When it comes to bringing people together around food and creating a stunning atmosphere imbued with rustic charm, Pattie Meyers is one of the most extraordinary women I’ve met. I made her acquaintance almost a decade ago when I moved to the Austin, Texas, area and our newspaper ran an article about the local-food-lover’s society that she had helped create called “The Nomadic Table”.
“The Nomadic Table” is essentially an itinerant potluck dinner party with one cardinal rule: recipes must feature local organic products. The result? Magic!
The focus on local food leads to a combination of two elements that equal magic: the locations and the people. First, Pattie Meyers finds the most fitting and unexpected places to host these pop-up dinners: inside an organic greenhouse at night; in a butterfly garden; at the local produce market where she was the primary food forager... or, surprising places like a barn filled with restored vintage cars.
Next, the focus on local ingredients attracts like-minded locavores. Put the two together and you have an enchanting evening!
I have no doubt “The Nomadic Table” has the potential to become a movement that will sweep the nation. But, how do you start a “Nomadic Table Society” near you? What does it take to organize an itinerant local-food potluck? And, what are some tips for sourcing the best local products?
I interviewed Pattie Meyers to find out how she came to found the first Nomadic Table, learn about the procedure for organizing the event, get tips on local food foraging, and find out what her latest projects are…
How did you come up with the idea of the Nomadic Table?
It was a collaboration with two other people: a photographer and a party rental owner. I was working as a food forager at the time which just kind of fed into it. We were having some drinks one night and just talking about “wouldn’t it be fun if we could throw a potluck that would use these locally produced foods making sure the focus was about our basic tenants, which were: local and organic?”
So we just cobbled together a first one. The photographer’s wife’s idea was to call it “the nomadic table”, because the idea was to move these dinners to different locations with each meal. And so, we’ve had that event off and on throughout the years in different locations. I hope to place an upcoming one at a local goat farmer’s place. Outdoor locations are always the goal.
Can you tell us how the Nomadic Table works?
From our mailing list we just: let people know our date and location; reiterate that they need to create a dish for six that uses locally grown or produced products; also remind them to bring their own place setting and be creative with the place setting if they like.
The place settings have been a fun part of this: People have brought antique dishes and glassware that they like to show off which has been a real treasure. Bring your beverage of choice…. That’s kind of the “how”.
We just get a head count from the RSVPs so we know how many chairs and tables we’ll need to set up. Once you find a location and set up the tables it just kind of makes itself.
How did you start your mailing list? How did the first people find you and the Nomadic Table?
In the market specialized in local organic food where I was the forager, we put up a sign up sheet and a little info sheet explaining what the Nomadic Table was and asking if you’d like to join us for a potluck to please sign here. We had a great response from that. People were coming in to buy local vegetables so they were obviously the right population to come to a potluck that used local.
Why did you decide to do the Nomadic Table?
Just because I enjoy the party itself and I think it is worth pursuing. It is always a great event to go to and I’m motivated to do it just so I can be there. We always get a great response: people love it. It is just delightful: the people we’ve met and the places we go.
Tell us about the time you spent working as a Food Forager. What is a Food Forager?
Initially I thought it meant foraging in the forest for edible things; but, in today’s world “foraging” can mean that you are searching for food items in a different classification: to find local organic producers of grown and ranched items, eggs, dairy, honey, olive oil and so on within 100 miles.
My job was to find producers, make a connection with them, and look at their practices. I got to visit each farm and ranch and farmer in their location to see how they produced what they produced, establish a relationship and talk about delivery times and dates and prices and so on.
Can you tell us a little bit about the philosophy of the market that hired you as a food forager?
The goal was to create a retail outlet that for these producer’s items and things that could be used in recipes for their café. They also had an onsite garden.
What was your method for finding local producers?
It grew organically. I had a few good connections in Austin in this food world who were able to suggest and direct me to places that might be a good source. That was a finger, a way to spread the word that I was looking for producers.
I also went on farm tours. The sustainable food bank organizes tours where you are able to buy a ticket to go to visit a farm with a group. From doing that I met farmers who knew of other people who were producers and it just grew from that. I also would visit our wonderful local farmer markets in Austin and walk up and talk to people about food and just ask if I could come out to see their property, see what they were doing and see if they were interested in selling.
Fortunately, in Austin, we have publications that help the process like Edible Austin, so I could read about growers and producers in articles and check out advertisements. Then the word started to spread and people started coming to me and knocking on my door.
A plus was that samples came my way constantly: people were bringing me all kinds of samples of products they had created or charcuterie, meat, dairy that they wanted me to use or because they wanted my opinion. The whole process was fun. I was just thrilled.
What qualities determined that something met your standards?
Taste. Taste. Taste. It’s always all about if it is satisfying and if it takes you back to a higher standard than what we are used to in average retail. You taste a mass produced radish and compare. The difference in experience with a freshly grown, local organic radish… it’s night and day! The methods just produce better food.
What are you doing these days?
I am in the vacation rental business. We have an eight acre vacation rental called “Redbird Farm at Berry Creek” that sleeps eight people in a rural feeling location just outside the city. We offer an opportunity for people to enjoy organic chickens. We have 12 laying hens at the moment so there are plenty of eggs. We have kayaking down on Berry Creek and lots of outdoor space with fire pits.
The people who created the place made dry stack walls all around the place which gives it a big dose of charm. It makes it feel European in my opinion. We created big gravel areas to give it a Provencal feel. The house is up high on a sloping hill overlooking a pasture and below that is a pecan orchard and the water is next to that.
People headed to Austin, choose to stay with us because of the rural setting. If they are going to a hectic people-filled event in the city they enjoy being able to relax out here and it is great if they are traveling with dogs to have the space.
Are there any books you would recommend for people interested in going deeper on this topic?
Well what pops to mind are cookbooks that I used as inspiration: Heidi Swanson was a good inspiration for finding the best recipes for using these products.
Photos by Anna Kraft
Lisa Gustavson is the founder and owner of Sojourner Tours, a boutique tour company specialized in sustainable tourism for adventurous food lovers. When at home in Texas, Lisa spends her spare time as an informal urban chicken and beekeeper, backyard gardener, cook, writer and photographer. Read all of Lisa’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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