reflections from the southeast PA rural underground

Sunday, September 5, 2010

To eat or not to eat: Year three of Ouststanding in the Field at Eckerton Hill Farm

It was like black fly season in New Hampshire except that it wasn't flies that were hovering around everyone's faces and biting their arms as they picked cherry heirloom tomatoes.
It was gnats. Gnats that wouldn't go away until we got some rain. The fields were drying out quickly now as I looked up at Sasquatch's profile.

"I should have made that brace look like a penis," Eric said, remarking about the distracting black arm that held his newly created Big Foot likeness onto the hillside where tonight's "Outstanding in the Field" dinner would be held. We all rushed around after picking to clean up the farm as much as we still could before the 160 dinner guests arrived. We had to get that Hino truck loaded by 3. Hadn't that been what Tim said?

Who's gonna eat? Who's gonna get to go to "Oustanding in the Field?" Who benefits from the event anyways? Why would any farmer even participate? Who is Jim Denevan? How come the people who raised all the food aren't sitting down at the table? It seems crazy doesn't it: $180 for a plate of food and some wine? You mean it's not FOR your farm?

All these questions that raise issues that seem to raise more questions surround the fine dining experience known as "Outstanding in the Field." Not to be confused with Out standing in a field of clover or tomatoes or corn or wheat. No, to be sure, the conceptual dinner highlights those unique farms and producers that have stood out in their communities as exceptional. An artisanal cheese maker who has succeeded in creating aged cheese exactly as it has been made for centuries in France or Italy. A tomato grower who has succeeded in raising the heirloom nightshade's reputation to that of the most refined grape varietal in Tuscany or Bordeaux. Those farmers who have turned hobbies into long reaching (or very short reaching!) businesses and then turned that experience into memoirs. Food is life. Life is food. Couple it with wine, sit outside to dine, bring the pea from the tomato twine strung vine to the
plate where it may swim in a locally caught smoked trout's brine.

It's about the experience of sitting down with many at sunset, overlooking one of the participating farmer's fields--or a rooftop in Manhattan, or an ocean cliff--and delighting in some of the farmer's ornaments that now decorate the plate in front of you. Enjoying the conversation with those that have traveled from near and far, possibly getting a glimpse of what food prepared directly from the proverbial "back yard" or stable would taste like if you could produce it yourself. If you could join in the process of growing or milking or butchering your own sustenance.

For a somewhat hefty price tag (what people spend their money on is so relative?), this visceral taking-it-all-in experience on a farm is a connection to something ancient. And to its adherents it seems well worth every penny, however much storing up of those pennies has taken place in order to attend the event. A direct connection to the land and agricultural context from which their plate of food comes from.

After loading the truck for market, some of us hung out in the old farmhouse kitchen with the crew from Bolete restaurant--Bethlehem, Pa--and tasted mini BLTs made with cornbread buns, heirloom tomatoes, sweet beet tartar and bacon. The tomato water with basil in little plastic shot cups, neatly lined in rows waiting to go out to all the paying guests. This was the authentic experience before the encore.

Those of us who had grown the tomatoes sampled pork belly stuffed in mini bell peppers before they left the workers' kitchen. This preamble melding of people who had produced the food and those who would shape it to creative levels of taste and appearance was a nice beginning to what would ultimately be a fine end-of-summer evening time had by all. The end to the means of long hard months, weeks, days, and hours of work. A summer finish line and autumn entrance inspired by Jim and his crew of merry pranksters who had also loved and labored long over their creation.