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Feature Fri Aug 28 2009
Bron Weaver, turning around the parquet stage with arms wide, declared of her family's optimistic venture, Heritage Prairie Market: "We bought the farm!" And in this case, it was a very good thing. We'd just enjoyed multiple courses of a multitude of fresh-to-the-table dishes, everything from pickled green beans to a traditional English summer pudding (sort of like the world's richest, fattest crepes draped luxuriously over a mound of sweet berries--it just kind of sounds sexy, doesn't it?). Twinkle strands and car headlights barely pierced the darkness as we wandered back to the crushed rock drive way, back to vehicles, back to the road home. With the smell of rain, earth and green grass flowering in the cool but humid air, it felt like another world. An older world. A world somehow just outside the Chicago city limits, and with every star in the sky in view.
Farm dinners were, in some presumed and misty American past, a regular dining occurrence. In the not-so-distant chapter of our nation's history when agriculture was the single largest industry employing Americans, perhaps it was more a matter of course than the sentimentality we now seem to attach to the notion. My grandmother has a framed Amish Sunday dinner menu on the wall of her dining room--a scrabbly cursive hand promising whole chickens, honey butter, and an enticingly mysterious shoo-fly pie on the table of some forgotten bygone rural family. My grandmother, however, is the product of the fertile pastures of Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood (much more fragrant with the sweat and blood of the meat trade in her youth) rather than any rural upbringing. The print is more likely from World Market or some other big box retailer--but belies a greater depth than perhaps its $9.99 price tag might suggest.
The romanticism of the farm dinner is hard to deny. There's a particular pride to the enclosed idea of that kind of meal: "That cream just came from THAT COW! Right there! Look how natural and self-sufficient we are!" And the foods we might imagine as being part of a farm table seem to be the ones that most define middle American cuisine. The braised chicken or pork loin, grilled or creamed vegetables, fresh-baked breads and pies, pickles, preserves and various mayonnaise- or potato-based salads would look just as home at the road-side diners, church picnics and family reunions that provide are the connective stitching on the patchwork quilt of Midwestern farmland.
Fitting the idea of the farm dinner into contemporary restaurant culture requires a bit of fudging--Lula Cafe's Monday Night Farm Dinner recently featured a braised seafood main course with mussels and octopus, hardly the kind of produce you'd fish out of any local watering hole, delicious as they may be when rustically trussed up with grilled bread and cauliflower. However, as more and more local establishments turn to local purveyors for their primary sourcing of igredients, more and more menus around town have reflected a seasonal, sometimes family-style, often traditionally-inflected array of dishes.
In addition to providing information on local farmers and the restaurants that support them, Slow Food Chicago puts on a series of occasional dinners with such partners as Uncommon Ground and Goose Island (including a benefit dinner this weekend), many of which take on a "farm dinner" character due solely to the ingredients being featured. This relationship goes the other way as well, with some such as with Café Spiaggia's dinner this weekend at Nichols Farm, for which guests will embark upon a biodiesel bus to reach the rural hosts, enjoy games of bocce and croquet, apple picking in the orchard, and a meal featuring the local ingredients cooked with haute cuisine know-how.
More often found under tarps and behind tables at Green City or any number of other local markets, farmers themselves can still manage to miss having any actual presence at such events. Though that's changing. Farmers are slowly beginning to step into the spotlight--and what better way to showcase their wares and ways of life than with a dinner? Angelic Organics is hosting a dinner this weekend, and the Local Beet hosted their first or hopefully many earlier this summer with Genesis Growers. I was recently invited to be a guest at Heritage Prairie's Midsummer Night's Dream Dinner, a farm-to-table affair featuring a tour of the grounds and selections from the play (presented by some very pleased looking members of Mind the Gap Productions) complementing the main event.
The drive out from downtown in rush hour forced us to miss most of the passed appetizers, though we were able to snag a Capriole goat cheese and nectarine crostini with delightfully dense, sweetish bread and spicy arugula micro greens. A specialty of Heritage Prairie--the tiny greens occupy their own greenhouse, the only one on the whole farm heated and wired for artificial lighting to keep the tiny sprouts growing all year, as well as nurturing the seedlings for the other plant beds well into the colder months. As with many minuscule foods, there's more to micro greens than meets the eye--the vast amounts of energy the plant expends into their tiny fronds makes them akin to bean sprouts in their action-packed nutritional value, though they actually retain stronger flavors than either sprouts or their larger, leafier cousins. Nate Sumner, our guide through the farm, noted that many people try to make a whole salad out of micro greens due to their "super food" qualities, which is really not recommended, given the plants tiny size (you'd need an awful lot of micro arugula to get a whole dish out of it) and inability to stand up to dressing.
With our "Fairy Champagne" welcome cocktails in hand, we made our way to the family-style tables set up around a central stage area (probably the same flooring used for the dance floor when Heritage hosts weddings--a good note for the young bride-to-be sitting a few seats down from us and giving the farm a trial run). Decorated with flowers and rustic pottery, the jars of preserves, honey butter, breadsticks and pickled veggies almost blended right into the table-scape. Apricot and blueberry jam were heavenly, and grapefruit marmalade was a spicy, bitter surprise. The pickled red onions were particularly interesting, with a spicy, almost apple-like flavor to them.
Once a few early scenes of Midsummer had played out, featuring belly-dancer outfitted actresses and the flower- and ribbon-bedecked farm donkey, everyone made their way up from the square of tables to a long buffet. Crowded onto my plate were a hearty, balsamic-kissed panzanella salad with heirloom tomatoes, white corn kernels and frizzly crispy leeks, a salad with leaves as big as my head and a barely-there peach-mustard vinaigrette, green summer squash, wilted rainbow chard, pork tenderloin with a bright peach salsa, and a wheat berry salad studded with tiny figs and almonds among its brown, pearly grain. The standout for me was a moussaka-like tomato and eggplant terrine with a thick crown of buttery bechamel and parmesan. And the only misstep on the entire table was an overly dry and grainy polenta, improved by its accompanying stewed red peppers, and totally forgivable in the overall scheme of things. It was easy to pass over on the second trip back to the table for more of everything else. For this bounty (as well as all the appetizers we missed, an idyllic setting, and at one point, a farflung rainbow in the southern sky), the asking price was $65.
Heritage Prairie hosts farm dinners once a month, having started this particular form of outreach just recently. Some of our table-mates were already regulars, and noted that earlier dinners have been smaller affairs, with maybe only one or two tables for guests instead of four, but similarly well-executed cuisine. The Mexican Fiesta dinner is coming up in September, followed by an appropriately timed Oktoberfest dinner the following month--menus are already online, as well as dates for other farm classes in honey-harvesting, pie-making and cheesemaking.
Of their six acres of farmland, Heritage Prairie uses only one single acre for all of their farming, rotating beds of vegetables (chard, basil, tomatoes, etc. as well as bright flowers) as well as mobile greenhouses to intensely grow certain crops for short periods of time, and incubate others for optimal flavor at colder times of the year, selling most at Chicago farmers' markets and sourcing to local chefs. Bron Weaver, interjecting bits of her expertise into the farm tour, noted that this style represents a paradigm shift in Illinois farming. Where it was once rare for an farmer to even consider taking on the family business let alone their own operation without a certain baseline acreage (usually at least in the high hundreds, if not thousands), more and more family farms are squeezing greater productivity out of smaller parcels of land. Recent research from the University of Chicago seems to support the increased efficiency of this model--good news for Bron and her team, as well as dozens of other small farms around our area. And good news for diners as well, whether we perhaps know it or not. Buying the farm may be an earthly version of going to heaven.