Tonight, I’m not going to tell you about my own recent culinary disasters, like my attempt to reinvent James Beard’s chicken with 40 garlic cloves, a disaster that literally burned the throat and chests of everyone who took even a single bite, or my roasted daikon radish failure that made me wonder if dry heat doesn’t cause that vegetable to slowly release toxic poisons.
No, today is to celebrate the folks who actually know what they are doing with this food stuff.
This week, I had the pleasure of attending Beautiful Bountiful Berkshires, the annual harvest supper of Berkshire Grown, a great organization that promotes local agriculture in nearby Berkshire County, Mass, part of my own foodshed. Or, to paraphrase from their web site, they are an organization that keeps this:
From becoming this:
The harvest supper is at once a fund raiser for Berkshire Grown (raising nearly half of their funds in a a single night); an evening out for everybody who is anybody in toney Berkshire County; and a celebration of all that is local, healthful, and delicious.
The idea: twenty-one restaurants, transforming foods from 25 local farms into some of the most lip-smacking foods you’ve ever had. And I’m not kidding about that lip-smacking thing. The event is a veritable smorgasbord of orgasmic moans and heavenward-rolled eyes.
Here’s how the night goes down. First, you ride an hour through gorgeous farmland, wondering what “dressy casual” means in this situation, and hoping that it includes a pair of rolled up denim jeans under a satiny tunic that you bought last year and have never worn. Then you arrive, and notice that “dressy casual” means all kinds of things, including cowboy boots and Birkenstocks:
And you instantly feel okay, like all those wealthy people might not actually throw you and your denim in the compost pile.
Then, a lovely blonde offers you a basket of kale chips, and you learn that she’s the development director for Berkshire Grown, and she doesn’t just raise money, she also makes sure the crowd rocks that kale.
Then you sneak back to where you’re not allowed yet, the place where the chefs are preparing their offerings, while mumbling things like “there’s good dysfunctional and bad dysfunctional,” and “when they come in, just keep pumpin’ out that food,” and “afterwards, this whole place is going to be trashed.”
Then, as the crowd files in to the food stations, you notice that there’s a bar, and that the bar is filled with local booze. So much local booze.
First, you sample the hard cider from West County Cider & Winery:
Then, you move on to the blueberry wine from Chester Hill Winery:
Then, holy moly, you learn that there’s a new distillery in the area, and their gin is fan-freakin’ tastic:
Oh, and there’s another station for wine:
And hey, look, beer!
And this is the point at which your friend, Lee, the one you drove down with, comes out to the lobby and exclaims “would you move away from the bar already? You’re missing the food!”
Oh, right. The food.
So you begin the feeding frenzy. Twenty-one food stations! Great chefs and local foods at all of them! There’s roasted vegetable risotto! Chevre and leek tarts! Watermelon, olive and tomato salad which seems totally off-the-hook crazy until you taste it! Lemon thyme posset! What’s posset? Who cares? It’s delicious!
I took lots of photos of the food, but they all came out looking something like this:
As I wandered the room, periodically body-checking the folks who stood between me and Bistro Zinc’s sweet corn flan, I found myself stopping complete and total strangers in their path. “What do you recommend?,” I’d ask, grabbing their arm.
Or I might peer over their food. “Hey, where’d you get that?”
Or even: “You don’t mind if I just eat that right off your plate, do you?”
It’s funny how good food can make good friends out of just about anyone.
This is Michael Ballon, of Castle Street Cafe, whom locals know because he’s always on the radio, preparing delicious foods that sadly can be neither smelled nor tasted over the airwaves. He’s making fusilli with meat from Balsam Hill Farm:
It’s not just chefs and eaters there. This gorgeous thing is farmer Laura Meister, whom I met years ago, back when she was a documentary filmmaker who knew my sister. Since then, she’s apparently set aside the camera and picked up the hoe, running her own organic farm and CSA:
My photos only got blurrier as the night went on. And for a while, I found that frustrating. I wanted to capture the food, the chefs, the energy of the night. I wanted to get the kind of photos that would make everyone, even the most staunch HFCS-addict, jump out of their seat and cheer “hooray for real food!”
After a while, though, I gave up. I put down the camera. Instead of taking pictures, I stood there and let it all sink in. The night was buzzing with laughter and conversation. Aromas filled the room. Outside, a chill was settling in the air; the harvest, after all, always signals the winter to come. But inside, at that moment, it was warm, and abundance surrounded me, and I was with folks, all kinds of different folks, who had come together in celebration. We are so fortunate, I thought. We are so fortunate to have all this, so lucky that the whole region hasn’t been paved over in favor of Arby’s and Marshalls and Party City stores.
Standing there, my belly full of goodness, I felt something that I don’t feel nearly as often as I should: gratitude. It felt wonderful.
Later that night, after the chefs had packed up, and people had stolen giant gourds from the tables and sneaked them out to their cars…
…I found myself back in the car (nope, not driving! Not after all those locally-brewed spirits! Thanks, Lee!) heading north toward Vermont.
I passed fast food restaurants:
And I felt indescribably sad for the folks for whom fast food is the only option. I thought about what could be — the real food, the food that somehow makes us feel whole again, that makes us feel like a member of a community, instead of an anonymous consumer of Value Meal #3 — versus what so often is, for so many people. And I offered up this simple wish: that everyone get the chance to slow down and taste real food, at some point in their hurried lives.
It doesn’t take fancy chefs, although that is nice. It doesn’t take a night out. It simply takes a little land, farmers who are willing to grow it, and people who want to eat it.
Real food. I wish it for all of you. Maybe tonight.