Urbana event brings interactive element to backyard meal

Urbana event brings interactive element to backyard meal

URBANA – As part of a performance-art piece a few years ago at a Chicago gallery, Maggie Taylor hand-fed oranges to people, delivering them vitamin C when they most needed it, the dead of winter.

Over the years her performance art has become even more participatory. Take her last piece, which took place Saturday evening at her home in Urbana.

She called it "Big Neighborhood Supper."

Besides the interactive aspect, "It's all about the food, too," said Taylor, a friendly "ageless" young woman with curly auburn hair. "People bring the food and they bring themselves."

Food, Taylor said before everyone sat down to eat together, fosters relationships and a sense of connectedness, in this case among the 25 participants in "Big Neighborhood Supper." They ranged in age from toddler to mid-50s.

Some of them might not have known each other before but they became acquainted that evening, while helping prepare for the meal or just sitting around and chatting.

At one point, the children gathered outside to make and paint percussive rain sticks from cardboard and popcorn seeds.

Most of the evening two beagle puppies romped and ran back and forth from under the tables to under a lawn chair. Also roaming the yard were Taylor's yellow Labrador, Chloe, wearing a green bandanna, and her three chickens.

The 25 or so participants had begun to arrive at Taylor's home in the 100 block of South Poplar Street around 4 p.m. Some brought drinks and/or food, much of it locally grown and made.

Most of them helped prepare the meal, working at a large table in the dining room or in Taylor's kitchen, or on the patio or elsewhere in the back yard.

Sharon Irish, an art historian, and Jacqueline Hannah, manager of the Common Ground Food Co-op, sat in the grass, slicing in half cantaloupes. They had enough to fill a large laundry basket. Later, for dessert, each melon half was filled with mint ice cream made by Taylor, topped with Tiny Greens fennel greens and warm prune plums harvested from a neighbor's yard.

But we're getting to the end of the meal.

Let's start with the beginning. Before we ate, as we sat at the tables, Taylor asked that everyone hold hands and be silent for a while then by turn, describe our first memory of food production.

One young man remembered mushroom hunting near Chrisman with his family, another recalled harvesting raspberries and another remembered hating tomatoes until he tasted one fresh from a vine.

Susan Rodgers remembered last year when she and her partner, Tom Abram, decided to eat for a week only food produced within 100 miles.

"It opened my eyes to all the food surrounding us," she said. "It was an amazing experience of food and flavors."

After everyone spoke, they ate an amazing appetizer made by Rodgers: Fresh pesto slathered on slices of baguettes donated by Pekara bakery. Rodgers had mixed the pesto on the patio table, using a blender plugged into an extension cord and Tiny Greens fresh tofu, rather than the usual Parmigian cheese. I had harvested the basil just a few minutes earlier from Taylor's small garden; she had grown it for "Big Neighborhood Supper."

After the pesto, participants sipped a delicious chilled cucumber soup, made with yogurt and seasoned with mint, garlic, honey, lemon and soy sauce.

Then came a salad of greens with a balsamic vinaigrette mixed that evening. Zachary Grant, who is in charge of the University of Illinois student farm, had brought the salad greens, cantaloupes and some of the other produce.

Chef Steve Moore, who cooks the Farmers' Table dinners on Saturday evenings at the Red Herring (they resume Aug. 29), prepared the main course, a tomato-basil frittata. He used eggs from hens that Taylor and J.P. Goguen keep in their back yards. To the eggs and organic yogurt, Moore added fresh chopped bell peppers, onions and chives.

Accompanying the frittata: ears of sweet corn that former C-U resident Theresa Brandabur brought from her farm outside Madison, Wis., and roasted summer squash, seasoned with garlic, sage and onions.

People drank locally made libations – peach or strawberry wine, home-brewed beer or a tea flavored with foraged fresh mint and lemon grass. There was a punch bowl of chai tea; large chunks of ice floated in it and melted as the warm evening progressed.

People participated in "Big Neighborhood Supper" in myriad other ways.

Irish had taken photographs of fresh cabbage, chard, plums and hens. She enlarged them and posted the color prints on the wooden fence near the dinner tables. She made black-and-white enlargements to use as place mats.

Ron Cannon, president of the board of directors at Channing-Murray Foundation, built two of the dinner tables from wood from a fence torn down by one of Taylor's neighbors. Cannon brought vintage pastel Lu-Ray dinner plates as well.

Rachel Bradley of Urbana decorated the tables, making bouquets of marigolds from her garden and placing them in recycled, colorful jars. She garnished each plate with a sprig of mint and lavender, also from her garden.

Artist Katy Keefe of Chicago made an art installation in the weeping willow tree near the tables. She tied in the branches a large banner of purple, green, yellow and white cloth as a nod to Independence Day in India, where Taylor had spent time.

Glass jars with candles inside were tied to the willow branches and along with lights on the tables, were lit at dusk.

So was "Big Neighborhood Supper" art?

"It falls into new-genre public art, an art in which you're building relationships as much as the product, which in this case would be local food," said Irish, who has a Ph.D. in art history and like a growing number of folks, doesn't limit her idea of art to paintings on walls.

The day after "Big Neighborhood Supper," Irish described it online as "a delightful, mellow success" and thanked "all who came, shared and laughed."

Taylor, who doubled-majored in art and philosophy at the University of Denver, had prepared for "Big Neighborhood Supper" in advance by organizing or attending related workshops on topics such as slaughtering chickens, canning, foraging for wild edibles, and making beer and wine.

She also created and regularly updates the event blog at http://thebigneighborhoodsupper.blogspot.com/ and told participants to add photographs and comments.

The next step for Taylor, who is finishing a UI master's degree in library science, is to put together a "Big Neighborhood Supper" workbook to share with others.

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