Say the name “Michael Pollan” in certain circles and you can feel the palpable swell of excitement. Pollan’s thought-provoking books, which invite readers to consider the origins of their food and the systems that produce it, have earned him rock star status among devotees of the food movement and beyond. My own dog-eared copies of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food qualify me as a “groupie” of sorts.
That’s why I jumped at the recent chance to photograph a very special benefit dinner with Pollan for The Mesa Refuge; a secluded writers’ retreat nestled on a bluff outside Point Reyes Station, California.
Twenty-five patrons gathered in West Marin on Saturday, October 18, at the beautiful 19-acre Heidrun Meadery for an intimate $500 per-plate dinner and the chance to rub elbows with the iconic author.
The event celebrated the newly established Michael Pollan Journalism Fellowship which sponsors a two-week residency for an outstanding candidate at the secluded retreat center where Pollan himself wrote portions of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The first fellowship will be awarded to writer and filmmaker Raj Patel, whose works spotlighting social justice and food are affecting change on a global scale. Patel will be in residence at Mesa Refuge in January of 2015.
The evening began with relaxed cocktails, appetizers, and mingling on the private grounds at Mesa Refuge retreat which overlooks the wetlands of Tomales Bay.
Guests were treated to freshly shucked oysters courtesy of Hog Island Oyster Company, and a delectable selection of artisan cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery served with wood-fired Brickmaiden Breads, homemade jams, wild honey, and chutney.
Mesa Refuge founder Peter Barnes welcomed patrons and highlighted the important works written by past alumni of the center, before turning the floor over to Executive Director Susan Page Tillett who introduced current writers in residence Sarah Shourd, Blaire Briody, and Sally Bolger.
As the sun dipped low on the horizon, guests raised their glasses and toasted the Refuge with an inaugural vintage of Heidrun’s first Point Reyes Wildflower Estate Mead before driving to the nearby meadery for dinner.
Behind-the-scenes, a capable staff coordinated by the multi-talented Elizabeth Hill (owner of West Marin Food & Farm Tours) rose to the auspicious occasion.
Heidrun’s refurbished green house/tasting room was transformed into a magical venue centered around a long farm table adorned with mason jar bouquets of gathered flowers from the meadery’s lush gardens. Strategically placed candles in glass hurricanes and dancing twinkle lights added to the intimate ambience, as guests engaged in spirited pre-dinner conversation.
In the adjacent kitchen, Chef Trudy Schafer and her team of culinary students from Bauman College put finishing touches on the evening’s menu:
Delicata Squash Soup with pomegranate & pumpkin seeds
Baby Heidrun Greens with Pears, Walnuts, and Bay Blue Cheese
Braised Stemple Creek Leg of Lamb with Open Field potatoes and sautéed Mesa Kale
Mesa Apple Galettes with Double 8 Dairy Water Buffalo Gelato and Caramel Corn.
Her beautifully prepared dishes, paired with wines from local vintners, highlighted a wealth of organic ingredients sourced from West Marin farms, ranches, cheesemakers, and bakeries–many of which were generously donated for the cause. Despite the pressure, Chef Schafer managed to keep her cool and her smile while creating a seamless interface between the kitchen and table as each course was presented.
In a break between courses, Pollan praised Marin County as a leader at the forefront of the organic food movement, citing local organic farm pioneer Warren Weber of Star Route Farms in Bolinas as an inspiration. “The wealth of diversity and innovation that exists here make this place unique,” said Pollan to the rapt audience.
West Marin is especially memorable to Pollan because of his time at Mesa Refuge. “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in two weeks when you eliminate the usual daily distractions and focus on the work,” he says. Giving that gift of time to other aspiring writers lies at the heart of this new fellowship that bears his name. “The work that comes out of Mesa Refuge has the capacity to change the world,” he said. “I’m honored to support this special place.”
If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to support a writer’s residency at Mesa Refuge, click here. Please enjoy additional images from the event on the slide show below. *All photos are the exclusive property of the photographer and may not be copied or used without express permission.