Why Tennessee Communities Are Embracing Farm-to-Table Dinners
After seeing inspiring photos from another farm-to-table dinner in Tennessee, Cookeville farmer Randy Dodson and Rodney Laulo of the nonprofit SeedFork of the Highlands partnered to do the same. Ellen Wolfe, a retired teacher who volunteers with SeedFork, helped to organize the first Celebration of Local Foods, a four-course meal for 155 in Dogwood Park, hosted by SeedFork and Downtown Green Market farmers market. Nestled in the park’s theater-style “bowl,” guests listened to live music and savored four courses concocted by four different chefs who coordinated the salad, appetizer, entrée and dessert, all made with food provided by 10 local farmers.
“The food was delicious. The atmosphere was wonderful. It was just a beautiful setting,” Wolfe says. “Everybody raved about the food, so I think it was really an education in how healthy, naturally grown food can be so tasty.”
Patrons got a chance to dine with people they didn’t know while learning about the importance of buying fruits, vegetables and meats grown in their own backyards. The event raised $8,000 for SeedFork of the Highlands to buy a flatbed trailer, local 4-H and FFA clubs, and Teens Need Training, which provides after-school and summer programs for youth living in and near public housing developments. Four manufacturing and technology engineering seniors from Tennessee Tech University are building a mobile refrigerator unit to distribute fresh, surplus produce from the farmers markets and gardens to food pantries and individuals in need.
This year, Celebration of Local Foods will benefit the new Putnam County Food Council, which promotes healthy eating, and Helping Hands, an agency that assists at-risk populations. Organizers expect 250 attendees and are adding a “food festival” element with educational booths. The success has also triggered talk of a “food hub,” a shared building where chefs, farmers, cooking school operators and educators could form partnerships to help the community.
The 2016 dinner was “very, very successful,” Wolfe says. “Lots of people said they wish they had come, and they heard that it was such a great event. So I think we’ll probably sell out this year. Everybody benefits, and everybody is supportive of this. I think this year it’s really gonna be big.”
Jonesborough farmers market director Karen Childress had already read about Outstanding in the Field, a national company that arranges outdoor community dinners at farms, urban gardens and other sites. And she’d marveled at the gorgeous photos of the long, shared tables laden with gourmet dishes. But when Chef Alex Bomba, his wife Breelyn, and her parents Herman and Beverly Jenkins, who own Main Street Café and Catering, approached the market about hosting a similar soiree with locally sourced food in downtown Jonesborough, Childress’ reaction was, “There’s no way. How on earth? That’s such a big production.” Nevertheless, Childress couldn’t say no when the Bombas offered to donate their time and culinary expertise and give the proceeds to the farmers market and the adjacent all-local food store, Boone Street Market.
Held in the summer of 2011, the Jonesborough Farm to Table Dinner drew 100 people – some eager to support their local farmers, others simply hungry for a delectable gourmet meal – who gathered at communal tables in front of the Main Street courthouse. “There’s something very unique about sitting at a really, really long table together as a community,” Childress says. “It’s just so different from private dining at a table for four in a restaurant. You don’t necessarily choose who you sit next to. So it’s a chance to make friends. There’s a commonality around food that doesn’t bring up politics or religion, just a good time focusing on our farmers and our food.”
The second year, attendance grew to 160; now it’s at 216. Tickets quickly sell out, and there’s a waiting list of potential guests bent on sampling dishes like smoked tomatoes with goat cheese mousse and summer greens, roasted corn relish and Sunburst trout, with all ingredients sourced straight from the farmers market. So far, the annual dinner has raised $52,000 to help pay for expenses not covered by vendor fees at the market and retail store and to buy ingredients for the community dinners from local farmers. (Organizers pay full price to boost the growers’ revenue.) Fifty volunteers offer their time.
“I think the thing that keeps people coming back and so excited about the event is the setting – being outdoors and turning what is normally a public street into an enormous dining room,” she says. “There is something magical when they all sit down at this big, long table on this beautiful summer evening, and there are beautiful flowers on the table. The whole setting is just sort of unreal.”
Flooded with requests from locavores nationwide, Childress wrote a farm-to- table planning guide shared with 37 organizations in 20 states. “It’s a great honor,” she says. “It’s wonderful because this is the type of event people can do everywhere and make it work. There’s something about involving local food and bringing people together in this way, and for this kind of cause.”
2017 Farm-to-Table Community Dinners
7th Annual Jonesborough Farm to Table Dinner:
Aug. 19, Jonesborough
Ticket price: $100
(423) 458-2123, jonesboroughfarmtotable.blogspot.com
2nd Annual Celebration of Local Foods:
Aug. 5, Cookeville
Ticket price: $50; $75 for VIP
(931) 261-2111, seedfork.org
6th Annual Farm-to-Table Dinner:
Sept. 7 (tentative), Gallatin
Ticket price: $69
(615) 826-0033, hendersonvilleproduce.com
2nd Annual Rutherford County Extension Farm to Table Dinner:
Sept. 22, Murfreesboro
Ticket price: $100
(615) 898-7710, rutherford.tennessee.edu