I love eating good food in good company for a good cause.
Last Sunday, B and I had supper at Castle Rock Gardens, a small farm a few miles from Pittsboro in central North Carolina. There were about 60 of us, actually, there to help send the farmers, Ristin Cooks and Patrick Walsh, to Terra Madre, the annual Slow Food convention that’s meeting in Turin, Italy next week.
Dinner was a knock out. But first things first:
As we wound our way down a narrow dirt road and circled the barn, we came upon some chickens, lots and lots of them: Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpintgtons, Barred Rocks and more, preening and strutting, ruffling their glossy, tufted feathers, scratching in the dust, tussling with leaves of wilted lettuce, conversing in alluring, throaty sounds that hovered between coos and clucks.
These chickens were utterly contented—and pleasingly plump.
At Castle Rock Ristin and Patrick raise heritage breed pastured hens, eggs (of course) and leafy vegetables which they sell at farmer’s markets and also feed to their flock. (In some circles, they are said to provide “a salad bar for chickens.”) With friends Brian and Joann Gallagher of Castlemaine Farm near Liberty, the foursome staged a Sunday Chicken Dinner to help defray the expenses of the trip to Terra Madre.
A wave of late Indian summer heat cast a glow over the respectful crowd. There were white tents, babies on blankets and somewhere, music was playing. At the buffet Alex Hitt was dishing out his famous fire-roasted peppers—his propane barrel roaster was parked nearby—while just behind me a bearded chap was expostulating over the bowl of “pickled vegetables” on a side table. Yep, that would be homemade jalapenos with onions and carrots. Hot ones, too. Luckily a jug of Maker’s Mark and a plate of creamy egg salad sandwiches were on hand to quench the fire.
Chef Matt Dawes was rushing around, deep frying chicken and braising greens in a pot over a gas cooker. Dawes cooks at Table, a restaurant in downtown Asheville that offers “unfettered cuisine for everyone.” During the week, that could mean local pea greens, pippin apple and endive in molasses-peanut vinaigrette, or wild caught sturgeon and Sardinian couscous with cucumber and olive toast.
But on Sunday Matt was serving unfettered home-cooking. Here’s what was on my plate:
A delectable fried chicken leg, succulent and darkly flavorful, with a crunchy golden crust just fatty enough to annihilate the defenses of the most determined dieter (that would not be me); braised bok choy studded with chunks of smoky bacon; wedges of sweet potato; a deviled egg with brilliant yellow yolk; a tangle of luscious roasted peppers; creamy eggplant with vegetables, a salad of fresh greens from the farm, and crusty bread that tasted as if it had been baked in a wood-fired oven.
One of Matt’s secrets is drizzling a few drops of honey over the chicken while it’s still hot. This was the source of a wondrous phenomenon.
Suddenly clouds of bees appeared around us. They crawled over the honey-spattered chicken, then made straight for a glass jar on the ground by the deep fat fryer. It was honey from their own hives, a mere 50 yards away, and they couldn’t get enough of it. Drunk on their own sweet stuff, they wobbled around, meandering over dirty plates, even wiggling under cloth napkins hastily thrown over platters of chicken. They weren’t aggressive, just very determined to lick up every last drop.
We all stood there, gaping at the besotted bees.
But as the late afternoon light turned a deeper shade of gold and shadows slanted across the grass, they disappeared, one by one, as mysteriously as they had come. It was as if an evening bell had rung. Slowly, like children drifting home for supper, the bees flew back to the hive.
Unfettered cuisine for all, bees included.