Last week, I found myself driving myself up and down Highway 1 on a two-hour roundtrip in and out of Santa Cruz, sourcing some ingredients for an upcoming dinner. I relished in the gentle, joyful solitude of driving alone on this particular stretch of road. The windows were rolled down, the salt air still cool on the fresh breeze of spring. Frothy yellow and soft purple wildflowers, vibrant after weeks of heavy rains, skimmed up and down the hillsides.
I turned up the volume on the stereo, listening to the kind of country music I try not to admit that I like. It made for a romantic soundtrack, all about false loves and unrequited wanting, missed opportunities, and waking up on the wrong side of the sunrise. I had only my own thoughts for company, soft and rubbery as they wobbled through my mind. I couldn’t help but envision a movie’s opening credits as I propped my elbow on the sunny windowsill, hair blowing across my sunglasses. It would most certainly be a love story.
The open road — and the promise of freedom at the far end of it — is addicting. Ask anyone who has managed their way through a full season’s tour (or a few) and you’ll be able to see it in their eyes — at once wistful and a little bit war-torn. It’s hard, certainly. But the romance is real. Our truck is a little clubhouse, home of whispered secrets and long hours of good conversation, comfortable silences as we all gaze at the changing view and singalongs when the landscape gets mundane. It’s a special kind of intimacy, unmatched by many typical experiences. Being on the road together is about camaraderie, it’s about ritual — the gas station stops for special treats, assigning beds at the end of a long day, knowing which flavor of energy drink each person prefers, knowing when to chat and when to slip into silence on those long drives after long hours of work and truly no time alone.
Driving for hours on end requires a unique combination of stamina and long-ago-learned skill, a practiced focusand a release of oneself. It turns out, there is a name for this. It’s called a flow state. You hear about “flow” a lot from athletes and artists, when they are fully immersed in their work, with no distractions, often no sense of time, sometimes fully removed from their body. It’s a level of focus hard to find in our world today, with its constant notifications and never-ending inputs. I find one of the easiest ways to slip into it is by driving down the open road.
A really good event can also put you into a flow state — and not just as an individual, but as a team. Suddenly, service seems to become a ballet; food is ready at the exact right moment and you hit the table with wine just before those seated begin to think about wanting more. Waters stay full, supplies are under your hand when you reach for them, and walking paths remain clear. Everyone is working in perfect harmony, in complimentary motion.
Suddenly, the sun is setting and it’s time to break down. The event is over. Smiling guests are leaving, and you surface from the flow to realize it all happened in a gentle, perfectly choreographed blink. It’s cinematic; you can almost see the tracking shot along the table, showing a cheers here, a platter being served there, conversations surfacing from a general, joyful chatter. This movie, also, is a love story.
As with any great love, there will always be something to fight over — and the road will test you with everything it has. But, when the sun sets over the Bonneville Salt Flats or the Midwestern sky lights up with lightning from a summer thunderstorm, when the truck goes quiet not out of boredom with each other’s endless company, but in awe of the wonder of this world we get to travel, it’s easy to forget the struggles of every day and fall a little bit more in love with this life, again and again. To me, that is the greatest love story imaginable.
Towards the end of our time on the road last fall, we were lurking at the back gate of a ten-foot fence lined with bougainvillea, hoping no one would call the neighborhood watch, trying to figure out how to get into Wattles Farm. Could this even be the right place? Could there actually be a secret garden big enough to host an event for 150 people behind this wrought iron fence in a residential neighborhood at the mouth of Runyon Canyon? Toby, our event host, rounded the bend to find us. Her bird-like frame was draped in black, and she had a shock of white-gray hair framing oversized sunglasses that whispered old Hollywood. She took a few seconds to scan each of our sunburnt faces as she let us in through the gate, and declared, “well, I don’t recognize any of you. No wonder you don’t know what you’re doing here!”
Little did we know as a first-time Tour Crew, but Wattles Farm Community Garden is one of those sites that feels a little bit like home to OITF veterans (before you go looking, it is not on the schedule for this year, sorry!) Hosts like Toby are as much a part of our team as the Crew itself, welcoming us into their homes and onto their land for the day or the weekend. Jim originally found Wattles when wandering around the neighborhood, staying at a friend’s place. Much like us, he peeked through the fence and wondered if there really could be a garden oasis tucked into the steep, crowded streets of Hollywood. So, he jumped the fence to find out for himself.
