“We’re trying to reunite the world with its 10,000-year-old self,” says Matt Rales, standing in one of his many pastures at Grassential Farm in Potomac. The ten-acre farm hosted 160 guests for an Outstanding in the Field dinner on Saturday afternoon.
Rales and the Outstanding in the Field leaders, Jim Denevan and Leah Scafe, have a similar philosophy of connecting diners with the land and returning to older traditions. For Rales—who cut his farming teeth at Polyface Farm (you know, the one touted in The Omnivore’s Dilemma)—it’s all about the grass: Guests arriving at the mid-afternoon meal tromped around fields rich with a variety of grasses, herbs, corn cobs, and oyster shells, which the Belted Dutch dairy cows crush underfoot, sending pure calcium into the soil. The farm has moved to an entirely grass-fed method of production, for the health of both the animals and the land. If you ever want to see real-life “happy cows” (or pigs, ducks, rabbits, chickens, or goats, for that matter), Grassential is a good place to start; the curious bovines lumbered up to us like overgrown puppies and even accepted a few friendly pats on the head as we stood about sipping Gruet bubbly and snacking on hors d’ouevres such as head cheese with mostarda and crispy rabbit-and-polenta fritters from Vermilion chef Tony Chittum.
For their part, Denevan, Scafe, and the Outstanding in the Field crew travel around the country in a vintage bus, arranging farm-to-table (or, more appropriately, table-in-farm) dinners that unite local chefs like Chittum with farmers who provide many of the ingredients and host the meal in their fields and barns. Chittum received mostly whole animals from Rales for the family-style feast—the two first connected when Chittum was searching for a local rabbit farmer producing antibiotic-free bunnies—including two whole 60-pound lambs, six suckling pigs, 14 rabbits, and 22 pounds of goat shoulder, which he transformed into Italian- and Greek-influenced dishes similar to what he’ll be serving up when he begins cheffing at the Iron Gate restaurant in Dupont Circle next year. Platters of charcoal-grilled mushrooms with lamb pancetta, goat meatballs, and bone-in rabbit stew arrived alongside plenty of wine as the sun went down, at which point the table was lit by candles in Mason jars. When the bus returns in 2013, it’s certainly a field party worth checking out.