I’ve always been fascinated with how people construct communities for themselves. Certainly many atheists have wrestled with how to create communities without the trappings and shackles of untrue supernatural claims.
Well, this past weekend I got to enjoy one way that people are finding to connect with each other without religion.
Let Us Assemble Together.
Farmers have been getting very sophisticated of late in marketing themselves and reaching consumers. In most cities–even in my relatively small one–there are Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups that people can subscribe to in order to get a mostly-random box of fresh, locally-grown food delivered to them on a regular basis (I’ve done this and really liked the experience). Farmer’s markets are growing in popularity around the nation as well.
People in Europe might consider everything discussed here as “just grocery shopping,” but this is a major development in America, dominated as it is by huge industrial farms and massive livestock operations. And it’s not even that I think those huge farms or livestock operations are even evil in and of themselves–obviously a lot of people depend on and appreciate the inexpensive food produced in this way–but it can be really fun to connect directly with the people who are growing one’s food and to enjoy a meal that is so fresh that its ingredients were oinking or in the ground just the day before.
One of those ways to connect and try new things is the growing farm-to-table movement.
The term “farm-to-table” can mean a lot of things. It can mean generally locally-sourced food, meaning the food was grown or raised near the point of purchase, or it can mean that the food was bought directly from the source (from the rancher or farmer), or–in the “purest” form of the word and what happened this weekend–it means that the food is being served and eaten on a table that is physically located on one of the farms that produced the food and ideally even eaten with the people who produced some of it.
The businesses that grow and provide the food for these events–because make no mistake: the really good ones are definitely events in every single sense of the word–are usually very small family farms. The venues are picturesque and well-appointed. The produce and animals tend to be heirloom varieties that are packed with flavor and of the most astonishing texture and color; the vineyards and wineries that provide the drinks are smaller-scale producers who knock themselves out to bring their very best to the evening. And the chefs who make the food tend to be up-and-coming artists who are very passionate about what they’re sharing.
These dinners are a labor of love, and that love shows in every way.
The Scent of Concord Grapes.
Mr. Captain and I almost didn’t make it. I threw my back bad while showering that morning (I still haven’t got a clue what I did; welcome to my world) and spent the early afternoon in a haze of pain and barely able to breathe. Thankfully, I was at least mostly-ambulatory by evening and I could make it through the magic of pharmaceuticals. That dinner was actually most of the reason we’d taken the trip to begin with, so I didn’t want to miss it.
Mr. Captain grew up in this area and knows it well. He’s a farm boy through and through, and as one notices in a lot of guys with his background, most of his adult life has been a journey away from those beginnings. I’m more of a city girl with hippie leanings. So while I was all eyes staring out the window of the tour bus that was our transportation to the venue, he settled back for the ride.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” I whispered at one point to him.
He gave one of those low laughs of his. “If you see anything pretty out here, Cas, it’s because people planted it there.”
“That’s what’s so beautiful about it, though,” I said. “A bunch of people came out here and saw this desert and said, ‘We should totally plant farms here.’ They made it this green.”
He gave me a strange look and started paying more attention to the scenery we were passing.
When we got there, we found a long series of tables and chairs made up with runners and covers, with vases of flowers and ice-cold glasses of water at each place setting.
The day was very warm, but a cool breeze wafted past us very suddenly–bearing a familiar scent of sweet candy.
“What is that scent?” I asked.
One of the hosts pointed right across from me. “Those are Concord grapes,” he said.
I’d never seen them growing on the vine. They look exactly like you’d likely expect–like bright-colored violet spheres on dark green leaves. I wasn’t the only one fascinated–enough people were curious about them that the host of the dinner–and owner of that vineyard–took us on a tour of the place. His pride and pleasure at having such a lush, healthy farm shone with his every word and movement. He loved this place. That was very clear.
At first, Mr. Captain was not enthused about taking a tour. “I grew up in country like this,” he said bluntly. “All I see when I look at vineyards is acres of grapes to succor and spiders goddamned everywhere.” But he went along to humor me.
Afterward, we chatted up the chef when he got a few moments to breathe. He had a big prep area set up on the lawn nearby, all ready with plates and bowls and goblets. He was very excited about the dinner to come–and when he heard that I had made dolmathes before, got really animated in discussing their ins and outs (his take on it was vegetarian, with rice, grapes, and goat cheese all wrapped in fresh leaves and then smidged with rosewater–and they were very good). At one point he laughed and told us listening folks that really, people shouldn’t be scared to cook for chefs because if they didn’t have to cook it themselves, they will probably love it. (To which I can only say, as a Southern born and bred, CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.) Basically, if Mark Deklin had developed a sudden intense passion for artisan foods, he’d be this guy.
Framed by the vineyards growing all around us and bathed in the scent of what one can only call purple grape jelly, we finally took our seats.
There was something else that very much needed to be done.
A Circle of Friends, Suddenly.
It was clear that most of the guests at the dinner were members of little social cliques. There was a group of older women there who were clearly out on a Girls’ Night Out, a few couples like I was in, and a few bikers. I don’t think there were any singletons; this evening was part of a social event for them just as it was for me. All of those groups kept to themselves even on the ride up there.
But the hosts had something up their sleeves.
“Come and gather in a circle,” they said, rousting everyone up out of their seats.
Of course, being a non-believer in an area that’s kinda heavy on belief, I immediately dreaded what was coming. I don’t need to tell you what my concern was, do I? A prayer. JFC, I really don’t want to stand for any amount of time and I really don’t want to pray. A million sudden misgivings welled up in me: these people looked pretty firmly religious, and I was there as a guest.
