At the close of summer, more than 1,200 Northfield residents sat down to a feast. Town elders, college students and professors, third-generation neighbors and recent immigrants pulled up chairs to long tables running the length of the city’s main street, with the not-quite-right name of Division Street.
The Aug. 25 dinner of homemade, farm-fresh local fare was free to all. The event, a first in the town’s 163-year history, accomplished three goals: celebrating, honoring and inspiring community.
The meal was inspired by a similar dinner in St. Paul’s Frogtown a few years ago. In conjunction with Northfield Shares, a community endowment and volunteer hub, the locals went on to create their own meal, which was organized by a 50-member steering committee that oversaw 200 volunteers.
After a year of thoughtful planning and many hours of work, the evening’s festivities flowed smoothly and were spiced with surprise as a couple celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary, long-lost friends reunited and new acquaintances agreed to get together again.
“We all know that when people break bread together friendships are deepened, new connections are made and community is extended,” said co-chair Nancy Carlson. “We decided early on to remove any barriers to entry, so everything was free.”
But the event itself required donations of money and time. A combination of GoFundMe and donations from local community members raised more than $35,000 to purchase all the food and necessary essentials. Craig Korvela, head chef at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Northfield, recruited a cadre of volunteer cooks. High school and college coaches engaged their school’s sports teams, neighbors stepped up.
Bon Appétit Management Co., which provides food service to both St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, purchased 400 pounds of produce from 13 area farms to create salads of quinoa, kale, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers tossed with honey lime vinaigrette.
Chef Scotty Barvir of Whole Hog BBQ smoked 550 pounds of Holden Farms pork shoulder through the night at the pop-up kitchen and staging area in Neuger Communications’ parking lot.
Ferndale Market supplied 300 pounds of mesquite-smoked turkey breast. Brick Oven Bakery baked 1,200 fresh sweet buns that day.
Grism’s farms roasted 1,200 ears of its sweet corn while a secret barbecue sauce was simmered by Maria Estrada of Kahlo, seasoned with ghost pepper jelly from Treats by T.
JonnyPops, co-founded by four St. Olaf grads, ended the meal on a sweet note with assorted frozen dessert bars.
“The St. Olaf cross-country team speed-walked dishes to the tables in a quick 23 minutes so the food was served piping hot,” said volunteer Katie McKenna, general manager of Bon Appétit at Carleton College.
Flowers from home gardeners Judy Code and Barbara Rippley, arranged in raffia-wrapped Mason jars, graced all 128 tables.
Getting so many people in for dinner required creativity, tenacity and faith.
“We put up a website for reservations in English and in Spanish, took names over the phone, delivered fliers to nursing homes, senior centers, group homes and Hispanic neighborhoods,” said Carlson. Their materials were in both English and Spanish, and Spanish-speaking residents were encouraged to call one of the Spanish-speaking volunteers with questions and for help with directions and transportation.
“It can be difficult for many of our Mexican residents concerned about their language skills and wondering if they’ll fit in to participate in public events,” said Angelica Linder, event volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Northfield Public Library.
“Given our uncertain political climate, we made a great effort to make people feel welcome and comfortable. Plus, the food! None of us could stop talking about the beautiful food! So fresh and so thoughtfully prepared and nicely served,” said Linder. “Everyone contributed something. That’s why it was such a success.”
Even those who missed out on making a reservation came for the entertainment (there were 200 on a waiting list). A colorful traditional Mexican folk dance troupe, Baile Folklorico Mexicano, performed to authentic music. Vocalist Guillermo Calderon sang several Mexican favorites a cappella. The Norwegian fiddle group Hütenänny, the Northfield Trombone Choir and the Frothy Irish Folk Band, among others, rounded out the mix.
Three trumpet calls announced it was time for guests to come to the tables. Once they were seated, Tesfa Y Wondemagegnehu, a St. Olaf choir conductor, sang the convocation inviting diners to lift their voices to the song created for the evening by composer Daniel Kallman.
Following the meal, the high school football team whisked away tables and chairs so the party could continue with contra dancing led by Contratopia on Bridge Square.
After the party was over, kudos and thanks came pouring in via handwritten notes and Facebook posts.
“Sounds like you are renaming Division Street ‘Unity Street!’ Bravo!” a diner wrote.
And from a volunteer, “I got so much more out of this experience than I ever gave.”
A Hispanic diner posted a photo of herself and friends, with the sign that read:
“When you build a longer table instead of a bigger wall.”
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.