Photo by Katherine Harris
Wise Acre Eatery
As I was getting all excited about farm season, I got to thinking about how we’ve fully accepted and absorbed the term “farm-to-table” in the food scene. But really, what does it mean? Clearly most food is grown on farms and somehow it always seems to end up on tables, but the term has come to mean more . . . and also less.
The phrase was coined a few years back to help define a movement that champions the relationships being built between local farms and restaurants. It came to represent eateries that showcased the farms and their ingredients as important contributors to the dining experience. Diners, who were already becoming more savvy about food choices, saw this as a connection to quality, thereby bestowing a “better than” pedigree upon the establishments with farm-to-table reputations. And so, “local/natural/sustainable/organic” became ever-present, coveted buzz words that simultaneously give and lose context. Because when a new restaurant touts local, farm-fresh asparagus in December and 7UP soda markets itself as a natural product, what does anything mean anymore?
Well, despite the gimmicky hijacking, the movement is real, and there is more quality in local food now than even 10 years ago. For that you can thank eaters who get excited by farms. It’s more than a fad. As the ultimate example of a real, honest-to-goodness farm-to-table restaurant in town, Wise Acre Eatery in Minneapolis, is directly and fatefully tied to its own fourth-generation Minnesota farm in Plato.
Chef Beth Fisher is charged with planning her restaurant’s food and lifecycle by the crops and herds that thrive on the farm. How are the hogs doing? Looks like a good year for pork dishes. If they can’t get enough steers to the butcher this week, there may not be burgers, so they’ll have to stretch with beef stew. There’s no fish on the menu, because they don’t grow fish on the farm. (Now, there is coffee and sugar as part of their larder, but they make sure it is all organic and comes from Co-op Partners.) Spring is hard, because people are desperate for fresh foods, and Fisher’s root cellar is almost bare, so she hauls out whatever she canned or froze at the end of the summer just to give a glimpse of hope. She likes the challenge and says it pumps her creativity.
“When we have a bumper radish crop, all of a sudden I’m pickling 5-gallon buckets full of radishes and re-reading every recipe I can get my hands on for ideas,” she says. That’s farm-to-table. It’s taking the lumps of a wet season and losing your leeks along with deciding, with your farmer, to raise Red Ranger chickens this year to see how they taste. It’s not about slapping some names and words on a menu, it’s about humbly letting nature rule the roost.
Thankfully that high bar has been set, and while all restaurants can’t afford to go the route of owning a farm, Fisher is proving that it can work and people will come. When buzz becomes habit, that’s when a culture shifts.