This was it. After five days of high-tailing it across America’s mid-west to be here in Madison, Wisconsin, we were finally about to participate in the food-art spectacle that is Outstanding In the Field. Jim Denevan, his partner Leah and a troupe of willing assistants have been taking their outdoor dining concept on the road around the USA for the past decade, and they have surely honed it into an experience that’s as unique as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Beautiful setting + long white table + locally sourced food + fine wines = good times.
It’s quite a simple equation, in truth, but as anyone that’s ever been involved in creating guerilla dining experiences will tell you, it’s all about the execution of the idea – and the devil really is in the detail. Jim’s concept stands as a testament to his passion for large-scale outdoor art (LINKS) and his background as a chef. He clearly has a desire to champion local farmers and fresh produce – and the initial part of the dinner was focused heavily on the environment we were about to eat in.
Troy Gardens is a volunteer community garden in which local folks can grow their own produce, and it’s run by a group of local food activists who are in their own way innovating around clean energy and low impact ways of sustainable garden produce. During our tour of the gardens, our guide showed us a greenhouse that used a kind of solar under-floor heating for plants, enabling them to grow longer through all seasons.
Once we’d been trekked around the gardens and the meadow, we arrived at the table itself.
Taking a plate from the selection available, we chose a seat and waited for the food to start coming. While we were waiting we managed to top up our mosquito repellent (as much as I hate to say it, the ‘skeeters’ in Wisconsin made our stay here pretty unpleasant, and between us we were bitten nearly 80 times) with some nuclear-strength deet given to us by our table-neighbours.
And this is where the real joy of OITF started. Because for us, it wasn’t so much about the food or the wines but about the communal dining experience. We met so many folks that shared our love of food, and were busy doing something about it, it was quite inspiring. We met people that made coffee, people that farmed, people that made cheese, people that worked at the gardens. And pretty much everyone was lovely – and up for it, despite the heat and blood-suckers.
So, the food: five courses with matched wines for three of them. It was prepared by the Underground Food Collective – a local and loose group of food fanatics who cook together, travel together and eat together, all over the world. They’d been getting busy with it since mid-afternoon, and we were hungry by now for sure…
We ate a kale salad with toasted hazelnuts and ricotta salad, followed by a locally-grown tomatoes, marjoram pesto and sprouted lentils. This was my favourite: the flavours of the different tomatoes mixed divinely with the pesto and were given an extra dimension by the lentils (and lord knows, I love a lentil!).
The main course was a selection of grilled rabbit saddle, pork loin and beef loin with reduced tomato chutney and herb roasted potatoes. I have mixed feeling about bunny-munching so I didn’t try it, but rest assured: the pork and the beef were super tasty.
The meal was finished by a corn pudding baby cake with honey sweetened frozen yoghurt and raspberries, with the finale being a chocolate tartlet with salted caramel filling. By this time, the table was rapidly emptying – due in no small part to the mosquitos – and I felt a bit rushed.
No matter – the experience had been a unique one, the people had made it, and Jim himself had been charming and charismatic. He kindly spent some time giving us an interview, which we’ll post as soon as we’ve had time to prepare it.