On the Farm: Let us ‘sagra’

Italian culture shows us how to celebrate the harvest year-round.

Homegrown artichokes are best. —Kate Woods

How do you mark the passing of time? Is it by the changing temperature, by the observed annual holidays, by the school calendar, or perhaps by what you’re eating? As a farmer, I fall into the latter category. Not just because it’s been ingrained in me from years of farming, but because moments of eating and sharing food with others have always been the richest with connection and narrative, in my experience. It’s never been simply about what’s on the plate. It’s where you are while eating it, where and who the food came from, how it was grown, its genetic history and, of course, whom it’s shared with. In a post-agrarian society, however, these deeper contextual considerations seem less valued, less celebrated. And understandably so. Grocery stores providing us with any food we could possibly want at any moment have numbed us to the pleasures of limited availability that come with regionality. I’d argue that in such a contemporary, digitized world, re-engaging with the food system and the inherent cycles associated with regional seasonality would be deeply impactful for us all. It is a tangible, satiating, and viscerally enjoyable pursuit that deepens our connection to the natural world and to each other. 

To gather around food is to experience one of the purest forms of joy. It’s a moment, perhaps one of the few, to leave behind our busy lives and to gather. From my somewhat brief time here as part of the community, I’ve noticed more awareness around this ritual than in most of the places I’ve lived before. At the Farmers Market each Saturday, we farmers have a front-row seat to the prelude of many people’s nightly culinary congregations — some even giddily sharing their supper menu with us as they check out. I watch as so many people come and go — each with a unique shopping agenda. Some come for the coveted first pints of cherry tomatoes, others for bread and pastries, and most for chocolate. But the commonality seems obvious — people crave community, they crave entertainment, they crave good food. I wonder sometimes, when the market crowds subside, and my mind has a chance to wander, Is there a way to dig even deeper into these desires? Is there a way to bring more light to the farm, the farmers, the fishermen, and other purveyors? Is there a way to celebrate the passage of micro-seasons on the Vineyard, taking a moment to appreciate the fleeting, unique provisions that each moment brings?

Enter Italy. A country so good at celebrating food moments that every region of the country has at least one festival each month to honor a seasonal food product or wine. These feasts are called sagre, and they typically celebrate an individual harvest of something regionally noteworthy. Italy’s extensive list of different sagre include (but are certainly not limited to) chestnuts, olive oil, polenta, artichokes, eggplant, and wine, of course. Can you imagine? Instead of June, let us celebrate the month of peas. Forget September; leek month sounds a whole lot better to me. Lane Selman and her team at the Culinary Breeding Network, based out of Portland, Ore., are making moves to bring the spirit of the traditional Italian sagra to the U.S., having hosted their own Sagre around winter squash, beans, and their most evolved, Sagra del Radicchio. Much like their Italian forebears, these events are centered around building community. Participants learn about various culinary preparation methods of the highlighted vegetable. Further education covers best growing practices. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, historical content and celebratory storytelling transmits the what and why this vegetable is so special. The lineage of its breeding, the uniqueness of its growing region, those characteristics that are worth understanding more, and taking pause for. In reflecting on her favorite part of the tradition of sagre, Lane writes, “It was pleasure with a sense of purpose and creativity, a feeling of community reinvestment in a food system that, in the United States, has long felt divorced from everyday life — hidden away behind a curtain.”

—Kate Woods

We’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a handful of dinners on the farm this year with friends and family. Each one of these dinners represented a very specific moment in time during the growing season, based on what vegetables were being shared. Though none of them zeroed in on one specific harvest item, each did serve as an excuse to gather people around a table to honor a farm and the food that it provides a community. We highlighted the veg we were proudest of at that moment by caramelizing ‘French Grey’ shallots and serving them with local sea scallops. We roasted the sweetest of ‘Corno di Toro’ red peppers to make romesco, and we utilized a bumper crop of Genovese basil to mortar-and-pestle endless versions of pesto. However idyllic this may sound, what I found just as valuable during these dinners was to share some of the other, not-so-celebratory realities of the growing season this year at Beetlebung Farm. Our spring carrot seedlings succumbed to pill bugs, our kale had terrible flea beetles, preventing us from harvesting it at all, and the Island (and much of the Northeast) suffered terribly hot and droughty weather that stressed many of our crops to the point of failure. These are all important aspects and realities of farming, ones that the community only becomes aware of if they ask, if they visit, or if they share a meal with a farmer. These narratives, good and bad, provide the connective tissue that add depth and understanding to the local food ecosystem. They add even more reason to celebrate the successes and the ability to feed each other, because, wow, farming is hard.

The idea of one singular “harvest season” is a misnomer for me. On the farm, we harvest something new every month. Each vegetable has its own significance to that particular time of year, to the land, and to our diets — each deserving of its own attention and appreciation. We shouldn’t be celebrating the harvest once each year, but constantly, and for every moment that marks a new vegetable, fruit, fish, meat, or cheese coming into our lives. Yes, through community-supported events as much as possible, but even small ways, amongst family, are important. Taking pause. Appreciating the moment. Grounding us to this place and time, sharing them with those we’re with, these fleeting products of the natural world. Let us honor the food grown so close to home in ways that protect our soil, let us celebrate the coming together and building of community around an outdoor table, let us expose one another to the truths of farming, let us sagra.