I know what you're thinking: if I hear one more thing about an Irene benefit, I'm going to flip. And it's true, there has been a deluge of benefit dinners, concerts and lemonade stands since Irene, um, deluged our brave little state. But stick with me here. Andrea Todd's dinners to benefit flooded Intervale farmers are worth spilling a little ink over.
Todd, 34, is a jill of all trades. She is a self-employed private tutor and landscape designer. She's also a damn fine cook. For the past eight years, she's been hosting weekly dinners at her home during Vermont's short growing season. These dinners, called Café 51 after her house number, began as a way for Todd to use her farm share instead of having to dump half of it in the compost because she forgot about the turnips or arugula sitting in the back of her fridge.
At first, Café 51 was just a dinner party for friends. Then it was friends of friends. Last year it got to be so big, Todd began asking for donations to defray the extra cost of the meals. Todd, who studied studio art in college, says the dinners are a way for her to channel her creativity.
After Irene hit and laid waste to many of Todd's farmer friends' fields, she felt she needed to do something. "It was like, what can I do?" she says. "It just sort of clicked — I can host dinner parties to highlight the food." And so she has.
The first of three farmer benefit dinners was held two weeks ago at Seventh Generation. The company allowed her to use its kitchen for free and provided all the flatware for the event. Farms and other businesses in the area donated the food. Todd treated the dinner just like she would if it was a Café 51 event — buffet style, food coming out when it was ready. It wasn't formal, but the 60 diners were the most she had ever cooked for.
Todd asked for a $20 donation per plate for the Seventh Gen dinner and the event raised $1200 for Intervale Center Farmers Recovery Fund. Todd is surprised by that figure, but not surprised by the fact that people opened their wallets. "People are wanting to do something positive, they just need a way to do it," she says.
The most recent farmer benefit dinner happened last Sunday at the Champlain Club, a mysterious little clubhouse on Crowley Street in the Old North End. This was a more formal affair. The meal was a sit-down situation, with table service provided by farmers like Hilary Martin from Diggers' Mirth Collective Farm and Danielle Allen of Arethusa Farm.
The dinner began with a cocktail hour featuring 25-cent Switchback beer and Rookie's Root Beer donated for the occasion. Farmers passed around canapés — delicata squash cookies with garlic mashed potatoes, eggplant buttons and blue cheese gougéres — all made with local produce donated by farms like Intervale Community Farm in Burlington and Four Pillars Farm in Whiting. The 40 dinner guests, including restaurant owners, foodies and folks who just thought it would be a fun night out, mingled as some musicians played a few tunes. When it was time to eat, we were ushered to two long tables and invited to sit.
The first dish was a roasted tomato and pepper bisque. Now, I'm not a food critic, so I'm not going to tell you how aromatic or velvety or scintillating it was. I'll just tell you that it was good as hell. With a light smoky finish.
The main course featured brandy braised brisket and colcannon-stuffed Cinderella squash for the vegetarians. However, the potato/kale combo was so delectable, the meat-eaters were totally cherry-picking the mash to go with their brisket. The beef — which Todd was worried wouldn't be tender enough, but apparently was smooth as butter — was donated by the Cleary Family Farm in Plainfield.
For the sides, Todd, and co-chef Jen Smith of the Nomadic Oven, offered a fragrant toasted coriander cabbage, a kale and summer squash medley and hen of the woods mushrooms foraged that day by friends with glazed onions. In the words of my best pal, Rachael Ray, delish!
The third course was a sugar beet salad with fennel blossoms, feta and a balsamic vinaigrette. The beets were silky and sweet, and while I don't normally partake in flower-eating, the fennel blossoms were surprisingly understated. I would eat them again. Maybe. But the beets I could have eaten all night, along with the colcannon because I am a whore for a potato.
The dessert crafted by Smith, whose whoopie pies are off-the-chain amazing, was worth waiting three courses for. She delivered a caramel-topped flan with a cider reduction and ginger butterfly tuiles, which is fancy pastry chef speak for little butterfly-looking cookies. Because I'm classy, I used the tuile as a little spoon, which my tablemates soon copied.
The dinner, which raised $1,600, ended with a couple of quick words from a few of the farmers whom the event was benefiting:
"You guys coming out here to enjoy this amazing meal is why we're going to continue to be here farming," said Arethusa's Allen.
"The silver lining to all this is how our community really pulls together," said Martin, of Diggers' Mirth.
The whole evening was totally heartwarming. If you missed this farmer dinner, there will be one more you can attend. On Oct. 19 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the North End Studio, Todd is hosting a fried chicken potluck, with birds donated by Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro. She is asking guests to consider bringing a dish to compliment or replace (if you're a vegetarian) the fried chicken. Tickets are $10. Be there.