Nosh Pit

The Nosh Pit: Pricey farm-to-fork dining vs feeding the wider community

Now’s the time of year when we see a glut of pricey farm dinners that most humble farmers could never afford. Sacramentans have shown there’s an appetite for exclusive farm-to-fork dinners, but that demand can vary widely, and filling seats isn’t always a cinch.

Tickets for the Sept. 28 gala dinner on the Tower Bridge, a $175-per-person meal that caps a two-week farm-to-fork celebration in September, sold out in less than five minutes. About 3,000 folks logged on to at 10 a.m. Monday in hopes of scoring some of the 400 tickets – the other 200 seats had been claimed in a pre-sale July 18 to sponsors who paid $5,000 for a table of eight.

On the other hand, organizers of a $150 farm dinner at Twin Peaks Orchard held Sunday in Newcastle slashed the ticket price to $100 in a last-ditch attempt to fill seats. Even with the price break, only 40 out of 60 tickets were claimed online before sales ended Sunday afternoon.

All these upper-crust feasts, combined with the $4.50 per pound heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market, $8 baskets of blueberries and $9 organic smoothies seen around town, sure add up quickly. With a median household income of about $55,000 in Sacramento County, most local folks have to be pretty selective about their special-occasion meals.

To paraphrase the great Sacramento band Cake: “How do you afford your farm-to-fork lifestyle?”

Many are able to justify the cost of the Tower Bridge dinner because of its uniqueness. It’s a once-a-year chance to feast on a Sacramento landmark, rub elbows with the local power elite and movers-and-shakers of food, and dine on courses prepared by an all-star consortium of local chefs.

On the other hand, pricey dinners on local farms are on the verge of being played out as a concept, as shown by the turnout Sunday at Twin Peaks Orchard. The notion was fairly novel once the farm-to-fork movement kicked into gear in 2012, but now they’re routine and ostentatious.

Good luck finding a salt-of-the-earth supper on a local farm that costs less than $100 per head, whether it’s an Aug. 24 dinner at the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters that costs $125, or a $250 fete held at Sloughhouse’s Passmore Ranch in May.

It’s true that farm dinners are difficult logistically, and a chunk of their cost comes from creating a makeshift fine-dining space in areas that are generally reserved for tractors. To offset the costs, ingredients are often donated and chefs usually volunteer their labor.

These high-ticket dinners take a trickle-down approach to economics. Proceeds generally go toward a cause, such as the Food Literacy Center and its efforts to promote healthy eating. The $100,000-plus generated from the Tower Bridge gala funds the free Farm-to-Fork Festival on Sept. 27.

On a side note, anyone who’s spent significant time on farms understands why restaurants are the dominant mode for dining outside the home. Farm-to-fork has romanticized our agrarian landscape, but farms aren’t petting zoos or bucolic nature preserves. They tend to be dusty and full of bugs and the occasional band of feral cats, and they may not smell very good on breezy days. Outdoor dining on a farm just isn’t the ideal place to, say, ponder the delicacy of your risotto.

Farms are obviously important places, and statewide they generate more than $42 billion annually in economic output. Many farmers are good stewards of the land and should rightfully be acknowledged for helping to feed the masses.

The potential problem becomes turning fruits and vegetables into status symbols, or placing nature’s simple gifts on a precious, overpriced pedestal. Our region certainly grows some of the best bounty anywhere, but there’s no reason to get pretentious about a peach.

The next frontier for local farm-to-fork dining is feeding the wider community, not just catering to the same clique.

Foodstock at Raley Field on Sept. 14 is that kind of event. The day includes a pig-roast dinner for the masses, as hosted by chef Patrick Mulvaney and his crew at Mulvaney’s B&L. The $40 ticket will get you a full belly and live music with proceeds going toward the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.

Sacramento County boasts a population of 1.45 million, and everyone gets hungry at least once a day. There’s certainly room at all price points to experience farm-to-fork freshness. But the more people who can sit at farm-to-fork’s dining celebrations, the better.

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