How am I going to do the Farm Dinner justice? - the nagging voice inside my head.
I have been dreading this post. I am not a food writer or photographer. In fact I am not even a "real" writer. I am just an average guy, interested in slow food and farming. For the past two weeks a small nagging voice in my head keeps asking me the same question. "How am I going to do the farm dinner justice?"
Fortunately, while I may not be a real writer, Slow Food South Texas is now blessed with a real photographer. Jennifer Whitney, photographer extraordinaire, was gracious enough to volunteer her talents at the farm dinner. All the photos in this post are courtesy of her have been clearly marked so in the captions. Thankfully what I lack in writing ability she clearly makes up for with her skills as a photographer. Oh, and her presence also allowed me to sit and enjoy my dinner while she took the photos, and for that I am extremely grateful.
I arrived to South Texas Heritage Pork a few hours before the guests. I had planned on helping out with what I expected was going to be last-minute details. What I found was a smoothly running operation. Mark and Kelley Escobedo, Chef Steve McHugh and his team from Lüke, Eugene Simor from Alamo Beer, along with a few members of Slow Food had already taken care of everything, and I mean everything.
The lawn was a vibrant green and perfectly manicured. Mesquite smoke slowly swirled out of the bar-b-q pit where andouille sausage and pork shoulder had been smoking over low heat for hours. The rooster gumbo simmered in the large cast iron cauldron while the laying hens who had escaped the butcher's knife roamed the yard foraging for insects and grubs. When I walked inside the house, the kitchen was already humming with activity as Chef's team began preparing for service. It was obvious that I was surrounded by a professional team, and that my talents were not needed. So instead of getting in the way, I went back out to the porch, grabbed a beer, and took a seat in the shade. I was determined to pass the time gracefully, while enjoying the view of the Escobedos' Large Black hogs on lush green pasture, dotted here and there with a splash of color from the occasional wildflower.
The guests began arriving a few hours later and I must admit it was entertaining to watch them go through the same initial reactions that I had on my first visit to South Texas Heritage Pork. The first noticeable reaction happens while they are still in their car. As the guests' cars came into view, their speed consistently slowed, as the driver and the occupants rubber-necked to get a better view of the pigs in the pasture. Once they were safely parked, the next reaction was almost as predictable, and usually consisted of a deep inhalation of the fresh country air. Finally, after two or three of these inhalations, the guests would often utter the words, "no smell" in disbelief as if they were not sure they could trust their noses. "Am I really at a working hog farm?" their faces tacitly asked. Once it all set in - the vibrant green, the lack of nefarious smells, the beauty of sustainable farming - they allowed themselves to unknowingly join me, by being poured an Alamo beer while committing to gracefully enjoying the view.
As the last few guests arrived, the hors d' oeuvres began to make their appearance. The first one I tried was the deviled eggs with crabmeat. I am not going to lie. I am not a mayonnaise fan, and I have met many a deviled egg that I didn't care for; Chef Steve McHugh's however, were divine. The eggs were cooked to perfection and the crabmeat added a nice touch of brine while the mayonnaise was applied with a light touch, to not over power the mild crab flavor. Next came the ox tail sliders. I am a sucker for anything braised; the lower, the slower, the better - and the sliders didn't disappoint. It was the perfect marriage of umami meatiness served on a soft semi-sweet bun, and was ultimately complimented by a few sips of the Alamo Golden Ale. Finally, the crackling encrusted oysters made their debut. Again Chef McHugh nailed the balance of flavors with a thin coat of breading covering the large oysters.
During the hors d' oeuvres Mark and Kelley Escobedo called their hog herd over and gave the guests an opportunity to feed the hogs sweet potatoes while they gave a short overview of their farm and answered questions. As the hogs trotted down the narrow pathway between the oat and native pastures, you would have thought it was the red carpet at the Grammys. Guests whipped out cameras of all shapes and sizes as they snapped photo after photo. One of the sows even decided to show off a little for the crowd and began nursing her litter of piglets only a few feet from the fence.
Clockwise from upper left: Guests enjoy the combination of Chef Steve McHugh's hors d' oeuvres, Alamo Beer, conversation, and the vistas at South Texas Heritage Pork. One of Mark and Kelley Escobedos' sows shows off her piglets to the guests. Large Black Hogs feasting on sweet potatoes. Zydeco music provides a vibrant soundtrack to the evening's dinner. Photos courtesy of Jennifer Whitney.
After the short farm tour and introductions it was time for the 1st course. The guests were seated family style under the gazebo, and after informal introductions between neighbors, the tables were soon abuzz with conversation. The first item to make its appearance was the house made pretzels, served with a whipped pork fat spread. Chef Steve McHugh mentioned that the spread's genesis stemmed from the desire to not waste any part of Mark and Kelley's superior pork. Regardless of Chef's reasoning, the only reason I needed was that my taste buds were screaming "Yummy!" The pork fat had been whipped with a hint of apple and cherry and was the perfect blend of smoky, savory and sweet. If no one had been looking I would have grabbed a stack of pretzels along with some whipped fat, and sat under the nearest tree, content to not eat anything but them for the rest of the evening.
The pretzels were joined by a house-made charcuterie consisting of a pâté, terrine, and head cheese served alongside house-made pickles, mustards and marmalade. These are words you don't often hear anymore in normal day-to-day eating, and I must admit that I was a little skeptical when they made their appearance. Again it only took a bite or two for the skepticism to be replaced by the now familiar sensation of my taste buds screaming "YUM!" My neighbors' reactions were similar to mine, and soon the gazebo was filled with chatter amounting to a collective "praise the lard."
Now it was time for the main course, rooster gumbo with smoked pork shoulder and andouille sausage. Chef had given me a sneak peek of the andouille sausage and pork shoulder in the smoker earlier in the day, and I had been saving my appetite for this dish. Ok, I had been trying to save my appetite for this dish. The gumbo was served with simple white rice, fresh heirloom tomatoes, black-eyed peas, collard greens and tasso cornbread. As if on cue, all conversation stopped as the gumbo was served. All that was heard, was the sound of silverware against china as the guests savored every morsel. At first taste, I was worried the gumbo might be a bit over-seasoned for my palate, but I happily found that balance was restored with the addition of the rice. Attempting to scrap every delicious bit from my dish, I looked around I noticed that not a single bowl at my table had any gumbo remaining, a true sign of a successful dish.
As the sun began to set it was time for the final course, sweet corn cake with buttermilk panna cotta and stewed Poteet, Texas strawberries. Once again, Chef McHugh and his team executed this dish perfectly. The not too sweet dessert was just the right finish to what in my book, was a perfect meal.
After the dinner, chef and his team received a round of applause from the appreciative guests. As is their custom, Mark and Kelley Escobedo graciously watched from outside the limelight, but it would have been just as appropriate if they would have stood up and taken a bow as well. By anyone's measure, the dinner was a success. Made possible through the hard work of Mark and Kelley Escobedo of South Texas Heritage Pork combined with the talents of Chef Steve McHugh and his team from Lüke.