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Setting the table

(article, Deborah Madison)

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While I love to set a pretty table, I don’t actually think about it all that much when it comes to having a dinner party. I rely on my dishes, a few candles, some flowers or greenery from the garden, and big white linen napkins. 

I’ve given up tablecloths of late; they seem too fussy, somehow. I like to have a lot of little salt dishes scattered about so they’re always within easy reach of anyone who wants a sprinkle. And that’s about it. 

But when I attended a book fair and food event in Las Vegas the other day, I found myself making a centerpiece for a table. One of the competitors had failed to show for the table-decorating competition, leaving a big round table waiting to be decorated.

[%image veg float=right width=300 caption="Table toppers."]

In an effort to escape the casino where I was housed and have time to talk with the two farmers who would constitute the farmers' market, I had arrived early at the book event. While we were chatting, I overheard my host cornering a friend of hers, another early arrival, asking her to please decorate that table! 

And since I had time, I offered to help. We had a tête-à-tête and decided that I’d do the centerpiece while she drove home to get dishes and glasses and all of that. Then she’d finish up while I gave my talk. And that’s exactly what happened.

What did I have to work with? Why, the farmers’ produce, of course! There was a handsome cushaw squash, a lot of interesting varieties and sizes of sweet potatoes — none of which you’ll find in the supermarket — and little Fairy Tale eggplants along with bigger, darker purple varieties. Tiny, colorful, hot chile peppers could be used by the handful. There were blushing small apples and some handsome, almost russeted Galas, plus tiny carrots with their long green fronds, Fairchild tangerines, satsumas, and more. We didn’t begin to use all that was there.

One of the two farms, Gilcrease Orchards, lies within the city limits of Las Vegas. Established in 1920, it's now run as a nonprofit and works, in part, as a U-pick operation. At least five people at the festival told me what a treasure it was for Las Vegas, which I can certainly believe. Las Vegas is place that could use some farms!

The other farm, Joe Van Dyke’s, is located in Blythe, California. It’s a commercial farm of about 900 acres; it also does smaller plantings of vegetables and fruits for its farm stand, and sells at farmers' markets. At first I reacted to their not being local, but in fact, they’re about 200 miles from Las Vegas — not that far in the West — and there’s not a lot of farming going on between the two places.  

“Local” has to be defined for each place, especially in climatically challenged areas like deserts. (Although with water, food will grow in the desert, even in Las Vegas, as Gilcrease Orchards proves.) Anyone who’s been to Las Vegas knows there’s a lot of water available for pools, giant fish tanks, fountains, moats, and canals that might be directed towards farming. I know, I’m dreaming. Las Vegas is another world. It makes no sense, but there it is.

[%image table float=right width=400 caption="The winning table."]

But decorating a harvest table (a Thanksgiving table, perhaps?) does make sense. Ours was quite a display, beautiful all on its own, and cause for reflection about the true bounty we are so fortunate to have. (We even won a prize!) 

I’ll be spending Thanksgiving Day in my brother’s olive-oil shed. I know that a long table will be set up next to the press, one that will accommodate far more people than our family’s numbers. I suspect branches of olives will be running down the center, maybe a few lemons among them. I’ll certainly offer to help with that, and I’ll bet I won’t be the only one. 

Wishing all of you at Culinate a beautiful day of Thanksgiving.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

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