A lot of the people there didn’t seem all that inclined either to do what the hosts wanted, but group expectations are very powerful. Almost everyone did except a few folks who had trouble moving around or standing for long periods of time (which included me at that point, alas, but I promise that is the only reason I didn’t do it; Mr. Captain made do for us both).
Then something remarkable happened.
Twenty-five people who didn’t know anybody else from Adam’s housecat got up, made a big circle, joined hands, and recited a short and completely non-religious benediction. The people organizing it thanked everyone for coming, thanked the people who’d contributed to the feast, and offered their hopes that we all enjoyed ourselves. Then someone sang a very nice song about harvests and everyone sat down again. It was quite harmless, as these things go.
But observing from my vantage, I could see that something had happened in that few minutes.
Suddenly people were more animated. They talked with each other more and reached across to the other little social groups. They laughed and smiled at each other more. I saw a startling–and marked–difference in how people interacted.
When a guy in a Utilikilt* showed up around then with a great deal of social lubricant, he only hastened a process that was already well-underway.
Malbec and Tomatillos.
Every course was lovingly created, with each dish meant to be reminiscent of something nearby us. Every single bit of it had been in the ground or walking around the day before if not earlier that day. From soup to nuts, it had never been more than 10 miles away from where I was sitting. The winter squash had just ripened and the zucchini was just starting to fade, so we had a delicious, rich two-toned green-and-gold soup with both–and decorated with little tiny golden tomatillos nestled in their papery shells amid sage-infused crème fraîche. A fire had recently broken out across many acres of the hills around there and still smoldered in places, so the chef had decided to incorporate the “scorched earth” theme in a burned-grape barbecue sauce adorning the roast vegetables. And nothing tasted as good on that crisp almost-fall evening as those thick pork chops rubbed with pumpkin-pie spices and looked after by diced-pear compote.
With every course, the chef came over to the table from his prep area to explain what we were getting and why he’d chosen what he had. Diving into the mind of an artist is fascinating at any time, but when it’s a chef, I submit that it’s even more so.
Through it all, the vintner in the Utilikilt whisked past the tables. He’d glance at what we were eating and finagle free one of the half-dozen bottles he was carrying. “You’re on the pork? Here, try it with this Malbec.” When the pound cake with raspberries and drizzled salted caramel sauce was served, he poured forth a rich, deep-red port. We tried wines I’d never heard of made from varieties of grapes I’d never heard of, some with grapes that are next to impossible to find in that state. They were all stunning–and the sheer passion of the winemaker made them all even better. (I wish I wasn’t such a lightweight–and making matters worse, I know better than to drink a lot if I’ve had any medications for pain. So I couldn’t have nearly as much as I wanted.)
Mr. Captain became relaxed and easygoing and languid, as did I, as the evening progressed. We weren’t the only ones, either. When finally the darkness began to fall in earnest and we all trooped onto the bus to go home, the atmosphere was very different than it had been on the ride up. It felt like we were reluctantly pulling away from some luscious berry-stained fairy-land.
We were the only guests there who weren’t local, but by the dinner’s end everyone else had already made plans to meet up again and reserve the next dinners as soon as possible. Many had gained a fresh inspiration to learn to cook or if they already knew how to cook, to cook more often and to use those local, fresh ingredients where possible.
And every one of us had decided we’d kill or die for the recipe for that soup. (No word yet on whether the chef will share that recipe.)
Through Their Eyes.
On the way up there, the people on the bus had been tentative–uncertain–around each other. But now everybody clustered together in their seats and drank the goblets of wine they’d taken with them. They passed around their phones to show off their pictures of pets and children–bright still images that lit up the darkness–and they sang silly songs. Email addresses and phone numbers circulated around. If you’ve ever gone to an especially awesome summer camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about here when I say the mood was perfect camaraderie.
A fresh burst of laughter broke out as someone described some particularly ferocious thing her chihuahua had done earlier that day.
“It is beautiful,” said Mr. Captain suddenly beside me.
“What is?” I asked. He was looking out the window past me, but we could hardly see anything outside except darkened farms and the occasional street lamp or lit window, whisking past as the bus rolled onward.
“This.” He gestured out the window. “I never saw that before. But you’re right. It is. Look at all these people. They’re friends now. All those farmers who love what they’re doing. That chef who just wanted us to see all that food the same way he did. The hosts who set up the perfect dinner and fussed about every single detail to make it perfect. I finally saw it through your eyes, through their eyes.”
He shook his head in wonderment. “It’s not the land itself that’s so beautiful. It’s the people in it all coming together. I never noticed that until today.”
I leaned against him and we watched the world go by. In that moment, we were perfectly content. My husband had finally come home in a way that I’d never seen before, healed at last by the love of many people for the land of his childhood.
People are beautiful. Put us in groups, give us a good reason to collide and share ourselves and our passions, and we’ll do it. You can’t really stop us. Maybe there was a time when I worried about how a post-Christian America could rebuild all those social ties, but I’m not worried, not anymore. It’ll maybe take time for us to figure it out, but we will. That night was a shining demonstration of that truth. Without a single mention of any deities or supernatural stuff, about 50 people all told met together that night and had an intense connection, a shared experience. Then they came away, some clearly changed for life.
But it gets better. That connection did more, accomplished more, meant more in that one evening than I think I saw in almost ten years of warming fundagelical pews in churches across the country. And that connection and change happened without the terrible drama that almost all of us have experienced at one time or another in churches.
I think we’re going to be all right, is what I’m saying, friends.
Yes, I really think so.
* I suspect all guys in Utilikilts of being Artor unless otherwise proven.