Eight years ago, almost to the day, I had what remains the most incredible dining experience of my life, topping even a private dinner at a tango club in Buenos Aires – and no, I’m not making that up.
The winning event? Outstanding in the Field. (More on this, below – and there’s a pâté recipe at the very end, and it’s a good one.)
“Out in the Field” came to the Memphis area only this once (to be clear here: Oxford, MS and Nashville, TN are NOT in the direct Memphis area), and hasn’t returned. Unlike almost every other of the traveling tour’s event, the Memphis dinner did not sell out, so we haven’t made the list since 2013.
In the eight years since my initiation, I’ve followed the event the way some people follow bands. And now, to the delight of Jim Denevan fangirls everywhere, there’s a movie, and it premiers next Friday, September 24. I cannot wait.
After a grueling, horrible, stressful, anxiety-filled 18 months, just thinking about the beauty of Outstanding in the Field makes me weak in the knees. If I weren’t going to be out of town on October 10, you can bet your
bottom dollar sweet ass I’d be driving to middle Tennessee for the dinner in Smyrna at Bloomsbury Farm. And yes, I know, I know: it’s an outrageously expensive proposition, an indulgence that’s not even in the realm of possibility for most people. But, man, does this event deliver….
Whether or not you ever make it to one of Jim Denevan’s dinners, maybe you’ll at least watch the film and let yourself be amazed watching a guy – a true artist, in Avery sense – who’s spent the last 25 years or so chasing a completely crazy, beautiful dream. He holds a Guinness Book record, for Pete’s sake. At least give him a look.
And, from the archives, here’s what I wrote about Jim, and the event, back in 2013:
Originally published on on Eat something great in Memphis (a blog I started with great aspirations and then promptly (prematurely…) abandoned)
When he was a kid, Jim Denevan wanted to grow up to be a weatherman. It kind of worked out, he says, because watching the weather actually is an important part of what he does.
Holder of the Guinness Book record for the world’s largest artwork, Denevan is also creator of Outstanding in the Field, a farm to fork experience that has been touring the U.S. for the past decade. On October 10 Denevan and his crew of 10 brought their magic, and perfect weather, to the sunny fields of Delta Sol Farm in Proctor, Arkansas, 20 minutes from downtown Memphis. If we are lucky, they’ll be back next year despite the fact that their first Memphis stop was far from sold out.
It would be easy to write an entire post devoted either to the event tour or to Denevan himself, but doing so in the context of great food in Memphis would be a disservice to his real mission: reconnecting people to the source of their food. That OITF draws sell-out crowds in New Orleans and Santa Cruz might be expected, but they’re not here to crow about that. They’re in Memphis to connect us, real Memphis people, with the real food from our local farmlands. That just shy of 100 people paid $180 a ticket [2013 price] to spend the day eating on a local farm indicates that maybe the farm to fork movement has taken root in the Mississippi Delta.
In briefest form, an Outstanding in the Field event looks like this: the host farmer is the star of the show, the chef(s) supporting cast, the OITF crew the stagehands, and Denevan the man behind the curtain. Other local farmers make celebrity appearances, either in person or through credits on the menu.
While Denevan and OITF director Leah Scafe give a short welcome, accompanied by tasty appetizers and glasses of Prosecco, chefs are busy preparing a unique four-course meal, never to be repeated. For the Memphis/Proctor dinner those chefs include Kelly English, Andy Ticer, Michael Hudman, Jonathan Magallanes, Matthew Bell and Alexis Jones. Some of the food has been prepped in advance, but most comes together in the middle of the field, where signposts serve as make-shift burners atop an open pot fire. Appetizers include oxtail nilettes crostini, chicken liver pâté with roasted grapes & candied pecans, peanut celery soup, and mahi mahi ceviche on cornmeal crepe triangles.
All of that is just background. The main event is the tour of the property, led by farmer Brandon Pugh who is also, he tells the crowd, celebrating Delta Sol’s five year anniversary. After giving smokers firm instructions not to touch the tomato plants (tobacco mosaic virus threat), Pugh leads the 90 some-odd guests around his four acre, certified organic farm.
We meet the pigs and walk the winter field. We talk about the challenge of growing organic produce given the impressive number of local bugs. “Quick to harvest is the key,” Pugh tells us. “Think cucumbers and yellow squash. If it takes longer than that to mature, then the bugs eat it.” Strawberries are particularly tough, we learn, as Pugh proudly shows off the neat rows of tender plants he recently brought to Delta Sol from Jones Orchard. This note about sharing plant stock is not insignificant; local farmers are a familial bunch for the most part which is obvious on Saturday mornings at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market where Delta Sol has a regular stand.
At the end of the tour someone asks Pugh what’s most profitable for a farmer and what he’ll be selling next year. “Flowers,” he’s quick to respond. “People are funny when you tell them it’s $4 or $5 for a head of lettuce, but they won’t bat an eye at $15-20 for a bouquet of flowers.” The crowd murmurs at that, absorbing the reality of what he has said. We’ve all paid handsomely to be at this one day event. Many days ahead need to include $4 lettuce and $3 sweet potatoes and $7 lady peas if we’re really in for the long haul.
[Note added 2021: Both Delta Sol and True Vine farms are now gone. Farming is tough business, especially now.]
It’s finally time to sit at the long table, the moment everyone’s been waiting for. In an OITF tradition, guests have brought their own dinner plates. There are plenty of extras, however, if case someone forgot. The one-of-a-kind table array is perfect for the event, this slice of time that will never be duplicated or repeated in exactly the same way. When everyone is seated, after a toast to the host farmer and chefs, the food, wine and service don’t disappoint:
- Green chile & cactus tamal with queso chihuahua, spicy pickled carrot and toasted guajillo crema (Chateau de Parenchere Bordeaux Blanc 2011).
- Catfish hoppin’ john with tasso, pickled okra hush puppies and preserved tomatoes (Conde Villar Vinho Verde 2012).
- Duck leg, sea island red peas with duck ham, wood fired polenta, onion ragu, leek & broccoli rabe ((Montecillo Crianza 2009).
- True Vine Farms sweet potato & mascarpone pots de creme with fennel, whipped buttermilk & toasted Mississippi pecans.
The chefs don’t sign their dishes, although their individual flair comes through pretty clearly. It is unusual, Denevan told the group during the welcome, for there to be more than one chef, a vague and oblique acknowledgement of some lesson he learned during the past 10 years of touring. This Memphis event is different in that regard, and the obvious camaraderie of the multiple chefs shows that they and their cooking teams have enjoyed the day every bit as much as the guests have.
Great food has a way of doing that, of bringing people together. In Memphis, with an expanding network of farmers, chefs and cooks, that connection keeps us real.
Chicken Liver Mousse
Alexis Jones (Natchez Restaurant, Little Rock, AR – @ChefAlexisJones) [Note added 2021: I’ve looked for the talented chef who so generously shared this recipe, but unfortunately I can’t find her.]
1 Lb chicken livers cleaned*
2 oz grape seed oil
4 oz onions small diced
3 oz shallot minced
2 oz roasted garlic
3 T fresh thyme
3 oz brandy
3 oz sherry
8 oz butter, cubed
*Soak chicken livers overnight in buttermilk, helps draw out the iron taste
Heat oil, add onions, shallots, garlic, sweat together. Add livers and stir them while cooking, until they’re no longer pink. Be careful not to overcook. Add thyme; deglaze with sherry and brandy. Cook the alcohol out and add butter. Pulse mixture in food processor and push pâté through sieve or chinois. Serve on crostini We like using roast grapes and candied pecans as garnish but this can stand alone!
This post is 37/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.