Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I realize this sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna and Jiminy Cricket of me, but it is a rewarding feeling to get what you wish for.  Moreso even when what you get gives birth to something greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s precisely what the recent Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner did for me; a small-scale recurring dream came to life in a very big way, with real people and delicious food and everything, all for a great cause. 

For those readers out of our email loop, here’s a brief synopsis of what went down at Berry Hill Farm in Stratham on October 11th:

Having always wanted to host a formal dinner in a barn where local farmers were celebrated for their hard work, I have been frustrated in years past by my lack of time for planning.  This last year proved different, as two nationwide organizations with talented planners and experienced administrators came to the fore, converging on our Seacoast area to raise money for a good farm-related cause. 

It was late last winter when Leigh from Chefs Collaborative and I started talking about the RAFT Grow Out project, which—at the time—lacked a name and an event.  Leigh was looking to make our area one of three New England regions selected to unite farmers and chefs behind the cause of reintroducing native heirloom crops whose future looked anything but bright.  Drawing on Gary Nabham's agricultural treatise, Renewing America's Food Traditions, Melissa, Leigh and the others at CC wanted to stimulate growth (and consumer awareness) of regional crops. 

In March, Black Trumpet hosted a meeting of farmers and chefs interested in the Grow Out, and Chefs Collaborative distributed seeds to the farmers to grow.  Chefs committed to buying the fruits of these plants, and for a moment in time, we had a roomful of committed growers and chefs talking about how to improve the existing farm-to-table system in our area.  We could have talked through the night, and many of our frustrations remain, but the cohesion and camaraderie established that day has endured for many of us, and several chefs absent that day have already approached me about being involved next year.

As the spring rolled wet and cold into what should have been summer, Jenny and Michelle at Slow Food USA--a wonderful organization that had done harvest dinners in our area in the past--joined the team and, by June, we had an action plan, a name and a cause to rally behind.  The Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner was then assigned to a new hire at Chefs Collaborative, a woman with whom I would soon be speaking on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis.  Anne Obelnicki: she of the inner city Detroit upbringing and high-profile culinary 'dishternship' at Inn at Little Washington, she who lived in a tent on an organic farm for a season, bearer of numerous degrees and tireless traveler.  Anne would become the linchpin of the Barn Dinner planning process.

So it was that Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food took my somewhat ethereal notion of a barn dinner and turned it into a tangible, fun-filled fundraiser that will likely become—yessiree!—an annual event.

On Sunday, October 11th, 2009, the event volunteers (over forty of them!) seemed to descend from the antique rafters of Caroline Robinson's five-story barn.  They arrived as early as 9 AM, and they cleaned, decorated, prepped, greeted, poured, cooked, served, cleaned again, washed dishes, and saw to every detail that a formal dinner requires.  It seemed like there was little guidance, and that every volunteer knew exactly what to do.  Six chefs and their teams prepared incredible food, and all eighty-four guests in attendance (especially the farmers) seemed to appreciate that the imperiled ingredients for each course were locally grown and prepared with much love and forethought.

Even the weather cooperated.  Just before guests arrived, I watched my two children, swaying in the amber afternoon light, on rope swings that hung from an ancient tree in front of the barn.  They were not unaware of the idyll they represented, and when I asked Eleanor why they had been swinging for so long, she replied, "I would have gotten down sooner, but everybody wanted to take pictures  of us."
Self-awareness, I think, is a tremendous strength in a child.  Humility will come later.

Taking a tip from my daughter, I can acknowledge that the event was a huge success, dreamlike in its perfect cadence and enhanced by the periodic power outages that cast temporary darkness on the scene.  Humility for me came the next day, when I went back to the barn in a state of post-partem depression, to recover some leave-behinds, and I thanked and congratulated resident farmers Josh and Jean, who toiled above and beyond anyone's expectations to prepare and maintain the venue,  and then I drove away, solemn and wistful, the first annual Heirloom Barn Dinner filed away as a memory.

As I drove, the refrain in my head came from the famed quipster Theodore Roosevelt.  It was a quote I had used in my toast at the Barn Dinner, and its simplicity is still resonating with me today: "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

View all the photos online: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blacktrumpet/sets/72157622590696146/