Greene School Locavores and the 100-Mile-Radius Dinner
After their final exams but before they could head out to the beach, students at the Greene School took on a class-driven culinary project that would impress any celebrity chef:
On a balmy Friday evening in June, an assembled group of ninth and tenth graders prepared a five-course dinner for their parents. Impressive enough—but theirs was made entirely of ingredients sourced within 100 miles of the West Greenwich charter school.
Except for salt and pepper, the food for this creative meal came from within the confines of eastern Connecticut, north to the area around Worcester, Massachusetts, and to the tip of Long Island for whole-wheat grain.
The formal repast for 52 guests was served in a wood and stone lodge at Canonicus Conference Center in Exeter on tables set with flowers, china and linen cloths. “Presentation is important,” said School Board member Amy Pratt. “It shows respect for the meal.”
Sixteen novice cooks worked under the supervision of Adam Litvinoff, an English teacher who loves food. History teacher Elizabeth Marsh also helped with the meal. It took five days of collaborative menu planning, learning basic kitchen skills, ordering food through Farm Fresh RI and other local sources to produce the year-end gastronomic feast. The week also included a visit to a restaurant kitchen (Tallulah on Thames in Newport) and eight hours of meal prep at the Nordic Lodge in Charlestown on the day before the dinner.
It’s a challenge to make a savory meal without oil, citrus, white flour or sugar.
“Maple syrup is our best friend for dessert,” said student Julia Charlebois, a senior who has been through the heat of this kitchen exercise before.
As the student locavores leafed through How to Cook Everything and other cookbooks from Adam’s collection, they struggled to find substitutes for ingredients that originate far from home. Kassandra Lawrence, 15, of Coventry, suggested a braised pork butt with jalapeño cheddar polenta, but needed a substitute for the bourbon called for in the recipe. One source on her laptop suggested nonalcoholic sparkling cider.
Mathew Nelson of West Greenwich had an easier recipe—a raw vegetable salad garnished with aged goat cheese and walnuts (“for crunch”) and cranberries (frozen, from last year’s crop). The greens would come from his dad’s greenhouse.
This was the third 100-mile-radius dinner put on by the tuition-free school that opened in 2010 with an emphasis on environmental studies. The annual end-of-theyear exercise teaches students about local agriculture and the benefits of responsible land use, explains Adam Litvinoff. Math skills are required too: It takes a lot of calculating “to turn a four-serving recipe into banquet-sized portions,” he said.
The Greene School is located deep in the woods of this rural town but it has an ethnically and economically diverse student population from all over the state. The food and other expenses for the meal are covered by the sale of tickets: $75 per person, $125 a couple.
Board member and dinner guest Dick West grew up in a small farming community in New York State. He wasn’t surprised at the professional quality of the meal.
“It’s important for the kids to understand that such good food can be made from local ingredients,” said West, who lives in Coventry. “That’s the way we grew up.”
The first-time chefs had help from experienced older students, who recalled kitchen nightmares from previous dinners. Samira Lazar, 17, remembers the disaster of the main dish quiches from two years ago. “I would say every single one of them burned,” said the senior from Wakefield. Julia Charlebois of Coventry explains what happened. “When dinner comes it’s really stressful. The eventspace kitchen doesn’t have an oven and it’s really a scramble to get things ready.”
But mostly there have been triumphs. Two years ago the soup course was garnished with a seared sea scallop. Student Andrew Presley carved and cooked potatoes to create a vegetarian alternative. The results were so realistic that the student servers couldn’t tell the copycat potatoes from the real scallops.
Turning teenagers with knives loose in a busy kitchen may seem like a recipe for disaster. But on the day before the dinner the young chefs worked diligently, peeling, chopping and stirring in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Sophomore Erinn Cookson, who was responsible for three menu items, made stock from vegetable scraps.
“It’s full of vegetable-y goodness,” she said. The students began by making small samples for their instructors, who tasted and made adjustments—more strawberries to sweeten the rhubarb, geometric shapes for the polenta.
During eight hours of prep work the young chefs got to chop, freeze, sear, braise, bake and blanch ingredients from local producers— chevre from Beltane Farm in Connecticut, vegetables from Four Town Farm in Massachusetts. Narragansett Creamery, Schartner Farms and Aquidneck Farms were just a few of the Rhode Island suppliers. Even the butter and crackers were made from scratch.
Friday was a 10-hour day from setup to cleanup. But it ended with a standing ovation from the happy diners.
“Besides being an incredible meal and a wonderful evening, this whole experience was life changing for these kids,” said board member Jennifer Sherer of Providence. Their families lead busy lives, she explained, and they often take meal shortcuts by serving take-out at home or dining in fast-food eateries. “This gives them a view into another way of eating.”
This was Haley Flannigan’s third year of working the dinner. “We’re exhausted but happy at the end,” says the 16-year-old from Cranston. “It always turns out really well and the parents are really proud.”
Every guest was given a gift to remember the culinary occasion—a red oak cheeseboard made by the students and packed with local cheese, crackers and jam.
For more information visit TGSRI.org.
The Greene School 100-Mile-Radius Dinner Menu (2013)
Hors d’Oeuvre: Beet, Spinach and Goat Cheese Roulade
Amuse-Bouche: Chilled Snap Pea Soup with Mint and Honey
1st Course: Swiss Chard Charlotte (a molded egg and potato custard)
2nd Course: Seared Scallop with Garlic and Tomato Soup
3rd Course: Braised Beef with Polenta and Kale Chips –or– Spring Vegetable Ragout of
Mushrooms, Carrots and Peas
4th Course: Cow’s Milk Cheese with Carrot Jam and Mixed Grain Crackers
5th Course: Strawberry Sorbet with Rhubarb Sauce and Maple Whipped Cream