Simple, Enlightening, and Tasty Earth Day Community Dinner at the Birchwood

Last Sunday night's Earth Day Community Dinner at the Birchwood Cafe was an event for the ages.

It wasn't just the food that made it that way, although the exceptional four-course menu (and appetizers) created by chef Marshall Paulsen featured pork belly, fiddle head ferns, beef tongue, and more (most foods purchased directly from local farmers). It wasn't just the music performed by Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers either, although that was terrific too. It wasn't just the lovely dining room, which was decked out with the Birchwood's Sunday best.

It wasn't even just the farmers, Jack Hedin from Featherstone, Greg Reynolds from Riverbend, and Andy Peterson from Peterson's Limousin Farms, who spoke eloquently and compellingly about the work they do, why it matters to them, and why it should matter to us. 

Pork Belly & Skins - soft polenta, fiddle head ferns, hazelnuts, apple & cinnamon salad, balsamic brown butterPork Belly & Skins - soft polenta, fiddle head ferns, hazelnuts, apple & cinnamon salad, balsamic brown butterWhat made last week's Earth Day dinner so amazing was the sold-out crowd that came ready to engage -- with our food, with each other, with our farmers, and with the issues at stake. This year, we celebrated Earth Day by talking about what it means, and about why we should care.

Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood, welcomed the crowd, which had been milling about while sipping homemade rhubarb ginger ale with Prairie Organic Vodka and snacking on Oysters Rockefeller, pig head terrine, artichoke dip, and portabella pate. Tracy let us know that we'd be listening to farmers, drawing prizes (including an hour of free Shine Health Counseling, maple syrup and honey from Sapsucker Farms, a copy of the new Cooking Up the Good Life cookbook (which author Jenny Breen was there to autograph), and a free year of Nice Rides), and eating lots of good, local things.

When it was my turn to speak, I told the crowd how my almost-6-year-old daughter described Earth Day ("it's the day when you find a cigar on the ground and you put it in the trash, and then you wash your hands") and then made a plea (which I'm doing again right here, right now) to support the earth by buying your food directly from your farmers. All sorts of great resources exist to help you do this, including our very own directory.

But it was the farmers in attendance who stole the show. If you've never been to a local food event, you might be surprised. In our little world, farmers who work the land in sustainable ways -- and actually grow edible food -- are treated like rock stars. As they should be.

Jack Hedin gave a short talk before our second course (Hidden Stream Farm pork belly for the meat eaters, pasta for the vegetarians), describing his goals for Featherstone Farm, including the use of new solar panels. An investment group is being pulled together to support this goal, and from the looks of the sign up sheet that was passed around at the event, there's a lot of interest. Jack earned a big round of a applause when he told the crowd that "for the first time, after 15 years of farming, we'll actually be building new soil this year -- not just maintaining it." Jack is a true visionary -- each time I hear him speak, I leave smarter, inspired, and impressed. (Featherstone Farm is where I get my vegetables, by the way, and there are still CSA shares available for this coming season.)

Rock stars Jack Hedin and Greg Reynolds answer questionsRock stars Jack Hedin and Greg Reynolds answer questionsAndy Peterson spoke next, before the third course (beef and chicken bits (heart, tongue) for the meat eaters, spinach souffle for the vegetarians). It was a real treat to hear from Andy, a third generation limousin beef farmer, as he described the Limousin breed, its appearance, and its history. Andy also spoke about what cattle do to renew the soil -- it's always good to talk about poop when you're eating a nice meal. The Petersons sell their beef at the Birchwood, at Heartland in St. Paul, and directly to consumers.

Greg Reynolds, organic vegetable farmer, school food advocate, and amazingly nice guy, spoke last, just before we ate our delicious dessert (grilled honey sponge cake with raspberries, Riesling syrup, and orange whipped cream). Greg is experienced and incredibly smart, earning big rounds of applause for his work with the Hopkins School district (where he sells vegetables and advocates for good, real food) and also for his concern for the environment. "We only have one earth," Greg said, it's up to us whether we choose to renew it or to destroy it. (Greg's Riverbend Farm has sold out its 2011 CSA shares, sorry!)

I was happy to see so many friends -- and also so many new faces -- at the Earth Day Community dinner, and I was excited to be part of the important dialog that took place last Sunday night. I was full from all the delicious, local food we ate, of course. But even more so, I was full of ideas, excitement, and inspiration. The Earth Day Community dinner was a great starting point for many of us, but the discussion needs to continue -- I'm already hungry for more.

Photos from this year's Birchwood Cafe Earth Day Community dinner courtesy of David Owen.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

One more thing! I'm happy to announce that Arpita from Thought + Food has won our Organic Valley Earth Dinner contest. Thanks to everyone who participated!


Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at