INFO: Farm dinners run June to October, plus a foraging dinner in November. ($180; outstandinginthefield.com) Outstanding in the Field: A Farm to Table Cookbook was published in June (Clarkson Potter; $33).
The dinner guests came from as far as Florida, but the squash blossoms sprang from the soil beneath our feet. It is twilight in the Santa Cruz foothills. The North Star sparkles in a dark plum sky.
Standing on a footpath at Everett Family Farm, a bucolic spot in Soquel, in Northern California, my wife and I survey a picturesque tableau.
Rows of butter lettuce and heirloom tomatoes stretch into the distance, bordered by a 100-foot-long candlelit table covered in white linen and shaded by persimmon and apple trees.
A sun-blushed man approaches, wearing a cowboy hat and sipping a glass of Albariño. "Nice night to eat out," Jim Denevan says.
He means it literally: alfresco dining at its earthiest extreme. As the founder of Outstanding in the Field, Denevan orchestrates movable feasts right on the farm.
For five months a year, he and a small collection of colleagues roam the country, arranging rustic dinners that close the gap between consumers and the land. With every meal they put on ― at dairies, ranches, vineyards, and farms ― all the ingredients are local, down to the chef.
He or she prepares a five-course repast for as many as 130, including the people who produced the food. Attorneys break bread with cheesemakers. Teachers dine with ranchers. City dwellers raise a glass to the vintners who supplied the evening's wine.
At conventional restaurants, the farm comes to the table. Outstanding in the Field works the other way around.
"There's a strange phenomenon in our culture that makes celebrities out of chefs while ignoring the people who actually produce our food," Denevan says. "That's part of the idea, to focus our attention on the work they do."
Denevan himself was working as a chef at Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz when he came up with the idea for a roving restaurant.
Born in San Jose in the early '60s, he carried childhood memories of South Bay orchards of nectarines, plums, and apricots giving way to subdivisions. How sad, he thought, that the apple had become the region's best-known fruit.
Committed to the premise of enlightened eating, Denevan launched a series of farmers' dinners at Gabriella, inviting local purveyors to share their experiences and their food. Interest in the events was so overwhelming that Denevan took the next logical step.
The idea ripens
Outstanding in the Field staged its first dinner in 1999 at Mariquita Farm, near Watsonville, California, just a few miles from where we are now.
Since then, Denevan and his crew have rolled out the concept at dozens of locations across the continent, following good weather and seasonal bounty to Canada, Alaska, the Midwest, and New York.
They've served elaborate dinners in sea caves and urban gardens, and even on an isthmus that was gradually surrounded by the rising tide (departure was by skiff).
Other groups, inspired by their example, started creating farm dinners of their own (see below). Their popularity points to a hunger that people have to connect with the land, to sit atop the very soil that produced their supper.
At every Outstanding in the Field event, dinner is preceded by a farm tour. On this evening, Rich and Laura Everett lead us around their grounds, pointing out the corn and the dry-farmed tomatoes, speaking of the values imparted by the land.
"We wanted to raise our children here," Laura says, "so they'd learn respect and hard work and understand where their food comes from."
In a fitting bit of symmetry, the guest chef tonight is Sean Baker, Denevan's successor at Gabriella. Before dinner, he tickled our palates with Dungeness crab wrapped in cucumber slices. Now he sends forth large platters of richly browned grilled lamb tongue with fresh-chickpea ragout and squash blossoms.
As the sky darkens and the Big Dipper appears above us, Denevan stands up at the far end of the table. He introduces the rancher who'd supplied the pork cheeks, which Baker serves to us with gnocchi enriched with eggs from the Everetts' farm.
"The idea of a nomadic restaurant may be unconventional," he says, "but the pleasures of the table are universal."
Wineglasses clink. Conversation crests over generous helpings of strawberry crostata. My wife blows out the candle that flickers before us, and we savor the night's sweetness, dining by the light of a rising moon.
MORE FARM DINNERS
Events tend to sell out early, so book promptly.
Dog Mountain Farm Guests are welcomed with a glass of bubbly and a 45-minute tour of this scenic property 30 miles east of Seattle. Dinners are held outdoors in an apple orchard or in a barn with a view of the fruit trees. May–Sep; $75; 425/333-0833.
Meadow Lark Farm Dinners At farms and fields around Boulder, Colorado, the intimate dinners are capped at around 30 guests. Jun–Oct; from $55.
Plate & Pitchfork Check the weather forecast and dress accordingly for these dinners in the Portland area. Meals kick off with wine tastings and farm tours. Jul–Aug; ages 21 and over; from $90; 503/241-0745.