The Pendleton King Park Foundation will host its first Farm to Park Dinner at the park on Sunday, October 4, in an event that will raise funds that will be used to increase accessibility for everyone throughout the public grounds.
The dinner provides multiple benefits. While generating much needed funds for the beloved park, it will also exposes diners to local farms and the hard-working folks of Augusta Locally Grown. It will also offer chance to socialize in a beautiful setting and a fabulous night of freshly prepared original dishes by a talented Augusta chef.
Traditionally, farm to table — also called farm to fork — meals focus on sustainability in agriculture and promotes supporting local farms. Essentially, it connects us more directly with the entire food cycle of production, harvesting, processing and consumption. The idea being that freshly farmed ingredients are healthier and more nutritious than the same foods when mass produced and distributed through a large grocery store chain.
And while there’s plenty of evidence to support this claim, the farm to table movement is still gathering support among the general populace — which is why the Pendleton King Park Foundation chose an advocate of the movement to create the menu and prepare the food.
Described as an “elegant, seasonal, all-local, four-course meal,” the Farm to Park dinner is the creation of Chef Charleen of Culinary Connections, and will be served by members of Augusta Locally Grown. The menu caters to both meat-eaters and vegetarians, and features original recipes such as roasted okra dusted with Indian spices and toasted almonds, and herb-crusted smoked pork with wild mushroom ragout. Charleen creates dishes that reflect her respect for local farming and her passion for creating epicurean delights — a passion she has been cultivating since starting her business, Charleen’s Cooking, in 2000.
As happy as Charleen was creating meals for private diners for more than a decade, her life and her approach to food radically changed when she met Kim Hines of Augusta Locally Grown.
“When I met Kim (Hines) I was happily cooking and baking,” she said. “I was thinking I was so creative and my food was so delicious. Then I met Kim and started getting all the food from all the farmers. And then I figured out what was good food was.”
In Charleen’s book — and kitchen — “good food” means fresh, natural, locally sourced ingredients that inspire her to educate her diners on nutrition and the importance of supporting the farmers who invest so heavily in their food, both economically and emotionally. Charleen describes the experience of farm to table as gratifying.
“Being able to provide food straight from the farm changed everything for me,” she said. “It changed my life. I walk the fields with those farmers and I cry because of the faith those farmers have in me, that I’m the next cog in the wheel.”
Charleen said she has become a huge fan of producing farm to table dinners because it offers her a chance to test her own skills while offering a unique experience to diners. “My passion and skill has always been in creating recipes, so whatever is in the field is what we eat,” she said. “I do that now for everything, every dinner. I created a dinner last year for 12 people and I didn’t go to the grocery store for one thing.”
The farm to table movement is not a fleeting trend, either — it has been gathering steam for a number of years, gradually raising awareness among the general public that to support local farmers means supporting the local economy. By purchasing food directly from the farmer, people are also taking a stand against mass-produced, chemically processed food which has been riddled with additives and sugars — among the leading causes of health issues, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Addressing the national tendency to choose foods based on convenience is linked directly to affordability; buying direct from a farm doesn’t buy as much food as buying mass-produced ingredients at the grocery store. Eating the right foods and maintaining a healthy diet, however, can help us avoid costly medical treatments in the future. And, it might just help small farmers who are still struggling to make ends meet.
A recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted that, for farmers, “selling direct to consumers yields a higher return.” And while it may make economic sense, it also removes the wall of silence that otherwise exists between producers and consumers — providing farmers with valuable feedback from the community and a much needed sense of personal accomplishment.
The farms Charleen is gathering her ingredients from are located mostly around Sylvania. She is devoted to the farmers she buys from and her enthusiasm for the farm to table process is evident when she starts talking about her experience.
“This will be the tenth farm dinner I’ve done,” she said. “The menu features food that will be picked just days before I cook it. I was down at one of the farms last week and I saw the hogs. Those babies were born on the farm — they are never inside, they are never eating anything other grass and organic meal they are given.”
The farm kills the hog within days of the dinner, processes it and then delivers the meat to Charleen’s kitchen.
A similar arrangement exists for a handful of restaurants in the CSRA, including Manuel’s Bread Café and Frog Hollow Tavern, but it isn’t the norm. Charleen explains farm to fork works for her because she is a small business and independent, and because her food costs are higher, her customers must be willing to invest in the meals. But, she says, the benefits can’t be ignored.
“I have more freedom than many chefs and restaurants,” she explained. “It’s hard for them to do this because they’ve got so many customers — they can’t just do kale over and over and over or their customers would complain, so that really gives me some freedom and flexibility.”
The dinner will be plated and served by volunteers from Augusta Locally Grown, a contemporary version of a farmer’s market that acts as a conduit between local farmers and local consumers. Prior to dinner, diners can enjoy cocktails, a tour of the park and music by Karen Gordon and Garden City Jazz. Diners are also encouraged to talk to the members of the foundation about the history of Pendleton King Park — described by some as a diamond in the rough — and perhaps more importantly, the desired future developments.
Pendleton King Park, a 64-acre bird sanctuary near the Hill area on Troupe Street, is a community focused park that features an 18-hole disc-golf course, a dog park, playgrounds and walking paths, as well as tennis courts, a pond and numerous areas available for private parties and large outdoor gatherings.
Formed by a trust and preserved by the Pendleton King Park Foundation — a registered 501c3 — the park is leased to the city of Augusta for a dollar a year. The foundation’s mission is to provide financial and other support for the preservation, maintenance, improvement, promotion and beautification of the park. It does so through a group of dedicated volunteers and by raising funds through donations and a private-public partnership with the city.
A recent recipient of a $200,000 SPLOST grant, the foundation is now focused on matching 25 percent of the funds — or $50,000 — within the coming 12 months. The dinner is the first in a line of fundraising events designed to meet that goal.
Board member and local real estate broker Billy Franke explained that though it has its critics, the SPLOST funds are essential to much-needed updates in the park.
“The city helps with the daily care of the park, but it’s really events like the Farm to Park Dinner that helps us get what we need accomplished,” he said. “For now, that means making the park as accessible as possible to our diverse community.”
The SPLOST law authorizes a 1 percent tax on state sales tax items — the county controlled funds are dispersed following a selection period during which organizations bid for part of the SPLOST funds.
Pendleton King Park is centrally located for many Augusta residents. The foundation prides itself on providing a safe haven and place of recreation for people of all backgrounds, and says Franke, the park celebrates diversity by providing a range of activities and events that cater to all demographics. Still, Franke believes there’s room for growth.
“If it weren’t for the foundation it wouldn’t change. But we want to do more,” Franke says. “We want to go places we haven’t gone before.”
The Farm to Park Dinner takes place Sunday, October 4. Cocktails and tours start at 5 p.m. and dinner starts around 6 p.m. Tickets cost $85 and can be purchased online at pendletonkingpark.com.