A few weeks ago, Meggie, David, the Bun and I were blessed to have the opportunity to attend one of the dinners in the Outstanding in the Field series (see link at the right), run by Jim Denevan and a crew of loyal and committed farm groupies. I call them that because their philosophy is about food, but not so much about the end product on your plate. They are committed to making people become more aware of food origins and how it actually makes it to your pantry or your dinner table. Throughout the evening, a slew of wonderful farmers and food providers came by to talk about the amazing raspberries that were in our dessert, or about the delicious beer they made to accompany our first course. Each one had a great story to tell, or at least some interesting facts to relay, and made us all feel we were part of something very special. Some of our favorite dishes were a beautiful, smooth corn chowder with sausage (and fresh coriander seeds from an herb patch not 20 yards from where we were sitting), amazing fried rabbit pieces, and phenomenal pecan pie.
One of the things that I had a difficult time grasping, for at least the first part of the meal, is where we were in the city of Chicago. The dinner was held at the City Farm, which is essentially right in the heart of what used to be one of the most crime-ridden housing projects in the country. The remnants of the Cabrini-Green towers still loom to the west, the condition of which plays a strong discordance with the beauty and spirit of the farm. What I tried to do throughout the evening was to reconcile the many disparities of time, place, and sociology in that place. There we were, indulging in an expensive meal with 150 other people to whom the luxury of fresh, organic, delicious food was given, when a block or two away, people were potentially eating cheap, processed food because it was all they could afford. Several more blocks to the other side of us, the residents of the Gold Coast might have been sucking down foie gras and obnoxious vintages of French wine, just because they could. We were happy to learn that the City Farm is, in fact, connected to the community through service and food provisions, so it isn’t just the privileged who reap the benefits of the food they grow.
For those of us thinking about the concept of place over the course of those courses, I think that there was something garnered in making the effort to consider the proximity between oneself and the food one eats. It also seemed important to consider that, regardless of who we are and the money we may or may not have, we should know what it means to eat good food. Part of me felt guilty about having that amazing meal there under the stars, prepared lovingly by our chef, Mindy Segal, and her tireless staff. But then another part of me realized that my presence there was not the norm for the City Farm, but the exception. Though they might provide food for some of the more high-end restaurants in Chicago, they also seem committed to their own sense of place and the people who live in the area. Does a tomato taste better when it is turned into a luxurious soup at a table set with white linens than, it would simply sitting on a plate, sliced and sprinkled with salt and pepper? I think I’ve been on both sides of the tomato here, and I can say that they taste equally good when they come from the ground outside your door.