Harvest Dinner: Celebrating community harvest and preservation with An Ark of Taste dinner
Photo by Bob Kuehne
According to the 2010 census, if you don't like Michigan, you've probably already left for Florida. As the only state in the nation to lose population since 2000, Michigan is a particularly apt example of Wendell Berry's 1993 observation in Orion magazine that, "One of the oldest American assumptions is that if you don't like where you are you can move: if you don't like Virginia, go to Kentucky; if you don't like Kentucky, go to Missouri; if you don't like Missouri, go to Texas or Oregon or California. And that assumption has done damage everywhere it has gone."
But Berry has a solution to the problem of the damage inherent in mobility: rootedness with creativity. He wonders "What if people began to ask, "What can we do here?" and "What that we need can we produce here?" and "What that we need can we do for each other here?" Many of those in Michigan who have not chosen exodus are finding ways to strengthen the fabric of our communities, believing we need to bring everyone to a bountiful table.
An example of neighbors working together was a lovely farm-to-table Harvest Dinner that I was fortunate to attend on Oct. 6. Held in a beautifully renovated barn in Scio Township, the dinner was amazing in part because the menu featured rare "Ark of Taste" heirloom foods, many of which are in danger of extinction because they are rarely grown any more.
And all of the food came from places nearby — Capella Farm, Madaras Garden Studio, Red Gate Farm, Firesign Farm and others — who are working together to create a support network of skills and resources in their area, and several of whom participated this summer in a Great Lakes Heirloom Seed Trial.
That evening happened to be one of the most beautiful nights of the year, with soft autumn light illuminating white and pink roses on a hand-hewn table made of reclaimed Douglas fir. Guests gathered in the soaring space of an ancient refurbished barn, invited to join in giving thanks for our food and farms.
The intention of the organizers was to foster appreciation and awareness of local food and farming, seen through the lens of preserving the agrarian wisdom and beauty developed here in our beleaguered state over generations. The evening served to demonstrate the possibility in author Gary Snyder's exhortation to “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”
Dinners like this Harvest Dinner, and other efforts across the state — indeed across the nation — are demonstrating what we can do here, including what (food) we need to produce here and what we as neighbors and as a region can provide for each other here. These questions are central to what the Occupy Wall Street protestors are asking, and beginning to explore answers for. Most important, perhaps, is the aspect of caring for each other and finding the roots that attach us to our place in the world.
Michigan has long been lumped among the "fly-over" states that comprise the parts of the country that don't border New York or California, and it's given us a bit of an inferiority complex. The attitude of the superiority of elsewhere seems to have impaired our sense that this is a place worth defending.
Michigan is still approving strip mines and CAFO factory farms, experiencing oil spills and accepting hunger and homelessness as facts of life. We residents have not often been drawn together by a sense of pride and common purpose in restoring and preserving what matters in our own place. But perhaps that can change by appreciating what is here, fitting it to what we know we need now.
One example of preservation through re-purposing is Misty Farm, where the Harvest Dinner was held. The Frutig family purchased the property in 1999, and 10 years later made extensive renovations to its two 1800s-era barns in order to host events. They say they are committed to the community and hire local artisans and craftsmen for the restoration work on the farm. Indeed, craftsman John Heins was among the 20-some people seated at the 17 foot long table that he custom made to fit the space.
The old Misty Farm barn was a beautiful backdrop for the dinner that young chefs Doug Hewitt of Terry B's in Dexter, and his friend Mike Lutz, were challenged to prepare. Describing themselves as hunters and foragers who are "passionate about using local and seasonal foods," Hewitt and Lutz worked with local farmers to create dishes like Chicken Sausage with Local Mushrooms and Sunchokes, Northern Bean Cassoulet, Roast Whitefish with Sweet Corn and Tomatillo Succotash and American Chinchilla Rabbit and Pork Bulgogi.
Like Top Chef contestants, they devised the menu as the farmers showed up with the food. Hewitt exclaimed, "It was like the biggest mystery basked I've ever had!"
Describing the three preparation techniques for the American Chinchilla Rabbit (confit, roast, ground), Hewitt said the "point of the menu was to show preservation techniques and how to use this food in everyday life." According to Hewitt, "farmers need more, better chefs, people who care about the food and who go to the trouble to use what farmers can provide. Chefs don't need better farmers; farmers need better chefs."
Among the farmers (and organizers) for the Harvest Dinner were Angela Madaras and her husband Doug, also both artists. Angela Madaras says the seed of the idea for the dinner came two years ago when a passing tornado and resulting wind shears blew the doors off barns, scattered horses and devastated many of the farms in their Scio neighborhood. For the first time, neighbors reached out to support each other and began to know one another.
Working together through that disaster helped them see other ways they could support each other with their common goals of preservation and sustainable agriculture. The idea for a Scio Church educational and community resource center has emerged.
They are working on a website to catalog resources and intend to match those resources with the people who need them, with small local farms especially finding ways to support and promote each other. Perhaps creating a clearinghouse that would help match local farms with area restaurants.
Madaras now runs a small "friends and family" CSA, and with neighboring farms, like Capella, she is beginning to supply food to Terry B's. She says the October Ark of Taste Dinner was a way "of coming together over the harvest and everything the land has given. Food is the core of everything, it's that agricultural act that we all engage in."
As a state with a long and rich agricultural history, one with the potential for re-thinking and re-creating the agriculture of the future, Michigan is uniquely poised to answer Wendell Berry's questions "what do we need that we can produce here" and "what that we need can we do for each other here." Many of the answers will involve preserving our agricultural heritage, re-purposing old buildings, and re-thinking how to produce what we need here so that we can keep producing it in a way that sustains our children and grandchildren.
Chris Bedford, Michigan's late documentary filmmaker and food activist believed three main things that could build the capacity of a community to feed itself were to: know your neighbors, inventory your own skills, and grow some of your own food. The Scio Township neighbors are proving that there is not only economic support but also biodiversity, beauty and joy from agriculture which involves careful re-purposing of the past to sustain the future.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. realized "Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives."
Contributions to the Harvest Dinner from:
- Capella Farm
- Firesign Farm
- Lesser Farm
- Madaras Garden Studio
- Misty Farm
- Preserving Traditions
- Red Gate Farm
- Scio Valley Produce Stand
- Terry B's
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. She would love any news about interesting local food and agriculture efforts. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.