There are small towns and there are small towns. At their worst, they can be stifling and boring. At their best, they are a marvel of community with everyone banding together and showing a spirit and comradery that simply can not be beaten. The small town of Salem, N.Y. along with its sister towns in eastern Washington County certainly fits into the latter category. A town immersed in farms and art, there is no shortage of beauty, creativity and productivity. Nothing demonstrates that more than the annual Salem Courthouse Al Fresco dinner, which has taken place towards the end of July for most of this decade. Founded and run by local resident and culinary journalist, Annette Nielsen, the concept was based on an experience that she and her husband had attending a similar civic banquet in Siena, Italy just prior to the famed Palio horse race of that city. They were so impressed by how each of the city's contradas or neighborhoods would convene over a great feast under the stars just prior to the race and how it built civic pride and a sense of togetherness. The concept was brought to Salem as a means to take advantage of and foster community spirit and a way to raise funds for the restoration of the old Courthouse building, a central, historic, but rundown structure within the community. As the years have progressed and the dinners come and gone, the building has indeed seen improvements and has been put to good use housing a community kitchen as well as a new community garden.
The Al Fresco dinner utilizes the talents and products of the local community to provide an evening of food, convivality and entertainment for approximately 400 people. Set adjacent to the courthouse and next to a farm, the scene is as bucolic as a dinner for so many people can be. The meal starts with tables full of many of the finest cheeses of the area as well as hors douvre's passed around by the volunteer staff. In the meantime, a local band, The Roadside Blues Band was playing spirited music. A silent auction took place in an adjacent barn featuring crafts and services donated by talented and generous community members. My wife and I bid on and won a fantastic raspberry pie and 10 pounds of blueberry picking from a local farm, Garden Works as well as a dinner for four including pairings at Suvir Saran's and Hemant Mathur's great NYC Indian restaurant, Devi.
With blue skies overhead and green fields beside us, it was impossible not to be infected with happiness and warmth. The food, delivered family style by the army of young volunteers, was really no more than adequate, but given the overall experience, that was good enough and didn't really matter in the grand scheme. Given the logistical difficulties of preparing a meal for so many, it is remarkable that it is as good as it is. An opening salad consisting of greens, cherry tomatoes and sheep's milk feta was quite tasty with the feta elevating the dish beyond the ordinary. Meats served included a juicy, flavorful sausage made by the local market and marinated chicken. The chicken, unfortunately was dry and bland and was the chief reason I label the meal merely adequate. Roasted vegetables, corn on the cob and rosemary red potatoes were good, although cold by the time they arrived at the tables. Dessert, a strawberry rhubarb cobbler, whipped cream and berries was the highlight of the meal, the epitome of country life on a plate. Despite the meals limitations, the evening was a grand one, punctuated by the always festive Mettawee River Theater Company and their incredible Sendakian costumes.
Centered around food, but focused on community and the community building aspects of the growing, cooking and dining experience, this annual event is the embodiment of the Slow Food USA slogan of "good, clean & fair." That it is so richly supported by this wonderful community is no surprise and is an example of the kind of success that a motivated community, however small, can pull together to achieve.