It’s all about the flowers and greens when Jessica Harris goes to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. The James Beard Award winner has a routine of navigating the stalls at the old Grange Hall every week, and Wednesday morning was no different.
First stop was to flower farmer Krishana Collins. Ms. Collins greeted her like an old friend.
“Let’s take the purple down a tad,” Ms. Harris said to Ms. Collins, who was holding a bouquet of lilies. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” she said, satisfied with the final large bouquet.
“You know I’m ever faithful,” she said with a wink.
She passed on coffee she usually gets from Little Rock Farm and instead went straight to North Tabor Farm’s table for greens and another flower bouquet. Ms. Harris said she would mix lettuce from her own garden with the Chilmark farm’s salad greens mix, add some cherry tomatoes she started growing this year on her porch in Oak Bluffs, and top it off with a little vinaigrette.
The famed cookbook author and summer resident’s summer meal usually consists of grilled meat, fish and fresh vegetables.
On Friday night Ms. Harris is curating a dinner as part of the fifth annual Diva’s Uncorked Wine and Food Festival. Ms. Harris will be talking about her latest book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, paired with dishes chosen to reflect some aspect of the African American experience or African diaspora.
The event is sold out, but it’s just one of many hosted by a group of Boston friends who turned a wine club into an increasingly popular food event on the Vineyard, the Divas Uncorked Wine and Food Festival. The weekend festivities kicked off last night with dinner parties at Lola’s in Oak Bluffs and the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, but some events are still available.
The Grand Tasting dinner at the Sailing Camp in Oak Bluffs on Saturday features wine and food from Vineyard and off-Island chefs and wine experts. Sunday brings a lobster bake on Menemsha Beach; the Divas will provide wine and beach chairs.
A portion of the proceeds made during the weekend’s eating and sipping will go to the Island Food Pantry.
Ms. Harris said she hopes this is a new tradition that will last.
“It’s been interesting to watch the Vineyard because it goes in cycles and it reinvents and recomposes and redesigns,” she said. “I think this is part of the great turn of the pendulum and new things happening and other things becoming traditions.”
“I keep telling them I’m a diva wannabe,” she added with a smile.
But Ms. Harris is anything but a wannabe. With more than 10 cookbooks under her belt, the highest award in the culinary world, and a sensibility where grace and civility are taken with the utmost seriousness, Ms. Harris is a modern day diva.
She splits her time between the Vineyard, New York and New Orleans, and in all three places Ms. Harris has seen interest in food and food quality grow. Ms. Harris has been a summer resident on the Island since she was eight years old, and she said the food culture on the Island has only begun to flourish in the past 10 years. In New York and New Orleans she’s seeing it through urban beekeeping and a diversity in both the food and faces at the farmers’ markets.
“I always make it my business to support folks, and say, ‘Let me try that,’” she said. At the Grey Barn’s market stall on Wednesday, she asked to try some “moo juice.”
“Sooner or later by the end of the summer I’ll have purchased from virtually everybody in the market. If you support them, then they can survive and then we can all eat better.”
But it doesn’t come cheaply.
“It’s all very nice to say fresh, local and seasonal, but that usually means expensive,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be, or it shouldn’t necessarily have to be. It’s what happened when we as a nation went from a culture, an agriculture, to a business, an agribusiness.”
Ms. Harris is a proponent of food stamps and vouchers being accepted at farmers’ markets.
“I think that’s brilliant and should happen everywhere,” she said, noting the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market does not accept them. “It makes it less elitist and it makes it what it should be, which is for everyone. If there is a way to have equal access for all people, then you’re beginning to talk about something that’s going to change.”
It will take more than just financial assistance to change the way people eat, she said, but it’s a first step. Then there are ethnicities, historical eating patterns and taste profiles to consider before changing the makeup of a plate.
But first and foremost, families need to begin eating together again.
“I’m very much about folks coming back to eating at the table at least once a week. Whatever your Sabbath is, eat together, on a table, with the TV off,” Ms. Harris said frankly.
“I’m a dinosaur about things like civility, it’s something we need to pay attention to and it’s something we’re losing,” she said. “It’s part of what allows us to live together and not be abrasive at all moments. It’s the only thing that makes those four-way stops work. It’s part of learning to yield graciously; grace is a word I like to use a lot. It’s the good stuff.”
The Divas Uncorked Wine and Food Festival began last night and runs through Sunday. For a full list of events and tickets, visit divasuncorked.com.