I'd be lying if I said I hadn't looked at my friend Katie Pinke's North Dakota harvest banquet photos with a little envy in my heart. Ok, maybe more than a little. For the past two years, she and her CommonGround cohorts have put on a harvest banquet in a field, and it looked lovely. Good food, good conversations and a sun-kissed evening in a field. These sorts of table-in-field meals have gained popularity in recent years, showing up in venues from North Dakota to the pages of lifestyle magazines like Country Living.
Frankly, I wanted to go to one, too. So I was beyond excited when Jenny Schweigert called earlier this summer to invite me to the inaugural Illinois Harvest Dinner, being organized by herself, Katie Pratt and Mary Mackinson Faber. I was so glad these women decided to make it happen for two reasons: they'd do it right and they'd do it well.
That they did. We arrived at the Mackinson Dairy Farm near Pontiac to a scene much like something out of Country Living, but with a decidedly Midwest agricultural feel. Scattered round tables with mis-matched wooden chairs, beautiful mums and chalkboards in the centerpieces, place settings stocked with menu cards, farm details and more, twinkling lights above it all, and the Midwest agriculture: a well-polished John Deere combine and tractor next to it all. We were surrounded by corn fields, and each corner of the dining area was flanked by wooden planters, planted with corn, soybeans, sweet corn, horseradish and more. The planters were built and tended to by the Pontiac FFA, whose advisor, Jesse Faber, also happens to be Mary's husband. Funny how those things work out.
The idea was to see the start of what you were eating, and to connect the food with the farming. Chef Vince Swanson of The Cracked Pepper in Peoria delivered with an incredible meal under what Katie Pratt describes as "their terms." This was to be about good food, served with no labels. Amen.
His meal was the picture of diversity on a plate. Appetizers were served as we met and mingled, and included horseradish infused deviled eggs; bruschetta made with local mozzarella, grilled tomato, peach, aged balsamic on house-made focaccia; assorted pickled vegetables, fresh herb & buttermilk dip; and Yukon gold potatoes, roasted cauliflower, caramelized onions, eggs, Dijon vinaigrette on Asian spoons.
Family-style salad was passed as we sat down, made of cider-roasted golden beets, apples, cherry tomatoes with hazelnut vinaigrette and house made croutons. And then the main dish was served and let me just say, there was no wondering whether it would be a beef or a pork night: they served both! We were treated to prime rib and slow braised pork shoulder, fresh green beans and charred corn polenta.
Dessert was a selection of mini cheesecakes, making us wonder how many we could try before it would be considered impolite. Basic consensus: 3 to 5, which is actually all of them. Among the choices were maple bacon, butter pecan, peach amaretto, pumpkin and mint chocolate.
Chef Swanson visited each table and talked about how he chose ingredients and prepared the food, adding phrases like, "I want to honor the farmer that produced the beef." I was a fan of that, especially as a beef producer.
Despite incredible food and beautiful weather and a setting that had been labored upon yet looked effortless, the real highlight of the evening was the conversation. Farmers like myself had been invited to sit at each table to visit and answer questions. The majority of the invited guests included doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, pharmacists, educators, bloggers and more from the Bloomington, Peoria and Champaign areas.
Within moments of arriving on the farm, I was fortunate to meet Mark and Jill Savage. Jill is kinda really famous in my mom circles, having founded the Hearts at Home organization 22 years ago, which brings thousands of women into Bloomington every spring for a Christian moms conference. She's also authored several books and I will tell you that in person she is every bit as lovely and engaging as you might think. We talked about Hearts and about food and about how she might find another Bloomington studio to record her radio spots. (psssst, Rita and DeLoss and RFD, your names came up!)
Other farmers had good conversations as well. Tom Titus got to visit with an obstetrician, who, true to form, made it an hour before having to go deliver a baby. Connections were made and contact information exchanged, at tables all across the yard.
It was, in short, a lovely evening. I'll have more in the October issue of Prairie Farmer, including photos from Erin (Ehnle) Brown, which are nothing short of spectacular.
In the meantime, know this: there are good people working on behalf of Illinois agriculture.