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Books: Excerpt from Tanner Latham’s ‘Know Thy Farmer’


Tanner Latham, Know Thy Farmer

The following chapter is an excerpt from San Francisco author Tanner Latham’s “Know Thy Farmer.” He is a Piedmont native and a content strategist, writer, editor, radio reporter and multimedia storyteller. Latham is also a former Southern Living colleague of mine.

His book profiles 30 Alabama farmers and the food they provide to chefs and restaurants.

In this excerpt, Latham recounts a farm-to-table dinner at Sanctuary Farms.

• • •

Farm Dinner

The guests rolled in slowly in near-idling cars and discovered the bright, mid-afternoon sun bathing warm light over the house, barn and a patchwork layout of heirloom fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs anchoring this little farm. A freshly mown path welcomed them and led their steps through naturally wild lawn grasses. It served as an entre to the evening’s event — a first scent of a seven-course dinner, a true farm to farm table experience. And at the path’s end, awaiting each guest, was the first sip — Peach Cobbler Moonshine cocktails stirred and seasoned with locally made popsicles. There, too, was the first bite — skewers of hushpuppies and fried green Sun Gold tomatoes picked earlier that morning from the vines beside which they now mingled.

Garlic. That was what initially sparked chef Drew Terp’s interest in Milan Davis and Jeannine Freed of Sanctuary Farms. “It was some of the most incredible garlic I had ever seen,” says Drew, who first met the couple at their booth at the Market at Pepper Place. “They had some of the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen in any restaurant I had ever worked for. I’ve used ginger imported from all over the world, and Sanctuary’s was the most gorgeous I can remember.”

The couple was fairly smitten with Drew as well. “He had this very positive and boisterous presence,” says Jeannine. “His passion for food was contagious, and his personality went along with it.”

The chef visited the farmers at the market each week, buying produce, chatting and slowly, strongly building a relationship. One Saturday morning, Drew offered to volunteer on the farm just to see what the couple was doing and learn more about their process. The farmers obliged, and throughout the summer, he and his girlfriend visited the farm in Etowah County, Ala., and helped clear brush, till, plant seed and harvest.

After working one day, Jeannine and Milan began talking to Drew about their idea of hosting a fall dining event similar to those held among their network of farmers. It was an opportunity for a chef to show off his or her culinary skills at a farm, sourcing most of the ingredients on site.

“We were reaching a point where we had enough food in our garden,” says Jeannine. “We envisioned it more as a celebration of accomplishments of the season and sharing them with those who come and experience it.”

Yet, the farmer couple had never done anything like that before and weren’t sure how to even begin, but they knew they wanted it to be right. Lucky for them, Drew had experience hosting such events, and he willfully partnered with them as an organizer.

“Drew’s obvious passion left us with no doubts that we were going to plan a wonderful experience for everyone who came,” says Jeannine.

The cocktail hour spilled seamlessly into supper, and the guests moved to the barn to seat themselves on wood-topped bales of hay at tables built by Milan from wood he had milled. Above them, string lights and herbs hung from rafters. Around them, used burlap fabrics draped doorways. Before them, flower centerpieces colored the tables. Overhead, the sun was just beginning to set.

As Chef Drew’s team brought out the first course, a charcuterie board with cured meats, local cheeses, a savory okra jam, radish pickles, pickled garlic and local honey, the guests’ eyes widened and lit up, a response repeated with each course presentation throughout the evening.

Then came wrinkled potatoes with Spanish tortillas, a small-bite dish Drew had learned about while traveling through the Canary Islands. After that, mixed greens with seared goat cheese, figs and honey vinaigrette followed by a sweet potato soup with sage farmer’s cheese and brown butter emulsion.

“Everything had a really nice balance. Each course allowed the vegetable to be what it was without covering it up,” says Jeannine.

For the main course, Drew presented a suckling pig with rosemary polenta, glazed baby carrots and wild persimmon pork jus. It had actually been supplied and cooked on site by Will and Liz Doonan of Heron Hollow Farms located in Lacon, Ala.

“We structured the menu so that we would have intricate courses followed by easier courses,” says Drew. “We wanted plenty of time to prepare the more difficult dishes.” With each course, servers poured wine and beer pairings provided by Grassroots Wine from Birmingham and Gadsden-based Back Forty Beer Company. As they placed the plates, the chef stood before the guests and guided them through the dishes, explaining the sources and answering questions.

“It’s my passion,” says Drew. “If you take a plate, and you set it down in front of somebody, they can just taste it and decide if they like it or not. But when you can put something out in front of somebody and tell them a story about it, now they are eating through your eyes and looking at the food through the creator’s vision. They get the story behind the food. It’s so important when people are eating to know there is a background behind the food.”

A big, beautiful pecan tree stood next to the barn, its branches extending far enough that their ends sagged to the ground and created a natural canopy and seating area. With the supper courses finished — the fork-clinking silenced — the guests moved from the table to the tree to watch a bonfire grow into a cozy blaze that popped sparks upward to the dark sky.

Local musicians provided a post-dinner soundtrack, picking and singing folk and bluegrass songs. And for the final taste, the chef’s team served dessert, sea salt caramel popsicles from Gadsden-based Frios Gourmet Pops and Drew’s grandmommy’s recipe pecan pie made from nuts that had fallen from the large tree.

According to Jeannine, watching someone taste the produce she and Milan grows is akin to the moment you feel when you meet your soulmate. “It’s like, ‘Yes! That’s what I’m talking about!'” she says. “When someone gets the whole process, it’s kind of like a camaraderie. There’s a lot of passion in that moment. I think, ‘These are my people!’ Those moments contribute to making it all worth it. We can grow beautiful food, but there has to be someone there who truly enjoys it.”

She says that this event could not have occurred without their “farm community of friends” who willingly helped to make it happen in a passionate and selfless way. Those farmer friends and musicians sat and dined at the tables alongside the guests and added another depth and dimension to the atmosphere.

In a broad sense, Jeannine believes that events like this only occur when people care from where their food comes. Drew agrees, stating that a major problem today is that people lose track of their food sources. “You go to the store or drive-through and you buy food that is packaged, but that’s not real food,” he says. “The realness of an event like this is picking carrots that morning and serving them that night. You take the food right from the farm, make something beautiful and then share it with those around you. That is what is all about.”

These intimate dinners symbolize the best that has come from the farm-to-table movement and from literally knowing your farmer. They display a through-line that connects those who participate. Chefs respect and revere the live produce and even animals that grow just steps away from the diners. And the guests, a table full of strangers sitting elbow to elbow who quickly bond over their commonalities, can directly ask the farmers about their challenges or the chef about his vision for the dishes.

“This was not only the best of a beautiful harvest and a talented chef,” continues Jeannine. “But it was also a gathering where new friendships came together to show love and support among one another.”

Slowly, the guests peel away from the group and the bonfire’s warmth. With bellies full and smiles grand, they turn into the chill of the October evening and follow the same path, now lit by flickering, lighted bags, out to their cars. They occasionally steal a glance over their shoulders to view the glow of the barn and garden. But they have to return. Back to their homes. Back to their families. Back to their lives. Still, they now carry a memory that they’ll recount about a dinner that connected them to the land and to each other.

“This is how a community grows,” says Drew. “One person and story and experience at a time.”

• • •

“Know Thy Farmer” (November 2015, Friends of the Market)

Tanner Latham

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