- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) - Using pasture-raised chickens from Danville, peaches from Hazel Green and squash from Falkville, cooks concocted dishes spotlighting local ingredients. Served on rustic wooden tables at the al fresco farmers market in downtown Decatur, the dinner represents an ever-growing trend of farm-to-table eating embraced by epicureans across the nation.

While laden with buzzwords “organic,” ”sustainable” and “free range,” the movement’s concept is simple. At the most basic level, farm-to-table eating reconnects people to their roots and a time when gardening ranked as a necessity, not a pleasure.

“People now, more than ever, are very conscious of their health and what is going on with the food and water supply. They want to know where their food is coming from and how it was grown,” said Jake Reed, chef at Albany Bistro.

A staple in many communities, rural and urban, farmers markets provide that information by directly linking the growers with the eaters.

“At the grocery store, you have no idea what is done to your food before you get it. At the farmers market, you hear straight from the farmers about when that peach, tomato or cucumber was picked,” said Limestone County Extension Agent Chloe Wilson, who is leading a children’s area at Athens Saturday Market.

Officially, the popularity of the farm-to-table era took hold more than a decade ago in the trendy culinary hubs of San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Supporters of the movement promoted the economic, environmental and health benefits of eating local - it builds community, financially supports small farmers and produces fresher and tastier food with fewer chemicals.

People bought into the benefits.

The number of markets increased, an Alabama-based husband and wife created a documentary about eating local and chefs frequented farm stands on a daily basis. In Decatur, guests can dine at Simp McGhee’s on vegetables grown in Hartselle and at The RailYard on goat cheese created by Elkmont’s Humble Heart Farms.

The movement spurred a change in the restaurant experience. Farms, with mason jar drinking glasses and centerpieces made of hydrangea blossoms, began hosting dinners. In Athens, Isom’s Orchard hosted Dinner in the Orchard fundraisers in 2011, 2012 and 2014 to benefit local charities. Each dinner sold out.

In Mooresville, the family operated 1818 Farms, a nod to when the town was incorporated, partnered with Reed to host farm-to-table dinners. What began as a way to educate diners about food three years ago transformed into one of the farm’s most popular events.

“People want to get back to their childhood. Eating here makes them remember when they picked tomatoes with their grandmother or shucked corn. They find a connection to their past here,” Natasha McCrary said.

Husband and wife Laurence and Natasha McCrary broke ground on the farm they billed as “Life, the way it used to be” four years ago as a way to teach their children about sustainability and healthy eating. Those same concerns, the McCrarys realized, faced many of the visitors to 1818 Farms.

“People wanted to know where their food was growing. They wanted to see it growing on the vine. So we decided to create that experience for them through the dinners at the farm,” Natasha McCrary said.

All 80 tickets to the next dinner at 1818 Farms in September are reserved, and a waiting list grows longer each passing week, despite not knowing what the chef will serve.

“It’s funny. People want to know now what the menu will be. I don’t even know what the menu will be for next week, let alone September. That is what eating in season is all about. The menu is not set until the week before because it is determined by what is ready in the garden,” McCrary said.

For the farm-to-table dinner at the farmers market on Saturday, Reed, who oversaw the meal, faced similar restraints. He finalized the menu less than 12 hours before service.

The menu featured Alabama Gulf Coast shrimp and tarts made from locally grown grits, heirloom tomato tartlets, grilled peaches from Scott’s Orchards with a Ricotta mousse and fresh herbs, tomatoes over goat cheese from Belle Chevre in Elkmont,, oven roasted chicken from DSR Farms in Danville, smoked sausage from FatBack Abattoir in Eva and fresh berries from Witt Farms in Hayden.

The farm-to-table dinner at the farmers market Saturday served two purposes - to inspire people to use produce grown by local farmers and to raise money for facility upgrades.

The market on First Avenue Southeast is open Monday through Saturday.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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