Eating with Vineyard folk

Nothing compares to sharing a meal and conversation at home, under the stars and next to the water.

The guests enjoy drinks and appetizers on the deck. —Elizabeth Cecil

One of the greatest traditions of Martha’s Vineyard’s food culture and community is the fact that we eat in. Sure, there are great restaurants on the Island, but the ultimate Vineyard meal happens at a friend’s table, eating food grown and foraged from here. 

In recent years, George Ahl’s meals at his home on Chilmark Pond have become one of the many hot spots for this kind of evening. And Edible Vineyard was lucky enough to be extended an invitation. 

The menu:

  • Lemon Hummus
  • Tomato Salsa with Grilled Milkweed Farm Peppers
  • Grey Barn sausage
  • Littlenecks on the grill
  • North Tabor Farm Baby Squash Salad with Mint and Feta
  • Caramelized Tomato Tarte Tatin
  • Swordfish on the grill
  • Grilled Morning Glory spring onions 
  • Simple green salad featuring Beetlebung Greens and roasted shallots
  • Shortbread Plum Tart
  • Pond Water (mezcal, ginger-infused maple syrup, and lime)

It is not just George’s gorgeous food that is the draw. It is also the conversation around the table.

George is serving up steamed littleneck clams. —Elizabeth Cecil

But before we talk about this, you need to know a bit about George and George’s mom, Indie Miller Ahl, who was an exceptional cook. She would fish stripers off the rocks near their home in Rowayton, Conn., and serve it to her four boys for breakfast. “Whatever we caught, she would cook,” George says. “I grew up on all-natural ingredients. For Thanksgiving, the order is make it, don’t buy it. Growing up, we all helped our mom cook. ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ was her bible. Now my nephews and nieces are into food. One nephew is ceviche-mad and just made me bass ceviche, a littleneck clam chowder with a clear broth, and fluke crudo. It was fantastic.”

Like Martha’s Vineyard, Rowayton is a coastal community, where fishing and sailing are part of life. George first came to the Island when he was 19, working as a crew member on a sailboat. That time he didn’t make it much further than Edgartown Harbor. In his 30s, he and a couple of his brothers started renting houses on Chappaquiddick. Then, about seven years ago, he rented a house in Menemsha and began attending lectures at the Chilmark Community Center. 

“I remember going to a talk and we were given a 25-page handout before the lecture. I got there, it was standing room only and it seemed like everyone had read the handout. They were so engaged. Debating with each other, asking thoughtful questions,” George says. “It was amazing. That summer I realized how special this place is. I always thought Martha’s Vineyard was beautiful. And the food and local produce is obviously incredible, but it was the community — people from all walks of life, all political spectrums, together in one place — that was the ultimate draw.” 

George began thinking about joining the conversation in a more permanent way via buying a house in Chilmark. “As I was leaving the Island that summer, I saw a picture of a house in the back of a real estate magazine. It was an old fishing camp built in the ‘30s and I thought, ‘That’s my house,’ but I didn’t do anything about it. Then in August the following summer, I walked into Tea Lane with my dog Lute and I was surprised to learn it was still for sale.” 

The house and land needed a tremendous amount of TLC. A new kitchen, new windows, invasive plants cleared. Now, it is a three-bedroom gem where everything has a purpose or has been repurposed. An old chum pot holds a candle on the table on the deck. An oyster shucking table in the kitchen serves as a prep area. There’s a lamp fashioned from a found whalebone vertebrae. A wIngchair has been recovered with a 1920s sail from Maine. Outside, George has taken out the invasives and planted natives indigenous to Chilmark Pond — bayberry, winterberry, beach plum, rosa rugosa. In short, the house is jaw-droppingly beautiful because of its thoughtfulness and respect for its perch on Chilmark Pond, overlooking the rushes, rosemallow, water, and wildlife. 

Once he had the house up and running, George began hosting dinners. They became more intentional and regular when he got involved in the Island’s Black Lives Matter movement. As he tells it, “So many important conversations started at the Beetlebung kneeling in the morning. I wanted to keep them going. You can’t have the kind of conversations I craved at a restaurant. At home, the evening might start with drinks at 6:30 and people leave at 11, whereas at a restaurant, you don’t have the same space and time for interaction.” George also limits these dinners to eight people. “I like eight because you can have several voices but one conversation.” 

