Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite
Eating fresh, locally grown products is a way of life for Amanda Viscarra. Her family runs Becker Farms in Gasport, N.Y, a diversified agricultural enterprise that grows everything from asparagus and apples to tart cherries and tomatoes, and operates a winery and a brewery as well.
When Viscarra left the farm and went to college, she learned just how different her eating upbringing had been. A few meals on campus and her jaw dropped.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this stuff is not that good.’ I just didn’t realize it was important until I didn’t have it,” Viscarra said. “A lot of people don’t know what it is like [to eat local foods] and what they are missing.”
She and others in the United States — from farmers and chefs to convention and visitors bureau sales staff — are plowing new ground, coming up with creative ways to expose locals and visitors, including meeting attendees, to local foods and specialties. It is a way to savor the flavor of a city or region, said Reanna Darone, convention sales manager for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.
“When people come in from out of town, you want them to experience your local specialties,” she said. “In Chicago, of course, you are going to have deep-dish pizza. Here, in western New York, you are going to have chicken wings.”
Sharing culinary culture
Like many convention bureaus, Niagara has come up with a number of ways to share its culinary culture.
It has trolleys transport conventioneers to the city’s Little Italy district and its wealth of family-owned restaurants. It packs gift baskets for meeting VIPs with biscotti made by the fourth-generation bakers at Di Carmillo’s and with jams and jellies from nearby Murphy Orchards. It points planners to local restaurants that will set up a Buffalo Buffet, stocked with chicken wings, carved roast beef on hard rolls and, of course, a re-creation of the Friday-night fish fry, a staple in the region.
“If you batter it and fry it, we are going to eat it,” said Darone with a laugh.
As they visit America’s small towns, planners will find plenty of ways to spice up meals for their meeting attendees — from roving restaurant tours and 100-mile meals to dinners inspired by menus from a half-century ago.
And who knows? Perhaps such endeavors will be the death of the dreaded rubber chicken dinner.
A 30-minute drive for 100-Mile Meals
Viscarra, now chef at Becker Farms, decided to put herself and the region to the test early this year by designing menus that used only ingredients produced within 100 miles of the farm.
The 100-Mile Meals she creates are 99 percent local. (The remaining 1 percent is olive oil, sea salt and other ingredients that are vital to recipes but not produced in the area.)
The idea has been popular with the farm’s regulars and is easily adapted for a small meeting or special event.
From Niagara, it’s about a 30-minute drive on pretty country roads to Becker Farms. At the farm, all sorts of dining setups are possible: casual buffets, tasting stations, even a five-course meal paired with local wines for up to 60 people. “Between each course, the winemaker talks about why we chose the wine to go with the course, as well as the trials and tribulations of making that particular wine,” said Viscarra.
Although the five-course dinner sounds like a bargain, priced at $50 per person, Viscarra has found that using local ingredients doesn’t mean meals cost less to make.
Said Viscarra, “I knew this was going to be a challenge, because a lot of the products are from small, small farms, and I have to go and pick it up myself. It is a lot easier to order from one guy and have it delivered to your door, all perfectly washed and trimmed.”
As crops in the fields change, so does Viscarra’s menu. The varied produce available means she has yet to serve the same menu twice. Seasonality is an issue, though, because as winter arrives, there are fewer fresh products. To counter that, Viscarra is experimenting with canning and preserving.
Food tours focus on Old Town favorites
Here’s a choice: dine at restaurants in Old Town Alexandria, Va., where tourists frequent or opt for small, out-of-the-way spots frequented by locals.
DC Metro Food Tours specializes in the latter. “Our tours aren’t led by someone in old-timey garb,” said Jeff Swedarsky, the company’s founder.
“We try to go to the most local types of places and meet the people who live here. Our guides are like friends taking you around to their favorite places.”
Nearly a quarter of the tour company’s business is meeting and convention groups, and just like the tourists who take the tours, the meeting groups bond as they sample food and drink in the five Alexandria eateries they visit on a typical three-hour tour. “If you don’t know the people on the tour with you, you will after you break bread with them,” Swedarsky said.
Like a multicourse meal, the tours combine many ingredients — food, drink, Old Town history and architecture, and the background stories of restaurateurs. “You experience the area with more of the senses,” said Swedarsky.
The emphasis is on regional foods: Colonial chowder or stew; blue crabs and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay; and jelly cake, a local dessert whose fans include Queen Elizabeth and weatherman Willard Scott.
Jelly cake disappeared from the local food scene after the bakery that made it closed. Swedarsky, who moved to the area four years ago, heard about it through locals and convinced another area bakery to make it again exclusively for his tours. “We made it a true Alexandria dish again,” he said.
Swedarsky keeps tours small, with about 10 people per guide. With a dozen guides on staff, he can handle groups of up to 80. When he has larger groups, he sends guides in different directions so that a crowd doesn’t overwhelm any one restaurant.
Swedarsky will shorten tours and tailor stops for groups with special interests or that want certain types of foods.“My policy is to never say no,” he said.
Washington D.C. Food Tours
Old menus get new ideas cooking
Members of Meeting Planners International (MPI) took a trip back in time when they met this fall at the Tremont House in Galveston, Texas.
Jerry Helminski, executive chef for the Tremont and sister property Hotel Galvez, noticed that one of MPI’s speakers would be discussing ways to improve memory skills. He decided to dig out old menus of Galveston restaurants and speakeasies and use those meals to create new memories for MPI’s members. The Hotel Galvez opened in 1911; the Tremont is in a 130-year-old building.
“It was the perfect opportunity to utilize historic menus,” he said. “We gave the meal the theme ‘Our Trip Down Memory Lane.’”
The menus were found in the collections of the Galveston Historical Library. Helminski also talked to locals about meals they remembered from the restaurant at the Galvez and others.
His research revealed a French influence in Galveston restaurants in the early 20th century. Instead of trying to re-create the dishes the old menus described, Helminski used the dishes as a springboard to inspire French-inspired items with a modern twist.
“It gives us the opportunity to show that we can do more than copy current trends; we can do something off the beaten path. And it is an opportunity to showcase what we can do and the type of event we can pull off, and the kinds of menus we can build to their theme or around a guest speaker,” said Helminski.
North Carolina shows off its foodstuffs
In North Carolina, feeding guests foods with local flavor means firing up the barbecue pit, which is exactly what happened when the Southern Legislative Conference went to Winston-Salem. The conference moves from state to state, and when it comes to conference food, “it is a tradition for the [host] state to highlight as much of its fare as it can,” said Beverly Adams, of the Legislative Services Office in Raleigh.
The city’s Benton Convention Center and the state’s agriculture department got on board for a North Carolina night.
Food stations were set up around the ballroom and a Barney Fife look-alike and Atlantic Coast Conference college mascots worked the crowd as guests sampled barbecue made in the state’s two styles — Eastern North Carolina and the Western North Carolina — and tasted two of the state’s most prolific products — sweet potatoes served in casserole form and chicken fried in Southern fashion.
An opening-night event was held on the grounds of Old Salem, a preserved Moravian village. Moravian cookbooks were the source for some dishes served, including pumpkin muffins.
Dinner was topped with a specially created ice cream made by a local company, which added crushed ginger Moravian cookies to its vanilla ice cream and served it in waffle cones on the warm July evening.
The ice cream, carriage rides and a gospel choir made for a first-night success, said Old Salem’s Tyler Cox.
“We’d see them riding around in the carriages with their ice cream cones. It was a relaxed evening. And the food was a way to make history seem more alive.”