An Ipswich farmer gets active by getting together
Dinner parties will save the world. And women will be cooking.
That was Caitlin Kenney’s vision last winter.
It was born in January, with the help of her friends, at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
The owner of Plough in the Stars Farm in Ipswich, Kenney, 36, grew up on Argilla Road, one of the Commonwealth’s most scenic byways, which threads from Ipswich’s historic South Green, through the estuaries of Choate Creek, past acres of fields filled with corn, abandoned apple trees, and newer well-pruned orchards, through scenic salt marshes to Castle Hill, the mansion built in 1928 by Richard Crane, and on to the white sands of Crane Beach, which sits at Argilla’s terminus.
Long before the Cranes settled on that hill, John Winthrop, Jr., son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, recognized the potential of this very fertile land. A succession of New Englanders farmed it for the next 200 years.
In her memoir, The Orchard, Adele Crockett Robinson describes her efforts to save her family’s Argilla Farm during the Depression. It is a dramatic story of farming’s brutally physical demands, and a story of a woman answering those demands alone.
Of the three large orchards that once lined Argilla, only Goodale survived. That farm is now the popular Russell Orchards, where Bostonians flock on autumn weekends for fresh air and cider donuts. (But mostly cider donuts).
. . . . .
Argilla Road is where Caitlin Kenney grew up. It’s where she farms. Where the earliest settlers were determined to grow things in New England soil and New England weather. And it’s where some of Adele Crockett Robinson’s apple trees still grow. This road has sewn some strong women farmers.
Kenney has been farming here for almost 10 years.
After college at the University of Massachusetts, she spent time traveling the world, living in California, Australia, and Central America.
With some mentorship — and a lot of trial and error — Kenney finally put shovel to earth on Argilla in 2009. She named her farm Plough in the Stars.
Today, local restaurants like The Market at Lobster Cove and Short & Main boast that they are using Caitlin’s greens, Caitlin’s leek’s, Caitlin’s carrots. And there is almost always a line at her tent at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market.
. . . . .
But something happened to Caitlin and friends after the last election. For many women — and men — deep, thoughtful, and troubled conversations took place on the long bus rides to and from the Women’s March.
People had hours to talk and share. To consider the direction their country was suddenly headed in. And to ask themselves what — if anything — they could do to act on the values behind the march: acceptance, inclusiveness, and support for the disenfranchised.
Answers ranged from volunteering in Congressional offices to organizing community action groups.
Kenney’s idea? Dinner!
She envisioned a long table, with a diverse group of guests, all dining on locally-raised foods prepared by a talented local chef, with the ultimate goal of helping a local organization.
The idea of dinner parties saving the world was actually inspired by Dr. Jerome Burt, whom Kenney met at a dinner party last March in Oakland, California. Burt was preparing to give a talk at TEDxNashville on the subject.
Kenney would start with what she could do, what she knew well, and with her community.
. . . . .
“I grew up here. I love the vitality of this place. It’s dynamic,” says Kenney. “As a small business I feel very well supported. People are excited by my product — locally raised produce — but people are also hungry for interaction. I see the dinners as a way to energize the community in a way that still involves good food and that shows off the talents of the chef.”
“I initially sent emails to five women chefs,” she says.
Why women? “I feel like women are underrepresented in the culinary field. And frankly, I like working with women. I like women better!” she says smiling, out of earshot from her boyfriend who is serving guests in the yard.
Kenney created the Plough in the Stars Farm Dinner Series — four dinners (there may be a fifth), each created by an accomplished local woman chef — on the long screen porch of her Argilla Road home.
Each dinner supports a different local organization with a social purpose. All of the proceeds go directly to that organization. Kenney’s time, and that of the chef’s, is donated. The purpose? In the short view, to support the work of each organization. In the long view, the dinner is meant, well, to save the world.
. . . . .
The sheltered backyard of Kenney’s cedar-shingled cottage opens to a majestic keyhole vista, framed by large white pines, which offers a view of Choate Creek and its lush marsh. The yard is cheerfully planted in herbs and bouncing annuals. A tent, covered in lights, creates cover for the cocktail hour.
The first dinner, on May 28, was prepared by chef Paris Boice. The supported organization was Kestrel Education Adventures, an outdoor science program based in Gloucester. The dinner, which was sold out, raised $2,000.
Chef Sheila Jarnes prepared the next dinner on June 25, which supported Family Promise, an organization that helps homeless families on the north shore get support and achieve independence. That dinner raised $2260.
Back in Kenney’s kitchen, Jarnes said, “I love that Caitlin is doing this. I’m really proud of her and the farm, and that she wants to do something working towards social justice. I feel like we were all talking about what we could do last winter. We wanted to make a difference. And now we are!”
. . . . .
Jarnes learned to cook while prepping at The Market restaurant. “That kitchen really grounded my understanding of how to put flavors together. I also had the great fortune to intern in the kitchen at Chez Panisse (the Berkeley, California, restaurant founded by the legendary chef, activist and author, Alice Waters), which was such an incredible experience.”
Each dinner highlights what Kenney has harvested from her fields that very day: the freshest, most seasonal produce available.
In late June, Jarnes’ snap pea and mint fritters with yogurt and urfa chili (a dried Turkish pepper) were the appetizer, along with tender, soft-cooked eggs with dukkah (a middle-eastern spice blend), and a smoked haddock crostini.
For the plated dinner, Jarnes prepared garden lettuces with chive flowers, a local goat cheese, spring onion, and squash tart, and a braised chicken leg with paprika and creme fraiche.
Dessert was a strawberry-buttermilk cake with whipped cream and toasted coconut.
About the farm dinner experience, Jarnes says, “It was so nice seeing everyone sitting together during the dinner, eating the food, and making connections with each other,” says Jarnes. “I loved watching the night take on a life of its own. There really is something special about putting people together at one long table — especially in such a beautiful setting.”
. . . . .
Back under her tent at the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market, Kenney says of the dinners, “I really like having them in my home. When I was helping in the kitchen I could hear everyone talking on the porch, laughing, and having a great time. I live in a really quiet place!” she laughs.
“But I believe in the power of these events. I think that just bringing people together who don’t know each other, and they’re relaxing, and they’re having a good time together, but in a purposeful way. That feels really good.”
“I tend to be alone in the field. A big part of farming is you are so hyper-focused on the farm. Particularly in the heart of the season, there’s just no room to think about other things. Last winter, with some time on my hands, I could see the dinners as a way to energize the community.”
The culture of strong farmers — and strong women farmers — on Argilla Road endures. And it just may save the world.
One dinner at a time.
◼︎ Plough in the Stars Farm, Argilla Road, Ipswich. (978) 238 8141. Email here.
—August 20. Chef: Stacy Apple from Short & Main; Benefitting: Women’s Fund of Essex County
—September 17. Chef: Amelia Monday, The Market at Lobster Cove; Benefitting: The Ipswich Refugee Program
(Tickets: $100. All proceeds go directly to the organizations)
Heather Atwood is the managing editor of The Other Cape. Shawn Henry is a Gloucester-based editorial photographer.