The big reveal
When I welcome guests at each event, I get to watch them round the corner or come up the hill or down the stairs – whatever it may be – to catch their first view of the magical place where we’ve set table that day. Sometimes, they’ve been walking for ten minutes, winding through fields or orchards, drinking in the pastoral beauty of a place. Sometimes, they have just turned off the street, confused about where the farm they were promised may actually be. After spending the morning running around thinking about trailer placement and leveling tables, it often feels like I finally get to see the site for the first time through their eyes. So often, it feels like walking into a different world. Invariably, people break through that sense of wonder to ask, “how did you find this place?” Or, entrepreneurially, they think about their favorite farm, their friend’s land or even their own property and inquire, “how do you choose your sites?”
As we always say, every site is unique – and their origin stories are equally so. The recipe for choosing our sites is one part logistics, a healthy seasoning of good relationships and a sprinkle of serendipity. Sometimes, that means jumping a fence and taking a chance on what’s on the other side.
Mapping out the tour
To balance out the magic of serendipity, we are always wrestling with the reality that we have one team and two trailers that have to drive everywhere we go. So, we start each year with a spreadsheet. We build our road trip schedule, making a point to get out of Southern California before the Santa Ana winds sweep up the hillsides. We get to the Midwest and Northeast just at that manic moment the peak late-summer produce makes the residents of those regions forget about the biting winds of March. We wait to hit the South until the sun releases some of its summer intensity, leaving us lightly baked but not totally burned by the end of the afternoon. We map long drives and try to predict where the Tour Crew will sleep (we try to give them enough time to do so). Then, we start filling in our farms.
There are some sites that we know we will go to each and every year: The bluffs above the Pacific at Markegard Family Grass Fed, where Doniga rides her horse through reception and her son Larry helps us shuttle tables on the ATV. Along the shore of the river at Everett Family Farm, where we try not to run over Rich’s sprinklers with the bus (but we’ve had to replace them more than once). The craggy shores of Lopez Island, the expansive mountain views of Lowry Ranch, the charming Midwestern farmers who make us feel at home. In Ohio, the Thaxtonscook breakfast for the crew and literally open their home to let us do laundry. We simply can’t pass that up, especially halfway through the summer (and the cross-country trek), when spirits can begin to sag and our bodies are aching but there is no end in sight. Then, there’s the Hickories, where the livestock guardian dogs serve as our alarm clocks and the farm crew stays late to share a toast to a job well done after dinner. Right before we make a big right turn on our route to head back west, there’s the otherworldly beauty of the golden hillside of Burnt Hill. We always stay for a few days, a welcome moment of stillness for the crew after the whirlwind of the Northeast. There’s Boggy Creek, where Carol and Larry talked Jim into doing just one more cross country tour in 2005; and the autumn olive harvest at Temecula Olive Oil Company, where Thom builds us a bonfire to gather around after dinner is cleaned up from the darkened groves.
Discovering new locations
In addition to our old favorites, we like to add in something new each year in order to keep learning. Sometimes, this comes from you – a farmer at the table who insists we need to join them next time, down the road or across the state. Or, a guest sends an email because they just really love their local CSA farm and want to see them celebrated. When we hear these kinds of things, usually someone makes a visit to see the property in person.
Emily, our Events Director, was busy putting together the schedule this spring when she took a road trip through the Driftless region of Wisconsin. She just moved to the Midwest, and was excited to get to know its local lands a bit better as the bitter winter began to thaw. Driving through Viroqua, she discovered one of the densest concentrations of organic farms in the country – and the region’s local hype man, Luke Zahm. Luke also happens to be the executive chef of the Driftless Cafe, and all it took was one conversation for Emily to know we needed to work with him. “Chef [Luke] already feels like a homie. I want to hang out with him and his wife and just eat good food with them,” says Emily, when retelling her tale of discovery. Luke connected her to Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese, a legend in the already legendary Wisconsin cheese world, and the planning started from there. It’s with that type of foundation that we can confidently invite you for dinner on a new farm with a new chef we’ve never worked with, because we know that they already have a story to tell. All we need to do is set the table to celebrate it.
We often hear from guests requesting events in places where an established personal connection doesn’t yet exist. Last year, when we were planning the 2022 tour, we knew we needed to add a dinner in the Carmel Valley, a nook of California wine country outside of Monterey where we always havemore people that want to come to dinner than we even have seats at the table. So, we reached out to our California winemaking friends. A well placed recommendation led us to Tira Nanza, where Greg and Sydney welcomed us – perfect strangers at that point – with open arms to sleep outside their tasting room and take over a ridge of their ranch. Just before dessert, as the sun streaked the sky pink over the undulating hills, we sprinkled blush-colored rose petals along the table, a dramatic touch from our guest chef, Ben Spungin of Cella. The petals occasionally drifted into glasses of wine poured straight from the barrel, still too young to be bottled but specially poured for their first dinner with new friends. That’s the kind of magic we are always looking for, but we can’t just create ourselves.
