Jessica Prentice shows it’s possible to eat like a king without leaving the kingdom
It’s the night of the full Milk Moon and Jessica Prentice is immersed in her creamy salad dressing, vigorously blending crème fraîche and Point Reyes Blue Cheese in a huge bowl as more and more diners meander into the church hall.
“ Let’s get some more chairs,” she instructs a volunteer, continuing to stir and privately hoping there is enough green garlic flan for everyone.
With about 90 guests, this dinner at St. Francis Lutheran Church (near the Castro District in San Francisco) will turn out to be Prentice’s largest Full Moon Feast yet—one of the gourmet supper-club-style events the Richmond chef and food activist has offered at least ten times during the past three years. As much as possible, Prentice’s meals celebrate locally grown seasonal foods, linked to the cycles of the moon, but incorporate some imported foods. All ingredients for this feast, however, which celebrates her “Eat Local Challenge” month, are found within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco (except salt and pepper).
Most of the night’s invited guests—a generally mid-30s, casual crowd—have come eager to dine for a $35 donation, and craving this new-old way of satisfying one of our most basic needs. Many are subscribers to Prentice’s Wise Food Ways Web site, or have met her as she trolls the farmers’ markets. Some have joined the Locavores, a group co-founded by Prentice for those also interested in supporting locally grown foods.
It’s a philosophy to sink your teeth into, but one which is startlingly easier said than done. Much foraging of farmers’ markets and local organic farms is required.
Sustaining our local foodshed is Prentice’s passion. Her interest in food began at 14, when she decided to become a vegetarian with the high hope of sparing animals’ suffering. After experimenting with veganism and developing an obsession over the foods she ate, Prentice was persuaded by an acupuncturist to eat meat for her health. She did, but not from factory farms, she says. She educated herself about local food producers and sustainable agriculture, and began to eat seasonally and shop at farmers’ markets. She eventually realized that what she had long been searching for was a sense of connection—to her food’s origins and its relation to the seasons.
Prentice brought this sensibility to her former job as director of education programs at the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the nonprofit that runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. There, she led farm tours, oversaw the market cooking demos, and organized educational festivals. Previously, as the chef of the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin, Prentice had cooked up nourishing comfort foods from around the world for the artists in residence and for the public programs held there.
Prentice recounts her personal culinary journey in her recent book, Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006), which also covers the history of food in various cultures and traditions, folk tales, and mythology. Though it includes recipes, the book has been likened to Walden Pond more than The Joy of Cooking for its focus on the deeper, more fundamental relationship we all have to food.
As the guests sit down at long tables set with white cloths, flatware, and flowers, Prentice—now finished with the dressing—is busy scribbling on pink Post-it notes, sticking them to a map of the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Her “source” map represents the origins of each of the ingredients served tonight. For example, the peas and the salad greens come from River Dog Farm in Yolo County. The butter and dairy products from Straus Farm in Marin, and the strawberries for the dessert from Lucero Organic Farm in Lodi.
“ The foraging is an ongoing process,” says the 37-year-old chef. “I’ve been cooking in the area for years, and working with farmers’ markets, so I know where to find things. But I’m always trying new things. If somebody has some great eggs, I’m comparing their eggs to other eggs.”
One of the hardest things to find in this 100-mile radius is truly free-range chicken, Prentice says. “The most accessible is grass-fed beef, next is pork, next is chicken. If I can get truly pastured chicken, like I did tonight, I’m in heaven.”
Salt and pepper are tough too. Prentice has been using salt that comes from the West Coast, but outside the Bay Area. “There’s obviously salt that comes from the Bay, but it’s primarily industrial. We’re purist about our food. So Bay salt may be most local, but it’s not the best. And pepper? That just flat-out doesn’t grow in this region, but it’s now so much a part of our everyday taste, I’m allowing that in this meal.”
She returns to the kitchen to direct the appetizer presentation. The sound of dishes clattering and the scent of something warm and delicious emerges, mingling with the hum of conversation in the hall. Prentice’s kitchen volunteers, who double as servers, emerge with the first course: an appetizer of homemade bread squares made with wheat from the Full Belly Farm in Guinda, topped with dabs of chicken liver pâté or herbed yogurt cheese. All through the evening, Prentice is the gracious—but busy—hostess, dashing from kitchen to dining room, visiting with guests, talking about food.
