HOMESTEAD — Under the wooden gazebo, centered on a long kitchen counter, sits a jackfruit. A big one, maybe 30 pounds, spiky and misshapen, medieval catapult ammo or the quiet beginnings of an alien invasion. Flanking it on either side are huge platters heaped with homemade organic ricotta cheese, caramel-colored squares of local honeycomb, walnut raisin toasts and vast piles of lemon-yellow jackfruit flesh, its floral fragrance somehow intensified by the inky night all around us. • The platters are passed and the beekeeper, Miguel Bode, teaches us how to eat what his bees have made. Let the comb sit on your tongue, honey trickling out; don't chew or your teeth will feel waxy. With it, we sip a sweet mango wine made down the street at Redlands Winery by Peter and Denise Schnelby. • The Schnelbys sit at a nearby table, clearly proud when people compare the wine's perfume to muscat de Beaumes de Venise. • This is the farmers' night, after all. More than 100 people sit in a makeshift dining room at the center of Paradise Farms in Homestead. Each has paid $200 to enjoy local foods produced by local farmers, all crafted into a five-course, family-style meal by Miami chef Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. It is Florida's first Outstanding in the Field dinner.
A new connection
Last week's dinner was Jim Denevan's 107th Outstanding dinner. In 1998, the young chef at Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz, Calif., got a big idea. What if local farmers were brought into restaurants, cooked what they grew and then spoke directly to the dining public?
"If diners and chefs were more in touch with where food comes from, cooking might be a lot more interesting," Denevan said, still believing in his initial premise 10 years later.
In 1999, Denevan took it a step further, inviting dinner guests to tramp through the fields with the farmers before sitting down at tables set up in the fields. The farmers told their stories, sharing their enthusiasm for the earth's munificence. Half performance art, half dinner — it was the beginning of the "locavore" movement.
Denevan, also an acclaimed "land artist," using Pacific beaches as a canvas for monumental sand art, took his ideas on the road. He bought a 1953 Flxible bus and started spending four months of each year driving around North America, connecting diners and local farmers. At first it was a harder sell, requiring a bit of explanation. These days, he said, it's a whole lot easier. Of the 28 new dinners that were announced on March 20, 10 sold out that first day. He continues to draw full fields even in a shaky economy.
Denevan, cowboy-hatted, flip-flopped and in need of a shave, is a locavore rock star.
Before dinner, Gabriele Marewski leads us through Paradise Farms. She points out a cotton candy fruit tree. She is our Willy Wonka; we follow behind snaking out greedy hands to pluck a berry. Cranberry look-alikes, they taste of marshmallows and Pez. We munch yellow hemp blossoms and tie fronds of citronella around our necks to ward off the dusk's skeeter onslaught. All around us gnarled avocado trees stand sentinel, reclaimed by Marewski when she bought the abandoned avocado farm more than a decade back.
These days the microgreens, edible flowers, herbs, heirloom tomatoes and exotic fruits and vegetables grown on her 5-acre, certified organic farm are sold to Miami's top restaurants. Having heard about Outstanding in the Field years ago, she started her own Dinners in Paradise series, drawing chefs and foodies from Miami and other chic urban centers to the northeast to this rural, largely agricultural town, its biggest claim to fame having been the site of some of Hurricane Andrew's most fierce walloping.
The crowd tramping the soft earth with me is well-heeled and well-traveled. Allergist Roy Krochmal and his interior designer wife, Susan Gordon, live in Pinecrest; their friends, cardiologist Ron Gelles and his wife, Nancy, hail from swishy Grove Isle, a private island not far from downtown Miami. These are not organics or local-food zealots, but sophisticated diners smitten with chef Michael Schwartz's Design District restaurant. They are here for him, but they marvel at Paradise Farms' flash-fried malabar spinach (a sweet, climbing succulent) and the four varieties of heirloom eggplant from neighboring Bee Heaven Farm that star in huge tureens of caponata.
The last cookie eaten with the dregs of fizzy Brachetto d'Acqui, Michael Schwartz offers a benediction of sorts. He cocks an eyebrow, raises an index finger and intones, "Eat local." We all laugh, before using our feeble cell phone lights to guide us out of the farm and back to our cars.
Eat local? Why, that's the most natural thing in the world.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.