Leslie Cooperband, co-owner of Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, is talking with some guests when she notices a baby goat clambering into a flower planter, intent on sampling the blooms.
Chatting all the while, she steps over and gently lifts the baby goat out of the flowers, nuzzling it and murmuring, “You are just so bad, so bad.”
You’d never dream her dairy goat biz mentor once worried, “How do you know you’ll even like goats?”
These irrepressible dairy goats are always up to something here at Prairie Fruits Farm, which Leslie runs with her partner, Wes Jarrell. Spreading out along an unlined stretch of narrow blacktop outside Champaign-Urbana, the farm has become a major player in the Illinois natural and local foods movement.
I’m one of about 30 guests here today for a Backyard BBQ, one of the themed farm dinners offered from spring through late fall. We’re a happy, casual group, sipping cold drinks and making conversation in the shade of a towering silver maple.
One of the first things you see driving into the farm, aside from wide open fields, endless flowers and a rusty old windmill rising over two long, shaded tables set for dinner, is a pen of “retired” goats eager to say hello.
This herd of friendly milking goats supply the farm’s popular menu of chevre, or goat cheeses, which are widely available, most notably at green food stores in Chicago. Gifted Windy City chefs, such as Paul Virant of Vie and Perennial Virant, have added the farm’s products to their dishes as well.
But the dinners at Prairie Fruits Farm go far beyond cheese, starting with the hors d’oeuvres table. My favorite? Johnnycakes with goat sausage amplified by an astonishing banana pepper and corn relish.
“It reminds me of my dad’s grandmother; she used to make relishes like that,” grins Ray Lantz, a dinner guest from Gibson City.
Meanwhile, a brood of sweet-tea brined, pastured chickens sizzle on the wood-fired grill, filling the air with a tantalizing scent. Appetites sharpen as we pepper Chef Alisa DeMarco with questions about the brine mixture, about cooking time and what is a “pastured chicken,” anyway?
“Pastured is different from free range,” says Chef Alisa, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. “It means they are actually out in a pasture eating grass, seeds and bugs.”
As we tour the naturally tended orchard with Leslie, she talks about the Belle of Georgia peaches and Moonglow pears they grow, and about the wide-ranging forage the goats enjoy on the farm, from pastures to restored prairie.
She laughs. “If they had their way they’d be back here in the orchard. This is their favorite food.”
“And sometimes they get it,” adds Dani D’Antonio, who with her orchard co-manager Erica Taylor is picking up fallen fruit, an important organic tactic to control disease.
The late afternoon sun paints the countryside in shades of peach and fawn as we take our seats at the dinner tables. The air is already scented by the herb garden just steps away. Anticipation turns to delight as staffers Elena and Maureen carry in family-style platters loaded with summer squash casserole and a smoky grilled summer slaw that includes toasted pecans, green onions and pickled vegetables.
“We thought, what should we do that somebody would look at and say, ‘No way would I do that; it’s too much work,’” Chef Alisa tells us.
The result is beyond memorable.
“I’ve never had a bad meal here,” says dinner guest Lisa Frerichs, who holds a heavy serving platter as I spoon out fried green tomatoes with pepper chevre and pickled peaches. “Peaches with fried green tomatoes? Who would think of combining them?” she exclaims. “But it’s great!”
Across the white-linen tablecloth her husband, Jeff, a local dentist, chews and nods in heartfelt if silent agreement.
Soon, serving dishes arrive heaped with falling-apart smoked beef brisket that started slow-cooking early this morning. “It’s really hard to get brisket cut the right way in Illinois,” Chef Alisa says. She spent time in Austin, Texas, where they know a bit about brisket. She brought that Texas knowledge back with her.
We follow up with platters bearing those sweet-tea-brined chickens and finally get to wrap our taste buds around the tangy deliciousness the aroma was promising earlier. The meat seems tender but firmer, more substantial than most commercial poultry.
As we enjoy the meal and move on to goat cheese samples and then a huge wedge of lemon balm and honey gelato pie made from goat’s milk, Leslie talks about the surrounding Somer Township, where German immigrants settled the combination “wet prairie” and “big grove” forest. Many of their descendants are still her neighbors.
The sun by now is a rosy ball filling the western sky with long streaks as red as a dwindling glass of Les Heretiques wine. I can’t help thinking of guest Roy Lantz talking earlier about his father’s grandmother and her own long-ago relish recipes.
The truth is, none of this is new—the tradition of country tables groaning with heaping platters of food grown just steps away goes way, way back. We’re just rediscovering it—to our considerable delight.
Or as Roy put it earlier as he headed back for another serving of johnnycake, “I expect everybody’s great grandmother used to cook like this.” We nod. “I hope you’re not recording every time I go through the line,” he laughs.
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