Harvest dinner: Good for the heart in more ways than one

I went to an annual harvest dinner on the weekend, hosted as it is every year by friends Penny and Gwen. Each year, for the past five years, about eight to 10 women gather around Penny’s dining room table or  to be more specific, a menagerie of hidden tables pushed together and covered by matching cloths.group2016

Penny always does the hosting because she loves to host. She may also be the most experienced hostess and she has all the accoutrements in the form of china, plates, glasses, vases and the artistic touch of an interior decorator.

We each bring a dish made using vegetables that we either grew in a community garden plot or on our patio or off the windowsill with, at the very least, herbs adding to the flavour of the dish, even if it wasn’t grown from scratch, wrenched from the dirt, with our own citified hands.

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And just to be clear, nobody is acting as the food police. We don’t get stopped on the way in demanding to know what part of the dish we have in hand that we grew ourselves. We all know who the guerilla gardeners are.

It’s always such a nice treat because it’s about the conversation and the gathering, the tasting of the food, and the kind of back and forth that happens when people (who want to be together) come together across a table. Devices are scarce, except for the hurried photo taking right before we dig in. We’re engaging and listening.  We’re admiring the dishes and the way Penny has creatively styled the table for the gathering.

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Silently, as the evening unfolds, I know all sorts of memories must get whetted from the experience. Memories of childhood meals and romantic dinners between two. Meals that we hated as kids. Francis told a story about two meals that her mother actually allowed them, as kids, to hold their noses while they shoveled in the food because she knew it wasn’t very good. There’s even the memories of the people who may not be around the table this year who always enlivened the experience in the past. To name names, Shona is working through CUSO on a new social enterprise of a working farm, the first of its kind in a specific area in the Philippines.

I always walk away thinking, Why don’t I do that anymore? And the answer has to do with how I feel about my current apartment. I dream of what it would be like to actually live in a space where hosting a dinner party would really make sense because of the size of the kitchen and the size of the table.  I enjoyed having people over in the past.doukka

I think of that as another fallout of real estate prices in Vancouver that doesn’t get talked about, that is, the number of people, especially those who don’t own, who live in places that are not very amenable to socializing in the way that’s conducive to entertaining.

It’s easy to say, it’s all about the company, but in fact, that’s only partly true. In reality, the entire package – friends, food, and environment – create the experience. I know that because I think of the dinners that really stand out for me.

I think of my friend Anne who lives on the Sunshine Coast and all the incredible meals – rack of lamb, sockeye salmon, pork medallions – that her husband Bob and her have cooked for me over the years in their beautiful homes.

I think about Donna, a former co-worker, and what a fantastic cook she is and how much she always puts into every meal she cooks for company. I think of when my eldest sister was alive and the meals she hosted.

Of course I think about Pauline on Salt Spring and how I managed to gain 10 pounds when we’d wiling away the winter evenings that first winter at her table.  I think about how spoiled I was by Linda and Tom on Salt Spring. Linda busy preparing weekday dinners in the kitchen while I dropped by after work and hung out with Tom in the living room catching up on the week’s news until dinner was ready. Brat. I’m a brat! But they liked doing it. I didn’t make them. Honest! They kept inviting me.

And recollections of the occasional fancy dinners that Don cooked at Christmas in his tiny cabin on Gail and Michael’s property. And then, most significantly, I can’t help but think of my own mother and all the meals she cooked over her lifetime.

Being single, I have not had to experience the drudgery of the daily getting dinner on the table for a large family, not to mention cooking for the annual special occasions. The amount of shopping, prep and clean up that went into that reality is mind boggling. I look back at those rituals that I observed as a child, so far removed from my current reality, and I marvel at how my mother didn’t just collapse.  She had my elder sisters to help but still, she had to orchestrate the entire production. And multiply that scene across the world. Women working. Men mostly showing up, eating, then retiring to the sofa. It was a time when Sunday dinners with the silverware, white tablecloth and good china, because company was coming, was not the exception but a bi-weekly routine.

This year, we were asked to bring a Food Rule, an idea that Gwen had because she had read Michael Pollan’s book, Food Rules, an eater’s manual.

  • Avoid food products that contain ingredients that a third grader cannot pronounce
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  • It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car …

These make me laugh. Others are more serious.

At these gatherings, we’re usually asked to share something – a poem, a drawing, a thought – focused on the year’s theme and of course this year’s request was to bring our own Food Rule.

I’ll leave you with this one: Think lovingly about the people you are cooking for because making food for them and sharing it is a form of love.

Got any of your own food rules? We’d love to hear them in a comment.

Time to Devour the Garden

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What better way to enjoy a garden than to eat it, one powerfully tasty vegetable at a time at a themed dinner.

Potatoes. Beets. Beet roots. Butternut squash. Pesto from basil plants. I can’t even recall all that adorned the table thanks to our gracious hostesses Penny (below right) and Gwen and everyone else’s contributions.

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The fact is, unless you count the hanging basket of pink fuchsias and the geraniums and the cherry tomato plant on my patio that has generously dropped some organic lusciousness into my expectant palms, I don’t even have a garden.

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It’s always the little extra touches that make a dinner party special! I loved the way Penny found these dried flowers, or at least great look a likes, from a dollar store. These and the nasturtiums were perfect on top of the long strips of Kraft paper she substituted for a table cloth.

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Just about everyone else around the table has a plot at SFU’s community garden on Burnaby Mountain which, as you can see from one of my earlier blog posts, is a veritable jungle of growth that is not immune, unfortunately, to very hungry deer. Still, there were enough ingredients for this tasty salsa appetizer. Salsa

Penny and Liz, her daughter, had to re-arrange furniture and borrow a bench to accommodate us.

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Our token male,  Drew, (Aloha)  is a wonderful cook. He  took cooking classes while travelling in Thailand and Cambodia, and his delicious Thai soup kicked off the first course. It was smooth with just a bite of ginger and lemon grass to wake up the palate.

Drew and his wife Michelle also shared a rich dark slab of an appetizer of hot chili chocolate (they grew the chili’s). Cut through a piece of that luscious mocha and take a swig of red wine and you’re pretty much on your way to an out of body experience. I’m not even sure how these two managed to stay awake since they had already attended three birthday parties earlier in the day with their five-year-old twins.

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There were ruby beets from Gwen and Penny’s garden plot. Just add feta.

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 Icy pale cucumbers made for a refreshing transitional taste after Drew’s soup and before the main courses.

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Shona made pasta with pesto, Arlette made some curried potatoes and I put together a butternut squash and pear casserole, but at this point, you’ll just have to take my word for that. Apparently,  I was too busy eating to keep up with my photography duties.

Annie and Li arrived with sushi. (No photo of that either).

Gwen made her delectable pumpkin cheesecake, Penny added a plum torte, and what’s a harvest dinner without a pie? Frances came through with a peach one.

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I was so full, I could only eat the cheesecake.

And when it was all done, we were sent home with packets of seeds for next year.

From Shona

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(So apropos for someone who runs a before and after school care program for four kids out of her lane way house, when, that is, she’s not counting air miles after dropping a few thousand on a recent Galapagos Islands trip that she went on with her sister, with the goal of catching up with Mr. Money Mustache.) Her sister is going to start guest blogging for him.

And dill from Penny and Gwen.

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I think I left mine on the kitchen table.

So, what delectable morsels have you enjoyed from your own gardens or from all that shopping at farmer’s markets this summer? I love the Ladner Market. That’s where I got most of my fresh food this summer.