Beautiful, bountiful, and very blurry: A report from Berkshire Grown’s Harvest Supper

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.

This is the first of many, many blurry photos I take this evening.

This is the first of many, many blurry photos I take this evening. Just watch.

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.”

See what I mean about the blurry?

See what I mean about the blurry?

While in the room with the chefs, you apparently miss the welcome and announcements from Barbara Zheutlin, Berkshire Grown’s executive director:
I can't hear what she's saying, but I'm pretty sure it's important.

I can't hear what she's saying, but I'm pretty sure it's important.

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:

Later, you will overhear people saying that the gin is just like Sapphire. Just better.

Later, you will overhear people saying that the gin is just like Bombay Sapphire. Except better.

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:

This is apple pie if you can't tell. And it was good.

This is apple pie from La Terazza, with apples from Taft Farms. You can't tell, of course, because it's blurry. It was delicious.

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:

he's blurry.

Note: he's blurry.

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:

Organic farmers are way sexier than the rest of us.

Organic farmers are way sexier than the rest of us, even when blurry.

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…

This is Ashley, and she'd been eyeing that gourd all night.

This is Ashley, and she'd had her eye on that gourd all night.

…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:

That's Burger King on the left, Dunkin Donuts on the right. I know. You can't tell. Because it's blurry.

That's Burger King on the left, Dunkin' Donuts on the right. You can't tell. Because it's blurry.

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.

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12 Responses to “Beautiful, bountiful, and very blurry: A report from Berkshire Grown’s Harvest Supper”


  1. 1 Anna September 19, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Oh, grooooaaaannnn, you made me so homesick for the Northeast! Despite 21 years away from that neck o’ the woods, it doesn’t go away. I especially feel it this time of year. Coastal So Cal is a nice place to be stuck, but warm, dry Santa Ana winds (that fuel wildfires) alternating with gray, gloomy, foggy marine layers that come on shore can’t compete with “real” crisp fall weather, turning leaf vistas, and picking apples at a local orchard that grows about 30 varieties!

    If you are ever in the market for a new camera, I love the Panasonic Lumix line (we have two, an older one and a new one). The 8 mp version we got in time for our summer vacation has an easy to use feature that reduces or eliminates shaky camera syndrome (great for budding photographers as well as, ahem, mature ones).

    Then again, I’m sensing you might have used the Night Scene mode due to low light situation. Not sure what you can do to avoid subject movement causing those blurs, other than a tripod and very still subjects. But since it looks artistic, no matter, we enjoy the pix. BTW, we liked the camera videos so much we didn’t even use our camcorder. Just saying.

  2. 2 Greg September 19, 2008 at 2:00 am

    I couldn’t go this year, but that is always a great event. I’ll have to look up that gin mill!

  3. 3 Karen Miller September 19, 2008 at 2:26 am

    Thank you so much for this post. I so share your enthusiasm for “real” food rather than non-descript chemical-ridden crap. I wish I’d known about the Berkshire event as I live in Boston. Our CSA farmer’s not nearly as sexy as Laura!

  4. 5 Shalet September 19, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I love the photo of the farm instead of the strip mall. It makes me think of the Talking Heads song (Nothing But) Flowers.

  5. 6 Pamela September 19, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    Sigh. We have so much potential here. If people would just get their heads out of their Happy Meals. I promise you, one of these years, I’m going to fly out to your neck of the woods and go to something like that. It’s positively inspiring.

    And about those camera shots, I just pretended that I’d had as much to drink as you and everything looked just as it would have if I had been there myself!

  6. 7 nyjlm September 22, 2008 at 1:01 am

    So beautifully written. Feel like I was there, and share the same wistful feeling about everyone having the opportunity for real food.

  7. 8 Vikki September 22, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    You had me at the gin…

  8. 9 Farmer Laura September 30, 2008 at 2:19 am

    Ali–
    Today was one of the least sexy days at the farm, EVER–it was muddy and cloudy and we began breaking down the trellising for hundreds of over-the-hill, now decaying tomato plants, yuck). Your account of the BBB event was the perfect balance of passionate and hilarious and put me right back in the mindset of why I love what I do. We are lucky here in the Berks–there are many many wonderful food events year-round–but I love this one in particular because the room is chock-filled with dreamers and believers and people who inspire one another to do more and do better each season. Plus, its a great excuse to put on a dress. ;)

  9. 10 Ian October 7, 2008 at 3:39 am

    You have filled this California-dweller with longing for the Berkshires, beautiful food and beautiful farmers. Sigh.

  10. 11 Annie October 8, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    I used to be the enemy. Not a fast-food junkie, but someone who didn’t make an effort to buy local. Now that I’m married to a food-aware guy and have kids (AND know and love that farm girl farmer), I care. And acting on the care has made me community-minded in ways beyond food. I hope that makes sense ,because I’m on my iPhone and my thmbs are seizing up. Keep up the great work, all of you food angels in the Berks and beyond.

  11. 12 Amanda October 9, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Oh! I’m terribly homesick for the Berkshires these days — the trees here in DC are hardly changing color, and I just know that it *smells* like fall up there. I can’t wait until spring when I can get back up there and be a part of this awesome movement. Hey Laura — Need any apprentices?


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