Dinner on the ground

Photo by Kenny Raskin

Farm dinners

There’s rarely a formal announcement of farm dinners: Although Green Toe’s event was a come-one, come-all affair, invitations weren’t widely distributed: Friends, neighbors and CSA members received an e-mail about the dinner. The best way to find about such feasts is to ask around at tailgate markets and watch the online calendars of local food organizations such as the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project.

As the embrace of local foods has evolved, with chefs slaughtering their own hogs and amateur cooks keeping chickens, diners have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Stocking a restaurant’s larder with goods from the farmer’s market—a downright radical concept when Alice Waters introduced it back in the 1970s—is now becoming common.

The “eat local” movement may be rooted in simplicity, but its adherents want more: More butter that smacks of the scallions the cows munched before milking. More misshapen onions that bear the scars of a bone-dry summer. More oversized watermelons that got away from their growers, and more funny-colored tomatoes.

In response to such insistent demands to further shorten the distance from pasture to table, savvy farmers have lately begun offering dinners on their farms, allowing guests to sink their feet into the soil that incubated the rutabagas on their plates. Rather than deliver their produce to established restaurants, these growers are establishing quasi-restaurants of their own.

The idea of fusing fine dining with farmsteads is generally credited to Jim Denevan, who in 1999 set up a long table in a Watsonville, Calif., field, draped it with a white tablecloth and served a gourmet meal made with ingredients provided by the host farmer. The event became a major venture, and Denevan now roams the country all summer long, orchestrating candlelit “Outstanding in the Field” dinners on dairies, ranches and vineyards.

Farm dinners in the Denevan mold have just recently come to Western North Carolina: While local farms have long rented out their barns for weddings and partnered with organizations like Slow Food for special events, the high cotton alfresco meal is still in its newfangled stage locally. But Green Toe Ground Farm in Yancey County has begun annually proving the idea’s viability.

Green Toe recently held its second-ever dinner, a feast that inspired—in equal measure—awe at the farm’s bounty and the unvarnished covetousness of neighboring growers. “We could so something like this,” more than one farmer commented to his or her spouse while at table.

“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do,” explains Nicole DelCogliano, who runs the farm with her husband Gaelan. “We don’t get the chance to be so fancy in our everyday lives.”

Green Toe Ground is a 16-acre organic farm that the DelCoglianos have been working for eight years. They grow vegetables and flowers, and raise all sorts of creatures, including sheep, pigs and bees. Their daily routine rarely involves pristine linens or string quartets.

But DelCogliano reports it was neither the tablecloths nor the appointed musical accompaniment that provoked the most agita during the dinner planning process. Rather, it was the white-canvas tents, which, as DelCogliano notes with a sigh: “We don’t own. The logistics make it tricky.”

The tents, pitched in a back corner of one of the DelCogliano’s fields, create an incongruous and slightly remarkable landscape for the dinner-goers who park their cars alongside Grindstaff Road before descending into the field. The tents obviously don’t belong there—and they serve as a beacon of something very special happening within.

Dinner at Green Toe begins with a smorgasboard of farm-grown snacks, presented—like all four of the ensuing courses—buffet style. There are raw vegetables and crostinis smeared with local goat cheese. No telling what treats are available to early arrivers—within minutes of the event’s announced start time, many of the serving plates are picked clean. It’s all rather irrelevant since every table is set with a bottle of wine and ridiculously good crusty homemade bread and butter (which DelCogliano confirms isn’t locally made, but somehow tastes better consumed on the farm).

At the most recent dinner, the first official course was tortellini, tossed with mushrooms and an heirloom-tomato cream sauce that made a mockery of the typical overly thickened cream sauce. The sauce provided a terrifically zippy counterpart to the gently made pasta.

“For me, the tortellini took the cake,” DelCogliano said days after the meal. “I was really impressed with that. We totally made it up.”

The tortellini was good. The lamb entrée was great.

For the main course, the DelCoglianos served a lamb with roasted red peppers that made instant sense of all the militant arguments for local food. The tender lamb, accompanied by thick-skinned fingerling potatoes rolled in pesto and garlicky green beans, was wonderfully flavorful and surprisingly sprightly. The only problem was that there wasn’t more of it.

Part of the fun of a farm dinner is allowing the farmer to run the show. Farmers know how much feed to mete out, and—if the Green Toe Ground meal is any indication—their inclination to portion frugally doesn’t evaporate with the arrival of paying guests. While a way-too-generous serving of greens that comprised the third course meant nobody could complain about not having enough to eat, waste clearly isn’t tolerated on a working farm.

For 60 people, DelCogliano said, she used “14 pounds of meat, three pounds of salad and a few pounds of potatoes. It’s actually not that much, which is amazing, really.”

Green Toe certainly didn’t skimp on dessert, which emerged just as it became dark enough for diners to need headlamps to illuminate short hikes to the farm’s namesake river. Every plate was piled high with melon cubes, rich chocolate terrine and a warm, rustic cobbler made with blackberries from Clear Creek Gardens, one of five farms that supplied ingredients for the menu the DelCoglianos created.

Indeed, cooperation is central to the DelCoglianos’ vision, which includes many more farm dinners developed with their “chef consultants” Alena Garashi and Mary Allyn.

“Last year we had 45 people, and this year we had 60,” DelCogliano says. “After this dinner, we’re talking about making it a partnership.”

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