A French Picnic (But Not Quite In Manet’s Style)

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From Gene Logsdon

By the most curious of circumstances, I was a guest recently at a sumptuous “French picnic” hosted by one the most famous chefs in America and at the behest of one of the most successful farmer’s markets in America. But for the sake of complete transparency, as they say, I must admit right up front that I am not a gourmet of French cooking, and in fact my first thought upon being invited to a French picnic was to wonder, apprehensively, if it might be like Edouard Manet’s famously controversial painting, The Picnic in which the female participants are naked. Alas it was not to be, but the event was in every other respect, exciting, exquisite and enjoyable.

The chef was Parker Bosley, whom I like to refer to as the Alice Waters of Ohio, but really, (no harm meant, Alice) I think it would be just as accurate to say that Alice Waters is the Parker Bosley of the West Coast. I have known Parker a long time and have written about him several times, although that is not why I was invited to the picnic, as I will explain by and by. Parker was raised on a dairy farm in Ohio, as I was, and never lost either his taste for good, fresh, seasonal food straight from the farm or garden, nor the ability to work long and hard, as farm life instilled in him. Parker had a dream inspired by the time he spent as a young man in southern France. One of his favorite pastimes then was to dine at little village restaurants there. The food was invariably good. Very often it was locally grown and identified, casually or on the menu, by the farmer who produced it. One might even possibly meet the farmer, also dining at the restaurant. Parker was sure that idea would work in America too, and set out to make it happen.

He apprenticed himself to famous chefs in Paris and then back in Cleveland, which was close to the rural area where he grew up. He opened his own restaurant in Cleveland, which eventually, at another location, became known far and wide as Parker’s New American Bistro. He searched unceasingly to find local growers for his food and often worked with them to grow the varieties and breeds that he wanted in the way that he wanted them raised, that is by organic and ecological methods. His restaurant became a mecca for gourmets from all over, and won about as much acclaim as any restaurant could. Gourmet magazine named Parker as one of the top 30 chefs in the country. The Zagat Survey out of New York regularly gave his restaurant its highest ratings and called Parker a culinary genius.

But the reason I got to know Parker had little to do with his reputation as a chef, at least not at first. I found him through his wonderfully cranky letters in a regional farm magazine of the area, Farm and Dairy, in which he displayed absolute fearlessness in his criticism of how American agribusiness was ruining food. Reading them I would just die laughing in agreement. I knew I had to meet the guy. That’s how I learned that he was a famous chef. He was also giving the learned professors at Ohio State fits by pointing out that he could not use the factory food they were supporting in the School of Agriculture because it was too tasteless. Today, the learned professors work closely with Parker, but that is another story.

In 2005, Parker closed his restaurant and took on the job of Vice President of the North Union Farmer’s Market which is headed up by another remarkable person, Donita Anderson. The market now has six locations in the Cleveland area. Donita and Parker work unceasingly not just to further the market itself, but to unite local restaurants and farmers together to bring local, seasonal food to consumers. One of their fund-raising ideas for the market was to auction off to the highest bidder, a French picnic served up by Parker. (Maybe a good idea for any farmer’s market?)

By the most whimsical chance (honest, I didn’t know this was going on) my cousin, David Logsdon was high bidder at the auction. I only knew him a little before the picnic. He is president of Wayne Homes, a home construction business, lives in the Cleveland area, and our paths crossed earlier only at family reunions and the like. He did know I was well acquainted with Parker because he and his wife Jan dined regularly at Parker’s restaurant. So by and by I get an email from him, telling me that my wife and I were invited to a party, a French picnic, whatever that was, prepared by Parker Bosley, served by Donita Anderson and hosted by Don Vanderbrook in his gorgeous gardens at Claystone Farm. (He is a renowned floral designer in the Cleveland area. When I asked him why the name, Claystone, he replied: “If you would have tried to work with the soil here when I first started, you wouldn’t have to ask.”)

The table was set decorously with flowers from the surrounding gardens. There were about a dozen people in attendance, all my family. The scene was so dreamlike and heavenly, we never once got into an argument which is very unusual for the Logsdon family. As I have warned you, I do not know a fromage from a cabbage, but relying on Patti Gill, a more civilized member of our family, here’s what we ate: Hors d’oeuvres: mini-tarts of caramelized onion and Roquefort cheese topping, puff pastry basil bread sticks, and freshly-picked (from the garden nearby) yellow cherry tomatoes. Next came cold tomato soup with basil and fresh baguette slices. I would have preferred the soup warm, but this was a French picnic, my wife reminded me through gimlet eyes, and you have to be prepared to rough it a little on a picnic, right, Gene? That was followed by a flan, yes, a flan, (look it up—I had to) of shrimp and fish with a homemade mayonnaise topping drizzled on. Next, the main entree: pork tenderloin with a parsley-olive oil-and-garlic topping, dilled, crisp carrots, and fingerling and new potatoes with a mustard sauce over them. All washed down by excellent wines that David provided. (Is it proper to use the verb “washed down” referring to wine at a French picnic?) By now I figured I had really been transported back into the heavenly, dreamy world of a Manet painting even if everyone did have clothes on, but the best was yet to come: a dessert of pear tart with a lemon verbena dressing. The verbena came from Parker’s own gardens, and the rest of the food from local farms and Don Vanderbook’s gardens, so I was obviously still not quite in paradise. Or would it be more appropriate to say that what I learned on this lovely day was that we could all have paradise on earth if we really put our minds to it.
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon
have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author: The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) 2007
Gene’s latest book: The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Image Credits: Edouard Manet, Patti Gill
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