#LongTableDinners – my @AlbertaatNoon column for April

the table is set for a season of long table dinners - photo - Karen Anderson
the table is set for a season of long table dinners – photo – Karen Anderson

The Guinness World Record for the longest of long table dinners is 1.286 kilometres.

The record was set in August of 2014 in Finland where the long table dinner was measured with three decimal precision to eek out Spain’s record of 1.258 kilometres. This record has toppled more than once in the last few years proving that long table dinners are “a thing”. But are they truly a new phenomenon or are they an exaggeration of an age old tradition?

This post will look at this trend in dining and the list of long tables setting up for an exciting season of outdoor dining in Alberta this year. Check out a holiday menu inspired by this phenomenon here.

Alberta blue skies make for long table dinner magic - photo - Karen Anderson
Alberta blue skies make for long table dinner magic – photo – Karen Anderson

Historically long table dinners were held by royalty to hold court, entertain visiting dignitaries and to reward soldiers and celebrate victories. For a young country, Canada has a long history of long table celebrations. We were having them even before we became a country.

Early French explorer, Samuel de Champlain spent the winter of 1604 on Ste. Croix Island near the town of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. He watched many of his men die of scurvy and many others suffer from mental anguish and loss of hope. He moved his encampment across the Bay of Fundy to what is now Port Royal, Nova Scotia and befriended the Mi’Kmaq First Nations people who taught these early European settlers what they could forage from the bounty nature provided and how to survive the harsh Canadian winter.

Champlain created The Order of Good Cheer to use food and camaraderie as a strategy to help his community thrive – and not just barely survive – the winter of 1606. Feasts with lively entertainment kept everyone’s morale up.

The province of Nova Scotia still honours outstanding hospitality people the medal of The Order of Good Cheer. Slow Food Nova Scotia says it’s purpose is to honour what Champlain started – the first Gastronomic Society in North America – by helping others experience, “the taste of local food in a social and convivial atmosphere through excursions to farms, special dinners, tastings and public projects”. Between Champlain and the emergence of the Slow Food International movement in the late 1980s churches and service clubs were the organizers of long table dinners and community gatherings.

Let's bring back The Order of Good Cheer - photo - Karen Anderson
Let’s bring back The Order of Good Cheer –
photo – Karen Anderson

Annual church suppers across Canada were a kind of community-wide dining circuit where during the course of a year members of a community might enjoy themes like a fancy lobster dinner or humble supper of baked beans, buns and casseroles. Shrove Tuesday would bring a service group out to make pancake suppers. July first might mean a fish chowder fest on the East Coast or a barbecue with beef on a bun across the west. Fall meant a drive to small countryside churches for “feast of fowl” pre or post Thanksgiving dinners.

With church AND service club attendance down, long table dinners have become increasing secular and commercial.

They’ve become promotional events for restaurants or hospitality and tourism groups. There are even long table franchises that travel a circuit and “pop up” with great fanfare. Diner en blanc is one of these. Outstanding in The Field is another. Outstanding in the Field have been in operation since 1999 and have a rigorous annual schedule with dinner collaborations that almost always sell out wherever they go.

In Alberta most of the Long Table Dinners we’ll see this year will be opportunities for communities to enjoy food, a great gathering while raising money for a worthy cause. Local ingredients, chefs and businesses benefit with exposure to new clientele, farmers are celebrated and everyone has fun. The price tag varies with each event but people of all incomes are often willing to pay if proceeds from the event go back into their own community.

There are two events coming up rather quickly to start the year off.

Medicine Hat will host its Sunshine Skillet Sunset Dinner on April 7. That event is sold out already with tickets at $100/person.

Canmore Uncorked has an outdoor long table dinner on April 17th. Here’s the video from last year’s event. It too is already sold out at $150/person but there are still many other fun things for food lovers to do during this festival including Progressive Dinners with Olympic Athletes as hosts and a Really Big Brunch.

I think that these two events selling out this quickly bodes well for the season. Diners who want to enjoy the long table dinner scene will have to be on the lookout for ticket sales of other events. A good place to do that is the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance website which has a calendar of events that acts as a clearing house of offerings and a central hub of activity.

Here’s my summary of ones I’ve been able to uncover this far as follows:

Aspen Crossing near Vulcan Alberta won an Alberta Rural Tourism award a few years ago and 2015 marks their debut in hosting regular long table dinners. Theirs will have the unique option of taking their 28 kilometre round trip train ride to a grain elevator (complete with train robbery on some trips) to dine under a tent in the fields. Those excursions start up in May through September.

July will hopefully see Taste of Markerville Long Table Dinner return. Here’s a look at last year’s event.

The Markerville Menu used produce from 13 local farms and saw six local chefs volunteer their time to support this small agricultural community. Most of Markerville’s 150 or so residents involved in an effort to raise awareness of the history of their small Icelandic community and its agricultural ties.

The August long weekend in Calgary will see River Cafe collaborate with chefs and community groups from all over Calgary to host a long table dinner at Fort Calgary in honour of Food Day Canada and its founder Anita Stewart will be in attendance.

The end of August marks the harvest celebration in the tiny hamlet of Bergen Alberta with their annual Feast of Bergen. Those tickets sell out in a heartbeat and all proceeds go to the Bergen Institute which supports farming mentorship for the future.

Calgary’s City Palate magazine has had two early September dinners they deservedly call “Really, really long table dinners” because they organize – at last count – 9 restaurants to serve 280 people smack dab in the middle of downtown Calgary on Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall.

Watch the City Palate website for ticket to go on sale just after their annual Pig and Pinot festival in late June.

At last note, ACTA Executive Director Tannis Baker was hopeful that two long table dinners – that were also highly successful from last season – Dig in St. Albert in October and Jasper’s Dark Sky will happen again.

AND last but not least – though not outdoors – I got to help cook (in a minor way – I was mainly the good cheer!) a wonderfully warm indoor Ukrainian long table dinner for 240 guests organized by the Culina Restaurants and On Our Table in Edmonton last November. Two foot snowbanks and minus 36 Celsius couldn’t keep hardy Emontonians away from an evening that promised perohy and keilbasa. With homemade food, fun music, twinkling lights and a community hall that got warmer and warmer as the night went on, it was easy to see why Champlain and his men created The Order of Good Cheer and how it helped them survive our winters.

Maybe the reason long table dinners are enjoying a revival is because they celebrate food’s ability to create and sustain good cheer through great community. I think I’ll add long table dinners to my list of things that help us savour it all.


    1. Karen Anderson

      Thanks Fraser,
      Alberta’s big three industries are oil, agriculture and tourism. While oil is in a bit of a slump right now, I’d say the main significance of Long Table Dinners is their potential to boost agriculture and tourism through these enlightened culinary pursuits. There’s absolutely nothing fluffy or elitist about them. They’re magic for people involved and they’ll be magic for the economy too. Thanks for all you do as a tourism ambassador.

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