“It’s like Christmas for people who love food and wine!” my friend Elsbeth promised. How could one say no to such a proclamation? I don’t believe I’d ever been to a party so described, and it piqued my curiosity.
Taste of the Nation is a nationwide event to raise funds for the mission of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger. To attend in Boston (prices vary per city), the cost is $90 for general admission and $150 for VIP benefits. Yours truly, after wondering if I could attain a press pass and then quickly admonishing the thought in the name of charity, put nearly her entire weekly budget toward the general admission ticket. I’ll eat pasta at home this week, for the children, I told myself. Plus, 100% of the cost goes directly to Share Our Strength. I lassoed my friend Laura, owner of Groovy Baby Music (who certainly wants her students well fed), to be my date and cohort.
Held at the Hynes Convention Center, Taste of the Nation hosted Boston’s best restaurants, bars, and wine and spirit purveyors, all donating their time and wares. Elsbeth was not joking, complete with star chef sightings, Taste of the Nation was like a candy store of fine foods. Nearly all of the heavy hitters were there: L’Espalier, Hamersley’s Bistro, Craigie on Main, Neptune Oyster, Taranta, Iggy’s Breads of the World, South End Buttery, and many, many more. Also to be noted was M.S. Walker and Ideal Wines, whose tables served the best wines of the evening.
The standout of the evening, for a few reasons, was Roxbury’s Haley House Bakery Café. I know this may sound incongruous—that the top-rated, James Beard recognized, starred and diamond rated establishments took a backseat to a café seems impossible— but hear me out. First, they had the most buttery, flaky, and perfectly seasoned empanadas I’ve ever had. Ever. They were so beautiful that I heard murmurs in their regard in all four corners of the room. Equally important to note is that they were vegetarian! I do not subscribe to a vegetarian lifestyle, but oftentimes a way to make something more delicious (this I do believe) is to add pork. To attain such beauty in a little pastry pocket with the support of little beyond flour, butter and some peas shows true genius. Secondly, their chocolate chip cookies broke my heart into tiny, lovelorn pieces. I only had one. I’ll have to go to Roxbury to relive the moment. Best cookie ever. Really.
But I fell for Haley House for another reason. It’s a nonprofit organization. Originally started in 1966 as a place of shelter for the homeless in the South End, Haley House has for many years supported those in need. In 1996, they expanded to open a cafe where they taught baking and job skills to underemployed men and women. The popularity of the goods helped them expand to a catering commissary and a full training program in Roxbury. This strikes a particular chord with me, for I worked for a food justice organization in a neighborhood much like Roxbury in California. Like the Haley House and Share Our Strength, People’s Grocery works to end hunger, provide jobs, and promote healthy living. From what I could gather, Haley House was the only table at Taste of the Nation that was a nonprofit, and for donating not only their time and energy, but their products too, seconded their commitment to the overarching purpose of the evening. They were, in effect, donating twice, and you’ve got to respect that.
Second runner up was L’Espalier’s goat cheese panna cotta with rhubarb foam and pistachio crumble. I loved the goat cheese flavor that crept up on you after the initial sweet-sour rhubarb rush. This was a beautifully executed and creative dessert. Iggy’s bread and Neptune Oysters proved as reliably perfect and delicious as always, and honorable mention goes to Whole Foods Market, for serving up sustainably harvested, smoked fish and caviar combinations. Lastly, I had an ossubuco dish that was so out of this world that I forgot who made it. It was that good.
For all the good that Share our Strength does, bringing children’s hunger in our own country to a forefront, there is a small twinge of irony at such an event. This was an expensive, fancy event where those least likely to ever be hungry were fed lavishly. I wonder at the practice of wining and dining those who donate in order to make the donation seem more worthwhile. Maybe that’s just the fun of it. Afterall, we paid for a very nice dinner. Still, such an event will create a clearer and more achievable route to sufficient nutrition for our children. Regardless of any inconsistencies, any path to that end is worthwhile, and if in doing so we get to visit each of our favorite restaurants in one night, so be it.
Visit Share Our Strength’s website, and buy tickets to the event in your city:
See more photos and hear what others thought of the event at:
Main photo image credit: A Boston Food Diary Blog