I wonder, sometimes, what our great-grandparents might think of the term “farm-to-table.”
It is a phrase that has gained serious traction in the past decade, but not without some scrutiny. In “The 10 Most Annoying Words and Phrases on Menus, Ranked,” Los Angeles Magazine lists “name-dropping the farm” as the sixth sin (see also: “unnecessary French words”).
Nevertheless, interest in farm-to-table has certainly grown locally, with growers, chefs and diners alike jumping on the opportunity to craft and peruse seasonal menus. Upscale farm-to-table dining events, complete with waitstaff and beverage pairings, increasingly serve as harvest season celebrations and fundraisers for nearby organizations. In Cedar Rapids, the Indian Creek Nature Center hosts dinners throughout the year; early each fall, Kroul Farms in Mount Vernon partners with Pullman Bar and Diner to serve an on-the-farm, multi-course dinner; and in Iowa City, the Farm to Street Dinner on Iowa City’s North Linn Street attracts crowds.
“The event has been capped since the very beginning, and it has always sold out in a few hours,” Betsy Potter, director of operations for the Iowa City Downtown District, said of the Farm to Street Dinner.
Sarah Halbrook, director of development at the Indian Creek Nature Center, said tickets to their farm-to-table dinners sell out quickly, as well. Most recently, the center featured Cobble Hill chef Andy Schumacher during a late September event, where Schumacher and his team served over 100 patrons a five-course vegetarian meal, all during a two-and-a-half hour time span.
“Each dish has four or five different elements,” Schumacher said. His first course that evening, an heirloom tomato and watermelon salad, was adorned with crumbles of feta, compressed cucumber cubes and basil foam released from a whipped cream canister. “The challenge is making sure that the dinner doesn’t drag,” he said. Spirits paired with each course certainly help with that.
Many credit the 1976 cookbook The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis as the beginning of the farm-to-table movement. In her book, Lewis, the granddaughter of freed slaves, pays homage to the farming traditions of her hometown, Freetown, Virginia. She urges young chefs to acknowledge “those who worked hard, loved the land and relished the fruits of their labors.”
“To take those locally produced, locally grown foods and showcasing what our restaurants do here—that is the real purpose.” — Betsy Potter
Lewis, who would later go on to inspire the likes of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, did not coin the phrase “farm-to-table” outright, but her penchant for fresh produce and seasonal cooking was championed by the movement.
To work in tandem with local farmers and the whims of the seasons, Schumacher keeps the menu for his events “pretty fluid,” he said.
“I like to wait and see what [farmers] are going to have. We work with about four or five farmers, and they will text us a list of what they have every week.”
Schumacher’s second course during the September Indian Creek Nature Center farm-to-table event, a spicy roasted red kuri squash paired with gnudi (like gnocchi, but made with ricotta cheese), was all set to be made with carrots. “But these other nice squash came in,” he said, and so the dish was altered.
Potter of the Iowa City Downtown District said dishes will often deviate from the original menu, but Farm to Street Dinner patrons recognize that as part of the experience. “To take those locally produced, locally grown foods and showcasing what our restaurants do here—that is the real purpose.”
Much of his preparation occurs before the day of the event, Schumacher explained, which is a culinary feat in and of itself. Sauces and vegetables are readied in the Cobble Hill kitchen in the days leading up to the event, then transported to the center where they are rewarmed, arranged on plates in multitudes and garnished with care and precision, ready for servers to whisk them away.
Long, shared tables have become customary seating at farm-to-table events. Halbrook of the Indian Creek Nature Center arranges attendees, following hunches for who might enjoy spending an evening with who. (She aptly seated me across from a pizza connoisseur and beside a woman who brought her own bottle of red wine to share—it was lovely.)
The mission of Iowa City’s Farm to Street Dinner is to “bring together members of Iowa City’s diverse, vibrant community to share a table, a story, and a meal.” But photos of various local farm-to-table events throughout the past few years capture the faces of mostly white attendees that do not mirror the racial and economic diversity present in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and surrounding areas. It’s the elephant in the room, especially given the black roots of the farm-to-table trend, as well as the food justice ethos embedded in the broader local food movement.
Half of the $140 tickets to the Indian Creek Nature Center’s dinner were donated to the center to support free and low-cost programming offered throughout the year. Because the Nature Center is not government-funded, it relies heavily on donors, Holbrook said. “We have to balance,” she added, “and this is very much a fundraiser for us.”
“We do and always have done ticket giveaways [at the farmers market], and we do have some seats reserved for the farmers free of cost,” said Potter of the Farm to Street Dinner.
Event organizers in Northfield, Minnesota took a big step forward this year in planning a donation-based farm-to-street dinner free to all attendees. The reservation website was available in both English and Spanish; fliers were delivered to nursing homes, senior centers, group homes and Hispanic neighborhoods; and attendees were encouraged to call volunteers for help with transportation to the event.
The late Anthony Bourdain called farm-to-table an “overused definition” and “a little pretentious,” but he conceded, “I’m glad that people are aware and think about these things … and I’m glad that chefs are making the real effort to get the best quality ingredients and that the public is more and more likely to appreciate it and even understand it. So I mean, it’s good.”
It is good. Supporting farmers is good. Fresh, local produce tastes oh-so-good. And the magical renderings of skilled chefs like Schumacher? Deliciously, obnoxiously good.
But—is there still room in our metaphorical food justice belly to see these events become even better? Why, yes. Then again, there’s always room in that belly.