[When my friend Jimmy Hilburn told me that he was attending an event called “Outstanding in the Field,” I asked him if he’d take pictures and do a guest post. As you can see below, Jimmy went above and beyond the call of duty. Here’s Jimmy with the story of an unforgettable dinner.]
Is it still considered “eating locally” if you have to travel over 1000 miles by car, plane, subway and jitney just to get to your “local” destination? I’m going to go out on a limb and say probably not. Environmentalists and socially conscious foodies would probably frown on what my mom and I did, but ours was never a very noble pursuit. We just wanted to have an amazing, unique dining experience. And we did!
My mom first heard about Jim Denevan and his Outstanding in the Field project well over a year ago on her favorite show, CBS Sunday Morning. We were both fascinated by his mission, which he describes on his site as, “to reconnect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.” He and his band of merry men and women have traveled the country since 1999 putting on these dinners. It sounds like a modest idea, but then you see photographs like this, and know that it’s something altogether different and special.
I bought our dinner tickets as a surprise Christmas gift to my mom last December. (Note: I highly recommend this as a gift. You will get MAJOR points.) But, we had to wait until 12 noon on the first day of spring to pick our location and dinner date. That’s when Outstanding in the Field publishes their annual calendar on their website. Word on the street was that some dinners sell out within hours of posting, so there was a little bit of pressure involved. Getting your confirmation felt kind of like scoring U2 tickets. (U2 fans would probably beg to differ.)
We could have chosen a dinner in Atlanta (near my mom) or in Queens (near me), but neither held quite the appeal and mystique of a dinner in the Hamptons. So my mom flew up to New York this past August, and we boarded a Hampton Jitney for East Hampton. (Not long after our trip, I saw a Sex and the City episode where Carrie describes the Jitney as, “like the bus to summer camp, only instead of singing songs, everyone speaks on their cell phones and ignores each other.” This now seems pretty accurate. They do serve party mix and lemonade though.)
Our dinner started at 3 in the afternoon. Kind of early, yes, but this is because you’re in a FIELD. That’s right, there’s no light to be found after sunset, save from the candles on our table.
First order of business was a wine tasting (above), served by Channing Daughters Winery, a vineyard in nearby Bridgehampton. We started with a rose, progressed to white and later a red with our dinner. Sorry, I don’t have notes on the specific wines, because I was too busy drinking them. But they were all very tasty.
Next up, we got a full tour of our venue – the ECCO Farm. This is Ian, our tour guide & one of the farmers. He talked all about the mission, joys and trials of running an organic farm. How to keep bugs away with no pesticides. How they work with local restaurants and markets to sell their goods.
After our tour, we all settled down to that amazing dinner table in the first two pictures. Seating is random and they encouraged everyone to mingle with your neighbors as part of the communal aspect of the dinner. All dishes were served family style, and every guest brought their own dinner plate so that we all contributed to the table in a small way. Here’s me with my plate.
I don’t have Adam’s skill at describing each dish, but here’s a sampling of some of the things we ate:
Roasted beets and Catapano goat cheese with salted pistachios and sherry-shallot dressing. This was probably my favorite dish. The beets were so fresh and sweet, and the pistachios were a nice salty contrast.
Salad of summer bean, heirloom tomatoes & sea salt grissini.
Slow roasted Long Island duck breast stuffed with farro, swiss chard & fennel pollen. The ducks were raised on the Crescent Duck Farm in nearby Aquebogue.
And for desert we were served an amazing peach-blackberry cobbler. The farmer who grew the berries even attended the dinner and was introduced to the crowd.
Denevan talked at the beginning of the dinner about how our culture worships celebrity chefs and restaurateurs, but we never celebrate the men and women who grow and harvest our food – the farmers. So, we all raised a glass to the farmers in attendance.
Here’s my mom with Jim Denevan. Doesn’t she look excited?
He’s got a magnetic quality to him that’s hard to describe – charismatic and soft-spoken at the same time. I’m sure he could start a cult if he wanted. The ladies sitting to our right would be the first to join – they were total Denevan groupies.
We had a beautiful sunset that night and this is where our evening wound to a close. Outstanding indeed. Thanks Adam, for letting me share our adventures!