Oxen Make Great Dates at Shaker Village Dinner
“The peaches in this vodka better be free range and grass fed,” I said to the man behind the picnic table, laughing at my own joke. He chuckled and handed me an ice-cold glass of local organic peach-lemonade vodka from the outdoor tablecloth-covered bar. I took a sip. The drink was a perfect end-of-summer concoction, and a mix so delicious, God himself might be serving the same exact thing in Heaven. It was September 2013 and I had been asked by Edible Berkshires to have dinner and give my editorial opinion about dinner in a field!
I stood on the grass outside Hancock Shaker Village and watched the crowds of people gathered near the long, narrow dinner table centered in the Shaker gardens for the renowned Outstanding in the Field (OITF) Farm to Table Dinner. Within an hour, over 100 guests would be served some of the highest-quality local food from surrounding farms by top local Chef Brian Alberg of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.
The event was said to be run like a culinary circus, a group of people traveling the country on a bus, organizing, hosting and setting up the tables and chairs for each dinner.
Tonight’s dinner at Shaker Village would be the 600th event held by the Outstanding in the Field Organization since it began in 1999, and for the cost of $220 a person, I could only hope the food was as good as everyone told me it was. I felt the first signs of an autumn breeze wisp through the air and suddenly became very aware of how awkward I felt in my green dress and sandals. Today was the first time in my nine years of working in the farm department at Hancock Shaker Village that rather than wearing my manure-stained jeans and work boots, I was playing the part of a guest, sipping my cocktail with the best of them. The only difference between the guests and me was that, in moments, I would be leading my team of Jersey oxen—as if it were only natural for me to handle two 800-pound animals in a dress. Life presents all kinds of challenges.
From the corner of the crowd I watched Jim Denevan, the founder of OITF, a man in straw cowboy hat, step up onto a milk crate and speak to the guests about the organization’s mission to honor the local farms and promote local food and agriculture. One by one, each key figure in the dinner was introduced, including the several members of the OITF crew and some of the heads of Shaker Village: Billy Mangiardi, director of farm and facilities; Georgia Barberi, head gardener; Todd Burdick, director of interpretation; and, lastly, my insecure, fancy-dressed, oxtraining, manureshoveling self: Laura Field, barn manager.
As my Shaker Village colleagues began to walk the group through the iconic round stone barn, organic communitysupported agriculture (CSA) gardens and Shaker Village beehives, I quietly stole away to hitch up my oxen, Merle and Roy, to prepare for my section of the farm tour. As I called them in, Merle, not recognizing my fancy, feminine look, reared up like a bucking bronco and tried to head-butt me. Roy, my other ox, grabbed my whole dress in his mouth and yanked the entire thing down. Fancy, huh? Finally, I hitched them just in time for the guests to arrive.
I provided a quick explanation on the museum’s increasing use of ox power on the farm and called the village hens over to greet the guests for a short introduction on the free-range egg production piece of the Hancock Shaker Village CSA. After the crowd moved on to visit the Shaker Village greenhouses and organic composting facility, I had just enough time to put the oxen away, brush myself off and be the last one to be seated at the dinner table. I scanned the crowd. Among many unfamiliar faces, I recognized Sather and Ruby of Raven & Boar Farm in East Chatham, whose food, I noted on the menu, was included in one of the several courses.
A smiling blonde woman leaned over us to fill our glasses and continued to do so for the next couple hours. She handed out dish after dish of food served “family style,” where each section of the table passed around a big plate and took portions as if we were a family gathering.
We tasted top-quality pork, duck and rabbit. We tried Howden Farm sweet corn and berry patch tomato salad with Equinox Farm arugula and barbecued meat-market bacon with parsnips. I had no idea that basic vegetables could be turned into such delicacies.
As each of us passed the food to each other, we talked— and, around me, strangers suddenly became friend. Across from me, I soon found out sat Van Shields, the executive director of the Berkshire Museum and his wife, Peggy Rivers, an accomplished painter. I learned when and how they met, where she took her morning walks, and after a couple glasses of wine, I even jokingly tried convincing him to do a history of chickens exhibit at the museum.
As I chatted with them and others around me, I realized that almost everyone sitting at the table was an undercover chef and if anyone would be able to determine whether the quality of this dinner was truly equivalent to the high price, it wouldn’t be the chef who cooked it but rather the chefs eating it. The consensus of my new friends was that the dinner was worth every dime.
In the end, after an evening of getting head-butted and my dress pulled down by oxen, after trying some “grass-fed” peach vodka, and after talking chickens with the director of the Berkshire Museum, would I agree the evening was worth it? Absolutely.
Laura Field is a writer and agriculture enthusiast, see page 40 for her bio.