Outstanding in the Field Dinner at Seedling Farm
I did a little “research” last week for a few new writing projects. It’s too soon to share what I’m working on, but I can assure you that it requires drinking lots of excellent beer and eating some really good food. I know: It’s tough, but somebody’s got to do it.
Here, for the time being, is the beginning of the story:
My friends at Goose Island Brewing Company invited me to the big bang of farm dinners: an Outstanding in the Field feast at Seedling Farm in South Haven, Michigan, featuring chefs Perry Hendrix (avec), Cosmo Goss (the Publican) and Paul Kahan (One Off Hospitality). Yes, that Paul Kahan—the James Beard Award winner for Outstanding Chef whose restaurants (the Publican, avec, Blackbird, Big Star, Nico’s Osteria) help to make Chicago one of the most exciting food destinations in the known universe.
Goose Island and I are there because each of the meal’s many courses is to be paired with one of their beers, including many of their Belgian-style farmhouse ales. There are also wines from Chateau Grand Traverse and Cherry Creek Cellars (both in Michigan) and a fantastic hard cider from Virtue Cider in nearby Fennville made with apples from Seedling Farm. (Cider maker Greg Hall was the brewmaster at Goose Island for two decades.)
The gravitational force that makes these stars align in Southwest Michigan is legendary foodie Jim Denevan. Denevan—middle-aged, tall and ruggedly handsome in a worn straw cowboy hat—looks like a rancher but talks like a California beach bum. A one-time model, a surfer and a chef, Denevan is also an artist. In between making his art—mostly geometric sand carvings (though a recent commissioned piece was an enormous alien made entirely with water in the California desert)—Denevan has been organizing farm dinners across the country since 1999. Traveling with his entourage in a souped-up vintage bus, he may just be the Ken Kesey of the local food movement.
Thanks to Denevan, we find ourselves out sitting in the field—a soybean field on Peter Klein’s farm—along with 180 or so other hungry souls. The long single table covered in white linens curves down the gentle slope of the field. There are apple trees loaded with ripening fruit and wildflowers blooming on every uncultivated patch of dirt. For those who have yet to fall in love with rural Michigan, Seedling Farm in mid-August is the kind of landscape that seals the deal.
Klein has hosted five previous Outstanding in the Field dinners on his 81 acres, where he grows fruits and vegetables for some of Chicago’s top chefs—apples and peaches, but also curiosities like goji berries, Midwestern figs and ground cherries (small golden orbs that pop in your mouth like cherry tomatoes and taste somewhere between a tomato and a pineapple). Klein urges us to sample whatever we find on the farm.
“If you see something and you’re curious,” he says, “you can pick it and eat it.” After a few appetizers beside the farm’s white barn (my favorite was the charred radicchio and plums with herbed labneh on handmade naan), I grab a handful of ground cherries, a glass of beer and nibble my way through the apple orchard to the dinner table.
Outstanding in the Field dinners are served family style, a platter of food for every six or so guests. On my left is a group of adorably preppy gay men from New York and Chicago who are on holiday in nearby Saugatuck. We banter back and forth a bit and then, several courses (and, let’s be honest, several beers) into the meal, the man on my left, a red-headed New York actor, and I have suddenly moved from chitchat and food talk to an intimate conversation about parenting and gender identity—as if we’ve known each other for years. This kind of connection is exactly, I realize later, what Outstanding in the Field makes possible.
To my right is the crew from Goose Island, six young people in their 20s and 30s who impress me not only with their knowledge about beer and food, but also with their camaraderie and outright enthusiasm for their own beer. Each time a bottle comes round, they urge the server to leave it at the table. No one drinks the wine.
Across from me at the table is brewer Brian Taylor, whose beers we are sampling with our meal. Taylor, who is 36 but has the boyish charm of a skateboarder, especially loves sour beers and two of the most interesting beers we taste are sours: Madame Rose, a Belgian-style brown ale brewed with local Michigan cherries, and Lolita, a Belgian-style pale ale made with raspberries. Both are fermented with wild yeasts and aged in wine barrels. This year’s Madame Rose, which the folks from Goose Island observe was especially good, was aged for two years.
“It was,” someone says, “worth the wait.” I have to agree.
The first platter to arrive at the table is a peach tabbouleh with bits of corn, flat-leaf parsley and red onions accompanied by green and yellow summer beans with harissa and feta. There is also a bowl of perfectly ripe tomato wedges and sliced plums in a buttermilk dressing. The food is rustic, simple and unbelievably tasty. I find myself thinking: I make exactly these kinds of things at home—and they never come out like this. It is only the salad course and I am almost afraid to continue eating because what else could possibly be this good?
But each of the courses to come—grilled whole fish with apricots and fresh dill and mint, squid salad with a lemon vinaigrette, paella with chicken, ham chops and snail sausage (yes, snail sausage, and yes, it was fantastic) and, last but not least, a thick slab of raspberry pie with lemon buttermilk sorbet—is equally delicious. Truth be told, by the last course I am too full to even finish my pie.
But I am more than satisfied.