The Menu is the Message

Feast of Fields connects the links in the local food chain in an annual festival of fun and flavour.

June 21, 2007 | | Back Issues

By spring 2oo6, the Feast of Fields had been a thriving event for sixteen years. Still, the group of chefs who organize the organic outdoor food festival hadn’t yet found the best location.

Ideally, the Feast of Fields would take place in an actual field, but the organic farm that they had lined up, in the words of chef Daniel Gilbert, “didn’t look so good.” For one thing, the pasture where they had been planning to park several hundred cars turned out to be a swamp.

So, for the second year in a row the feast had to return to its fallback venue, Albion Hills Conservation Area, alighting on the neatly trimmed lawn like some kind of haute cuisine company picnic. As nice as it would have been to have the event on a farm, “farms are actually quite difficult because farms aren’t designed like parks. Parks are designed to look pretty and to have parking,” says Gilbert, the owner of Daniel’s of Nobleton restaurant and chair of Organic Advocates, the organizer of the Feast of Fields.

Feast of Fields was launched in 1989 when a group of chefs – including big names Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander – cooked up the idea of bringing chefs, winemakers, brew masters, cheese makers and other food artisans together to serve a harvest bounty of tasty samples in a pastoral setting. At root, the Feast of Fields is just that – a feast, in a field. It is an occasion to eat, drink and mingle. And then eat more. But there is also a message on the menu.

Organic Advocates is a non-profit group that promotes growing, cooking and eating organic. Proceeds go to the Ecological Farming Association of Ontario. Chefs must feature organic food. Organic farmers and environmental organizations are invited to set up booths. And food must be served in a way that produces no garbage – on a giant potato chip, say, or in a lettuce cup, wrapped in beet greens or a corn husk, or poured into a bowl of ice.

So, with a philosophy of serving up local organic food close to where it grows and making explicit the connection between food and where it comes from, it makes sense to hold the event on a farm. That’s why there’s a lot of excitement that this year’s event, on Sunday, September 16, will be at Everdale Organic Farm and Learning Centre in Erin.

It’s hard to imagine a site more ideally matched to the event’s politics, or a host partner more well equipped to speak from the farmers’ end of the food chain.

Everdale is a fifty-acre property that operated from 1966 to 1974 as Canada’s first free school before falling into disrepair. When it started up again as a working organic farm in the 199os and incorporated as a non-profit centre for environmental education in 2ooo, it was seen to be sprouting anew from its counterculture roots. Nowadays, in addition to its farm operation, Everdale’s workshops on such topics as organic gardening and straw-bale construction drew 5,ooo visitors last year – in other words, it’s got parking.

One spring day at Everdale, farm manager Gavin Dandy explains how the gourmet feast will begin. From the parking lot, you’ll set out by foot or wagon toward the feast site at the back of the property. The wagon will be drawn by horses or a tractor running on biodiesel, made at Everdale from used vegetable oil from local restaurants.

Along the way, tour guides will interpret Everdale’s highlights: the straw bale buildings, the education centre, the solar and wind-power installations, the heritage and rare seed garden, the demonstration plots of organic herbs, flowers, carrots, pumpkins and beans – and explain everything in the context of local food systems.

At the feast site, you will find tents set up in a pasture surrounded by a mixed hardwood forest at the very upper limit of the headwaters of the Credit River.

“If you’re standing where the chefs’ tents are going to be and you pick up a rock and throw it north, then that rock would land on the Grand River watershed,” says Dandy. Which places this patch of grass squarely inside the margins of the official Greenbelt. That’s fitting, because The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation is the Feast of Fields’ main sponsor this year.

One of the Greenbelt’s objectives is to preserve agriculture close to southern Ontario’s urban centres by creating a culture of local eating – in which people see the value of sometimes paying a premium (however ironic that may seem) for produce that hasn’t been transported from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away.

Activists talk about “food-miles.” The eating odyssey documented by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon in The 1oo-Mile Diet was spurred by the unpalatable fact that the average grocery store item travels at least 2,4oo kilometres from farmer to table. A study by Foodshare in Toronto found that a basket of produce from an Ontario grocery store travelled an average of 5,365 kilometres – 81 times further than the same products from a nearby farmers’ market.

