Plough in the Stars Dinners for Social Justice. You’re invited.

“Dinner parties will save the world,” and women will be cooking.

This was Caitlin Kenney’s vision last winter, a vision born in January, 2017 with friends at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

The owner/farmer of Plough in the Stars Farm in Ipswich, Kenney, 36, grew up on Argilla Rd., a road which threads from Ipswich village down through the estuaries of Choate Creek to the wide white sands of Cranes Beach.

Argilla Rd. is flanked by grand vistas:  acres of cornfields hosting Canada geese through which the local hunt gallops on a fall day, abandoned apple trees long twisted into cryptic frames; new well-pruned fruit orchards, and passing glimpses of the Choate Creek estuary snaking through salt marsh.  Castle Hill, the Stuart-style mansion built in the early 20th by Richard Crane, punctuates the end of Argilla Rd. with surprising grandeur.  

Long before Richard Crane declared the view from that hill unbeatable, John Winthrop, Jr., son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, recognized this fertile land.  A succession of New Englanders farmed it for the next two hundred years.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries apple orchards stippled the Atlantic-swept fields of Argilla Road.  The memoir The Orchard, by Adele Crockett Robinson, describes the author’s efforts to save her family’s Argilla Farm orchard during the Depression.  It is a dramatic story of farming’s brutally physical demands, and a story of a woman answering those demands solo.  Of the three large orchards that once lined Argilla Rd. only Goodale survived.  Today, that farm is the flourishing Russell Orchards, to which Bostonians are programmed to drive on autumn weekends, answering an inner call for fresh air and cider donuts.

This is where Caitlin Kenney grew up.  This is where she farms, a culture steeped in the will to make New England soil and New England weather grow things, a road where some of Adele Crocket Robinson’s apple trees still grow, a road that raised strong women farmers.

Kenney has been farming here professionally for almost 10 years.  She went to college at the University of Massachusetts, and then spent time traveling the world, living in California, Australia, and Central America.  She returned home to Massachusetts wanting to plant, working at Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA, Seeds of Solidarity in Orange, MA, and First Light Farm in Hamilton, MA.  With some mentorship and much trial and error, in 2009 Kenney put shovel to earth on Argilla Rd., and named her farm Plough in the Stars.  Today, the local restaurants The Market at Lobster Cove and Short & Main boast that they are using Caitlin’s greens, Caitlin’s leek’s, Caitlin’s carrots, etc.  There is almost always a line in her tent at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market.  

But something happened to Caitlin and friends this past January.  As many women (and men) did, conversations happened on the long bus rides to march in Washington, D.C.  People had many hours to talk together, to review this country’s direction, and to ask themselves what – if anything – they could do to affirm the values of the march – acceptance, inclusiveness, support for the disenfranchised.  “What more can we be doing?” Kenney and her friends asked.

Others had answers that ranged from hours offered in Congressional offices to organizing local action groups.

 

Kenney envisioned dinner.  A long table with a diverse group of guests all dining on locally raised foods prepared by a talented local chef, with the ultimate goal of helping a local organization.  

In truth, the idea of dinner parties saving the world came from Dr. Jerome Burts.  Kenny met Burt at a dinner party this past March in Oakland, CA.  He was about to give a TedX talk in Nashville on “how dinner parties can save your life.”

Kenny would start with that.  She would start with what she could do, what she knew well, and with her community.

“I grew up here.  I love the vitality of this place, it’s dynamic.  As a small business I feel very well supported.  People are excited by my product – locally raised vegetables, but people are also hungry for interactions.  I see the dinners as a way to energize with community in a way that still involves good food and that shows off the talents of the chef.”

“I sent emails to five women chefs,” Kenney said.  Why women? Kenney said, “I feel like women chefs are under-represented in the field.  I like working with women better.  I like women better!” she said smiling, out of earshot from her boyfriend serving guests in the yard.  

Kenney created the Plough in the Stars farm dinner series, four dinners (there may be a 5th)  each created by an accomplished local woman chef, on the long screened-in porch of Kenney’s Argilla Rd. home.  Each dinner hosts a different local organization with social purpose.   100% of the proceeds goes directly to that organization.  All of Kenney’s and the chef’s time and effort is donated.  The purpose of the dinners is, in the short view, to support the work each organization is doing.  In the long view the purpose of the dinner party is to save the world.  

The sheltered back yard of Kenney’s cedar-shingled cottage opens in the rear to a majestic keyhole vista, framed by large white pines offering a view of that winding Choate Creek and verdant marsh.  The yard is cheerfully planted in herbs and bouncing annuals.  A tent covered in lights creates cover for the outdoor cocktail hour.  

The first dinner May 28th dinner was prepared by chef Paris Boice; the supported organization was the was Kestral Education Adventures, an outdoor science education program based in Gloucester.  The sold-out dinner raised $2,000 for the organization.  

Chef Sheila Jarnes prepared the meal on June 25th; Family Promise, an organization that helps homeless families on the North Shore get support and achieve independence, was the hosted program.  The dinner raised $2260 for the cause.

Answering questions over braising chicken in Kenney’s kitchen, Jarnes said, “I love that Caitlin is doing this.  I’m really proud of her and the farm, that she wants to do something working towards social justice.  I feel like we were all discussing in the winter what we could do; we wanted to make a difference.”

Jarnes learned to cook prepping at The Market Restaurant.  “The flavors, sights, and sounds of that kitchen really grounded my understanding of how to put flavors together. I also had the great fortune to intern in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, which was an incredible experience.”

Each dinner naturally highlights just what Kenney has harvested from her fields that day, the freshest, most seasonal produce.  In late June Jarnes’ snap pea & mint fritters with yogurt and urfa chili (a dried Turkish pepper) were a headliner appetizer, along with tender soft-cooked eggs with dukkah (a middle-eastern spice blend), and smoked haddock crostini.

For the plated dinner Jarnes prepared garden lettuces with chive flowers, a local goat cheese and spring onion, and squash tart, and braised chicken leg with paprika and creme fraiche.   

 

Dessert was strawberry-buttermilk cake with whipped cream and toasted coconut.  

About the farm dinner experience, Jarnes says, “It was so nice seeing everyone sitting together during the dinner, eating the food, and making connections with each other. I loved watching the night take on its own character. There really is something special about putting people together at one long table, especially in such a beautiful setting.”

 

 

 

Later, under her tent at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market, Kenney said of the dinners, “I really like having this in my home.  When I was helping in the kitchen I was hearing everyone talking on the porch, laughing, having a good time; I live in a really quiet place!” she laughs.

“But I believe in the power of these events.  I think that just bringing people together who don’t know each other, they are having a good time together, and they are relaxing in a purposeful way, that feels really good.”  

“I tend to be alone in the field!  A part of farming is you are so hyper-focused on the farm.  Particularly in the heart of the season there is not room to think about other things.  This winter, with some time, I saw the dinners as a way to interact with the community.”  

The culture of strong farmers –  and strong women farmers  – on Argilla Rd. endures, and just may save the world one dinner at a time.  

 

For the most detailed information and to purchase dinner tickets go to Plough in the Stars Farm.

The next dinner is August 20th.  Stacy Apple from Short & Main will be the chef; the hosted organization will be Women’s Fund of Essex County.  

September 17th the chef is Amelia Monday, owner of The Market at Lobster Cove.  The Ipswich Refugee Program will be the hosted organization.  

Tickets are $100.  Again, all proceeds go directly to the organization.

 

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