by Kate Tvelia Athearn
At our most recent summer cookout, my husband, knife in hand and eyes bright with laughter, sliced up the beef round he had spent days preparing. Not only had he seen to this animal’s care and feeding, slaughter and butchering, but he also marinated it, seared it over an open fire, and administered it several injections of demi-glace, made from the bones of that very same cow. He’d barely slept as it roasted on the Pellet grill overnight, his meat-scented dreams peppered with nightmares of flare-ups and gangs of raccoons with heat-resistant paws. Any mortal being would be exhausted by now. But there he was on that warm June night, eagerly doling the meat out in juicy slabs, our guests’ gustatory pleasure his only concern.
Summer on the Island is marked by so many different kinds of celebration: early season clambakes and midsummer night cocktail parties; July’s beach bonfires and August’s fancy, catered affairs. My husband and I have hosted our fair share of get-togethers, but our most successful parties are always when we invite our favorite farmers and foodies over for a potluck. We don’t have to dress up or find a babysitter or fight traffic. We just have to put down the pitchfork, kick off those manure-encrusted boots, and whip up a favorite dish to share. The dishes don’t need to be fancy—personally, I prefer making veggie dishes that require minimal preparation, allowing the natural homegrown flavors to speak for themselves— but my husband is a different story.
Brian has always enjoyed experimenting with flavor, feeding people, and impressing them with his culinary prowess. Particularly when preparing meat from animals that we’ve raised here on the farm, his passion for food borders on obsession: after a day of wrangling pigs and repairing irrigation hoses, I’m always amazed by how he can summon the energy and ingenuity to create custom marinades and rubs and dipping sauces. He brines and sears and smokes everything to a decadent perfection, often rigging up his hammock by the smoker so he can keep a close eye on the meat late into the night while the rest of us sleep. He sees the meal as the culmination of an animal’s life, it’s flavor an indication of how well fed and cared for it was, the deliciousness not only a measure of his grilling ability, but of his success as a farmer.
Admiring the dishes that arrive with our guests—vibrant green salads, generously pesto-ed pastas, days-simmering soups, and fresh berry desserts— it’s obvious that they take the same pride in sharing their own successes. Those with dietary restrictions come bearing carefully labeled, allergen-free dishes. Young families bring kid-tested fare, approved by the pickiest of little tasters. The table is adorned with vas- es of prize peonies, and oh-so-many heavenly varieties of Island-grown deviled eggs are passed from hand to hand.
As delicious as all of it is (and, believe me, it’s even better than it sounds) a summer potluck is about more than just food. It’s horseshoes with your dad and taking your niece on her first tractor ride; it’s strolling through your garden with your friends and recognizing all of your hard work through someone else’s eyes. We all spend so much of this season building up calluses on our hands, straining our back muscles and social lives with long days and early nights. We find ourselves consumed by daily tasks that always seem to end with a list of the work still to be done.
But other people don’t know about all daily, private disappointments or focus on the failures that we see. To them, the broken gate and the pigpen stink are just those charming particulars of a real, working farm. They ooh and ahh over plants sagging under the weight of plump snap peas, marvel at the giant bamboo teepee dripping with green beans, squeal with delight as the pigs slurp and crunch our leftover watermelon rinds.
Like all summer nights for us, farmer parties break up early—there are cows to feed and coops to close and roosters who will be crowing at dawn. With full bellies, we help our guests collect empty dishes and muddy, exhausted children. As we finish our evening chores, the farm basks in the rosy glow of our rekindled admiration. Yes, there will always be more work to do, but there will also be late summer tomatoes, kale that lasts through the fall, and next spring’s lambs. And, as always, my sweet and ever-scheming husband is already masterminding his next culinary affair.