I have written in a note somewhere from tour a quotation from Jim;
“Everywhere we go could be considered on the way.”
Whether because a farmer gets a taste of our experiences and wants to connect or we pass by a magical corner of the world and meet someone kind enough to welcome us in, every stop we make is an opportunity to discover something more. If we’re lucky, we get to share it with you the following season. Every summer is a chance to visit old friends, make new ones, and set the table for countless celebrations of place and the people that make each one special.
I can’t wait to see what serendipity this season will bring.
There’s a moment at dinner, after opening remarks have been said and the farm tour walked, all the guests have been seated and greeted and poured wine and served their first course, when I sneak away – to go to the bathroom.
Stay with me!
I know it seems unconventional to talk to you quite so personally; and yes, there is some practical purpose to this (hydration is important on event day), but the bathroom trip is truly one of my favorite parts of the night. The cheerful, rolling chatter of the table fades away as you walk – sometimes a little farther than you may expect – down the path or around the corner or up some steps and across the yard – to the sweet little beige bathroom trailer tucked in a beautiful nook all its own. Suddenly, it’s quiet. Peaceful. A strong contrast from the boisterous crowd just minutes away. You may hear birds chatter, or notice the breeze in the trees, or finally catch the scent of the nearby dill plants wafting through the air. At Big Sur, a site full of breathtaking views in every direction, the view from the bathroom is my favorite of them all, because it’s the spot you have a chance to actually take it all in. That giddy, delicious, breathless feeling that follows most of the event gives way to a true sense of awe, a chance to really commune with the sense of a place.
Sometimes, the bathroom isn’t set on a cliffside with a view of the ocean, but somewhere a bit more mundane. Regardless, the walk to it is always a chance to capture that moment, for the wonder of the day to soak in like a soothing balm on sunwarmed skin. In more ways than one, it is an absolutely integral part of the evening.
“Regardless, the walk to it is always a chance to capture that moment, for the wonder of the day to soak in like a soothing balm on sun-warmed skin. In more ways than one, it is an absolutely integral part of the evening.”
If you are a longtime guest of Outstanding in the Field, however, you may remember a very different bathroom experience.
“The only complaint that I heard consistently on tour that we couldn’t take care of during the events was about the porta potties.” Austin Daly, who was on tour crew in 2018, spent the season trying to elevate the bathroom experience despite the fact that our restrooms were a far cry from the current situation. They were, in fact, porta potties.
After buying lights and fans to make them more comfortable, picking flowers to dress them up and arranging them into a perfect semi circle on top of the mountain in Big Sur, Austin knew there had to be a better way. While driving his teammates across the country, he scheduled conversations with several luxury trailer builders, and he went into business. Daylee Business.
Since then, Austin has followed our tour crew in his own truck, bringing his thoughtfully designed, lovingly maintained restroom trailers to almost every event. He tows them across ridgelines, through ravines, and along beach boardwalks. He walks the site, scouts the best locations (where they are subtly seen, not in the way, but not too far out of the way, and easy to access from both sides) and moves them between reception and seating to make sure they are always close by. In short, he creates an Outstanding restroom experience.
Austin is an outlier in our crew structure; not on tour crew, but not quite a satellite either. Having been on tour crew, he finds the independence exciting. “I’m the only person I’m technically responsible for.” He says, “I can map out if I want to go to this state park or national park. I’m touring BBQ places. I want to go meet up with my friend here or go to the beach and swim. It is definitely a really cool way to run a business and get paid to, in essence, travel the country and speak to farmers and chefs and producers, even other staff.”
After five years of being on tour, in one way or another, he is looking towards the next steps of his career. On his current travels across the Southern United States with our Winter Tour crew, he is doing some major research and development for a new trailer-based business, Florida Man BBQ. Austin explains, “to now be starting on this new venture, to take everything that I’ve learned and inherited, all of the knowledge that I’ve gained from being around all of these super cool chefs and farmers, picking up on what they do or how they do it, I’ve gained so much inspiration.” He hopes to pass the opportunity for this type of enriching experience onto others as he transitions out of his role on tour. “My goal is to hire people and pay them a good wage to do a good job and hopefully then set them up financially for something that they want to do,” Austin says. “That’s what you’re supposed to do as a business owner.”
