Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Columbus Convivium: Slow Food Columbus Dinner at Flying J Farm

In practice, I've been familiar for quite some time with farmers markets and home cooked meals, recipes from scratch and communal dining. But it was only through my grad school searches that I first learned about the concept of "slow food" and the accompanying international movement, a response to the fast food trend of the late 80s/early 90s by Carlo Petrini in Bra, Italy, site of the University of Gastronomic Sciences which opened in 2004. Now with over 1,300 convivia (local chapters) throughout the world, the Slow Food Movement continues to grow and remain committed to its founding principles: to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. Recently, I found that Columbus has its own convivium (as do many major cities; in the U.S. alone, there are 225) and have been meaning to get more involved with the group. And so, when I received a particular call on Friday afternoon, I was wicked excited for what was to come the following day. The call came from one of my Food and Culture Colloquium participants, Susan Kaiser, founder and owner of Faire La Cuisine, based here in Granville, and who was first introduced to me by Denison colleague and colloquium participant, Maureen; essentially, Susan asked if I might be available and interested to help her out at Slow Food Columbus's much-anticipated annual dinner, "Shake the Hand that Feeds You". I had first heard about the dinner via the group's e-mail list serv which noted that last year's dinner sold out in 16 minutes. I'm not sure how else to emphasize this meal's popularity other than to share that from what I've heard, the tickets this year sold out in a record eight minutes! As the aforementioned web link shares, in addition to the great atmosphere and community, the proceeds of the dinner's ticket sales help fund central Ohio's nine delegates to go to Slow Food International's biennial Terra Madre conference in Torino, Italy. (The first conference, held in 2004, welcomed 5,000 delegates from 130 countries.) These nine competitively selected (by Slow Food USA's, from over 600 applicants) delegates will join others from the U.S. and those from around the world in late October. Indeed, this was an opportunity that I absolutely couldn't pass up!

Specifically, Susan needed help making pizzas; hitched to her catering van was a mounted woodfire pizza oven imported from Italy, shipped to California, constructed in Colorado and brought to her in Ohio about seven years ago. For the event, Susan offered to bring her mobile pizza oven and make corn pizzas on-site; and after helping out with the process, I understood my role in the assembly line (but more on that later). By the time Susan and I got to chemical and pesticide free Flying J Farm (located in Johnstown, about half an hour from Granville), hosting site of this annual dinner, the multitude of tables (the longest in this particular dinner's history) and chairs were being set up, and Kevin and Patrick--a father/son duo--from Skillet, Rustic. Urban. Food were dicing up recently harvested sweet potatoes and butternut squash from Farmer Dick's garden.

After taking a brief tour of the kitchen and the immediate property, Susan and I walked about half a mile to the produce patch in search of Colleen (founder and chapter leader of Slow Food Columbus, and logistical organizer for the dinner) who was just finishing up her foraging adventures for additional ingredients for everyone to work with.

When we returned from the walk back, Susan and I settled on a rather picturesque area just behind the tables to set up the the pizza oven, and I helped level the oven as she prepped it; as it would take about an hour for the oven to heat up to the right cooking temperature (homemade ovens tend to take 5-7 hours), I checked out what else was in the works.

As I scanned the field, I saw a huge bucket filled with ice and a mechanical set up that could only mean one thing: fresh ice cream was in the works. The apparatus required foot power grunt work and Trent (officially on his 2 week, 1 day anniversary with Snowville Creamery, based in Pomeroy-- a village about 2 hours south from Flying J) was put to the task; interesting how you're rewarded with dessert after a workout, no? The ice cream itself, he explained, was made of nothing more than milk, sugar and spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a plant native to Ohio and the berries of which are dried and ground to make allspice.

Just a few yards away, a large cauldron was heating up for the eventual pork and adzuki bean soup (the beans of which came from Shagbark Seed and Mill, based in Athens, OH), as plates, silverware, and glasses and goblets were making their way to the cocktail station and dining tables, and the huge grill would soon be lit. After a quick visit to the chicken coop and helping out set up tea lights, I returned to the ice cream makers to find Warren Taylor, co-owner and co-CFO of Snowville, setting up a second, smaller batch of spicebush ice cream mix in a hand crank-powered contraption.

By this point, Susan's son, Nate, arrived just in time to help us figure out what was going on with the pizza oven as the wind created a smokescreen effect to the hearth, as Susan began prepping the pizza toppings and catching up with bread baker Andrew Semler of Lucky Cat Bakery and Farm, based in Pataskala.

With the tablescapes all set up, the guests began to arrive in larger numbers, as we finished final prep of the pizza ingredients: the last hurrah for local corn, red onion, green zebra tomatoes, a slightly more acidic red tomato (particularly for colour), olive oil, petite diced poblano pepper from the garden and a salsa that Susan had made in advance. In addition to this, there were three available cheeses for the pizzas: the first two--pepper jack and an Italian mix--were combined, and the third was a deliciously creamy goat cheese (chèvre) from Lucky Penny Farm Creamery, owned by former Terra Madre delegate Abbe Turner and based in Kent, OH.

