'The Dancing Vegan' serves up dinner at Shire City


PITTSFIELD — Interested in indulging in a hearty and delicious vegan dinner representing the cuisine of a foreign cooking tradition, or perhaps in learning to prepare such dishes at home? 1st Friday Community Dinners, held monthly in the basement of Shire City Sanctuary at 40 Melville St. in Pittsfield, may be just what you're looking for.

Local chef Marianna "The Dancing Vegan" Bergtold has occupied the recently completed commercial kitchen in the basement of Shire City Sanctuary — a makerspace hosting a variety of creative facilities and community events located in a former Catholic church — for two months and is hosting dinners and cooking classes there. Dinners, which cost $20 per person, fall on the first Friday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m.

December's inaugural dinner focused on Middle Eastern food. This month's dinner, which fell on Jan. 6, saw Bergtold and some volunteers bring traditional Russian dishes to life using only vegan ingredients. Next month's dinner will feature Latin cuisine, and March will boast Thai food.

"I'll definitely come again," said David Sumliner, who'd driven from Kingston, N.Y., to check out this new vegan eatery. "The food is delicious. The Bolognese is amazing. The pierogies were awesome. The beet salad was delicious, as well. [Bergtold] is very good at what she does."

The open kitchen shares a space with the dining area, composed of five long tables with six to eight chairs at each. The bright basement buzzed with chatter and activity as guests arrived in groups, pairs, and individuals around 6 p.m. A total of 26 were seated by the time Bergtold gave a speech to her audience.

"We're sustainable. That's what Shire City is all about," she said to a rousing applause before describing each dish in great detail, and then asking the crowd to donate silverware and dishes in the future. "I don't want them to match," she added.

Patrons were then invited to the buffet table brimming with serving dishes full of diverse colors and appetizing aromas. Thirteen options comprised the main course, some containing gluten and others gluten-free, but all vegan. Mushroom stroganoff, go bki with Russian red sauce, pelmeni, rye, phyllo, pickled herring and sour cream, and pickled beets were just some of the options.

The kitchen operates as a 501C3 nonprofit in a building that hosts many other creative people and their workspaces. Deleah Elling has worked at Shire City's print-making shop since well before the kitchen's completion and now volunteers with monthly food prep.

"It's kind of like a door-is-open sort of space, so it's exciting to see who is interested and who heard about it by word of mouth," Elling said. "It's exciting to have alternative foods, and foods from all over the world every month."

Diners shared tables family style, and soon each table united in conversation. This was encouraged by Bergtold, who visited each table to discuss flavors, local ingredients, sustainability and other pertinent topics at leisurely length.

She is a chef with a mission: to learn and to teach, and to get others to do the same. Many non-vegans have heard of tempeh [a soybean-based meat alternative] and seitan, [a wheat-based meat alternative] for example, but have simply never worked with them as ingredients.

"With both of those products, a lot of people look at them and they don't know what the hell to do with them," Bergtold said. "So this is a way for me to introduce to the community at large what to do with these kinds of ingredients, and how to make a satisfying dinner with them."

This time of year limits Bergtold's activities to one dinner and one class per month, but she hopes to expand operations as temperatures rise.

"I'd like to expand a bit more into the community, and also touch on some of the needs of the food desert, because there's a food desert in Pittsfield," she said, referring to a lack of fresh and whole foods available in the city's downtown. She also hopes to teach more people, including children.

"I want to set up classes for kids and teenagers, and potentially we will do internships for people that want to learn how to do vegan cooking," she said. "There are a lot of people that are very talented; it's just that they don't know it with vegan and vegetarian cooking because they've never done it. If we know how to prepare these foods, we would probably eat them more often."


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