Aspen event exposes the valley’s secret gardens
November 24, 2009
ASPEN – Eating fresh, local food is great and all, but there are, of course, some inherent limits to the practice.
Feasting on fresh ingredients produced within a couple hours’ drive from your dining table is an expensive and elitist undertaking. The diversity of what you can put on your plate is going to be severely restricted, to the point where gustatory delight is an afterthought. And, at least on the Western Slope, fresh-and-local is a seasonal pursuit, lasting from late spring to early fall.
The Early Bird Community Meal aims to stick a pin in those theories. Tuesday evening’s dinner is fully inclusive: The second annual meal, at 5 p.m. at the Aspen High School cafeteria, is free, and Aspen TREE, the organization presenting the event, wants anyone and everyone to know they are welcome. The menu is traditional Thanksgiving – turkey, mashed potatoes, sauteed shiitake mushrooms, soup, desserts – with no skimping on ingredients like butter. While the calendar says late November, the ingredients are all fresh.
“In general, we’ve had tremendous success finding everything in our own back yard,” said Eden Vardy, the director of Aspen TREE who is organizing the meal. “It’s really there. All through the year.
“And this is for everyone. There is the idea that local food is only for the elite. We’re showing the availability and the abundance.”
Vardy said preparing a grand feast in late autumn, using only local, organic products, involves some compromises – although he prefers to think of it as creative cooking. Colorado cranberries are a fantasy – so instead of cranberry sauce, Tuesday’s menu features an apple relish. Yams are out; roasted heirloom root vegetables are in. But the mashed potatoes – Majestic McClure mashers, using the local heirloom variety of potatoes – are made with fresh butter, produced by Kate McBride in Old Snowmass, which Vardy considered a real find.
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“With almost everything else, you can store it. The dairy has to be really fresh, really local,” said Vardy, whose first name, incongruously, is not pronounced like the biblical garden. (The first syllable rhymes with “fed.”) “We found a vendor in Old Snowmass, and it’s beautiful butter.”
Vardy, a 23-year-old who grew up in Aspen, co-founded Aspen TREE with friends whom he grew up with here. The group promotes local, organic food, with an emphasis on educating people on how to turn that vision into reality. Vardy, who studied food systems development at Washington’s Evergreen State College and is working on a master’s in eco-social design through Gaia University, leads workshops in ecological gardening, and also assists people in creating “home ecological food-producing systems.” He has helped build permaculture projects in Uganda and Mexico, and has plans to establish gardens locally at schools, senior centers and hospitals.
Aspen TREE announced its presence a year ago with the inaugural Early Bird Community Meal. The event drew 150 diners, and Vardy used the occasion to demonstrate that the fresh-and-local ethic was possible, and could result in a first-class experience. The cafeteria was decorated; there was table service rather than a buffet; and the food – prepared with support from local restaurants who donated kitchen space and manpower – exceeded people’s expectations. Vardy and his crew of 25-plus volunteers is stepping it up this year, as they expect at least 300 diners.
“My whole table was like, What’s the catch? When are we going to get the big spiel, the fundraising talk?” said Aspenite River Morgan, who attended last year’s event and serves this year as the meal organizer. “But it was just a beautiful meal. People hear ‘free’ and think it’s going to be powdered mashed potatoes, or it’s going to be an exclusive event. But that you can give a gift that is of the utmost quality, served to everyone, not a buffet – that’s amazing.” (This year’s event will include a silent auction, with proceeds going to Aspen TREE, and there will be opportunities to make donations to the organization.)
Last year’s dinner was especially impactful on Morgan. At the event, she met Vardy, and the two began dating. The first date: a late-December meal Vardy prepared using all fresh, local foods. The highlight of the menu was portobello mushrooms stuffed with tomato, basil and goat cheese.
“And we could have even done that in January,” Vardy said.
He added that, with the use of jarred and dehydrated foods, and storing roots and tubers, it is possible to live through the year eating primarily local ingredients. Such producers as Osage Gardens in New Castle and Jerome Osentowski’s Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, above Basalt at 7,200 feet, sell produce raised in greenhouses year-round.
Vardy said that a good strategy for those who want to adopt such an eating plan is to band together in groups.
“You buy in quantity with a bunch of friends, you can keep your costs down,” he said. “And the best way to make those connections is to feed a bunch of people. Like we’re doing.”
Vardy is already thinking about feeding next year’s bunch. In fact, the preparations for next year’s dinner start with this year’s leftovers.
“Not one ounce goes into landfill. It’s all composted. Everything turns into soil to grow food for next year’s meal,” Vardy said.