An Annual Harvest Picnic
Asheville sits in the center of what is arguably a Garden of Eden. The Southern Appalachian bioregion is the second richest temperate ecosystem on the planet. Asheville’s tourism bureau has dubbed Asheville “Foodtopia.” yet, while we have an abundance of fresh food and fine restaurants, so many residents still go hungry.
In order to celebrate sharing this abundance, I envision a giant outdoor community meal at harvest time, specifically, on the third Sunday in September. The meal can be a potluck, i.e., where all attendees are asked to bring food, or it can be a “stone soup” affair, where the community is invited to donate ingredients and these contributions are prepared by a team of volunteer chefs. Or it can be a combination of the two. The important thing is that everything be free — or rather, shared.
This event could become the culmination of a week-long, city-wide fall Foodtopia event that many have been envisioning as the replacement for Bele Chere. I actually thought of calling this community meal Bele SHARE. But in talking to others, it became apparent that this would engender confusion and mixed feelings.
A Long Tradition
I first got the idea for a community meal in August of 2013. At a potluck at Ashevillage Institute, I met a man from Turkey who described a giant outdoor dinner that had just taken place in Istanbul. It’s traditional in Middle Eastern countries to mark the end of Ramadan with a shared meal in the street, called the iftar. I went online and found the above image and a couple others:
The next morning, I was at an Asheville tourism board planning meeting. I asked, why not do this in Asheville? Let’s have a big community picnic. Nothing for sale; free admission. Just sharing. What could be more appropriate at harvest time than a giant shared meal?
There are many examples of similar events. In 2009, one municipality in Istanbul served 15,000 people: see video here. The following year, they attempted to break a world record with 40,000 people.
Although not entirely a potluck, the iftar clearly outdoes the supposed “largest potluck ever,” according to The Guinness Book of World Records, in Casper, WY in 2012, with 860 dishes served to 975 people. The record before that was in Richmond, TX in 2011 with 805 dishes, and before that in New York in 2010 with over 1000 participants but only 479 dishes. An event for hunger in Davenport, IA in 2013 that attempted to break the record had “only” 742 dishes.
Another much bigger example is in France on Bastille Day (July 14th) every year. A “massive picnic” takes place in the park around the Eiffel Tower. Here it is in 2014:
There are concerts and fireworks in the evening. But other than that, the meal is not organized or cooperative. It’s basically just like our Fourth of July.
The year 2000, however, was different. That year, the entire country had a picnic along the entire 600-mile Paris Meridian (the original prime meridian before it was moved to Greenwich). The line was marked across the sky with lasers for three consecutive nights and 10,000 trees were planted by schoolchildren across the length of it. A single, 400-mile roll of tablecloth was woven for the occasion, covering tables set through airports, train tracks, and Roman ruins, through 337 towns and cities (with a separate section of the tablecloth cut for each), including the Louvre and the Avenue de l’Opera on the Right Bank in Paris (source).
This giant block party, dubbed “The Incredible Picnic,” was thought up and organized by Gad Weil, who called it a family-style gathering like a small town main street but on a national scale, one that would “break down everyday barriers of class and social position” (source).
The event had sponsors and regions jockeyed to host the more impressive section. There was a VIP section in Paris — paid for by taxpayers. All in all, it cost $7 million. The theme was basically national pride, and millions of people turned up for the event, even though it rained. And although they didn’t call it a potluck, citizens, the spirit of “fraternity,” were encouraged to share.
I think this is just an artist’s rendering, but there’s also this slide show of the real thing.
At that point, Weil wanted to do the same in New York. I wonder if today, he would want to do something in Asheville. I wrote him in 2014 to find out but didn’t hear back.
If that’s impressive, consider the “largest peaceful gathering in the world,” India’s Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, when millions converge to bathe in one of four sacred rivers every twelve years. Every 144 years is the Maha Kumbh Mela. It took place in 2013, lasted 55 days, and drew 120 million, with 80 million on the peak day alone. What’s relevant and impressive is that heavily subsidized staples (wheat, rice, and sugar) are supplied by the government and free food is served in hundreds of langars (temple ‘soup kitchens’) throughout the gathering.
Since 2008, Nova Scotia has been holding its own Incredible Picnic, although in this version, each region chooses a different day to have theirs. You can bring your own food or buy from local vendors. In fact, the theme is mostly about buying local.
Back in the U.S., on Sunday, September 14th, 2014, with a grant from The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, a St. Paul artist and community activist organized a meal for 2,000 people at a table stretching a half mile down Victoria street:
Right here in Asheville, UNCA hosts its own annual “Dinner on the Quad.”
As you can see, although this idea may be new to most people, it’s been done many times in many places and continues to be a way to bring people together, to celebrate, and to share.
At first, I pictured set up one long table in the street, down Biltmore Avenue. Granted, blocking off a major city street to car traffic is a big deal, and it’s what downtown businesses resented about Bele Chere, along with street vendors taking away more business than they brought in. We would definitely need the buy-in of the businesses on whatever street we chose. Fortunately, this would have no street vendors and it would only be for a few hours. Nor would it be 350,000 people. I don’t imagine drawing more than about 1% of that, i.e., a few thousand people, the first time around.
