The dinner at Nutter Farm last year was one of a kind. It was a collaboration between Nutter Farm—a 20-acre farm in Topsfield co-owned by architect Benjamin Nutter and his sister, Stina MacDougall, whose parents bought the land in 1949—and Iron Ox Farm, an organic practice farm run by Alex Cecchinelli, who leases a small portion of Nutter Farm to grow a robust vegetable crop.
Eighteen people gathered on a gorgeous September night. They mingled as the sun was going down and then sat together at one long table lit by string lights. The setting was beautiful and the dinner was relaxed, fun, and genuinely inspired by the land, as well as the dinner guests—since they were the ones who actually pulled it all together. “It’s a thank-you for the people we collaborate with,” says Benjamin of the idea to contact friends and clients with ties to agriculture and the food industry for this unique farm-to-table dinner.
Originally 30 acres, the farm was subdivided by Benjamin’s parents in the 1990s so that 20 acres could be preserved via a conservation restriction with Essex County Greenbelt. On the remaining 10 acres, Benjamin lives in a house he designed and built; his design firm, Benjamin Nutter Architects, is housed in an annex off his home. Stina and her husband, Jim, have a house that was also designed by Benjamin and built by their brother, Steve Nutter, who lives in the original 1886 Greek Revival farmhouse.
Introducing the vegetables grown by Iron Ox was the focus of the dinner. “The land is producing incredible crops,” says Stina, adding that she and Benjamin “love watching the work and helping out wherever we can.”
For the nonvegetable ingredients, they sourced from local farms and businesses. “It is incredibly valuable to have good produce grown locally, and we wanted to promote the success of the food grown on the North Shore,” says Benjamin. Grant Family Farms supplied the chicken, Valley View Farm in Topsfield brought cheese, Alprilla Farm in Essex provided wheat berries, and Brooksby Farm of Peabody grew the pears used in the dessert. Honey, cornmeal, and ice cream were all sourced locally, and beer was brought in from Ipswich Brewery.
Benjamin reached out to Lila Haynes of Heaven on Earth Cooking Studio in Boxford, who cooked alongside Stacey Apple, a talented chef working at Iron Ox. Friends from ifarm, a multifaceted farm and event venue in Boxford, also got involved and supplied all the flowers. Eric Roth volunteered to photograph the event, and Lucille Wymer took care of all the decorations.
With the table set between a red tractor and its trailer, which were linked by lights and bunting hung from wood stakes that extended the reach of an old apple tree, the scene was relaxed yet magical. Describing her approach to the styling, Lucille says, “I thought, one of the most important things is [that] you don’t go out and buy things. You just go out and gather things around from your house and your friends’ houses.”
Mismatched chairs were pulled up to the table topped with craft paper and a burlap runner with vines and flowers scattered on it. Lucille worked with Sue McCraine of ifarm on the flowers; Sue says they wanted to keep the feeling “organic and natural, old-fashioned,” as well as “thoughtfully gathered and grown.”
The menu they created was rustic, honest, and heartwarming. And the food lived up to everyone’s expectations. Slices of heirloom tomatoes among fried green tomatoes with a basil and buttermilk dressing were served as the first course. Then whole roasted chickens were cut into pieces and plated with braised greens, turnips, and pepper relish, with a side salad that included wheat berries, roasted carrots and beets, mint, and feta. Dessert was saffron poached pears with ice cream and citrus shortbread cookies that Lila made in the shape of leaves. There were also scrumptious cornmeal muffins with spiced honey butter to nibble on, with tomato jam and green tomato chutney made by Lucille as a take-home gift.
But it all started with the fact that Alex had land to grow the vegetables, consciously, in his way. “We’re always putting things into the soil,” says Stacey, explaining how they compost, cover crop (growing rich nutrients, not necessarily for eating), use natural and organic fertilizers, and move things around so as not to strip the land of nutrients. “We really appreciate the opportunity that they have given us,” says Alex of Nutter Farm. “It’s important that people give the opportunity to people who don’t necessarily have the access to land and access to a farm. New England has a history of being an agricultural locust, and it would be great to build this back up.”
Toward the end of the night, with the dessert plates licked clean, “Eric brought out his guitar and he sang to us,” says Lila. The song was “The Farmer Is the Man,” by Pete Seeger, and everyone joined in. Because at the end of the day, the most important thing is still getting together with your community.