As with so many things, a powerful mission is inspiring, but what I love about these bathrooms is that they are simply very nice. They are air conditioned (heated when they need to be). The lighting is perfect for a pre-event selfie in the mirror. The signs to direct you to them are painted to match the style of our Outstanding in the Field dinner signs, so that they blend seamlessly into the rest of the event. Finally, they are full of countless thoughtful details: The True Green toilet paper is woman (and fellow Floridian) owned and made from bamboo and sugarcane (both highly renewable fiber crops), the paper towels are 100% recycled materials, the soap is all sourced from a certified B corp, and the essential oil sprays are pure Florida grapefruit and Oregon spearmint. Dried flowers decorate each stall, picked from our partner farms – a small nod to the old days of Outstanding bathrooms.
Often at our events, I have to convince people that they should take the trip to the bathroom. They always come back to tell me how wonderful they are. I am here to put it in writing, even if it feels a little bit far, it will be worth the walk. If you really want, take a selfie while you’re in there, and share it with us. Whatever you do, don’t forget to take a minute to take in the view.
I know I’m supposed to be taking a break, but I have to pop into your inbox to say, hi. I miss you.
As I finished dinner tonight, I looked down at my plate and I thought about yours. I love your plates – I love hearing why you brought them, where they came from, what they mean to you. I love seeing those vintage store finds, your wedding china you never get to use but brought to the dinner you planned as an anniversary surprise, the apple orchard themed plates that you painted for your first dinner fifteen years ago and you’ve brought to every one since. I get to know you through your plates, their endless variety and incredible backstories. My plates are terribly boring in comparison. They have nothing to say, it seems.
Now that I’m home, I miss a lot about our events. I miss the dopamine rush when the level app on my iphone turns green to signal a level table (also, yes your iphone has a level built in and you’re welcome). I miss our early morning stretch circles with the satellites and the crazy icebreaker questions we come up with, although I miss those a lot less when I’m in my own warm bed at 6am. I miss the smell of woodsmoke when we fire up the grill midday. I miss the clink of your cheers when I’m up on the box during opening remarks. More than anything, I miss the soundtrack of dinner – the way the volume rises as the night goes on from polite chatter into a dull roar. I miss sitting down and hearing your stories, and I miss those nights when I walk the table and can’t even get a word in because you are too engrossed in good conversation with your dinner companions. Those are the nights I feel the most successful.
We often talk about our dinners as the pieces of art that they are. There are so many aspects to that: the exact placement of the table so that it seems to grow right out of the environment, setting the stations perfectly so in order to make service seamless and keep the view stunning, timing everything so that it flows smoothly from greeting to goodbye. The wine is art as expression of place, and of course the dinner itself is a gift of talent from our chefs and our farmers, and the main event of it all. I love the perfect picture of the clean white table, I love getting to taste the amazing food and how it pairs with the wine, I love seeing everything that it took to grow it and I love getting served a perfect cocktail from a bar that seems to be falling off the mountainside. I love this collaborative art piece we get to build together. Even more than the art, though, I’m in love with the people. I’m in it for you – and I know I’m not the only one.
You make these dinners what they are. The clean white table is great for those pictures, but it comes to life when you set your plates down, and all the meaning that they bring, to start the meal. Your laughter, your outfits, your stories, even the red wine stains leftover from some enthusiastic gesticulations during that story told over the third course — they make each event stand apart. When the crew talks about tour we talk about you like old friends, whether we’ve met you once or you come to every dinner. We wonder about your lives, what made you travel to see us, where you’ve been and where you’re going. Every once and a while, we would run into you the morning after an event at breakfast, or see you weeks later in a totally different city and get to hear your stories of the night you came to dinner. Those moments revived us, they reminded us why we do this work, why we try to build the impossible, why we work to make it perfect every time. It’s a love letter, really – take a look at the back of your menu the next time you dine with us, and read it as just that. A love letter to our farmers, our chefs, our producers and partners across the country and the world. Above all else, it is a love letter from all of us to you – because we could never do it without you, and we truly do it for you. Every time, every day, every platter served and plate washed. Every story we have from the road is really about you.
“When the crew talks about tour we talk about you like old friends, whether we’ve met you once or you come to every dinner. We wonder about your lives, what made you travel to see us, where you’ve been and where you’re going.”
I wish I could have you all over to my house to relive your favorite moments from this summer. I would pour you tea and cook you dinner and listen for hours. I would step away, to grab dessert or a glass of wine, and I would hear that dull roar I’ve learned to listen for, the chuckle of a good story and the whisper of a close connection. I would invite the neighbors, because that’s what a good host is supposed to do. I know the meal would be good (certainly not as good as a farm dinner, but I can hold my own), but the company would be better. I hope that we would get into stories good enough to spill our wine. I hope that you would remember it fondly, maybe even tell your friends.
