Since the beginning of time, prairies have served a couple of very important purposes: to grow food and to feed people. When the Rock’s own Ebey’s Prairie, emerged as the Ice Age retreated more than 5,000 years ago, it was originally carved by the glaciers into a swampy lake. Then, gradually the soil rose to the surface — and what productive soil it turned out to be!
The indigenous First Nations people who arrived just as the ice was leaving quickly started harvesting and eating camas bulbs and bracken fern, among other edible local plants. Growing food and feeding people — that was Ebey’s Prairie’s first effort to prove its purpose.
With the arrival of the Euro-American farmers in the 19th century, agriculture soon covered the prairie with potatoes, wheat, squash and other crops. Now, 150 years later, our Rock has become a true foodie destination; people come from far and wide to enjoy what grows not only on Ebey’s Prairie but on farms all over the Rock.
That phenomenon was on unique and splendid display last week as an outfit called Outstanding in the Field paid a visit to the Scenic Isle Farm, now operated by Alix and Brandon Roos, and set up an outdoor dinner table for 160 guests in the middle of a large pumpkin patch.
Outstanding in the Field was created in 1999 and now hosts several hundred “dinners in the field” each year at farms, beaches, fishing docks, vineyards and elsewhere. Be warned: Its dinners are very expensive. The Scenic Isle Farm event cost $375 per person, with Alix and Brandon receiving just a modest stipend.
The event drew people from all over, some from as far away as California and Canada. Some of the attendees had been to several other Outstanding in the Field dinners across the nation; one woman said she’d been to more than 100.
The company’s staff of more than 30 workers showed up at the local farm in their trucks and RVs on the morning of the event, Thursday July 6. By the time guests started to arrive at 4 p.m., the crew had miraculously set up a very long table with linens, stemware and silver, put up a bar under tents to serve wine and cocktails, and established a portable kitchen to create passed hors d’oeuvres.
And, out in the pumpkin patch at the far end of the table for 160 guests, several large tents with all kinds of cooking equipment was being used to prepare the dinner. As it does at most of its events, Outstanding in the Field called on two notable local chefs to prepare the Scenic Isle Farm dinner: Tyler Hansen, former chef and owner at Coupeville’s Oystercatcher restaurant and now owner and baker at the town’s Little Red Hen Bakery; and Ben Jones, now the chef and co-owner of the Oystercatcher.
Dinner guests were able to see Hansen and Jones toiling mightily with their helpers to prepare a magnificent five-course meal that somehow was served in abundant quantity and on time. What was even more remarkable was that virtually all the food in incredible varieties was grown on Whidbey Island. The dinner was paired with Washington wines and cocktails using whiskey created by the Whidbey Island Distillery in Langley.
To tease your tastebuds, here is a brief menu for each of the five courses:
1—Marinated Penn Cove mussels mixed with radishes, turnips, fennel, garlic, pickles and a fresh tuna rillete.
2—A cold salad with fresh fava beans, peas, wild mushrooms and soft goat’s milk cheese.
3—A warm summer salad with marinated fresh salmon, beets, radishes, broccoli and carrots in a rosemary-corn broth.
4—Main course featuring chili-rubbed pork roast, Rockwell beans, marinated zucchini and pickled sun chokes, parsley and dill.
5—Dessert featuring lemon-poppy seed cake with strawberries, raspberries and whipped cream.
As I mentioned, the quantity of each was abundant and more than a few of us struggled to get up with our full bellies after the meal ended.
Even more than the incredible food, I was struck by how gorgeous Ebey’s Prairie was that afternoon. Most of us usually just drive through it quickly; granted, even with that fast forward view it’s beautiful. But it was much more magnificent as we sat in the pumpkin patch for almost five hours, admiring the dazzling colors on the land around us with the Olympics in the distance and the sun about to set above the ridge. That’s a treasured view that only the farmers usually get.
Alix and Brandon Roos are the third generation of the local Sherman family to operate the Scenic Isle Farm. They took it over last year from Dale and Liz Sherman, Alix’s uncle and aunt, who retired. They have continued growing mostly pumpkins and hubbard squash, a tradition established by Edwin Sherman, who bought the farm almost a century ago. Alix and Brandon have added Rockwell beans and some fresh vegetables including carrots and potatoes to their crops.
“I feel it’s a real privilege to continue this farm on this incredible prairie that has produced so much food for so many people,” Alix said. “This is a special place where my family’s ancestors settled in the 1890s. We were proud to have shared it with all 160 people who attended the dinner.”
And, 5,000 years after it was created, Ebey’s Prairie got a chance to really strut its stuff for a few hours on July 6.