Supporters of Grow Memphis know the appeal of fresh, locally grown food, and those who attended the Garden Party benefit on Oct. 26 seemed to appreciate the creative recipes crafted by participating vendors and chefs.
“I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to work with Stone Soup,” said Grow Memphis Executive Director Chris Peterson, speaking of the Cooper Young café and market that opened their doors to host the event.
“Their manager worked all day and then helped us with the Garden Party,” Peterson said. “He went home and got up to serve breakfast there the next morning.”
“We are so pleased to work with Grow Memphis for their fundraiser this evening,” he said. “We are totally on board with the things they are doing to promote growing fresh food in Memphis.”
Grow Memphis was founded by the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center in 2007 and was modeled after community garden projects that had sprung up in Orange Mound as a way of producing healthy food in the vacant lots that abound in blighted neighborhoods.
“Last year our goal was just to see if we could do it – to see if we could raise any money,” Peterson said. “It was successful, but this year we were really wanted to make sure our garden leaders were comfortable being there to mingle and have fun.”
Volunteer Lauren Hales appeared to enjoy her designated task of pouring wine at the event. She is a Grow Memphis intern whose duty each week is to sell the produce grown by several gardeners at two different area farmers markets.
“All the profits go back to the gardeners to help with the cost of running it,” Hales explained. “Several of the gardens employ neighborhood kids to work for them. It’s a wonderful way to make money for the growers and at the same time get our name out.”
Catherine Miller, Claire Coulter, Cierre Martin and Taylor Sieben are four Rhodes College students who served their own delicious soup at the event.
“Our curry roasted vegetable soup has butternut squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, lots of great spices and a little bit of cream,” Coulter said. “We work on the community garden at Rhodes and all of the vegetables in our soup are from our garden or our vendor’s garden at the farmers market.”
Peterson called the party one of those events where everything came together the way he had hoped.
“The chefs were really outstanding,” he said. “We helped them procure produce, but they did all the work themselves to make sure everything was going to be complementary.”
Indeed, each room of Stone Soup featured a variety of offerings from the assembled culinary talent.
Jake Miller from Cultivate Memphis prepared a Newman Farm pork tamale made with locally grown pumpkins. Served in a corn husk, it was topped with a tomaté salsa and smoked, spiced lapitas (pumpkin seeds).
“This is something we believe in a lot,” Miller said. “Our organization has a lot to do with empowering the underserved to cook for themselves, provide healthy meals for their families and brothers. We think that Grow Memphis is on the same track, and we’re happy to support them.”
In an adjacent room, Laura Norman with Slider Inn stood behind a popular table serving sliders made with grass finished beef patties that she said came from a local farm near Collierville.
“The bread is by Derek Buchanan, a local baker who is getting his business up and going,” Norman explained. “The onions are caramelized, the tomatoes are locally grown – everything is locally grown.”
Jennifer Chandler introduced herself as the author of three cookbooks, “Simply Grilling,” “Simply Suppers” and “Simply Salads.”
“The dish I’m serving tonight is pimento cheese tartlets,” she smiled. “The crust is cornmeal made with Delta Grind, a local cornmeal, and on top is pepper jelly made with local peppers.”
Sharing space with Chandler was Justin Fox Burks and his wife Amy Lawrence.
“We write a blog called ‘The Chubby Vegetarian,’” he said. “We have a book that came out in May called the ‘Southern Vegetarian’ that’s available everywhere.”
Burks offered an appetizer called deviled tomatoes; a smoked deviled egg served inside a hollowed out Roma tomato with dry rub, cabbage and green onions.
Meanwhile, his wife and co-author brought out a pear and chocolate cake made with pear butter, chocolate Grenache, diced crystallized ginger and toasted pecans.
Creative libations were a part of the evening’s treats as well.
Michael Hughes, general manager of Joe’s Wines and Liquors and co-owner of Big River Bitters served a signature cocktail he called a green bean, a tasty concoction of gin, green beans, honey, lemon juice, Absinthe and a couple of other ingredients.
High Cotton Brewery came out of their own volition,” Peterson said. “We bought beer from them, but they decided they wanted to come out and pour at our event.”
And pour they did. Brewery owner Shawn Mitchell, himself an accomplished chef, seemed to be constantly engaged throughout the evening with fans of his Biere de Garde, a winter Belgian farmhouse ale, and ESB, a British style pale ale.
While the sounds of classical guitar music performed by Mark Allen wafted through the rooms of Stone Soup Café, party guests wandered back for seconds and enthusiastically shared their comments about the unique dishes being served.
“I love the food here at the Grow Memphis garden party,” exclaimed Joia Brown, who works with the YMCA on a healthy corner store initiative. “I especially loved the deviled egg in the tomato and the sliders. They were very delicious.”
In the upstairs room of the restaurant, attendees could bid on a wide variety of silent auction items, including a custom built chicken coop constructed by Peterson himself.
“I heard from some of the people organizing the silent auction,” the director said. “Last year it was a lot of explaining of who we were and what we were about. This year people said, ‘Oh, I love the work you do and I loved working with you last year. I’d be happy to donate again.’”
Peterson said Grow Memphis, which became its own independent non-profit in 2011, focuses a lot on events to raise funds and to get the word out about their mission.
“We do a plant sale every spring at Idlewild Presbyterian Church,” he said, “where we sell plants that we produce with our network of gardeners. The sales go to offset the cost of providing the same plants for free to our community gardeners.”
Bristerfest, a neighborhood music festival held every April also benefits Grow Memphis.
“This year we had our inaugural Memphis Tour de Coop,” Peterson explained, “a bike tour of backyard chicken coops and community gardens which we will continue to do each fall.”
He also cited support from a growing network of grassroots donors, many of whom come to know Grow Memphis through contact at local farmers markets, and noted that funding is received from local philanthropic groups, particularly The Community Foundation and The Hyde Foundation.
Peterson was anxious to share information about several upcoming events, including the co-sponsorship of the Vanderhaar Symposium at his alma mater Christian Brothers University next March.
“We’re bringing in Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network,” he said. “He does a lot of work on the way race impacts the food system, which I think is something we don’t talk enough about in our context.”
The Food Advisory Council which Peterson’s group helps spearhead will host a film screening on Nov. 14 at Crosstown Arts of “A Place at the Table” to raise awareness of how policy affects issues such as food insecurity and hunger in the city.
But even with these important events looming ahead for the organization, Peterson remained excited about the success of the past weekend’s Garden Party fundraiser.
“The most significant thing for me was that we were able to get a really diverse cross section of people who work with us,” he said. “We had some of our major funders there -- people we work with in coalitions, and even a good showing of our community gardeners at the event. That’s what we like to see – not just an event to raise money, but an event that’s really representative of the diversity of our organization.”