The phrases “great food” and “large protest rally” do not tend to run together in the same story. Short of celebrity chefs unionizing and holding a protest dinner to win higher TV appearance fees, it’s unlikely you’re find a better union of these two elements than at this past weekend’s Foodstock. It’s certainly a safe bet you couldn’t have scored lobster risotto or pulled pork on a slice of apple at the original Woodstock.
Part mass food event and part music festival, Foodstock was designed as a protest to derail plans for a Mega-Quarry on the site of some of Ontario’s very best agricultural farmland. Months of planning and publicity paid off when a crowd estimated to reach 28,000 descended upon a muddy farm field (and forest) just north of Shelburne. The site is situated adjacent to farms bought up surreptitiously by Highland Companies (via an American hedge-fund), who are now seeking approval to dig a 2,300-acre limestone quarry — which would make it North America’s second-largest.
Spearheading the fight against the quarry is world-acclaimed chef Michael Stadtlander and the Canadian Chef’s Congress. Near the epicentre is Michael and Nobuyo Stadtlander’s famed Eigensinn Farm, a magnet for international foodies, so this is an issue close to home. Stadtlander rallied many of Canada’s best chefs, local farmers and food outlets around his logical yet inspired idea of an event that would showcase the local produce, meats, and fish from the area now threatened by quarry plans.
Cook it and they will come, indeed. Even the very uncertain elements that featured cold, windy and rainy conditions punctuated by brief bursts of welcome sunshine couldn’t deter Foodstock attendees. They endured very long lines to taste the fare on display, much of it distributed from stations set up in the mud of an attractive forest area.
The numbers Stadtlander gives DailyXY in an interview two days later are impressive. “We originally planned for 70 chefs, but close to 100 came out,” he says. “We aimed for 20,000 and got between 28 and 30,000 people. I believe that’s Canadian food history: that many for a food event. I asked the chefs to plan for 1,500 portions. I made about 5,000 portions, and my restaurant Haisai about another 5 to 6,000. There was no food left over at all.” For his chosen dishes, Stadtlander wanted attendees “to taste the land that is at stake. I had cabbage and potato soup, with produce from these local farms, as well as Brussels sprouts sautéed with speck and pickled Cinderella squash sprinkled on top.”
General conversations overheard at Foodstock showed a crowd that was a healthy mix of supportive locals and visitors from Toronto (a 90-minute drive) and other urban areas. Not the most patient of types, this scribe was deterred by the long food lineups. A highlight was the warming turkey and barley soup accompanied by a tea biscuit with currants, cranberries and compote, from The Grange. We heard positive reports of the potato latkes served with elderberry sauce and sheep’s cheese from Parry Sound’s The Ridge at Manitou (served off a canoe!), while Toronto favourites like Jamie Kennedy’s famed frites and Scaramouche’s buckwheat crepe with smoked salmon, horseradish and sour cream were also hits. Other notable T.O. establishments represented included Bohmer, Union, Ruby Watchco, Oyster Boy, Splendido, Le Select, Keriwa, Marben, The Drake, George, Starfish, Caplansky’s Deli (their food truck), and many more. Chefs also came in from Ottawa, Nova Scotia (we heard reports of great lobster bisque), and Saskatchewan.
The inclement weather and the welcoming faces of musician friends drew us to the spartan but dry tented backstage area. It hosted an impressive A-list of Canadian artists, on hand to entertain the festivalgoers with short sets through the afternoon. Keeping things running smoothly were veteran artist and stage manager Skinny Tenn, uber-publicist Nanci Malek, and MC Jeremy Taggart (drummer for Our Lady Peace and a passionate believer in the cause). Given the wet stage, his joke about Uriah Heep (the British prog-rock band who lost a member to onstage electrocution) caused a few nervous laughs amongst the musos about to play! Doing triple duty were roots-rockers Cuff The Duke, who backed up Hayden and Jim Cuddy superbly, as well as playing their own rockin’ set. Cuff’s Plowman came up with the best quip of the day: “Stay away from the brown creme brulée, people.”
Local resident and pure-voiced chanteuse Lily Frost was accompanied by hubby Jose Contreras (By Divine Right), while Ron Sexsmith’s partner, Colleen Hixenbaugh, charmed with her solo set, as did Ron. In a rare live appearance, the reclusive Hayden sparkled. Also on the bill were a trio of Barenaked Ladies (unlike at Woodstock, the only “nudity” on display!) and committed environmental activist Sarah Harmer, but the rain had forced our retreat by then. Put all those acts together on a festival stage and you could charge big bucks. “Their support was very special, and we definitely appreciate it,” says Stadtlander.
As well as generating invaluable media attention, Foodstock raised an impressive amount of cash to fund the ongoing battle. “It’s at least $180,000,” estimated Stadtlander. “The fight is not over. What has been established is this relationship between chefs, farmers, and the public. By being there, the public has given the farm a voice.”
Image courtesy of Alexa Clark.