Unfortunately, my dining room table is lacking enough room for us all, but I’m sending you cheers from across space and time. If you are reading this, please pour yourself a glass, from me. Better yet, invite someone over to share one with you, and tell them your favorite story. I hope that I run into you soon, and you can tell me too. I can’t wait to hear it.
I have a confession to make: I haven’t spoken to anyone in three days.
Ok, that’s maybe not entirely true – I ordered coffee the last two mornings and I snuck to the fancy wine bar downtown for a glass and a snack last night. But generally, I’ve been sitting in a friend’s borrowed apartment watching Netflix and doing laundry. In checking in with my teammates (those five people I saw every day for the last six months who are now scattered across the country in various states of settling in post-tour) it seems like the general trend is one of hunkering down. Whether back home where they started or in a brand new city starting over, everyone is in deep recovery mode after six months on the road.
Tour crew has been chasing the summer around to produce farm dinners. We’ve been living in eternal sunshine (with some pretty interesting tan lines to prove it) and operating completely in the moment. Whether we were following crowds during farm tour, evaluating dinner timing and plating, or mapping out the next drive, it was impossible to think much farther ahead than the next course, the next dinner, the next sunset over that distant horizon. Then, suddenly, we packed our bags and boarded planes that took us to different cities where we found ourselves on our own once again, no longer entangled with the schedules or needs of others, suddenly responsible for only ourselves.
Meanwhile, across most of the country, it got cold! It’s decidedly fall – more dramatically so than expected, even after our last few dinners where we were sure to break out the fire pits and pass around blankets. Coastal California is strange that way; its weather only whispers of the season to come through the relative thickness of the morning fog that forces you into several layers, the slight weakening of the strength of the midday sunshine that causes you to strip down to shirtsleeves. It both shelters from the changing seasons and offers a little bit of each one throughout the day. I, however, came back to New England post-tour, which does not whisper but declares – sometimes quite loudly – that summer has come to an end. Where the trees were just dusting themselves in gold as we left our last East Coast dinners they are now standing naked in the wind, which seems to promise snow as it blows in after dark. The light during the day is decidedly blue, carrying none of California’s thick golden glow. It was (dare I say) shockingly dreary to come back to.
It’s a strange feeling to be winding down as everyone around you is gearing up for holiday festivities. I was still unpacking my bags as Thanksgiving approached, trying to remember standard meal times and recalibrate my sleep schedule. Everyone was asking about my plans and planning dinner parties, but I couldn’t help but think about how the last thing on my mind – for the first time in many months – was a dinner party. I am writing this two weeks to the day after my last event, but the whole experience has already taken on the fuzzy glow of a distant dream, gilded in the thick golden light of a California sunset. It is not lost on me that I’ve spent the last season of my life helping to put together some of the most memorable moments of countless others’, to the point where it all kind of blends together. For each of us on tour crew, there are countless moments that stick out – Chef Trevor grilling watermelon in calf deep Atlantic tidewaters, crossing I-80 on foot to get to the Bonneville Salt Flats, the dinner our satellites cooked us at the Petaluma KOA, skunks eating our gummi bears at the campsite in Martha’s Vineyard, the Texas shaped waffles at that hotel in Austin, that sunset, that sunset, that sunset….somehow, even the remarkable moments start to become difficult to disentangle from each other. In working to create a dream for others a few times a week, it seems we built a bit of a dream world for ourselves – a collection of surreal moments shaped by six strangers brought together by their passion for food and farms, and their (mostly) unwavering commitment to making the most of the experience.
For me, right now, making the most of the experience is drinking an espresso martini and eating takeout tiramisu in the hotel room I am sleeping in blissfully alone before moving into my new apartment tomorrow. As we move into the holiday season – a time full of unforgettable moments, and the pressure to make them so, may I share with you a little bit of perspective from the other side of it all. While the grand dinners are wonderful, and those major celebrations certainly matter, some of the sweetest moments are those in between. So, if you find yourself on a coffee run for those up early cooking the holiday meal, or zoned out on the couch with an anonymous sports game chattering in the background, or spending the day alone by choice or by circumstance, I encourage you to look up and enjoy it. If you’re at a gathering, take in everyone around you. Catch a candid smile as they are deep in conversation, or a wistful gaze across the room as they try to catch a loved one’s eye. If you’re alone, breathe in the invitation of this season: to turn in, to slow your pace, to hunker down. Knowing that, you are far from alone. There are at least six other people out there, scattered around the country, sleeping in and savoring the quiet of an empty room.
