EATING LOCAL - Farm dinners – something new to rave about in local food scene

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Farm dinners? I hadn't heard about them either, until about a year ago. And it was one of the reasons that brought me to Walla Walla. To tell the story right, I have to start at the beginning, with a Bacon Affair.

While living in Los Angeles, a friend told me about an underground dinner she recently attended, all dishes themed around bacon. She described it as a foodie rave party, where there were a limited number of tickets, in a secret location that changed with every event, and no one knew where until the last minute.

I had to know more, so I did some research and contacted the woman running the event. Tickets were $75 per person, so attending was not realistic for my husband and me. So I offered to help out in the kitchen in exchange for being a part of the event and learn more.

The event was beautiful, the food fancy and delicious, and the guests and I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved the idea of the dinner, a big long communal table with beautifully plated food in a location outside the formal restaurant. But I felt something was missing, a connection to the food being enjoyed.

Sometime later that year, I heard about farm dinners being hosted around the country. They are like underground dinners, but rather than being in a warehouse somewhere in the city they are hosted on a farm, using fresh ingredients directly from the farm itself. This was the part I felt was missing, and I had to experience it myself.

Looking deeper into the farm dinner world I came across Outstanding in the Field, an organization that puts on farm dinners around the country and elsewhere in the world. I signed up to help out at the Rio Gozo farm in Ojai, Calif., about two hours from my home in LA.

Arriving around noon that day, I knew I was in for a special treat. The farm was like a postcard, sun shining down on green flowering fields, surrounded by lush rolling hills.

We set up tables adjacent to the fields, under shady trees. The tables were clothed in white linens and sparking glassware was set. Just beyond, chefs began preparing the meal from produce recently picked from the fields in the foreground. Simple kale greens were transformed into a vibrant ribbon salad with peppers and carrots. Fennel wafted in the air, as the chef simply chopped the bulb into a luscious mixed salad.

Then I noticed the chef pause from his chopping and head toward the garden. I watched him in awe as he literally picked himself more fennel. At that moment I knew this was where I belonged and what I wanted to do. I wanted to be that chef and put on farm dinners.

Farm dinners may be a new trend and something of a novelty to city folks who typically dine out at restaurants, but I think there is something quite beautiful and intelligent about it. To me, it's about honoring the work done on a farm and appreciating the food grown there.

So much food these days is processed beyond what we would even recognize as a whole food, with no comparison to its original form. We ship food across the world, to be consumed months after it's picked. Having a farm dinner, the food is harvested and enjoyed on the same day, in the same location. It gives diners a chance to appreciate the growers and taste the efforts of their labor in its most natural form, with little creative tweaks by a trained chef. And like my original underground dinner, it's in a non-traditional location - in the beauty of a verdant natural environment instead of a barren warehouse.

Two weekends ago I put on my own farm dinner, at West End Farm on Wallula Road. It was a intimate event, with a small crowd of farmers, local artisans, chefs, friends and family - just the way I had envisioned it. The food was good, the wine plentiful. But the thing that pleased me the most was the community spirit at the table. Here, in one place, were many of the amazing people of Walla Walla, sharing a meal and conversation together.

More than just honoring the local farmers who grew the food, we were honoring the family that baked the bread, vintners who produced our wines, the rancher who raised our meat, the chefs who produce amazing dishes, and community members who believe in and support our local food system.

My journey that started in a Los Angeles warehouse searching for a community food scene has brought me home to Washington, to find a food community better than I could have ever dreamed. I have found my place and a beautiful connection I hadn't known existed. I'm so glad to have stumbled upon Walla Walla. Thank you for everything you do and are.

Melissa Davis, a local chef with a bachelor's degree in nutrition, specializes in natural foods. She can be reached at jadenluna@gmail.com. More of her writing is at www.melissadavisfood.wordpress.com.

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