But before we actually began making the pizzas, and as Farmer Dick was giving a tour of the farm, Susan and I went over to the cocktail station where we eventually met up with Susan's husband, Doug. There, we tried the signature drink of the night concocted by mixologist Nicolene Schwartz of Watershed Distillery: Lake Erie chèvre-infused vodka, Mockingbird Meadows lavender honey, lemon peel syrup and lemon juice. I have no idea how one could dream up such a masterpiece, but the ratio and combination of these ingredients was exquisitely refreshing. Also served up at the station were Cava and Columbus Brewing Company's Pale Ale.

Following that pit stop, we returned to the pizza oven, where Susan showed me how to properly stretch and shape pizza dough (which Susan made the night before), how to settle the dough over graham flour (which act as ball bearings; cornmeal will burn in the oven), and how to top off the pizzas. Within minutes of the brief tutorial, people started making their way to the oven and asked questions as the eagerly (and understandably) awaited and hovered for each pizza to come out. Very quickly Doug, Susan and I (more so, I, as Doug and Susan have been working with the oven for some time now) figured out our places in the assembly line, with Doug handling the oven and helping to stretch dough, Susan topping the pizzas and stretching out dough as needed, and me finishing off the pizzas with chiffonaded fresh basil, using the mezzaluna pizza cutter to divide up the pizzas, and slicing additional ingredients, as needed.

With a slight char and beautifully executed crust, the pizza dough itself was just as delicious and memorable as the ingredients that sat atop it. Among my many favourite moments of the pizza process alone were every time I would slice the pizzas and Farmer Dick's dog, Jewell, watched earnestly as I transferred the pizza from cutting board to serving plate in anticipation for the ingredients to fall (as seen above, she was equally hopeful that diners would drop ingredients, too), and every time folks mentioned they were hoping there was a spoon nearby so they could scoop out the ingredients that had fallen to the plate. (Hopefully someone out there snagged a photo or two of folks piling on high their pizza slices with toppings!) Despite the non-stop busyness that comes with this kind of "cowboy catering," as Susan calls it, this was a truly enjoyable experience on its own interacting with true foodies who appreciate the process, the ingredients and the conviviality of a gathering such as this.

About an hour and a half, and over 50-60 pizzas later, our turn as the hors d'œuvre station (which I should note was paired with a rosé; the evening's drinks came from United Estates Importers and Wine on High) had come to an end. Following clean-up (which may or may not have included finishing up the leftover pizza), I made my way over to the long dinner table to join the other guests (Susan and Doug took turns going back and forth, as the pizza oven was being put to use in cooking Asian eggplant and orange fryer peppers). Our first course was the relatively light, yet hearty, pork and red bean soup, followed closely by a series of side dishes featuring the local produce harvested from Flying J Farm: heirloom tomatoes, the oven-fired eggplant (which took on a caramelisation which reminded me of baked plantain), butternut squash, kale and sweet potato salad, kale salad prepared by and here, one of the baguettes from Lucky Cat Bakery which I enjoyed with my first ever taste of peach butter; with particular reference to the bread, I agree with United Estates co-owner Pat Allen who said it smelled like Paris. From what I could tell, one of the items I noticed I missed was the panzanella salad (if you're reading this and you can think of something I forgot to list here, please comment below).

Soon after the vegetables made their way to the table, the meats arrived. First up on our end was a wonderfully fall-off-the-bone and tender beef topped with a sprig of rosemary and served with a beautiful jus and "Nantes" French baby carrots

As we continued to eat, and awaited the seemingly proverbial pork dish to make its way to our end of the table, Colleen thanked everyone who contributed to the success of the dinner, a dinner certainly to remember.

And then, a fresh plate of pork started on our end, as the fryer peppers came out of the oven. The pork was pull-apart delicious, the flavour profile of which included fennel pollen, and the pepper was sweet and tender.


Finally, as the campfire was getting started, the spicebush ice cream--the spicebush of which was noticeably subtle--made its way to the table. Smooth and creamy, this ice cream was the perfect course to follow the meet, and a refreshing way to cap off a truly remarkable slow food dinner, one which, as Bear Braumoeller put it "represents the apex of Slow Food—people coming together to harvest their dinners, making friends in the process and finding a new family at the table. Some of our best friends, and our best memories, have come from the Flying J dinner." I'm sure I'll say it many times over, but this dinner was truly a memory-making one, and I am completely appreciative of the opportunity to be a part of it all. Coincidentally, this was for me a great in-person introduction to Slow Food Columbus and the many foodies which I'm sure represent a much larger picture of central Ohio's food scene, as quite fittingly, Bear is set to present on Slow Food as part of the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University this upcoming Wednesday at 4.30pm.

For my complete album of photos from this year's "Shake the Hand that Feeds You" dinner, click here. And ps/ thanks to Colleen for proofing this post! :)

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