Ten years ago today I witnessed the most phenomenal act of community I have ever seen. I hope it is not the last. What came together that day was the vision of a couple of young women, the efforts of over forty farms, the planning and precision of ten pairs of chefs, the enthusiasm of an inspired group of volunteers and some miracles of mother nature herself.
To back track, in March of 2010 I was approached by an acquaintance I knew as a landscape designer and local famers daughter wanting to elevate the conversation about design, land use and place. I was intrigued and though I warned her I had never done anything like this before, we decided to jump in headfirst, especially when we switched from a one chef catered meal to a collaborative extravaganza of local food. The following is a blog entry from that time:
“How would you like to organize a dinner of local food for 500 people at the base of a vacant grain elevator?”
“Um, I have no catering or much restaurant experience.”
Almost that simply and with as much positive attitude, I have found myself in this new role that oddly calls on most of my life experiences. Pseudo waitress at Baker’s, divorced from a chef who I helped put through the Culinary Institute of America, hostess for a minute, organic farm apprentice, farmer’s market bouquet maker, Local Food Forager for Whole Foods Market, along with a parallel career as a painter and art professor. From this range of situations, it turns out that the relationships I have developed with the farmers have been the most beneficial and meaningful. Take note of that fact. Twenty-five years of working and the people who grow my food are the ones I get the most sustenance from in so many ways.
So as to the dinner; I agreed to coordinate this massive event because it intrigued me that someone thought it up and was convinced it could be done. I saw a wonderful opportunity to feature local chefs who are already buying local and bragging about it on their menus, hopefully inspiring others to do so. And what a great market for our area growers at a time of year when the abundance is often overlooked by customers busy with school, sports and already planning for holiday overextension. With a shared vision of a long table blending folks from all walks of life, breaking bread and talking about the massive grain elevator behind them and what its use and disuse could mean, Anne Trumble and I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride this planning process has been.
We were a little daunted; I even considered backing out, so we tried one version of how the day could go and decided it didn’t quite fit. Accepting the challenge along with the satisfaction of doing it in as collaborative way as possible, we dove in. Chefs were invited and many responded. We apologize if you were missed, and would love for you to let us know if you are also using local food on your menus. Feats of scheduling have been performed and we have met twice to discuss service and menu.
Details are still coming together and may be altered by the very last-minute produce offerings at the market that weekend. Starting with salad mix, dressing with Nebraska made vinegar, cheese, bread, pickles, preserves and honey; we will enjoy five more courses throughout the afternoon. There will be vegetable stew, pig roasted on site the day before, and in a stunning coup, bison will take over for beef as the red meat entree, head to toe, no less. This is one of the amazing outcomes of our discussions so far – responsible meat purchasing. Rather than leave a farmer with pounds and pounds of cuts or grind that they can’t readily sell, we will be utilizing whole animals. And the chefs are already talking about how they can work together in the future to share purchasing and keep this going.
This is when I get goose bumps: seeing the possibilities for real change in our food buying habits. Is this the goal of Emerging Terrain’s Stored Potential project? I don’t think there was a goal besides conversation. Maybe conversation about land use sounds irrelevant to you, but everything around you is based on land use. From what you eat to how you get to work to where you live; land use is involved. Like politics, it is not about right and wrong, and even though it often is decided somewhere else, it does affect your day to day life. Now change only happens when you start talking about things, but conversation in and of itself is a necessary and dying art. Face to face talk about what you see around you. And over such wonderful food? Who doesn’t want to join us?
As I read this this, I am overwhelmed by the similarity to conversations we are having today about Holy Family Community Center. The Omaha food scene went on to grow into a vast network of chefs and farmers working together. I even tried to help that along by founding the local food wholesale distribution company Lone Tree Foods. I also tried to establish a Wednesday night farmers market that lasted a couple of years and consulted with famers on humane practices. I was involved with an amazing group of people who tried to start a Local Food Policy Council which has evolved into many other forms since then. I have watched other groups step up and carry the local food torch such as No More Empty Pots, Whispering Roots, and the Big Garden. Which brings me to another amazing similarity to today’s conversations. In my new role with the Society of St Vincent de Paul, I am not directly part of the food insecurity work, but cheering on from the newsletters and websites I maintain. I am proud to once again be involved with feeding people good food, no matter how indirectly for the moment. Some day we hope to host dinners, maybe not as extravagant as the Harvest Dinner, but equally impactful. Reflecting on that amazing day and the toast to the famers and chefs that brought tears to my eyes, I still hope we can renew our energy in the direction of building a truly local sustainable food system. I will do what I can with the remarkable resource of the community center and the people it is drawing to it. We will grow, prepare and eat food together while telling stories or listening to music or watching a play. We will get to know our neighbors better and break down the walls of fear that grow out of difference. We will work to prevent poverty and homelessness where we can and perhaps even sit down to another dinner for 500 someday.
Here are links to websites with more photos and writing about the event: http://emergingterrain.org/archives/practice/harvest-dinner
Lori Tatreau, Director of Holy Family Community Center