Five hundred merrymakers dressed “Western festive” descended on the Lockhart Ranch pastures last week for a night of cocktails and heaps of fresh food.

The popularity of the fifth annual Slow Food in the Tetons farm-to-table celebration exemplified the area’s increasing support for what Slow Food in the Tetons Executive Director Scott Steen called “good, clean and fair food.”

The crowd was a mix of returning devotees and eager first-timers who had heard about the shindig for years, but were just finally able to make the anticipated event. And what’s not to love about a ranch party? It’s a big community dinner party with food so fresh you can look the rancher, farmer or chef in the eye as they serve up delicious dishes.

Ninety percent of the menu — from the colorful Slow Food Green Salad to the rustic peach and berry cobbler dessert — was made locally, said Ian McGregor, a Slow Food in the Tetons board member and cooking camp leader. The kids in his camp were responsible for whipping up a salad and serving dinners from the back of a Lockhart tractor.

What started as a small dinner with food trucks has grown into a signature summer event. Besides the 500 diners the dinner combined the help of over 25 local and regional farms, gardens, kitchens and businesses.

Just as diners were licking their plates clean and heading up to the tractor for dessert — or seconds of Chef Bradley Pryor of the Amangani’s decadent truffle potato dauphinoise — an intense mountain wind whipped across the roadside ranch. Unruly tableclothes flipped over water glasses, loose lettuce flew off of plates, the canopy covering the washing station turned inside out. Everyone was soon on their feet to help to get the dinner back in order.

“I loved how when the wind picked up we got a lot of self-selected volunteers helping out,” Steen said.

While the wind didn’t show any signs of slowing, at the same time a technicolored Wyoming sunset came to dominate the sky. Those who were prepared to brave the storm ended the evening with a private 50-person concert from Canyon Kids, a local band primarily consisting of two frontmen who consistently bring in other local musicians to round out their ensemble.

In all senses the Lockhart Ranch party encapsulated the values and spirit of the the Slow Food movement in general, bringing a community together to appreciate the valued time, hard work and unpredictability of life’s most basic task: feeding ourselves.

But with enough hands on deck, it all becomes possible.

An international movement

Slow Food was begun by Carlo Petrini in 1986 in Italy. What started as a local assemblage of farmers, chefs and food providers opposing the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome has grown into an international movement and consciousness that extends beyond the organization and its many chapters.

As an alternative to the rise of fast food, Slow Food encourages preserving local agricultural practices and traditional cuisines to support communities and ecosystems. There are 150 Slow Food chapters in the United States.

With an emphasis on preserving local traditions, each chapter more or less operates autonomously. The Teton chapter opened a decade ago to bring “good, clean and fair food” to the greater Jackson area.

In the eyes of the Slow Food movement that means buying from local and regional producers as much as possible. Buying local food is good in three ways, Steen said: It’s better for your health, it supports your community and it’s better for the environment.

Small local farms operate in entirely different ways from the industrial chemical food industry that’s so ingrained in our sociopolitical environment — and even our taste buds.

“While buying food from your local farmers market is seen as more expensive, from a nutrition standpoint you get what you pay for,” Steen said.

Don’t underestimate Hippocrates, who said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Ultimately, buying food that comes from healthier soil and that doesn’t have to be transported is better for your health, will make you feel better, and will likely help you save money down the road in terms of health care, Steen said.

Strength in diversity

Huidekoper Ranch has been home to a family-run horse and hay operation since 1954. In 2016 the family started a new venture: On one corner of the ranch, Brent Tyc, who married into the Huidekoper family, and Alex Feher, an ambitious young farmer, started growing vegetables organically on a half-acre of land. They sell their produce to Whole Grocer, Aspens Market and local restaurants.

For the Lockhart party the contributed vegetables went into the salad and the ratatouille made by Cafe Genevieve’s Chef Remle Colestock.

The operation at Huidekoper Ranch isn’t organic, at least not USDA-certified organic. That certification takes a lot of money and years to obtain.

Instead, the two-man operation produces vegetables that are “grown organically.” They also use biodynamic practices, a spiritual approach to farming that uses lunar and astrological calendars, but that’s another matter.

Every time regulations are adopted or rescinded by the USDA, the word “organic” itself loses meaning, they said.

To them, organic means being small scale and using nonindustrial-style growing practices. The operation must be as self-sufficient as possible. Most importantly it means taking a holistic approach to farming — where the harvest improves the land rather than degrades it.

