Most sustainability initiatives don’t involve a road trip and a vintage bus, but every summer for the last 10 years, Jim Denevan — an artist, chef and, now, cookbook author from Santa Cruz, Calif. — has gathered friends into a big 1953 Flxible bus and headed out across North America to show diners where their food comes from. His project, Outstanding in the Field, works with local farmers and chefs to turn farm fields around the country into vast outdoor restaurants.
These dinners are big: 100 guests typically sitting at a huge table set at the edge of an asparagus patch, on a hill in a sheep pasture or near a working barn. Why eat dinner in a farm field? Because it’s the most literal way to connect people with their food. See that rainbow chard tart? The chard came from this field right here — yeah, the ground where that robin is pulling at a worm.
People love this idea. In fact, like dozens of other Outstanding in the Field events, the dinner held last August near the Twin Cities sold out so quickly that I couldn’t even get a ticket. I later heard from my chef friends who attended that it was a profoundly beautiful and moving event: wind in the hills, dairy cows and wildflowers, fireflies and stars instead of dinner mints and credit-card receipts.
Denevan’s book, Outstanding in the Field: A Farm to Table Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2008), presents his favorite dishes, gleaned from his decade of farm dinners (the first was thrown in 1999). The recipes are very simple, which makes sense — they’re all prepared in an outdoor kitchen.
Skirt steak, for example, is grilled and coupled with a simple artichoke and asparagus salad (see Web Extra! at right). Young dandelion greens are wilted and paired with a dressing made with a little cured pancetta and a poached egg. Wild mussels are steamed with nothing but a shallot, white wine and sea beans, a plant that grows wild in brackish water near the seaside (if you don’t have any sea beans, spinach will do).
The simplicity of these meals really brought home for me how much contemporary cooking relies on fancy technology like food processors or exotic ingredients like rare vinegars.
It’s a paradox Denevan explores in his book. “Interestingly, whenever I am approached to discuss either my art or the dinners, the questions and the conclusions drawn by the questioner inevitably return to the alleged novelty of both,” he writes. “But although Outstanding in the Field appears unusual, in fact, celebrating the harvest is something we humans did with absolute regularity until fairly recently. What seems exciting now — sharing the bounty of freshly picked ripe food with a community of people — was commonplace before the dawn of industrialized agriculture.”
That idea suddenly struck me: Sustainable lifestyles, knowing where your food came from, eating seasonally — these were everyday things that people did until sometime after World War II. How odd that this is now considered almost revolutionary.
Denevan isn’t one to limit his palate by location or season, though: “Capers, anchovies, tomato paste and lemons are all staples in my cooking,” he writes. “The goal is to build a tasty, satisfying meal primarily with what is local and seasonal, supplementing with ingredients from farther afield. The reality is that it’s tricky to eat strictly locally and seasonally all the time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find a good deal of our foods from close to home when possible.”
When we do find those close-to-home foods, it may be nice to re-create a bit of Outstanding in the Field in our own lives and take some time to consider where those foods were grown — amid pasture breezes, robins and worms, with fireflies and stars lighting the night sky.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.