appropriate hostess gifts, year round. Full disclosure, Aaron Mandel once worked with Jennings Brody at Foster’s Market.
Josh Factor is an avid young writer and a native of Durham, NC. He is a 2016 graduate of Elon University, where he majored in English.
Aaron Mandel is the publisher of the Clarion Content and an accomplished public speaker.