Oddly, it's easier to purchase sustainable and locally grown foods in most big cities than it is here, in the Mississippi Delta, a region synonymous with fertile farm country and self-reliance. However, we're encouraged to see recent interest in farm-to-table fare, and we've begun to favor it ourselves, reading such inspiring books as The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. But what's really won us over to this way of eating is the taste. There is something undeniably better, not to mention healthier, about eating fresh and local.
While opportunities for fresher local fare are growing rapidly here in the Delta — thanks to the local Greenwood farmer's market and conscientious chefs — one thing we never lack, and have always enjoyed in abundance, is a story to go with every meal. Both of these things were celebrated over the weekend at a tremendous event we attended at Dockery Farms outside Cleveland, Mississippi. It was a 100-plate meal, served in a line of tables set end to end, stretched out behind the iconic Dockery seed house, and composed totally of ingredients gathered from local growers, raisers, bakers, grinders and brewers. The meal was prepared by local chefs, including our pals Taylor Bowen Ricketts (executive chef of Delta Bistro), Mary Hoover, and Elizabeth Heiskell of the Viking Cooking School.
We'd experienced weeks of rain in the Delta, so it was a miracle that any harvest could be gathered at all, but sure enough, on the most brilliantly sunny and temperate day of the month, thanks were given and great platters roamed up ad down the table, spilling over with delicious victuals — cheddar chive biscuits and cornbread from local hero baker Donald Bender; Mike McLellan's baby lettuce with Indianola pecans and a scuppernong vinaigrette; prawns from Lauren Farms in Leland on Delta Grind cheese grits; lady pea and okra ragout with cream from the Billy Ray Brown's family dairy (whose delicious milk from grass-fed cows we hope to carry very soon in the Turnrow Cafe); mustard and turnips greens; heavenly yams dripping in sweet goodness; and a particularly inspired smoked catfish, brined in molasses and moonshine. Like any good outdoor gathering, a table off to the side teetered with luscious desserts from friends and neighbors.
While not a spontaneous celebration of close friends, the whole affair was staged for the television series The Endless Feast, which will devote an episode to the ongoing efforts in the Mississippi Delta to get back to the land, to match the region's storied cuisine with the products of its own earth. The producers proclaimed it to be one of the loveliest and most genuine gatherings they'd ever filmed, and we can't wait to see the whole show when it airs later this year.
The whole event had us thinking about how far we've come, from KFC to free-range chickens, Luvel to Brown's Dairy, Wonder Bread to wondrous Bender bread from Mockingbird. There's no comparison. We pray this feast is truly endless.