Early Bird Community Meal returns Tuesday at Aspen High | AspenTimes.com

Early Bird Community Meal returns Tuesday at Aspen High

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Eden Vardy, director of Aspen TREE, takes another load of cut potatoes to the kitchen while his army of volunteers prepare the food for Tuesday's Thanksgiving feast at the Aspen High School.

ASPEN – As someone involved with growing, raising and harvesting food, and doing so with an eye out for the health of the soil and water, Eden Vardy finds himself using the word “sustainable” often. But as a term, and a concept, he prefers “regeneration.”

“To me, sustainability is a good step in the right direction – but just that, a step. It’s like maintaining the status quo,” Vardy, a 24-year-old who grew up in Aspen, said. “Past sustainability is regeneration – improving and increasing the productivity of ecological systems, and of human systems. Instead of just keeping things going, it’s making them better.”

Most people who attended last year’s Early Bird Community Meal would have said that maintaining the event as is would have been a fine idea. The pre-Thanksgiving meal, presented by Aspen TREE, a nonprofit run by Vardy, drew 700 people to the Aspen High School commons. The atmosphere of gratefulness could serve as a model for all Thanksgiving gatherings. The food, virtually all from local sources, was delicious. Attendance was free.

Vardy, though, is intent on making it better. So for this year’s event, set for Tuesday at the high school, there will be 100 pounds of chicken to supplement the turkey, so that late-arriving diners will get a full portion of meat. (To be safe, though, Vardy strenuously advises arriving on time, at 5 p.m.) There are 75 volunteer cooks, servers and organizers – more than double last year’s total – to keep the staff mood mellow and the meal manageable. Overseeing the food preparation are three professional chefs. And while Vardy wants to surprise diners with some items, he revealed that the menu would include a serviceberry/plum chutney instead of the traditional cranberry sauce – a way not only to stick to local ingredients, but also to add a wild-harvesting element to the meal.

And Vardy wouldn’t mind improving at least one aspect of his personal experience of the Early Bird Meal. Last year, he said, was a blast, especially in terms of the community support.

“Except I didn’t eat at the event,” he said. “My cousin saved me a turkey leg, and Amory Lovins gave me some local bananas that he grew at RMI.

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“But I didn’t get to eat them till three hours later.”

Vardy said that there are three purposes to the event (and his being fed is not one of them). The first is to spread awareness of local food, so the menu features turkey, veggies and mashed potatoes made from the local McClure variety.

The second is to support local farmers. So while the meal is free, Vardy is adamant that the farmers get paid, with money raised from donations and proceeds from the silent auction.

Finally, the Early Bird Meal is intended to raise awareness of Aspen TREE, whose programs include workshops in ecological gardening and natural building, summer children’s classes at Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, installing edible landscape systems such as gardens and chicken coops, and classes in local schools. Vardy would also like to establish a community greenhouse.

Not to be overlooked is the simple idea of a community bonding experience. That aspect was highlighted when attendance for the meal jumped from 150 two years ago to 700 last year. (Among the attendees at the first meal was River Morgan, whom Vardy met at the event; the two are now married and have an infant son, Bija.) Vardy said he expects 700 again this year – but is preparing for 1,000 – and he wouldn’t mind much if those expectations were exceeded.

“It was exhilarating. It felt so cool,” he said of last year’s turnout. “As host, I felt inspired by our community, that everybody wanted to be a part of it. And the best testament was how many people came for the meal, and ended up helping out.”

stewart@aspentimes.com