Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Table to Farm

So, after three seasons of planning, another Heirloom Harvest Barn Dinner is behind us, and another post-partum melancholy seeps into my cold chef heart. 

The grand table
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
What a joy it is to have watched this event in four years evolve from a seemingly ingerminable seed to a hardy perennial that will likely last for generations.  So many people come together from our community at large to make it happen, it is truly inspiring to be a part of it.  As I said from my bully pulpit in the barn on Sunday evening, I don’t know any other event that has a waiting list, not only for tickets, but also for volunteers.  The solidarity and collaboration make this the most rewarding night of the year for me, and I am eternally grateful to everyone who played a role, however small, in bringing this idea to fruition.

With this blog, I’m putting some needed psychological closure to the Barn Dinner, but I can’t quite do that without pointing out a few omissions from my rambling emcee narrative on Sunday. 

First of all, from the loft, I thanked about a hundred people by name, including farmers, sponsors, the fantastic musicians, decorators, administrators and volunteers, but I left out three of the most important brains behind the operation.  Debra Kam--nominally affiliated with Seacoast Eat Local, but actually a vital part of every local food-based conversation in our area—was a key member of the steering committee for this event and remains one of my personal heroes.  Alison Magill, who heads up our Seacoast chapter of Slow Food, was instrumental in making the right connections and providing the necessary non-profit guidance to us, not to mention she worked the Slow Food Seed Table like the pro she is.  And, finally, my wife Denise, who held the purse strings, managed ticket sales, and coordinated lots of moving parts for the event.  These three women—all accustomed to being unrecognized angels—have put the gears of our local food network in motion, and I want the community to know what an asset they are. 

Meadow's Mirth Farm
Photo by Michelle Sampderil
In my welcoming words in the barn, I left out an anecdote that really illustrates my beliefs about agricultural biodiversity.  I think I omitted it because I was literally wired for sound for the Chronicle television episode coming up in October, as if the normal dose of  stage fright wasn’t enough.

This year, with the help of Josh and Jean (the farmers who work the land at Meadow’s Mirth, site of the Barn Dinner), my kitchen staff and I borrowed a plot of land to produce vegetables for Black Trumpet.  It was a labor of love, but also a great educational tool for our crew, many of whom have never grown vegetables or worked directly with farmers.

In keeping with my own philosophy, but also the Meadows Mirth mandate, I and our team planted only organic seeds—everything from tomatoes to potatoes, lettuces to legumes,  cabbages to carrots,  a pretty wide array of stuff, much of which has found its way onto the Black Trumpet menu.    One fifty-foot row of our farm garden was hilled up and planted with four different varieties of potatoes.  Three of the varieties were fancy hybrids that have been bred for cool color traits or unusual shapes.  One variety was a plain, white heirloom potato known as a Katahdin potato.  The katahdin variety, although no aesthetic prizewinner, tends to yield well, and its importance to our regional heritage makes it a good basic potato to have in the mix.

At first, our potato row showed great promise, the hearty goth-spiky sprouts coming up quickly.  But two weeks or so into the potato program, Beetlemania happened.  Flea beetles, potato beetles, dung beetles, Volkswagens, even a zombified George Harrison appeared, instantly stripping the fleshy foliage of its essence and leaving behind only the ghastly skeletal remains.  When I inquired with consulting farmer friends Josh and Jean about the tragic invasion, they laughed, exchanged knowing glances, and thanked me for planting potatoes so their miles of potatoes across the street would be spared. 

Savory Goat Cheesecake with Brookford Farm
Wheat Crust and Blueberry Glaze
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
When I returned to the field, feeling beetle-beaten (and a farmer-duped to boot),  I sat down among the skeletal remains.  It was then that I noticed the far end of the battlefield formerly known as Potato Row.  Six plants, rugged and defiant, stood tall among the carcasses of their relatives.  Six plants with nary a bug on them stood slightly bent but silently proud, like Aroostook farmers themselves.  Indeed, upon inspection of the crude garden map I had drawn, it became clear that these six rogues were indeed Katahdin potato plants, thriving in the midst of carnage. 

The lesson of my little potato disaster is best elucidated by Charles Siebert in his gripping article in the July issue of National Geographic, “The movement to preserve heirloom varieties goes way beyond America’s renewed romance with tasty locally grown food and countless varieties of tomatoes.  It’s also a campaign to protect the world’s future food supply.”  He follows up this powerful assertion by saying that 90 percent of America’s historic produce varieties have vanished completely.  Our country’s wheat crops, having been reduced to a scant few varieties, cannot protect themselves from global scourges like stem rust.  Instead of genetically developing strains that resist specific diseases and pests, spraying the bejeesus out of them and planting them to the exclusion of all else for endless miles, we can be using agricultural biodiversity to ensure that no staple food is vulnerable to eradication.  This is the way it was meant to be, for Ceres’ sake, and to hell with any monoculture advocate that thinks otherwise,

And, if the bottom line of worldwide food security isn’t enough of a reason to convince you to grow, buy and eat heirlooms, imagine a world where your only option for a salad is a shrink-wrapped marble-hard GMO tomato named 223-QX.

I got so worked up about this whole thing that I called Tom Stearns from High Mowing Seed Company.  Tom himself is a rare breed: an organic hybrid of businessman and creative type, half entrepreneur, half farmer.   I told him my katahdin potato story and asked him what it meant to him.

Chuck Cox delivering heirloom melons
Photo by Michelle Samdperil
Favorite Memory from this year’s Barn Dinner:
Chuck Cox, timeless icon of New England farming, standing amid a sea of volunteers at the after-party, slicing his three varieties of heirloom watermelon that he brought to the dinner.  The man has a passion for what he does that should inspire would-be farmers everywhere.

Second favorite memory:
The perennial lump-in-the-throat moment when the chefs come out to an ovation, followed by the impossibly long queue of volunteers emerging one by one from the “kitchen” area and wrapping in a line around the grand table.

Least favorite memory:
Feeling compelled to break into a frenzied elbowy tribal jig at the conclusion of the dinner by the stomping ovation from the crowd.  If that shows up on the Chronicle episode, I’m moving to northern Saskatchewan.