Food, faith and farmers

I just came off of a week about food, faith, and farmers. While this may seem like a strange assortment of concepts it all worked very well. Each day during the week was begun with a religious service. Our minister’s message was rooted in the Bible and delivered eloquently.

The speakers for the week were all people who cared about food in some way. The first speaker was a renowned chef, Jacque Pepin. He spoke of his heritage and learning numerous skills by working alongside of his mother and grandmother. He touched on the farmers who produced the food for his use. He went on to judge a competition by other chefs with cheeseburgers. At this venue we were so close to him we could have reached out to touch him – almost.

The afternoon sessions were faith-based featuring a Christian, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim, a Hindu, and a priest who was working at an initiative that taught members of street gangs to cook. Each had a message that focused on the importance of food to their culture and the festivals associated with it. Many of these speakers talked about the importance of fresh foods in the diet. While some focused on vegetables others spoke of the gamut of food available as produced by local farms.

The emphasis for nearly all of the speakers was to “buy fresh, buy local”. They encouraged interaction with the people who produced the food. Know where your food comes from and know those who produce it.

Another speaker spoke of getting his young children into the kitchen to help prepare meals. He focused on the changing of the grocery stores from the mom and pop variety to local markets offering an abundance of produce. He was in favor of supporting the markets that handled the local produce.

We heard from a vegan chef who went on to a demonstration of his style of cooking. Everything he made looked so appealing. He, too, related his joy in finding local produce to cook with. He stressed the importance of knowing the people who produce your food. Farmers are the backbone of the food system.

Not all of my week was spent with food. One day I took a tour of the organ that is the “world’s largest outdoor pipe organ”. The man whose firm was from nearby Erie, PA and who worked on the refurbishing of this magnificent instrument was there to tell us about its history. We were allowed to go behind the scenes to look at all of the pipes that it takes to make all of the notes.

The organ has a weight of over 40 tons. There are a total of 5640 pipes. The replacement value of the Massey organ exceeds $3,000,000 we were told. We were also told that it could be replicated by not duplicated. When the amphitheater was razed the organ was left in place. The new structure was literally built around it.

We were at Chautauqua Institution the day of the eclipse. One of the people at the house had a pair of glasses that he shared with all of us so we could look at it. That day the speaker spoke of being upstaged by the eclipse. The following day however, the weather upstaged the speaker blowing wind through the Hall of Philosophy so that we put our umbrellas up inside – a first. Our speaker had to stop because the wind made it impossible to hear him. He finished his talk when the storm was done.

A highlight of our week was attending a tea in the Athenaeum. For those of you unfamiliar with Chautauqua this hotel used to be the largest wooden structure of its kind east of the Mississippi. The windows extend from floor to ceiling. You can actually walk out of the windows. I have been to several weddings there and they are usually elegant. The tea featured finger foods. There was a lady who told the story of quilts from a very human perspective. She took the role of a child who watched the quilts being made, then helped with the making of her own quilts that eventually graced her home. What a riveting story.

The week was also filled with music. The symphony was on stage for three events with two of them concerts done exclusively by them. Another night was devoted to flamenco dance. For me the best concert was done by the “Texas Tenors”. Their repertoire was a mix of opera, Broadway show tunes and good old country music. They could sing!

How do you condense a week of events? I apologize for all I have left out, but there just was not room to include everything. I would be remiss, however, if I did not include the events in Bestor Plaza. There were vendors there all week. There were also demonstrations that took place daily. We learned how to make ricotta cheese during one demonstration.

Food trucks came on the grounds one day with their food offerings. The lines were long, but we found delicious lunches at the Hurlbut Church with no lines. Each day a different type of lunch was featured. Lunch included a cookie as well as your beverage – a value that could not replicated anywhere else on the grounds.

Chautauqua Institution was founded more than one hundred twenty-five years ago by a Methodist minister as a camp. Today it is a cultural center as well as a center for religion and education. If you have never visited there it is well worth your while to plan a at least a day trip there during the season next year.

Ann Swanson writes from her home in Russell, PA. Contact at