While our dinners are on break for now, I invite you to host your own gatherings – whether they be for many or for just one or two – to celebrate the beauty of this particular season, its hearty bounty, and those gathered with you to take it in, together. We’ll be back in the New Year with opportunities to escape the cold (have you seen the winter tour schedule?), but for now, embrace it. Don’t let those memorable moments pass you by, they’re easy to miss in the thick of it all.
Moments before dessert was served on Tuna Harbor Dock in San Diego last week, all heads turned to the sky. The Falcon 9 rocket launched into the atmosphere on a mission to carry 53 satellites into orbit, leaving a vacillating cloud trail across the fading sunset.
While everyone else was looking up, a few of our servers quietly finished the ballet that caps off any field dinner: the final clear. If you’ve been at the table, you may have noticed it. Or you may have been too deep in conversation with your dining companions or busy taking in the view on your way to the restroom and missed the choreography. That’s kind of the point. It’s designed to look effortless, like a dancer throwing their leg into the air as if weightless. Like a many ton rocket launching into the far atmosphere, leaving only some pretty vapor behind.
After all three savory courses are served, when the guests at the table take a pause to savor the meal, the scenery, and the company, our service staff execute a complicated, synchronized, perfectly timed series of steps to clear and reset the table for dessert. Meanwhile, another team rushes to carefully wash every plate brought to dinner and set it on our plate display, ready and waiting by the time dessert drops for anyone that may need to leave.
Tour Crew works hard, don’t get me wrong. I’m writing this as my team is washing several loads of kitchen towels after a six hour drive and an hour and a half logistics meeting – and that’s on our day off. But we simply could not do it without our day staff. No – that’s not a good enough term for all they do. We call them “Satellites”, because like those launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, they orbit around Tour Crew (in their own vehicles) as we travel around the country. I’ve always loved the term. It’s much more poetic, much more fitting to the strange, unexpected beauty of our day to day life.
Some Satellites sign up for one day, some for several weeks, and some – when we are especially lucky – stay with us for entire legs of the tour. They camp at our host farms and cobble together a grand adventure of their individual making, punctuated by farm dinners. They show up early in the morning; shim tables until perfectly level (and double check that each one is just so); carry bins and wheel carts across rocks and through sand and over rolling hillsides sprinkled with dry cow pies (that they help remove later), and work long after dark to help clean it all up on the other side.
Photos by Justin Konicek
Midday, they go on break and come back miraculously refreshed and dressed in the season’s best farm fashions. As if they haven’t been at work since dawn, they greet you, seat you, serve you, and sweetly tell their best stories from the road. They take notes on the wine and the farms that grew the food and how it was prepared so that they can answer questions at the table. They carefully carry our lovely (but heavy) platters laden with abundance across uneven terrain to present you with a hot, delicious dish to share with new friends. The beauty is, Satellites learn something new every day, but sometimes those lessons are hard won—the road can be an unforgiving teacher. Often, the best part of their day is something they learn about you at the table. Every day, they make the almost impossible seem effortless. Like satellites in the night sky, they burn bright and beautiful, making it seem like magic that they drift across the sky so peacefully. But, behind the scenes, there is a complicated and delicate dance, and a lot of hard work necessary to keep things aloft.
“The beauty is, Satellites learn something new every day, but sometimes those lessons are hard won—the road can be an unforgiving teacher. Often, the best part of their day is something they learn about you at the table.”
As our tour is wrapping up, we have begun to say goodbye to many of our satellites. They spin out of our orbit and onto their next steps – some back home, where they will land back on solid ground; some onto new adventures, setting themselves adrift across new horizons; most don’t really know yet, inertia is as true for people as it is objects. With each goodbye, we can’t help but reflect on the fleeting and painful beauty of bonds built on the road. Whether through our morning intro circle questions or late night heart-to-hearts over staff meal, we’ve shared a lot with each other in these past few months.
If you’ve been to dinner this season, you’ve likely heard me talk about the ephemeral nature of farm dinner, and the bonds that endure long after dessert is served. Know that those bonds aren’t just forged across the table, but in beautifully tangled webs all around it. They burn brighter than the stars on a clear night – hopefully, some of them endure just as long.
All I can do is laugh as I walk the table, foamy grey clouds rolling away across the blue and gold horizon behind me, my brow still slightly damp from the rain falling earlier that day (or maybe that’s a little bit of sweat from the mad dash to set the table once the sprinkles stopped). Because it does feel like a little bit of magic, even from behind the scenes.
