Outstanding in the Field, the California-based food tour that brings diners, chefs, and farmers together in one meal made its third stop in as many years in Arkansas, choosing the Delta Sol Farm in Proctor as this year's location. The early October weather was bright, sunny, and perhaps a little warmer than we'd hoped, but that didn't stop nearly 80 of us from touring farmer Brandon Pugh's four-acre spread to see his certified organic farm's greenhouses, fields, and heirloom breeds of pigs and sheep.
Outstanding in the Field describes itself as a "restaurant without walls," moving from state to state to bring people into a farm setting to eat great food and talk about the vital connections between the land, the farmer, the chef, and the diner. In fact, given the buzz in recent years about "farm to table" cooking, it might be said that Jim Denevan, Leah Scafe, and the rest of the Outstanding in the Field crew are turning that concept on its head by bringing the table out to the farm. And while each event normally features one guest chef cooking a meal for the long table, this year's Arkansas event went completely against the norm and featured a grand total of six chefs: Kelly English of Restaurant Iris, Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Hog and Hominy, and Jonathan Magallenes of Las Tortugas (all from Memphis) as well as Matthew Bell of South on Main and Alexis Jones of Natchez representing Little Rock.
Think it's odd that so many chefs — many of whom are in direct competition for business in their respective cities — would get together to cooperate on a single meal? Many of those in the predominantly Memphis-based crowd did, too. As the night went on, though, it became clear that not only did these different chefs respect one another's skills, they also seemed to be pretty good friends. This fostered a sense of camaraderie that spilled over to all of us getting ready to eat dinner — although the free-flowing Diamond Bear Pale Ale and La Marca Prosecco that greeted us upon arrival certainly didn't hurt. As we walked around the farm and then finally settled down at the table for dinner, it became clear that Little Rock and Memphis are in a very similar and very exciting place with their prospective culinary scenes, something that Daniel Walker touched on after his recent weekend in the city. The general consensus was that both cities are at the beginning of a renaissance in good cooking, and if you'll join me down there below the jump, I'll show you just what I mean.
We arrived to a festive scene of farmers, chefs, and diners all milling about, drinking the aforementioned beer and prosecco and getting ready for a line-up of appetizers from Alexis Jones that would prove to be an excellent start to our night. First up was an oxtail rillettes crostini, unctuous and rich beef from one of the most succulent cuts around. Barely had I finished one of these excellent bites then another came my way in the form of chicken liver pate, roast grapes, and candied pecans, a combination of rich liver, with a punch of sweetness from the grapes and pecans that had me (and several others) all heading back for more. After the meaty greatness of those bites, Jones and team lightened things up with a brightly-flavored mahi mahi ceviche on a cornmeal crepe, something that a few guests seemed wary of until they tried it. Jones' final triumph was a small shot glass of peanut celery soup — and here's where I have to admit my own wariness, because peanuts and celery don't seem to belong in the same breath as soup. The soup turned out to be fantastic, though, with the deep flavor of peanuts shot through with just the right hint of celery sharpness.
After appetizers, we toured the farm, and several of us got a chuckle from some of our group's shocked reactions to Mr. Pugh's matter-of-fact description of how his Berkshire hogs and sheep — who everybody had been doting over — would probably be in the highest bidder's freezer by the first frost. I'll give Pugh a lot of credit for not sugar-coating a thing about the ups and downs of farm life, and his descriptions of successes and failures made it clear that the learning curve for a grower is steep. The harsh realities of meat were hammered home to many of the crowd, which is just the sort of thing that Outstanding in the Field wants to bring to the public's attention, and something that Alan Leveritt touched on in his recent piece about life on his own farm. Meat doesn't just magically appear in those styrofoam trays in the store, and a farmer scratching a lamb behind the ear while describing how delicious the chops are going to be is a great way to make that point.
We made our way to the center of the farm, where a white draped table stretched before us and took our seats. The first course was a green chile and cactus tamal from Jonathan Magallenes, served with queso chihuahua and some spicy pickled carrots. I found the tamal to be tasty enough, with a good, savory filling surrounded by moist, firm masa, but where this dish really hit its marks was with that pickled carrot. I'm a sucker for pickled vegetables, and this spicy, tangy, still-firm carrot was just the right bite to add some character to a dish that was good, but not extraordinary.
Our next dish was from hometown favorite Matt Bell, and it was one we've written about before: cafish hoppin' john served with tasso, pickled okra hushpuppies, and some wonderful preserved tomatoes. Now given that my entire table was from Memphis, I admit that I built this dish up quite a bit...and thankfully Matt didn't disappoint. This catfish is unlike any other served in Little Rock: lightly seared, lightly spiced, and cooked just opaque so that the meatiness of the filet isn't dried out and lost. The hoppin' john featured some peas from our friends at Laughingstock Farms, and here again the South on Main crew avoids overcooking so that the vegetables still have some give to them and some of their natural fresh flavor. The tasso was nice and spicy, and the pickled okra hushpuppies were light and tender with a crisp exterior that soaked up all that good pot liquor nicely. Kudos to Matt and Alexis both for representing Little Rock so well.
After the fish course came a heavier meat course courtesy of the Andrew Michael team: duck leg with wood fired polenta and a leek and broccoli rabe salad. The duck was charcoal grilled so that the skin was crisp and the meat still moist, and while I'm pretty fanatical about duck, it was the leek and broccoli rabe salad that had our table raving. I couldn't tell you a thing about how these leeks were prepared other than that the outsides were blackened from the grill, but the flavor of them was light, savory, and slightly sweet all at once. Bite after bite, we all marveled at a compelling flavor that none of us could quite taste, although guesses of nutmeg, cardamom, and other sweet spices were all bandied about. There weren't near enough of those magical leeks to go around, and it's the first time I've ever seen a family-style platter where the vegetables disappeared completely and the meat did not.
Dessert came courtesy of Kelly English, and it was a fall-themed treat: a sweet potato and mascarpone pot du creme, which came with a piece of shortbread spiced with fennel stuck right in the middle. Creamy, with a sweetness cut by the slight salt of the cheese and rounded out by the licorice flavor of the fennel, this was a dessert that had us all longingly scraping the mason jars it came served in with our spoons. We were full, yet kept eating nonetheless.
This being my first Outstanding in the Field experience, I left with a sense that there is a vast disconnect not only between the people who eat and the people who cook, but also between the people who eat and the people who grow. This disconnect is why so many so-called "foodies" are interested in farm-to-table cooking, because it shows the web of connections that exists in every bite of food, much like the old food chain diagrams that showed up in our elementary science books. On a more personal note, it was a dinner where other connections were discovered, such as the lady across from me who was from California, lived all over the world with her Naval officer husband, settled outside Memphis...and just happened to know somebody I graduated Arkadelphia High School with over fifteen years ago (and hello Miss Ernestine, if you're reading this). Those sorts of coincidences are a lot of fun any time, but they're even more special when shared over good food and good wine, swatting at the Mississippi delta bugs and taking time to savor each bite, each smell, and most importantly, each other's company — which might have been across state lines and from two separate cities, but showed that the time is coming when those cities will be the food destinations of the Mid-South.
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