Even so, we’d still have to block off the street, and that would probably involve permits and police to direct traffic. And I’m not sure it’s really necessary until the event gets much larger and we want to make more of a “statement.” For now, it’s a lot easier to just do it in a park, which is what calling it a “picnic” suggests.
As far as parks go, Pack Square Park has been suggested and is indeed as central as it gets. However, if we’re not going to do it in the road (so to speak), I prefer more of a “park” park.
The Bastille Day event took place on a recognized holiday, one that citizens were already inclined to celebrate. I am proposing that this have an even more universal theme than a political one, namely, harvest time. Hopefully, abundance and sharing are not unique to Asheville, but we could be the paragon of both.
The peak of harvest time, for both cultivated and wild food, is September. Blueberries, paw paws, fox grape, pin cherry, persimmon, chestnut, amaranth, and over 100 different wild mushrooms are just a few of the wild foods available that month.
This is why Autumn Equinox, which takes place on September 22nd (or 23rd, depending on the year), is a traditionally a harvest and sharing festival. Like Thanksgiving in November, Fall Equinox is actually after the main harvest. But it’s a lot closer to it.
Therefore, I propose to have this event take place each year from noon to three on the third Sunday in September.
The BCTDA recently established a new grant program, the Festival and Cultural Event Support Fund. A grant from this fund could get the ball rolling on seeking sponsorships, etc.
I’m happy to work on sponsorship and publicity; I already get a lot in the course of my business. A few of our current supporters include:
- Cindy Threlkeld, Former Executive Director of MANNA
- Stephanie Brown, Director of the CVB and VP of the Chamber
- Adrian Vassallo of the Downtown Association
- Shona Jason-Miller of Slow Food Asheville
- Liz Button of Curate and the Downtown Welcome Table
- Dan and Jael Rattigan of the French Broad Chocolate Lounge
- Jodi Rhoden of Short Street Cakes
- Lee Warren, Executive Director of The Organic Growers School
We would also need an organizer.
Here’s my idea of how it could actually play out:
If we do this as a potluck, the idea would be that people bring enough food for themselves and a little extra to share. That includes drinks, dishware, utensils, and something to sit on. The only thing we would provide would be the table and tablecloth. An alternative would be to serve food from a buffet table and to provide blankets to sit on instead. Blankets could even be donated and then donated afterward to homeless shelters. But there’s something to having one long table where we can pass food family-style. Here’s how we could do it:
For 350 people, we would need about 50 eight-foot catering tables to run 400 feet. However, I wouldn’t use them. I would set the tables low, as in the photos above. For one, it feels more special, informal, and communal. People can bring blankets, pillows, backjacks, low chairs, or regular portable chairs: basically the whole range of what people bring to watch fireworks or a parade. And we can just use standard 4 x 8 plywood sheets and milk crates. We could get the former on loan from a builder’ s supply and the latter from the milk factory in West Asheville. If necessary, you duct tape the boards together so no one board can get flipped over. Then you roll a bolt of fabric down the whole thing.
Since there will invariably be people who haven’t brought food, local chefs could prepare produce donated by local farmers, or on a larger scale, by MANNA, which currently supplies the Downtown Welcome Table. Wild ingredients could be gathered by children my organization has trained (we would inspect it, of course). Ideally, whatever restaurants, companies, or organizations that prepare food would also take care of serving it, either via buffet or, ideally, family-style. And a four-foot wide table would have plenty of space for that — and flowers!
It would be nice if for that too, people either brought their own dishware and utensils or we’d have only compostable ones available. In any case, the fact that we’re not cooking for people ourselves reduces our liability considerably. There would still be set up and clean up to handle.
One possibility to help this along is to solicit produce donations, maybe even gleaning opportunities, from local farmers and have a giveaway a couple days before the event, perhaps in front of the co-op. There, people could pick up free ingredients to cook with. This would help build momentum for the event.
Jon Fillman, Asheville Special Events Coordinator, is very receptive to the idea. He says that if food is not sold or prepared on site, there are no health regulations and we won’t need a health department permit. We may not need a permit for the location under the “right to assemble,” but getting a permit is a good idea to reserve the space. Finally, most public parks have a fee; for example, Pack Square Park is $500 for the first three hours, but there is a cheaper nonprofit rate.
This is just a special event. Like feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can’t just worry about those in need a few times a year. That’s why we also need ongoing efforts to promote food security like the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council and The Afikomen Project.
An event like this, however, could garner significant publicity. We could easily break the so-called “world record” potluck, but I don’t like looking at it as a competition anyway. Still, this could be the first city-sponsored potluck in the country. Most importantly, it could help bring our community together, not only to combat hunger, but to feed our hunger for a sense of community, a sense of HOME. Who will “pick up the torch?”