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Prairie Plates: Putting the community back in the meal

Conner Prairie’s Prairie Plates series brings us together with local cuisine


Perfectly prepared double cut lamb chops. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Perfectly prepared double cut lamb chops.
A clean bone sits calmly upon the white ceramic plate, a few sips of beer remain in the pilsner glass, the sun sets slowly behind the antique homestead to our left. Strangers are now caught up in conversation.

It's everything a meal should be.

And it's not commonplace. The art of a simple, peaceful meal together has been nearly lost in our fast-paced society. Unfortunately, it’s a rarity for us to sit down as a community and to share the spoils of the land we live in, a rarity to chat and enjoy each others company, unencumbered by the modern advances of our world. Technology steals the conversation, the food seems uninteresting and purely convenient, many times having been zapped into life via a microwave, the beer flavorless and made by automated machinery. We care more about what some random, talentless family a world away has going on in their faux world than the people in the room with us.

It’s a sad state.

But, there's a movement away from this, and one event that is leading this movement in Indiana is the Prairie Plates series at Conner Prairie.

“People tend to think of Conner Prairie in alignment with the farm-to-table movement” says Chris Petrelli, the director of programs for Conner Prairie, “So, a couple of years ago we started looking for a way to showcase a night life aspect of Conner Prairie for adults, while seeking out those restaurants that are local, that shop locally, source their food locally, or at least have a certain ethos about them that is very Indiana, very local to the environment, a celebration of local food.”

From this search sprung Prairie Plates, where the Conner Prairie team partners with unique restaurateurs and chefs in the area to create these dining experiences on their grounds. In the first few years the program has seen some of Indiana’s greatest restaurants and chefs prepare spectacular locally-sourced meals tied to differing themes. David Tallent, Regina Mehallick, JJ Boston, and many more talented chefs and their teams have created one-of-a-kind meals for past event-goers. 

“Each of these events is also a collaboration where we pair the right chef with the right environment,” says Petrelli, further explaining the intricacies of the events, “We worked with Cerulean last year on our Lanape (Len-ah-pay) Indian theme primarily because Alan Sternberg had reached out to us to find out some information on Native American cuisine that he was interested in somehow infusing into his restaurant. So we said, here’s some information and, oh, by the way, we do this program, would you be interested in experimenting on some of that cuisine with us up here. So he created this evening of Native American inspired food while our guests had the opportunity to mingle through our Native American camp that coincided with our Dance Lenape program, where we have Native Americans from the Delaware Tribe in Oklahoma come here to share their cultural dances and music. It turned into a wonderful evening where we paired delicious modern food with historical interpretation and so we try and do that with each of these Prairie Plates.”

Back to my meal: “I’ll take Potent Indiana Potables for 400,” says a white-haired, bespectacled woman.

She is seated at one of six wood benches in front of an indigo board with the words Indiana Jeopardy across the top.

The girl standing in for Alex Trebek takes the card off and reads the statement aloud. My girlfriend answers in the form of a question, “What is Three Floyds?!”

We’re celebrating Indiana’s Bicentennial Celebration with a bit of state history, my girlfriend and I have already made our way through the animal barn, meeting all of the sheep, goats, and calves raised here at Conner Prairie. I have an Upland Champagne Velvet in my hand, a little piece of Indiana history in itself, the beer comes from 114-year-old handwritten brewer’s recipe.

Next up is a venture through the 200-year-old Conner House. But, before that, J.Ford’s Black Angus, from Terre Haute, is serving up an appetizer of Lamb Relleno.

J. Ford's Lamb Relleno. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • J. Ford's Lamb Relleno.

I’m lucky to be here, this event has been immensely popular with the public and as more and more people hear about it the more exclusive it becomes. As Chris points out, “People have really responded to it, you know we get a lot of return visitors that are excited to come back. Because you really can’t do this elsewhere in the area, you can get the food at the restaurants and you should already be doing that, but you can’t get it in these historical settings while historical interpreters are speaking with you in the slang of the times. It’s a very unique experience.”

I bear this in mind while taking my first bite, the pepper, cheese, lamb, and salsa verde all meshing together into a delicious opening dish. The setting is unique, being outside in this expansive, gorgeous, rustic setting surrounded by strangers, all of us brought together by a love of Indiana and the enjoyment of local food and drink. The man to my left comments on the food and we delve into conversation, my girlfriend and his wife joining in. Soon, the other couple at the table is chatting along and we’re making references to travel, literature, the loathsome qualities of technology, favorite places around the city, our mutual love of the film Meet Joe Black (technology isn’t absolutely terrible).

Gathering around the table - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Gathering around the table
Our second course is crostinis with local vegetables, a honey truffle vinaigrette and goat cheese, as well as another round of libations (white wine this time). We continue to converse and become acquainted with one another. It is a fast reminder of the communal quality of cuisine. In the words Anthony Bourdain, a man who has shared more meals with more people than maybe anyone on Earth, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”

According to Chris this year will be a big year for the event. They are kicking off the season with J. Ford’s and Upland; up next is the always popular Petite Chou featuring an 1859 hot air balloon voyage. Then, Meridian will prepare a food and fine wine meal on the covered bridge paired with a trek through the brand new Treetop Outpost exhibit, and the season will end with an awesome event from the chefs at Ivy Tech.

“What’s fun about this year is that we challenge the people involved to source their ingredients within 100-mile radius, within reason. You’re not going to get coffee grown within that area, but you can find a coffee roaster within a 100-mile radius. The chefs step up because they see it as something different and interesting. This whole idea stemmed from a chef at Ivy Tech, Thom England, who basically promotes the 100-mile diet." 

"We said, 'Well, I wonder if we could have a 100-mile brunch. So, Ivy Tech decided to get their students involved, which I’m really excited about because I feel that they're going to put all of their energy into it.”


Our third dish of the evening arrives: perfectly prepared double cut lamb chops. We all dig in, except for the two non-meat eaters at the table — luckily beer and wine are vegan. Once my lamb chop is meat-less, I take a sip of my Campside Session IPA. I’m stuffed and I’m happy.

What did Christopher McCandless say? I think it was “Happiness is only real when shared.” The same goes for most everything in life, including meals.

We are all asked to move over to the Conner House for a quick, informative and comical historical presentation entitled “What’s a Hoosier?

You had me at honey truffle vinaigrette - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • You had me at honey truffle vinaigrette
When the performance is over, we return to the table where a tres leche parfait with layers of caramel mousse and chocolate ganache awaits us. I pour a cup of local coffee to accompany my final dish. Jeff Ford and his team step up and take a final bow for an incredible meal. The 40-or-so diners all raise our hands in applause for the hardworking team.

What’s a Hoosier? I don’t really know the meaning of the word — no one really does —but in this beautiful setting, having just shared a meal of this caliber, I know I’m proud to be one.

For the full Prairie Plates schedule and to get your tickets to the next event go to click here. 


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