In that ethical minefield we call the produce section, it’s not good enough just to buy organic anymore. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, journalist Michael Pollan cites the fact that 8o calories-worth of organic pre-washed lettuce, transported across the continent from California, consumes about 4,6oo calories of fossil fuel. About 85 per cent of the organic food in Ontario stores is imported. In the U.S. (probably Canada too) one-fifth of petroleum goes to producing and transporting food.

It’s calculations like those that have people in the food movement saying “local is the new organic.” All the more so as industrial food processors bully into the organic field, cashing in on consumer interest in organics with mass-produced foods that have questionable credentials in a poorly regulated market.

However, there is hope that we can reduce our ecological footprint – eat our way back to the garden, so to speak, if we can bring the garden closer to home.

In the spirit of this resurgence of “food localism,” the organizers of Feast of Fields have decided to move beyond organics to push fresh, local food. They have made this year’s theme “sustainable living starts with your local organic farmer,” which is where Everdale’s agriculture connections really come into play.

Your local organic farmer is the next stop on the Feast of Fields journey. At the site’s farmers’ market, you’ll meet local growers who, in addition to selling you produce to take home, can tell you everything about the triumphs and trials of small-scale organic farming in southern Ontario.

Here you may meet Cathy Hansen, a farmer who runs a local market garden in Ospringe, called Bernway Farm. Hansen is also a chef and former kitchen manager of the Erin food emporium, What’s Cookin’, which will also be participating at Feast of Fields. Like Everdale Farm, Caledon’s Whole Village, and many other growers who will be represented here, Hansen sells most of her produce through a CSA – Community Shared Agriculture – which lets consumers pre-purchase a share of a farm’s produce for a whole season.

Hansen’s CSA feeds twenty families from her one-acre garden. The families pick up a weekly box of in-season produce at a church in Guelph. There, she also runs workshops to on how to eat what’s in the box: what to eat first; creative ways to cook with Ontario staples, such as beets; and how to use up end-of-the-week leftovers. She’s teaching the lost art of seasonal eating: what to eat when and how.

Farmers like Cathy Hansen are piecing together the links of a broken local food chain that’s been lost to industrial logic like the winding blue highways overrun by the interstates. You might not get your food as quickly and cheaply going the local route, but the journey is more interesting.

At Feast of Fields, Hansen says, “I would like to see people come away with a new appreciation of what’s right in their backyard. This is food that is grown in the right place for the right reasons. It has the potential to revitalize our rural communities.”

Now put aside the moral lessons for a while and enjoy the flavour of fresh seasonal food. You approach the chefs’ tents and begin sampling. Here is Paul Weekes from What’s Cookin’, serving up something from an Erin farm. Nadya Swyrydenko of Juniper Grill in Orangeville presents a dish prepared by her husband, Daniel Jalovec, that includes heirloom tomatoes from her mother’s Caledon garden. And Roberto Fracchioni, chef at the Millcroft Inn & Spa, delivers a little organic haute cuisine of the sort that has won that restaurant a host of culinary awards.

Fracchioni, at the Feast for the seventh year in a row, believes strongly in local eating. This year for the first time, he has purchased ten shares from the CSA at Whole Village – one-sixth of the farm’s produce – to supply the Millcroft’s kitchen with fresh, organic vegetables from less than five kilometres away. Parts of the Millcroft menu are deliberately vague – “daily foraged vegetables” – to incorporate the fresh delivery.

“To me it’s logical to cook local food that’s prepared seasonally and is grown by people who care,” says Fracchioni. “We have a natural food cycle where melons are ready in the fall, peaches are ready in the summer, and if you follow that, you’re happy because there’s always something new around the corner.”

Fracchioni savours the Feast of Fields as an occasion to connect with new local suppliers. “One person brought tomatoes one year. He probably had forty different kinds. It really blows your mind. You think, ‘What the hell am I doing using Romas?’”

By the time you begin to gorge yourself on the food samples, you will have effectively travelled the entire food chain from field to table, which is exactly the point.

Michael Pollan calls our industrial food system a “journey of forgetting” because it obscures all the connections between producers and consumers. The Feast of Fields is a journey of remembering. It is the food system writ small, at human scale, the way food localists believe it ought to be. You eat the food outside, under the sky in the place where it was grown. You meet the people who prepared the food, and the people who grew it. You tap into a network of backyard gardens, farmers’ markets, CSAs, roadside stands and restaurants that will be your resources for eating locally the rest of the year.

Most important, you come away feeling good about what you ate and where it came from.

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About the Author More by Tim Shuff

Tim Shuff is a freelance writer.

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