It all began with a farmer out standing in the field. Or, if you want to get technical, Outstanding in the Field. OITF, as it is known, is the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based organization that probably pioneered the modern farm-to-table dinner, starting in 1998. Today, farm-to-table dining is so popular it’s nearly a cliche, along the lines of sustainability and locavores. The concept is appealing: Farms, farmers, and chefs team up to produce a meal made with local produce — most of it grown on the farm, where you sit at tables set up in one of its fields.
“It’s my favorite thing to do,” says Liz Vilardi, a partner in Cambridge’s The Blue Room. She set up the restaurant’s One Long Table dinners, held three times — in July, August, and September — at Bay End Farm in Buzzards Bay. Vilardi says she modeled the idea on OITF events, but at $85 a head, One Long Table is quite a bit more affordable (Outstanding dinners can run as high as $240).
New England farm dinners tend to be modest in scope, ambition, and price, though some are fairly upscale. Their popularity in Massachusetts has exploded over the past few years. It makes sense. Local farms have had to diversify their offerings to stay profitable, with many featuring such agritourism staples as hayrides, cornfield mazes, cider doughnuts, pony rides, and more. Farm-to-table dinners are one more way to lure customers, and are a trend farmers seem to endorse wholeheartedly as a way to showcase what they grow. As for the participants, diners should be flexible and, ideally, omnivorous; most menus are fixed and substitutions are not always possible.
The nature of the dinners means that menus are often undecided until the last minute. “Our chef will cook exactly what’s available on that day,” says Teri Volante Boardman, of Needham’s Volante Farms. “As is true of all farms, we don’t quite know what will be in.” These are Volante’s first farm dinners, and Boardman says she was surprised by the enthusiastic response: July sold out three days after it was announced.
Diners should be prepared to roll with the unexpected, which can arrive in the form of rain. That happened at Green Meadows Farm, in South Hamilton, at its first-ever dinner in June. The event took place in the farm’s greenhouse, and business and greenhouse manager Heidi Thunberg says it “went really well. It ended up really elegant — for a farm.”
At Just Right Farm, in Plympton, also in its first year of dinners, the rain issue has been solved with the construction of a screen house; boots and umbrellas are provided for guests who would like to wander the farm even in inclement weather. Just Right takes a slightly different approach from some other farm dinners because the farm basically exists to support the dinners, held every Friday and Saturday through the growing season. Kimberly Russo, the owner, chef, and farmer, found herself doing a lot of cooking for friends, using produce from her extensive gardens, and “decided to see if others would like it,” she says, so she expanded into a seasonal, two-nights-a-week restaurant.
In this area, each farm dinner has its own style. The “field to fork” dinner at Verrill Farm in Concord is “on the casual side,” says Jennifer Verrill, and at $30 per person, it’s certainly a good value. “We don’t rent china or use tablecloths, but our food is right up there with some of the more expensive ones,” she says.
At the One Long Table dinners, guests bring their own plates. “It’s a nod toward sustainability,” says Vilardi, and the mix of china “makes a sweet-looking table.”
Farm-to-table dinners may be a hot trend, but Russo points out that cooking a meal from foods grown on site is nothing new. “This is how it worked for years and years,” she says. She offers a Wendell Berry quote to bring home the point.
“When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.”Jane Dornbusch can be reached at