Pa. farms offer settings for locally grown food

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jacob Mains is going a different direction with the farm-to-table dinner concept.

Instead of bringing area farmers' products to dinner tables, he is bringing diners to the farms.

"I am trying to make the connection between what we eat and the farms where it comes from," says Mains, the chef at Shanopin Country Club in Ben Avon. "I have always been interested in food and health. This is a way of showing how to eat without additives and all of that stuff."

Mains is launching the second season of Farmer's Table Dinners, which are meals served on area farms. In 2013, he put together eight of the events. This year, he has 10 scheduled on five farms and says more could develop. Reservations are limited to 75 people at each dinner.

"We are growing with the farmers," he says. "Our business model is that we will grow at a pace where we can always stay in touch with the farmers."

The dinners are tablecloth affairs on the farms, generally outside, but sometimes under tents or even in barns if the weather demands. The farm seasons can affect plans, too, Mains says. One dinner was scheduled so it would not interfere with the barn during hay-cutting seasons.

Some events feature music, all are BYOB, and they include talks with the farmers about what and how they grow their specialties.

Jane Lewis, whose farm is in Beaver County near Zelienople in Butler, is scheduled to host two dinners after participating in 2013.

"It was a wonderful experience," she says. "Jacob is an outstanding chef. I keep an open mind and like to try new things."

The dinners' five courses feature the products of the farms on which they are held. For instance, the Lewis farm is the home of grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken, so the meals there will be centered on meat.

But, Mains adds products of other farms in the region to create items such as zucchini cake and gooseberry custard that go with cheese, soups, salad and fruit.

The menus can handle vegetarian demands, too.

Janet McKee is a new participant in the Farmer's Table Dinners. She sees the dinners as the "perfect opportunity" to show off the farm she has owned for only a year and to advance the ideas of healthy eating she has been lecturing about for 15 years. McKee produces organic vegetables on her Sanaview Farms in Westmoreland County near Seven Springs Mountain Resort.

Her farming reflects her work as a lecturer in universities, hospitals and community centers on healthful eating. In part, those talks focus on the advantages of eating local produce that hasn't been robbed of its nutrients when it is shipped thousands of miles.

"This is a way of presenting fabulous food, as well as teaching about eating healthy," she says.

Those two accomplishments prompted the idea for the dinners in the first place, Mains says. After graduating from Penn-Trafford High School, he attended Westmoreland County Community College and Youngstown State University, studying areas as varied as nursing and math. But, while working on a farm in the Fox Chapel area, his interest in health and fresh food grew into the thought of putting together dinners at sites where the food comes from.

That farm experience also made him aware of the richness of the Pittsburgh area in farming. He says he hopes to spread that knowledge through the dinners.

"I'm not interested in creating a trend, but in developing a sense of reality," he says.

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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