Gathering Around the Table

Spell Check will tell you that spelling “Pharmacy” with an “F” is wrong, but Annie McHale and Curt Gray, owners of ROOTS Farmacy in Stevenson, Wash., will tell you it’s just right. As they describe their business on their website, “ROOTS Farmacy is all about food. And health. And quality of life. Because they go hand-in-hand.” Food. Farm. Family. Friendship. Fun. The “F” word reimagined.

ROOTS Farmacy is not a restaurant, nor is it exactly an inn. It’s hard to describe what makes ROOTS Farmacy so unique — and delightful. Their customers, who soon become their friends, usually find Annie and Curt through Airbnb, and by word of mouth. Time spent with the couple in and out of their lovely Craftsman-style home can involve harvesting organic produce from their community garden, planning a meal, sharing hands-on cooking experiences, and sitting down together to enjoy the delicious results of their efforts.

As Annie writes, “With hundreds of guests and farm-style dinners under our belts, we recognize a common theme: most folks experience a profound connection while seated at our table, overflowing with just-harvested organic goodness. The smell of earth, of evening dew, of fresh herbs, and edible flowers is palpable. No one wants to leave!”

Several years ago, Annie and Curt traded in their corporate jobs and moved to Stevenson, purchasing a home in need of love and attention. Prior to the move, Annie had been dealing with some health issues, and her friend, a naturopath, suggested it might be her diet that was making her ill. “Within six weeks of changing my diet, I realized that this is something I want to share with people,” Annie says. “So, then I was in my kitchen, which became my laboratory.”

Lest you think that “laboratory” connotes bland or boring food, the meals that Annie and Curt share with their customers are anything but. Guests (no more than eight at a time) register for ROOTS Farmacy events several weeks in advance. Annie e-mails them right away to find out about allergies and food preferences. “That starts the conversation,” Annie says. “Before they get here, we’ve had three to four e-mail exchanges. We’ve already started a relationship.”

In addition to forming relationships with their customers from the outset, Annie and Curt get ready by contacting their local suppliers, with whom they have also built relationships. These include Stevenson’s Native American fish shop, Cascade Creamery artisan cheese makers, local livestock farmers, and more.

After connecting with all involved parties, the planning begins in earnest, with the couple creating several four-course menus from which the guests will choose. Once the guests arrive, everyone sits down to make final menu adjustments, then they head out to the garden to harvest fresh organic vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers. The kitchen is readied, with prep stations supplied with all the necessary tools, recipes and ingredients.

Curt and Annie offer suggestions and guidance, but leave the prep and cooking to their guests. Jobs may include everything from fileting a salmon to designing table decorations. When the food is ready, everyone sits down at the table to enjoy their efforts. (Guests are encouraged to bring their own wine; ROOTS Farmacy does not have a liquor license to sell alcohol.)

Ah, the table — a rectangular slab of wood with a few battle scars. Annie says of it, “My dining table is my most prized possession. Nearly everyone who’s taken a seat has signed its underbelly, striking ink against grain in commemoration of good food, wine, and company. This tradition is in its second decade, and the signatures and accolades serve to remind me that food is the gateway to a heart-connected community.”

Long before adulthood, Annie, one of 11 kids, learned the importance of sitting and sharing a meal around the table. The dining table was the one place the whole family met every night, without fail, to share the day’s events. Annie’s parents were also known for their generous hospitality, frequently inviting an eclectic mix of folks to dinner. As Annie remembers, this group might include the local priest, an automobile executive, and women on furlough from their incarceration at a local jail.

Besides the table, other items in Annie and Curt’s kitchen seem to be infused with history and magic — the wooden bread bowl belonging to Curt’s grandmother, a Dutch oven carried over the Oregon Trail by Curt’s ancestor, and a large cast iron sink that Annie found partially buried on their property. They lovingly restored the sink, leaving untouched its ancient blemishes.

The bread bowl gets a huge workout every day. When the couple isn’t baking bread for one of their in-home meals, they are baking and sharing loaves with the greater Stevenson community. Every week they bake 30 loaves for the local farmers’ market. The first 30 patrons who purchase fresh food at the Saturday market receive a free loaf of ROOTS Farmacy’s bread. Yup. Free. Annie and Curt call it “tithing,” and soon they will add free soup to their repertoire. Annie says, “We need to tithe, to be good community members.”

In addition to their farm-to-table dinners in their home, they offer classes, and are beginning to branch out into the catering business. Annie and Curt will prepare and serve food for up to 35 guests; they prepare the meals in a licensed kitchen, and use only organic, healthy ingredients. You won’t find a paper plate or plastic fork anywhere near their catering. It all comes down to their values about food.

Before I leave, Annie asks me to help her make a few loaves of bread, and to take some more home. She’s already treated me to a slice and some delicious roasted tomatoes. In a short time, she’s made me feel so welcome in her home. Annie writes, “Breaking bread together is the fabric that weaves families and communities together. Sharing a meal is sacred, and invites people to celebrate friendship, engage in conversation, and connect meaningfully.”

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Peggy Dills Kelter is an artist and writer who lives in Hood River.