Somehow, through the graces of friends who are chefs, wine dealers, and farmer’s market directors, my husband Kenny and I have meandered our way into the “foodie circuit” here in Nashville as the musical accompaniment to $200-per-plate gourmet events – such as the Outstanding in the Field dinner we attended on September 13. We did get paid, but the clincher: we got to eat. Nice work if you can get it.
We took a Sunday drive out of Nashville into the gorgeous hills of Columbia, winding our way into the verdant valley where Arugula’s Star Farm is nestled. We pulled in at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the only immediate sign of activity was a gorgeous old tour bus parked along the treeline – something in which Loretta Lynn might have toured. (These Outstanding in the Field folks – they’re the rock stars of the local food movement.)
Kenny and our buddy Jake, who plays upright bass with us, dropped their instruments in the field and we took a walk over a beautiful brook to an old barn and a fascinating chicken tractor, complete with solar panels for its portable electric fence. We found out later that these chickens were all endangered breeds, and that this kind of practice was standard around the farm, where everything is done intentionally.
Funky-looking hipsters started to wander off of the bus, replete with pompadours and piercings and tattoos and argyle knee socks. These were the traveling storytellers who are spreading the good word about local farms – how they are good for the economy and produce food for our health, and the food tastes good. Outstanding in the Field is one of the key catalysts that’s given the local food movement momentum and visibility over the last decade. Wendell Berry has told us why we should support local food, and Outstanding in the Field has made it cool. Jim Denevan is their fearless leader, as hip in his urban cowboy hat and chunky producer glasses as a Nashville musician (and some notable ones were in attendance). A chef from California, he and his crew began to have gourmet dinners at local farms, sourcing food from the fields in which they dined, cooked on location, and served marvelously at their signature “long table,” which is long enough for 150-200 people. The idea resonated and ten years ago this visionary took his show on the road.
Around 3:30pm, the guests started to arrive, some in designer sundresses and heels, some in jeans and T-shirts. And what do you wear to a five course gourmet banquet in a pasture, anyway?
As people mingled, Kenny, Jake, and I earned our keep, standing in stomped-down field grass near the wine steward, singing and sipping our way through our blend of old-timey jazz and bluegrass, glasses eternally full. We had our pictures taken by every iPhone in the place, and we laughed at how perfect it would be to be “discovered” singing out in a field. The hipsters wandered through with plates of pancetta-wrapped pears, curried lamb pies, radish skewers with Kentucky Rose cheese, and hot fish sandwiches.
The reception hour drew to a close with Jim welcoming the guests, introducing himself and our evening’s stars, the farmers: Allison and Matthew Neal. Jim pointed out that chefs have had their share of celebrity, and the point of Outstanding in the Field is to celebrate the farmers who, through talent, skill, sweat, and love, provide nourishing and beautiful food and stewarding land.
The group of 150 was divided in two, and Matthew and Allison, each with an OITF representative, took us out to show us their handiwork. Our supper sung for, we went along on the tour, eager to work up a good appetite for dinner.
The farm was handsome. Some fields were wild, covered in grasses and cover crops. Even though the Neals run a small farm, they do not eke out its every last resource, but let fields rest and recover. Allison showed us their greens, their squashes, their pumpkins, the irrigation system, the remnants of the summer crops, the chickens. Allison has multiple science degrees, and comes from a family of farmers. She and her husband are providing nourishment to the 44 families who participate in their Community Supported Agriculture cooperative, and they are stewarding this lush valley.
Jim served as a marvelous ambassador for farmers, who are not necessarily as eloquent as Allison, nor as marketing-savvy as Jim. It made me realize that, of course, chefs have been the stars. Restaurants have PR. Farmers? They work hard and quietly out in the fields. We are a squeaky-wheel kind of culture, and farms need someone like Jim. He asked Allison the right questions during Q&A, providing opportunities for these guests of means to support Arugula’s Star Farm –
Jim: “How can people join your CSA?”
Allison: “It’s full this year.”
Jim: “Will you have more room next year?”
As the sun fell low in the sky, we were led to the “restaurant,” which had been hiding behind a treeline. The long table was prepared alongside a creek, canopied by low-slung trees. As we approached, two trunks full of plates were laid open; guests had been asked to bring their own, and there were spares for those who didn’t. We chose our places at the table – alongside strangers and our friend Robin, the wine merchant who had chosen the evening’s wines.
How grand, how lavish, to sit down to a meal out in the country, the table extending off, as long as a football field, maybe? At the far end was the kitchen encampment, where Martha Stamps, our favorite local chef, worked her magic with the fruit of Matt and Allison’s labors, transforming them into cuisine within yards of their birthplace.
We talked politely with our neighbors about our work, the farm, and how far we had traveled to be here. Some came from Memphis, some from Georgia. All had planned for and anticipated this special evening.
First, large bowls were set among us: tomatoes and basil with Martha’s strawberry vinegar, aged all year, accompanied by a Folesco Est Est Est wine.
Gorgeous! We all marveled, delighted at the fruits of this farm, at the care taken in the soil preparation, in the concern for its mineral content. We felt humbled and honored to receive food so thoughtfully cultivated and prepared, from the lovingly tended soil into Martha’s creative and caring hands to our grateful mouths and bellies.
Next: marinated grilled children thighs with wheatberry salad, snap and dragon beans, toasted seeds, smoked peppers. Another glass of Folesco.
We began to converse in deeper waters as we got comfortable. The state of things, war, music – more dangerous, more thoughtful discussion among strangers. But were we such strangers anymore? Sharing this amazing table gave a fellowship of sorts.
Another salad course! Melon, cucumber, arugula, Bonnie Blue feta, mint, and honeywith a Zenato pinot grigio.
The sun dipped low and red, playing in the hundreds of glasses. Jim made the rounds, talking about the farm, about his work, about wonderful food. Robin wandered, explaining her wine pairings, how the Pinot worked with the flavors in the salad.
Braised short ribs, shitake mushrooms, cheese grits, and spicy kale, with Vale Reale Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
This course came as the sun disappeared. The staff placed scores of candles up and down the table. Warmed with wine, tipsy on the dozens of flavors mingling in our mouths, we ate the ribs with our fingers and licked them in the candlelight. High-dollar decorum was overwhelmed by delighted senses: moonlight, the sound of the creek and laughter, the feeling that we were all very honored guests whose arrival had been considered for months, from the planting of the lettuce in June, from the Outstanding in the Field’s setting out from California. How good to eat very good things pushed out the good earth, made with sun and water and love. It was hard to miss that this was a party akin to a banquet to come – the brokenness pushed back a tiny bit for the moment, in the soil, in our hearts: grateful and generous and laughing. I leaned over to Kenny and laughed about it, how at the really good party in the story that Jesus told, all the rich people said they were busy, and they went out and found all the poor and vagabonds for the big party. That was another day, and these people were lovely.
Finally, and marvelously: buttermilk lemon-verbena panna cotta with sugar plum sauce. I laughed and laughed that I got to eat anything so good. Martha, the chef, came out and proclaimed it all very good – the vision, the farm, the farmers. The Outstanding in the Field folks faded into the darkness, leaving the beautiful table all lit up, and we lingered and wandered off in twos and threes, wondering at the magic of sharing a meal, and a meal like this, ready to tell a good story to our friends.