Thursday night I had the opportunity to attend Harvest Feast Chicago, an auction and family style benefit dinner in support of the Spence Farm Foundation. I was lucky enough to be a guest of Mess Hall & Co. This Chicago-based preserve company, helmed by chef Marianne Sundquist and her husband Hans, crafts preserves from local ingredients. (My personal favorite are their Wisconsin bar cherries, prepared with bourbon, vanilla, clove, anise and peppercorn. They are intended for bespoke cocktails but in my hands they never make it that far.) Chef Marianne prepared homemade pretzel and ghost pepper mustard (sourced from seeds from Spence Farm) while I learned more about the organization.
Spence Farm is devoted to teaching the art, history and practice of sustainable small family farming across America. Located in Fairbury, IL, the working farm holds classes, workshops and seminars that teach about small scale farming life and farming techniques. Spence Farm partners with educational and cultural institutions “to provide information on topics that range from making maple syrup to beekeeping, growing a prairie to growing garlic, small farm equipment to woodland management.” One popular offering is a chef school – wherein Chicago chefs attend a series of Spence classes in order to learn about farming techniques. Information on soil, harvesting, and heirloom seed varieties inevitably goes back into informing the chefs’ work, not only in their selection of ingredients but even in the construction of their dishes.
What caught me on this evening, was the idea of the specialized knowledge set of the Spence family as something worth learning in its own right. Why, for example, would one attend a class on “Livestock Selection and Meat Marketing” or on “Biodynamic Seed Planting Cycles?” One reason could be, of course, that you are interested in actually marketing meat. I am most definitely not…. but I’d still be up for it. I’m fascinated by Spence’s framing of their knowledge as a practical, aesthetic and oral American tradition. It is a working farm but also a Foundation, engaged in all the long term vision for culture and education implied by that title. I am well aware of arguments for eating local and eating organic, but what feels new to me is the rigor and seriousness of the Spence Farm project. My popular impression of a family farm is of a cozy and fun institution (apple picking and corn mazes) or perhaps of something a just little precious about its work. (i.e. Portlandia’s “Is It Local”) I love the idea of a family farm as a place populated by experts – which of course has always been true. The Spence Farm experts offer a rich and complex knowledge-base covering the history of the land, agricultural science, and even a certain kind of artistic practice.
This is not a food blog (there are enough of those to go around)…so suffice to say dinner itself was amazing. It featured appetizers by Paul Virant and Daven Wardynski, a pork with tamale and mole by Rick Bayless, and a float-off-your-plate sweet potato pie by Mindy Segal. I left grateful to Mess Hall & Co. for the invitation, and impressed by the amount of energy and support offered by so many participating chefs for this fascinating initiative.