For Feher, it all comes down to soil, “Feed your soil, and feed yourself.”

He compared plant soil to the human microbiota, the universe of microorganisms that live inside and are a part of us. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil means healthy, nutritious plants.

Lots of certified “organic” operations, he said, do the minimum to meet soil improvement qualifications. The biggest issue he sees with large-scale, USDA-certified farms is that they are monocrop operations.

“When you buy strawberries from large organic farms, those farms are still monocropping,” Feher said.

He explained that monocropping practices degrade soil quality. It also makes plants more susceptible to diseases that can destroy an entire harvest, the types of diseases that require harmful pesticides to fight off.

The dependency on one crop can also be at the whim of political decisions. Right now the China-imposed soybean tariff is crushing farmers of the second-largest financially important crop in the U.S., the USDA says.

In nature, as in life, there is strength in diversity.

Knowing that labels are misleading, trudging through the grocery store can seem a gargantuan task.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s enough to put your hands up and say ‘I don’t care,’” Steen said.

“The simplest thing is to just talk to your farmer.”

Tyc’s dream is to make Jackson 100 percent food self-sufficient. It would take a lot of coordination, manpower, changes and time, but it’s possible.

Jackson is no California

We have long, harsh winters and hot (but not too hot), arid summers. Jackson Hole may not seem like the easiest place to grow all of our own food, but local farmers and gardeners assert it’s not impossible.

McGregor, who was born and raised in Jackson, wants to dispel the myths about growing food in the Tetons.

For one, not all plants like warmth, he said. Certain vegetables, including lettuce, carrots and Brussels sprouts, thrive in colder climates.

“Sugar acts like an antifreeze in plant tissue,” he said. “Colder temperatures actually make carrots sweeter.”

Steen pointed to other areas of the world that are a lot better at growing and eating locally, including northern Europe, Japan and South Korea that are at a latitude comparable to Jackson.

“We have a harsh growing climate, but we can do a lot more,” he said. “I think that growing season argument seems like a crutch to lean on.”

Despite the challenges to creating an abundance of locally grown food, there is an insatiable appetite for it. The dozen or so farms in the area, Tyc said, can’t keep up with demand.

Restaurants are buying up produce from local providers, understanding that their customers also see the value in participating in this movement. It may cost a little more, but it tastes better and it feels better.

In 2017 the Wednesday People’s Market, organized by Slow Food in the Tetons, put $150,000 worth of revenue back into the community.

Today: local ingredients

Slow Food is hosting its second “local ingredients day” from 3 to 5 p.m. today at the People’s Market, at the base of Snow King. Every vendor is required to use one local main ingredient in their dishes, and encouraged to use more if possible.

Price may go up, but Steen is counting on enough people seeing that it’s because ingredients are local and saying, “Hell yes, that makes a difference for me. I’m going to pay for that.”

Feher said that a new generation of farmers in America are at the forefront of the international movement back to incorporating slow, truly organic agriculture practices.

In 2017 the USDA census showed that for the second time in the last century the number of farmers under the age of 35 was increasing. Sixty-nine percent of these new young farmers had college degrees, which is almost double the average across the general population.

“People from all around the world are coming here to learn from farmers here,” Feher said.

The Lockhart Ranch party and the couple dozen or so businesses it brought together are a part of a movement towards more mindful food and life choices. There are too many food allergies, cancers, strip malls of burger chains and hours spent behind screens for people to not start caring about what goes into their bodies.

Slow Food’s McGregor is passionate about educating the Jackson community, particularly kids, about how to make better food choices. In 2017 Slow Food in the Tetons taught cooking classes for close to 100 kids.

McGregor thinks it’s important for kids to learn at a young age how to be comfortable in a kitchen. Handing a 10 year old a knife is empowering. It teaches them responsibility. Responsibility teaches them confidence. But it’s more than that.

“It’s the idea that every bite you take has an impact on the world,” he said. “That your purchasing power and your taste buds can have an impact.”

Visit Slow Food in the Tetons at TetonSlowFood.org to find information on upcoming events and initiatives, and how to find locally grown food near you. 

Contact Julie Kukral at 732-7062, entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com or @JHNGscene.

Scene Editor Billy Arnold covers arts and entertainment. He apprenticed as a sound engineer at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio before making his way to Jackson, where he has become a low-key fan of country music.

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