Seated at this evening’s table were “Vineyard Folk” author Tamara Weiss, artist Colin Ruel and his wife jeweler Nettie Kent from the Ruel Gallery, Dan and Angela Henry, and Salte and Slate owners Liz Hynes and Tom Juster — and George. 

The dinner was on a clear Friday evening. George had started cooking on Tuesday, making the dough for the plum tart and roasting the tomatoes for the tomato tarte tatin and shallots for his simple salad dressing. “I like to get things done ahead of time so I can actually talk to my guests,” he says. On Wednesday, he went to the Farmers Market for squash, greens from Beetlebung Farm, peppers from Milkweed Farm, and to Mermaid Farm for the feta. George buys his fish from Stanley Larsen at the Menemsha Fish Market. “I like that he is open year-round. He gave me an incredible cut of harpooned swordfish.” 

“The swordfish was incredible. So was the tomato tart. But I think my favorite part of the evening was when we were sitting out on George’s deck and Angela and I looked up at the sky and she was like, ‘What is that?’ None of us knew. It looked like a shooting spaceship. It turned out to be one of Elon Musk’s Starlinks that has been in the news. We all sat there for a moment, stunned by the sight and reality of it,” Colin remembers.

“I looked up and I was like ‘Whoa. Um guys what is this?’ We were all silent for a moment. And then we Googled,” Angela laughs. 

Angela and her husband Dan first met George at the 2020 BLM gatherings in Chilmark. “Dan and I say we want to get to know the B side of people. George does too. And that was what this night was about. Sitting around a round table, being able to see everyone’s face and hear what they are thinking.”

An evening at George’s begins with drinks and hors d’oeuvres on the deck, which always includes little necks cooked on the grill. “People always ask, what did you do to the little necks?” George says. “I literally put them on the grill, they open and I serve them. Delicious.”

As the sun set over the water and swallows bounced in the sky, finishing their evening meals, George grilled. 

“I have to move the grill around the deck, depending upon where the wind is coming from. If there is too much wind on it, it is not hot enough. Before putting it on the fire, I spread a combo of coriander, cumin, garlic, lemon, and olive oil on the swordfish before grilling it — more of a paste than a marinade. Then spread it on the reverse side once on the grill. I just plate it with mint and lemon wedges.” Simple and delicious.

Guests headed inside to dine at the home’s oval table. George’s salad included roasted shallots, avocado, and grilled shishitos. His go-to salad “dressing” is “EVOO, white balsamic, flaky sea salt, and ground pepper. “I pour each over the salad and mix it in the bowl. I’m light on the ‘dressing’ and people seem to love it — the taste of the greens comes through. It’s the roasted shallots that make it! I roast a big batch every week.” The recipe is simple: 350 degrees on a sheet pan with EVOO for 30 minutes, stir, two more 10-minute blasts and keep them in the fridge.

“George’s house, food, everything is like living in a painting. A living art. A gallery for life. I can’t explain it, but it is really good,” Angela says, laughing. 

It’s true. In addition to supporting local farms, George’s meals also support local artists. George served the Grey Barn sausage with a handmade knife by Colin. The Micah Thanhauser platter that hangs on the wall in George’s bedroom was also used to serve the spring onions and fish. And potter Candy Sweder’s plate hosted the evening’s dessert.

A toast to the feast and end-of-the-season get-together. —Elizabeth Cecil

Tamara, who has been a dear friend of George’s for years and grew up playing cards in the house on rainy summer days when the Asher family owned it, says, “He is a master curator of all things LIFE. His environment outside and inside is so important to him. He is most happy when surrounded by water or woods, ocean or mountains, under big skies. He brings the outdoors in, whether it be a rock, an animal skeleton, an old fishing weight, etc. He has added a few windows to his home since I have known him, which truly enhances the experience of dining at the pond house — or rather on the pond. One could fish from his deck! His passion is fueled by his desire to share, and he does that beautifully with his numerous dinners. He curates the meal as well as his guests, always ensuring that his table of eight will engage in lively intellectual and stimulating discussions. He is a master chef, a wizard of sorts, a lover of all things Chilmark and Martha’s Vineyard.” 

As Tamara tells it, George is the embodiment of her book “Vineyard Folk,” which celebrates the intersection where art, food, nature, water, and connection and community all meet. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, that intersection is usually down a dirt road, around someone’s dinner table with friends — new and old — feasting on a home-cooked meal.