Although I have lived in Chico intermittently since 1996, the bounty and richness of Northern California still amazes me daily. I grew up in sparse beauty of the Sonoran desert in Tucson, Arizona. All these years later, I am still in awe of the contrast of the two places I have called home. My position as the kitchen manager at Chico Natural Foods Cooperative has been a chef’s dream, offering the opportunity to work with the finest produce from one of the world’s preeminent agricultural areas. Many times these items are delivered by the farmers themselves to the receiving door of the Co-op, their boots still covered in mud from the morning’s harvest. The Local Table, which is a yearly fund raiser for Chico State’s Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum, is an annual celebration our area’s abundance. This year, the theme of the event took local to the extreme, placing Northern California’s native foods at the center of the menu. I approached this concept with excitement for my education in the hidden deliciousness of Butte County.
Heather McCafferty, the Anthropology Museum’s curator put me in contact with Alicia Funk, author of the book Living Wild. Alicia sent me a copy of her amazing book, along with a package of ingredients she herself wild crafted. We began an email and phone dialogue about the menu for the event and available items that she would donate. I read the book like a novel, recognizing many of the plants from walks in Bidwell Park or hikes in the surrounding areas. I met with David Simcox, the artist responsible for creating the original painting that would be used as the event poster and auctioned off at the event. We talked about our own interpretations of what a “local table” would look like. He even sent me a copy of his painting, which I used as inspiration for the menu. Salmon cakes would be delicious--maybe there is a native spice that would pair well? Wild Rice--how about crouquettes with Lundberg Country Wild Rice blend steeped in California bay? The images of mushrooms and figs began to germinate in my mind into a workable meal. I sent multiple drafts to Alicia, who made suggestions for the integration of her wild crafted ingredients. Did I see her recipe for manzanita berry vinaigrette? Toyon berry would go well with the salmon, and so it went. I tasted ground dried manzanita berry, oak nut flour, dried toyon berry, hand gathered elderberries and began to match the tart, nutty, oddly delicious flavors with other locally sourced ingredients.
As the menu began to take shape, I looked toward my culinary connections in Chico to source the ingredients. I was unable to find locally caught salmon, but did procure wild Alaskan sockeye salmon from Chico fishermen Alldrin and Sons. This family business offers fish caught by locals, processed and sold in Chico. I contacted my friend Henry Lomelli of Sacramento EcoTours who sold me yellow and black trumpet mushrooms he gathered and who, to my delight, donated 20 pounds of wild turkey he had harvested to the event. I marinated it in local olive oil and fresh bay leaves, roasted it and made a rich turkey salad with celery and dried currants served on Tin Roof crostini. Bell Sun Luci contacted me and offered to donate sun-dried tomato pesto that we used as a garnish for the rice crouquettes. Sierra Nevada chevre was topped with fig jam and served with almond crackers. We baked Chico citrus bundt cakes using duck eggs from Turkey Tail Farm, glazing it with an elderberry reduction.
The event was well attended and a success. I worked with Heather to create a display table with raw, native ingredients that guests could touch, smell, taste and read about. Stacks of Alicia’s book were available for sale, a local band played and the staff of Wine Time poured local wine. The Local Table painting was displayed along with other donated auction items. The Co-op staff worked for hours refilling the buffet with fresh, delicious food for eager attendees to devour. This event—the people, the food, and the cause it supports, is one of the highlights of my culinary career. The Local Table was truly a collaboration of people very passionate about the delicious food the surrounds us.
-Beth Hunter, Kitchen Manager