In the summer of 2020, when so many businesses were shuttered, outdoor farmers’ markets found their true time to shine. They may have had to require masks and space their booths farther apart than normal, but they were cherished as the safest places to get food – and fresh, locally sourced food at that.
This summer, the COVID rules have been relaxed, the vendors are closer together, the live music and kids’ activities are back. And the Saugerties Farmers’ Market – now in its 20th year of operation – is able once again to hold its much-loved fundraising extravaganza, the Harvest Home Dinners series. The first one happens this week, August 26, and subsequent dates are filling up fast.
Imagine being invited to an intimate dinner party – 12 guests maximum – at the lovely home of some excellent chefs, with a menu designed around the availability of the freshest seasonal produce from local farms. What, doesn’t everybody have friends that talented and generous? Well, what if you could buy your way into such an invitation, at a mystery location, at a price that doesn’t exceed a typical “fancy” dinner out for some special occasion? And what if you knew that $65-per-person tab was going toward supporting a good community cause?
Sounds hard to resist, doesn’t it? Some people do it year after year. A few go multiple times during each Harvest Home season. Some sign up with a “pod” of friends. And well-heeled supporters sometimes buy up the whole table on a particular night. Taking full control of what company you have for that special dinner evening certainly has its appeal, but there’s also something to be said for showing up solo and meeting a bunch of interesting new people over a sumptuous meal. After more than a year of cocooning and learning to enjoy one’s own company, it’s difficult to imagine a more delightful way to emerge into society once more.
The Harvest Home Dinners were initiated in 2006, according to Judith Spektor, who was a co-founder, with her husband, Barry Benepe, of the Saugerties Farmers’ Market, and who remains its volunteer coordinator to this day. The committee running the market was brainstorming fundraising ideas, since there’s a full-time market manager and weekly performers who need to get paid somehow. Some of the market’s organizers and supporters were noted chefs, including Saugerties restaurateurs Rickie and James Tamayo, and there were others not so famous who were willing to play host, either doing the cooking themselves or hiring outside chefs to prepare the special meal.
The problem was how to spread out attendance. “We thought, ‘Everybody’s going to want to reserve at Jimmy Tamayo’s house.’ It was at that moment we decided to do it by the date,” Spektor explains. And that’s how it has worked, to this very day: You pick the day you want to attend a dinner, but you don’t get told the identity of your hosts or where they live until well after you’ve paid for your ticket. Only two people know for sure who’s hosting when – Spektor and Harvest Home organizer Diane Congello-Brandes – and they’re not even telling the rest of the market’s Board of Directors. The schedule only specifies which dates feature vegetarian meals. If you’re friends with someone who’s a regular host, you might be able to find out from them what date they chose; but that would spoil the surprise, wouldn’t it? A splendid time is guaranteed for all, no matter where and with whom you end up.
“The host not only opens the house, sets the table and is the social greeter, but they pay for the food, so all the money goes to the market,” says Spektor. Guests are expected to bring their own bottle of wine, but often the host will also mix a specialty cocktail and serve it in a different part of the house from where you’ll sit down to dinner or dessert – perhaps on a porch or patio, if the weather is nice, or in front of a fireplace later in the season. A market board member will typically kick things off with a two-minute welcome speech to remind attendees of the good cause the dinner is supporting, and then it’s pure enjoyment for the rest of the evening.
There’s a strong expectation that as much of the ingredients as possible for the dinners will be obtained from regular Saugerties Farmers’ Market vendors. “Our purpose is to keep the farmers farming and help them do well,” Spektor says. “It’s all about saving farmland, enjoying delicious food and enjoying social connections with people.”
The schedule of Harvest Home Dinners for 2021 includes 11 evenings, one of them already fully booked. The open dates are August 26, September 11, 18, 25 and 28 and October 3, 9, 13, 17 and 22. To reserve your spot, you’ll need to download the application form at https://saugertiesfarmersmarket.com/harvest-home-dinners-flyer, fill it out and return it with a check and proof of vaccination to Congello-Brandes. Bon appétit!