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Outstanding in the Field

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time at all you’ll know that I have an affinity for local sources of food. If I could, I’d grow all my own and I manage to do some of that in my little yard. But for the majority of ingredients I tend to roam Farmers’ Markets, sometimes U-Pick fields and farm stands.  
I grew up in a family that put high-value on the freshest, direct-from-the-garden food. We had a small “orchard” with a variety of trees; the large garden was split between perennial crops like grapes, berries and asparagus and annuals like tomatoes, squash, lettuce, corn, etc. If we didn’t grow it there was a chance one of my relatives would have it in their garden. We also purchased sides of beef from friends who raised 4-H steers every year, and hogs from a guy my dad worked with. We used to love those summer and fall meals when we’d look at the table and realize that the meal was all “ours”. Nothing had come from a grocery store. Most nights the food was picked from the garden and went directly to the kitchen to be prepped for that night’s meal. We ate the freshest food possible and it was evident in the glorious and rambunctious tastes we experienced.  
We also preserved as much as possible by freezing or canning so the summer bounty could be enjoyed throughout the year. The fresh tastes and vitamins were captured before they had a chance to escape.  
So I’ve always placed a premium on local foods. Many people’s first concern is organic but mine is local for a couple of reasons:
      • The organic designation is not as neat and tidy as you might think and it doesn’t always mean what it implies. (Although often it does and at least an attempt is being made, which is good.)
      • Those who raise crops organically may not have the certification. For many small farms it’s not worth the effort and cost to become certified, even if they would qualify. So when you know your producer you’ll know more about their status.
      • Organic food may be sourced from anywhere in the world but I prefer the idea that produce is picked as close to the time I buy it as possible. So organic food from anywhere other than my local area is likely to suffer in the taste department as it needs to be picked while not yet ripe to allow time for shipping and shelf-life.
      • Although this is a more recent concern I am trying to think about my carbon footprint in a more mindful way.    
So my primary concern has always been local – I like knowing my producers and developing relationships with them. That concept has to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. I can’t live without grapefruit, lemons and limes. While you may be able to find a tree or two in someone’s backyard or indoor pot here in the Pacific Northwest, there certainly aren’t any citrus producers in this area. Ditto for avocados, olive oil and tea. None of these are things I intend to live without, and that is where a global economy is so great. However, you will very seldom catch me purchasing strawberries in December or January because I know that with a little patience my local berries will be available in late spring. Their taste and the fact that they symbolize the approaching summer are worth the wait for me. You may decide that you want a taste of spring in the dead of winter – which is great. The point is not to deny ourselves those pleasures but to be mindful, aware and educated in our choices.  
A couple years ago my friends, DW and MB forwarded me information about an organization called Outstanding in the Field (OITF). About the same time I read an article about them. OITF seeks to educate and inform people about local farmers and producers through dinners it presents around the U.S. and Canada. And they are now expanding to other countries, too.  
OITF will select a local chef known for using local, organic and sustainable ingredients. They allow that chef to create the menu and select the producers who will be involved, assuming that a local person will know who best to showcase and how best to use the ingredients.  
The diners meet at a farm or vineyard, are welcomed and then taken on a tour of the operations; then they sit down to a meal sourced from that farm and other local providers. During the meal the diners are presented with information about the producers and have the opportunity to interact with them throughout the course of the evening. The idea is to make people aware, showcase the producers and educate the diners. I really love this concept as it meshes so well with my belief that providing examples and allowing people to experience this type of meal has more of an impact than lecturing or pushing labels at them.  
This year OITF added a Seattle date and location to their line-up. The day the tickets went on sale we were online purchasing. They were sold out within about two hours! I felt lucky to have been able to get in. Last Sunday five friends and I were able to experience the OITF dinner here in the Seattle area.
We gathered at a farm in Carnation – one of the great agricultural valleys in the Seattle area. We were greeted with Washington wines and a big bowl of local Bing and Rainier cherries. Once most of the group arrived (there were about 130 diners) OITF founder, Jim Denevan greeted the crowd, explained his philosophy and then turned it over to the farmers, Siri Erickson-Brown and Jason Salvo of Local Roots, to present information specific to their operation and to lead a tour of the farm.  

After the tour we sat down at one long, long table situated in the middle of the fields and our dining experience began. I was happy to see that many of the producers acknowledged on the menu were people I know and buy from.  

An outdoor kitchen had been constructed on the property and all the food preparation and plating was done there within sight of the long table. It really gave new meaning to the term “open kitchen”! Each course was served family style, encouraging conversation between tablemates. Local wines were paired with each course and at a couple points during the meal some of the producers talked about the ingredients they had provided for the meal. I loved this part and was only disappointed in that more of them did not participate (I know at least a couple are actually from the east side of the mountains and attending the dinner would have interfered with the work they needed to do at home). I would have liked them to be represented in some way, even if it was the chef talking about why he had selected the producers he had or someone from OITF giving us some background.  

We were served five courses with nearly every sort of food group represented – if you take a look at the photos you’ll be able to see everything but dessert which was a lovely plate of apricots and Estrella Family Creamery cheese.  
The night flew by even though dinner and the event lasted several hours. Part of that, of course, was due to my great friends who I was able to share the experience with. I was really not ready to leave but the dinner lasted so late that one of our party needed to get home. I would have liked to have lingered a bit longer but left nourished by a great meal and good memories.
I absolutely loved this experience and there were only a couple things I wish had been a bit different. I’ve already mentioned that I’d like to see all producers represented in some way. The other is that I felt this choice of farm was maybe not the best option. Our chef was Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce and The Corson Building. I have a ton of respect for Matt and all he does, and he has been widely recognized for his work. He chose Local Roots Farm as they are one of the producers he deals with. This is, however, only their second year in business. I felt that while they are passionate and creative in how they are trying to make their business work, they do not yet have the breadth of experience to be as informative as I would have hoped them to be. And I found them to be a bit too idealistic and naïve in some ways. I don’t mean to minimize the work they do in any way, I just think a more seasoned operation may have been a better location for this sort of function.  And, just to be clear, that is only a function of this particular experience.  Every OITF experience is unique based on the many variables and, maybe most importantly, what the diners themselves bring to the equasion. 
Having said that I enjoyed this experience immensely. I love the idea, the message and the channel being used to communicate it. I hope to have many more opportunities to attend Outstanding in the Field functions and maybe I’ll see you at one!    
To find out more information, including event details (most are sold out for this year), see the Outstanding in the Field (OITF) website.  
There are lots more photos here
  1. Daphne permalink
    19-Jan-2009 10:00 pm

    Hi, I was at this dinner and found it a wonderful experience. Your photos are just amazing! I\’ve recently started blogging and you offer so much inspiration.

  2. Culinary permalink
    05-Feb-2009 12:44 pm

    @ Daphne: Glad you enjoyed the dinner and thanks so much for your kind words!

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