Pigs, Beer, Whiskey And Good Feelings At City Provisions Farm Dinner
By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 23, 2012 6:00PM
"This is everything we stand for, all in one day." That's what Cleetus Friedman, owner of City Provisions Deli, proclaimed at the start of our farm dinner adventure this past Saturday. We've written about farm dinners before, but this was the first time we got a chance to see one from start to finish. People often ask us: Farm dinners sound great and all, but how could they be worth the high price? Well, we found out. And if tons of pork, beer, whiskey, wine, a farm tour and live music don't do it for you, maybe the warm feelings around the bonfire late at night will.
We ambled over to City Provisions at noon on Saturday to find a huge charter bus waiting to take us all out to La Pryor farms in Ottawa, Ill. After a brief scare while trying to do a 180-degree turn in the narrow streets of Ravenswood ("I worked in airports, once upon a time," Friedman joked as he guided the bus around) we were on our way out to the country. Introductions and explanations were the first order of business. Friedman often talks about trying to create communities through food, but this was the first time we'd seen it in practice. Almost every person on the bus was connected to Friedman and his business: he'd catered their wedding; they were regular customers; they were friends of friends. One couple's mother went to work for Friedman after the wedding, because the experience was so great. Another guest has been to every farm dinner that Friedman has ever done.
"For all you virgins, be ready for a nice long day. I'm going to do my best to give you as much beer and food as possible." The City Provisions crew started making good on that promise about 15 minutes after boarding, as home-smoked ham sandwiches and beers were passed around the bus. The serving efforts of the staff were heroic, and the vast majority of items got into mouths without much spillage. The guys behind Greenbush Brewing were along for the dinner, and the beer flowed freely, starting with Traktor, "A Kitschy Kream Ale."
After about 90 minutes, we miraculously arrived early. Friedman and company were astonished that we actually made it. "This is the first time we haven't gotten lost!" exclaimed Friedman. "Once we ended up in Wisconsin." Everyone disembarked to find cheerful farmers, a table of drinks already set up and a hay wagon waiting to take us on a tour of the farm. Kristine Sherred, the representative from Koval Distillery, started shaking up some cocktails while Mark and Kristin Boe, the owners of La Pryor Farms, introduced us to the property.
La Pryor is primarily a pig farm, though they also raise cattle, grow corn, soybeans and some vegetables on the property. While their farmhouse is modern, the rest of the farm is pure storybook, with a garden, fields of crops and baby pigs wandering in the pastures. La Pryor only raises pure-bred pigs, Hampshires and Durocs, and they feed them only non-GMO corn and feed. "We have assembled genetics that make for the best eating animals in the entire world," bragged Mark as a farm dog played with his shoelaces. The pigs roam the farm, wallow in the mud, and otherwise behave exactly as pigs do in children's stories. There's no leaky sewage lagoon, the farm doesn't smell bad, and none of the horror stories of industrial agriculture intruded on our perfect day. City Provisions gets a whole pig every week from La Pryor, and their pork would make up the bulk of our dinner.
The visit also put some things in perspective. "When people order a ham sandwich at the shop," explained Freidman, "and give us nasty reviews on Yelp saying I can't believe a sandwich cost $11, I want to introduce them to Mark and Kristin. I want to explain how we butchered the pig, made the mayo from scratch, bought the tomatoes from local farmers. When we run out of ham, we don't call a Sysco truck to bring more."
After a nice long tour where we learned far more about pig sperm then we ever thought we would—apparently it keeps, frozen, for decades—we got back to the house for dinner. The table was set for a feast, and City Provisions had transplanted all the fixings of a fine dining restaurant meal out to the country. Five courses of pork came out, each paired with a different Greenbush brew. Anyone who hadn't become friends during the tour quickly became friends during dinner, as the beer flowed and the glow that goes with great food settled over the crowd.
Once dinner had finished, diners retreated to the fire pit. Whiskey was poured, along with sparkling wines provided by Illinois Sparkling Company. Our musical entertainment for the evening, a fiddle and banjo duo, started letting their instruments chat back and forth. Friedman started a big fire in the pit, and everyone drank, talked and laughed for hours. We sneaked away to one of the nearby pastures, where a calf (born just as we pulled into the driveway) was already up and toddling around.
We're dedicated city dwellers; we don't kid ourselves that we could go live on the land. But once in a while, it's important to smell burning wood and watch animals run around the pasture. That's what a farm dinner is about: feeling, if only for an hour or two, like you are connected to the land that grows your dinner.
The next City Provisions farm dinner, with Q7 Ranch, 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and FEW Spirits, is on Aug. 18. Call (773) 293-2489 for more information or to make reservations.