We talk a lot about the weather at Outstanding. We have to when we’re putting on over one hundred events all across the country, rain or shine. That means we watch the radars obsessively and check the weather on at least three different apps to get the most accurate forecast. Sometimes, we text Jim with dripping fingers from coastal Connecticut, where the cats and dogs have been coming down all day, in order for him to reassure us, all the way from Wisconsin, that the rain will clear up just in time for guests to arrive. Even though it may just start raining harder as you read that text, it’s best to trust. Jim seems to have a special handle on the weather, and he’s pretty much always right – much to the surprise of some skeptical farmers who ended up giving sun-drenched farm tours that afternoon in Connecticut.
I joked our entire way through the Northeast, if a farmer wants it to rain, all they have to do is book their Outstanding in the Field date – that will promise you at least a 60% chance. For a year of historic drought, we’ve seen our fair share of rain this season. It wasn’t just the Northeast, either, but across the country, from the cloyingly perfect double rainbow just before dessert, framed by the open barn doors at Tantre farms in Michigan to the surprise thunderstorm that drove guests under shelter for over an hour at Red Acres in Utah. Once the lightning cleared up enough for us to safely sit at the table, lined with pop up tents to keep things dry, we were able to serve dinner. Finally, the rain let up enough for staff to shuttle those popups off the table, tied together, in a “coordinated ballet of tent poles and no electrocution, like a beautiful symphony,” says Service Manager Brett Bankson.
We’ve set up tents in rice fields, decorated barns with wildflowers, poured rainwater out of our boots just before service, walked food from the field kitchen under umbrellas (always the over the food more than the people, to be clear) in the middle of the storm, and carried tables across apple orchards to bring dinner back outside once the rain has passed. We do whatever we can to bring the best experience possible, rain or shine. That means rain dinners are a lot of work for our team, physically and mentally. Despite the extra planning and the extra quad workout from trudging through the muck, there is a real magic to a rain dinner. They remind me that this thing we’re trying to do, this roving restaurant without walls, this traveling culinary circus, is pretty much impossible. But, that’s the beauty of the farm dinner. It’s gorgeous for its audacity, addicting in its whimsy. It’s a sunbeam in the face of a storm.
I’ve always loved the rain; the spontaneous drama of a summer thunderstorm that charges the air before it splits it in half, the lazy embrace of a drizzling late spring day, even the driving chill of that New England special, wintry mix, that traps you inside under a blanket for the entire day. Some of the coziest nights of tour have been spent reading in my tent – in the vineyards of Belden Barns in Sonoma, California or the KOA in Augusta, Maine – listening to the patter of raindrops against the expedition-orange rainfly, knowing my teammates are similarly snuggled in their matching tents all around me. Foggy, rainy mornings on site bring things into a different perspective, adding an intimacy to the day that we simply don’t get with bright sunshine. That carries into dinner, where the chatter echoes differently off barn walls and tent roofs than the open air, the cheers a little louder, forcing folks to lean in a little closer for their quiet conversations. The warm glow of oil candles along the table make the whole thing look like a cozy fireside chat, unwinding leisurely over a good meal.
“But, that’s the beauty of the farm dinner. It’s gorgeous for it’s audacity, addicting in its whimsy. It’s a sunbeam in the face of a storm.”
While I know not everyone loves a rain dinner like I do, I can tell you the farmers certainly agree with me. They may prefer the rain fall on a different night, but as their wells run low and fire risks continue to rise, they certainly aren’t complaining about a little sprinkle during dinner. As I am writing this, we are driving up I-5 in California to kick off the final leg of tour. I can’t help but be struck by the brittle landscape. The subtle sage I know the California hillsides to be has crisped to a warm gold. Another part of our team is barely outrunning hurricanes across the gulf, starting their final leg of tour alongside what promises to be one of the most severe storm seasons of our lifetimes. For a team that makes the outdoors both our home and our workplace, it is impossible not to notice these changes. So, we celebrate the rain that falls during dinner. We cheers to a drought-breaking storm and to the clouds clearing just in time for sunset with equal vigor. And we continue to listen to our farmers, the tireless stewards of the beautiful land they let us on, as they tell us about their present struggles and dreams for the future. Because you have to trust the people who know, even if their plans seem outlandish, even if what they are doing seems impossible.
Recipe from our own service manager, Brett Bankson
8 cups densely packed german chamomile** (or 32 bags [or 4/3 cup looseleaf] chamomile tea)
12 cups water
6 cups rice vinegar
3 cups granulated sugar
3 tbsps kosher salt
16 footlong tender-skinned cucumbers
Large bottle of sparkling water
First, make the salted german chamomile shrub
Add your chamomile in a pot, cover with water *just* to submerge and barely float the chamomile, add in half the water volume of rice vinegar (I prefer rice vinegar for shrubs and pickles in general, but any vinegar you have on hand that plays well with other flavors, such as champagne or sherry, would work perfectly for this application. Remember – you’re going to be drinking this!). Add sugar and salt.
