The roughly mowed grass crunched beneath our feet as we circled three long rows of tables, covered in white cloths and adorned with wild flowers in jelly jars. A makeshift kitchen of folding tables, stacked hot boxes, a fire pit and grill were stationed several feet from the dining area. Chef Eli and his crew, from Pittsburgh’s Casbah restaurant, navigated the space with fluid precision, rhythmically chopping and scrapping vegetables into bowls. Behind the kitchen, servers mixed giant buckets of red and white sangria from the back of the farm’s brightly colored delivery truck.
Margaret Schlass, farmtress of One Woman Farm, began hosting fall harvest dinners shortly after she began selling her first CSA memberships back in 2008. They were originally held at local restaurants that purchased her produce. I was fortunate enough to attend one at Toast (now closed) a few years ago. It was a much smaller, a highly intimate and more formal affair.
The dinners are now held annually at her farm in Gibsonia, roughly forty minutes north of Pittsburgh. Now in a more casual setting, the farm’s personality can truly shine. Last year’s dinner was my first, held on a rainy Sunday afternoon in August. When I got word Margaret was hosting another one this year, I jumped at the chance to participate again.
It was shortly after taking my seat next to my friends Lori, Jason and Gary that I realized this wasn’t any ordinary farm-to-table event. It was a family reunion of sorts for the community that has sprouted up over the years in support of a spitfire woman growing some of the most delightful produce around.
We are all connected to the farm in some way. Many of the attendees are CSA members or regular patrons where the produce is sold. Lori worked as a farm apprentice during our time in graduate school and still occasionally helps with the Sunday farmers market. Gary, Lori’s boyfriend, supports her endeavors by being a good eater. And that’s what we like about him. I was a member of Margaret’s CSA for a number of years and regularly visit her booth at the East Liberty market on Mondays. Jason is also a regular patron of the market and we often pool our finds at mealtime.
Nearly 90 people milled around as we waited for the first course. A tractor perched at the opposite end of the field attracted a gathering of fearless children interested in climbing into the driver’s seat. Their parents continuously pulled them away from the machine, only to repeat the process minutes later. I kept my distance from the playground-like activity and focused on the carafes of sangria filled with chunks of fruit that were sitting on the tables. Lori suggested we spike the concoction with a splash of Apothic Dark red wine she brought along to share, enhancing the richness of the fruit.
The nine-course meal was exquisitely designed; focusing on the broad range of ingredients grown in the very fields we were walking in, and was supplemented with local meats and cheeses from other nearby farms. The first course, summer beans with a roasted red pepper goddess dressing, arrived shortly after my second glass of sangria. Just as I scraped the last bits of dressing from my plate, a bowl of roasted broccoli salad was making its way down the table.
Each course was served family style, which made it easier to regulate our portions. By the time the third course arrived – beets with dollops of creamy goat cheese and tossed in lemon vinaigrette – I had to remind myself that the evening was a marathon and not a sprint. Next was a grains course with farro and quinoa that was immediately followed by a watermelon and peppery arugula salad. A bottle of rich and syrupy Minus 8 ice wine vinegar was placed on the table. We were encouraged to pour a bit of the liquid onto our salads to bring out the last bits of summer from the watermelon. Several deer migrated across the distant field as the plates for the next course began to pass.
It was somewhere between the roasted pork loin and potatoes, and the carrots courses when I overheard our server refer to our table as “particularly hungry.” How could we not be hungry? The pork had soaked up the wood-fired smokiness like a luffa sponge and the potatoes tossed with grainy mustard were hard to resist. The last entrée course before dessert was a pastrami style local brisket and heirloom tomatoes, a rich finish vegetable laden menu.
The sun began to dip low in the distant trees when carrot gob whoopie pies on wooden cutting boards made their way past me. A few minutes earlier I had mentioned to Jason that if I ate another bite, I would explode. And there I was, reaching for a second gob.
By the time we finished licking the cream filling from our fingers and washing gob crumbs down with a final swig of sangria, nearly four hours had passed. The jury is still out on if I won the marathon that evening. Though it was definitely a valiant finish and an experience I hope to repeat this time next year.