Prentice made the yogurt cheese from Straus yogurt, and it’s one of several dairy items that star in this evening’s meal timed with the Milk Moon, a lunar phase she found referenced in The Old Farmer’s Almanac. It’s the time of year when the cattle enjoy the best pasture possible, grazing on tender young blades of fresh flavorful grass. Besides milk and cheeses, this season’s delights include berries, roasting chickens, peas, and lettuces.
“ I discovered that these moon names gave me a deeper sense of seasonality, and of what each time of year meant for my own ancestors as well as other cultures living in the same physical place I do,” she writes in her book. “They helped me to connect modern foods to culinary history and agricultural traditions.”
After the last appetizer plate is cleared, Prentice, a petite, slender, enthusiastic woman, her wavy brown hair in a long loose braid, clangs a spoon on a metal bowl for attention and welcomes her guests.
“ I have made you a meal that comes almost exclusively from this area,” says Prentice, adding that the chicken she found “was a real foraging breakthrough. Not many farms do fully pastured chicken, and when they do, it’s small quantities. So when I heard that Dave Evans [of Marin Sun Farms] in Inverness had a first batch of completely pastured roasting hens, I jumped at it. And of course we’re using the whole chickens. You’ve already eaten the liver in the pâté, and the giblets are in a broth I’ve made for the gravy.
“ Before we start, I want to give a moment of thanks,” she says, slightly bowing her head. “To all of you for coming tonight, to the farmers, to the ranchers, and to the animals that died so we may live. And to the big mother of them all, the planet Earth, who gives us everything that we need.”
Silence, then conversation again. Someone starts playing light jazz music on the upright piano in the corner. Servers bring out big stainless steel bowls of crisp salad leaves with the delicious blue cheese dressing. When the much-lauded chicken, cooked with lemon and rosemary, is finally served, it’s plated with giblet gravy, potatoes roasted with herbs, and the crispiest snap peas, accented with the bright flavor of fresh mint.
Strangers at first, diners become friends by the end of the meal. A mother and daughter from Berkeley talk with a couple from San Francisco and an organic gardener from Occidental. It’s easy conversation, the kind that flows when sitting arm-to-arm, sharing big plates of delicious food and wine as if at a family gathering. Prentice doesn’t supply alcohol, but encourages guests to bring their own bottles of wine—local, of course—and share with their table.
Prentice stops by each table to visit with guests. She explains that the term “organic,” which once meant foods from mostly local, family-owned farms, now includes foods from big, corporate-owned farms throughout the country or even in other countries.
“ Right now, truly locally grown foods are specialty items in the grocery store,” she says. “I want us to make that shift, so that local foods are our everyday foods, and imported foods are the specialty items. I’m not against imported foods at all,” she says. “But I think they should be the complement, the special thing you add. It makes sense to import cinnamon, but it doesn’t make sense to import apples.”
The savory green garlic flan, made with Marin Sun Farms’ eggs and served along with the main course, is one of the most popular items of the night. A server asks one group of guests to share with latecomers seated at the small folding table at the side. They do, but with hesitation.
“ Oh, this is wonderful,” says Tom Herndon, himself a personal chef in San Francisco and a first-time diner at Prentice’s Full Moon Feast. “I must have more of this flan.”
Herndon knows Prentice from the farmers’ market scene. “I love the whole philosophy of sustainability. It’s the best way to support the environment,” he says. “And her dinners have the whole element of the underground supper club movement too, which is really popular right now.”
Prentice will soon share her popular dinners with the East Bay. Most of her Full Moon Feasts have been held in St. Francis Lutheran, where Prentice attends church, and she has been grateful for the use of the facilities. But it’s also quite a chore, bringing all the ingredients, setting up. She and four business partners are co-founding a community-supported kitchen in West Berkeley, which will be open soon, she hopes in time for her next feast. At the new site, a large room and kitchen she is leasing from a local social services agency, Prentice will be able to store foods and equipment, and seat up to 100 people for her private Full Moon Feast parties.
Through all of her dinners and food education efforts, Prentice hopes to encourage responsible shopping and eating practices, but recognizes the challenges involved. And she’s not perfect either.
“ The Locavores challenge is to re-direct our choices to local as much as possible,” she says. “I take it to an extreme because it’s a culinary challenge for me. But if I’m hungry, it’s not like I won’t stop and get a burrito.”
To find out more about Jessica Prentice’s programs, visit www.wisefoodways.com or www.locavores.com, and www.threestonehearth.com for the community supported kitchen.
Angela Hunnicutt is a freelance writer who has been reporting on stories in the Bay Area for about ten years. She lives with her husband in Alameda.
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