Bring ingredients to a gentle boil, then reduce and simmer with lid partly ajar for 25 minutes. Your shrub will have reduced somewhat, taken on a golden-verging-on-chartreuse color, and become glossy.
Strain chamomile solids and let shrub chill. Flavor and overall experience will amplify as chilling occurs, so please let your shrub sit in the fridge for at least overnight!
Then, juice your cucumbers
This part is pretty simple; wash, peel, and puree / juice cucumbers. Go ahead and juice 16 large cucumbers – you’ll have 2 quarts of juice and no regrets. Cucumber juice is a joy and will make everyone around you really happy. Strain if needed to yield the most demure, jade-colored juice.
Chill until ready to serve.
To make your spritz…
Mix 1 part very chilled shrub, 2 parts very chilled cucumber juice, and a cute, heavy floater of sparkling water together.
If you really like the flavor of your shrub and your juice, go ahead and opt for unflavored! Polar Seltzer, Topo Chico, anything with vigorous bubbles and a violent, mineral-present mouthfeel would be appropriate for this beverage. If you’d like to add a little something extra, then pick a nicely flavored sparkling water – ginger, lemon, peach, pamplemousse, lime. Play with it, see what works best for you!
Tips on foraging chamomile
**If foraging, look for German chamomile vs. its (less common) cousin, Roman chamomile. German chamomile is an annual that grows up to 24” as a spindly, sparse, effloresced shrub, whereas Roman chamomile creeps perennially along the ground with bushy, thick, dill-like fronds. If foraging your own German chamomile is not possible – totally understand – then store-bought loose-leaf chamomile tea is perfectly suitable for the shrub!
When I use foraged chamomile, I just cut a big basketful, then trim off peripheral root endings and any dead fronds, soak the big mess in water for 10 minutes to let sediment descend, then cut everything into about 6” segments, to fit comfortably in a big pot. — Brett
The quality of quirkiness is something deep in the DNA of OITF:
Why bring your own plates?
Why set a table in the rising tide?
Why schlep our story-telling ingredients so far over hill and dale?
Why choose to do the difficult when there is often a pretty darn easy version right there in front of us?
Perhaps the epitome of an excess of quirk is traveling America in our 1953 bus, Outstanding.
It for sure doesn’t get us where we are going any faster. There is definitely an easier way, or at least a more reliable one. Breakdowns are good for stories, but how many stories do you need? Is the dashing design and color, that soupçon of style, really that important?
It, perhaps, takes more than a surplus of whimsy to motivate such irrational journeys, but I believe it says something when the bus stops by for dinner. The presence of a 34 ft red and white portable sausage-shaped rolling home-away-from-home is a statement: expect surprises, expect effort, and expect to not know what to expect next.
This season’s journey cross country started in California in mid-July, with a choice of route: to arrive at the first stop in Utah, Sara and Symbria’s Red Acre Farm, with a fully functioning moving antique meant choosing the route with the least hills. That meant the desert route, being the lowest, which meant often traveling in the cool of night. The bus is vulnerable to overheating. Each of the 5 major hills required strategy to surmount the heights. The usual method was to make it half way up a particular mountain, begin to overheat, pull over, let the engine cool down for 45 min in order to make it to the top and coast down the other side. Soon, the bus and I arrived in Utah, greeted by whoops and hollers of Sarah and Symbria and dinner in the field.
“…expect to not know what to expect next.”
A journey across America means a lot of fuel stops, which leads to the inevitable questions, “what is that?” and “how old is it?”. The answers are always the same but the people are different; although, they are also on a journey. My curiosity is always piqued by unusual scenery, so we have a long conversation to commence before satisfaction results on both sides. Questions are lobbed and answered. Each journey continues.
Returning to places seen before means revisiting those important people that helped pave the way to get this far: stopping to see tour veteran Niki Heber cooking in a field in Minnesota at Tangletown Gardens. This time he was our guest chef, not schlepping tables and chairs or expediting, as were his tasks ten years ago, in 2012 and 2013.
Yes, there are always hugs and smiles as we reunite, but there are lots of stories to tell, too. The memories of just how hard it was (and it is) to make this trip to be here to celebrate now are as much a part of the journey as anything else. Each time the bus comes to dinner, there are more to share, more to celebrate. Then, the journey continues…