It was fun watching city folks in designer jeans mingling with tanned and muscular organic farmers. But they found common ground over plates of ribs and were soon holding hands and square-dancing like old friends. Such is the magic that a barn dance can weave.
According to Mike Beretta, the 34-year-old proprietor of Beretta organic farms in King City, Ont., the best time to host a barn dance is "just after spring seeding. You have this gap before you rush out to get all your crops in before you start haying and we try and always plan our barn dance that way. That's what they did in the old days."
This year marks both the 10th anniversary of Beretta farms and the 10th marriage anniversary for Mike and his wife, Cynthia. Five years ago, when the couple were living on a different farm near Wingham, Ont., their barn burned down and they lost a lot of livestock and equipment. Their neighbours, mostly Mennonites, rallied to the couple's side, taking in the surviving animals, planting seed and rebuilding the barn, which, after laying the foundation, was erected in a day.
A few weeks after that, to christen the barn officially, the couple threw their first barn dance, a casual potluck affair with music and square dancing. The event was so much fun, they have continued the tradition.
The Berettas moved to their current farm in 2000. It boasts a massive L-shaped barn that Mike estimates "is over 100 years old. It's all tongue and groove and the only nails in that whole place are basically to hold the roof down and the sides in. Many of the planks on the floor you can lift up."
For the party, they moved all the farming equipment, including a couple of antique tractors and various implements, outside and moved dozens of picnic tables in.
This past June 14 was the third barn dance at their new farm and it was the biggest to date, attracting more than 300 people. Beretta's three seasoned chefs, who look after the catering side of the business, took on the task of feeding the guests, led by head chef Steffan Howard. Howard, who has worked in Paris and Montreal, is committed to the virtues of organic cooking using locally grown ingredients. His assistants at the grills are Andrew Seal and Steven Carradona.
To celebrate Beretta's 10 years in operation, the chefs decided to prepare 10 varieties of ribs, among them chipotle-smoked short ribs, maple and mustard glazed spareribs and hickory smoked navel ribs with peach and Vidalia onion compote. In all, the chefs braised, smoked, grilled and basted 400 pounds of ribs. These along with salads and homemade desserts baked by Cynthia and her family ensured that no one went hungry. Before I could finish eating, the music began. The Forget Me Nots bluegrass band started churning out classic country foot stompers.
Between courses, guests could take a barn tour and pay their respects to the turkeys, chickens, ducks and Daisy the dairy cow. The pigs downstairs lent a pungent air of authenticity to the dinner.
After dessert, a group of clog dancers, resplendent in red and black dresses, entertained the crowd with some spirited Austrian folk dancing.
Acoustically, the barn could give Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall a run for its money. The openness of the structure, with its 40-foot vaulted ceiling, provided a remarkable audio experience. As the sun went down, the lights were turned on inside and singer-songwriter Michael Gabriel, who has been friends with Mike since they were kids, played his guitar and sang.
Actor Christopher Morris extinguished the lights and mounted the stage with only a single kerosene lamp for lighting. He proceeded to spook the assembled crowd with an ominous and gripping retelling of the infamous Edgar Allan Poe classic, The Telltale Heart.
Then it was time for the square dance. Wayne Lowden, a professional caller, started slowly by forming the crowd into two huge circles. Everyone held hands and allemanded left, then right, and then crowded into the middle with much whooping and hollering.
Groups of eight were formed and the real square dancing began. Amateurs, like myself, managed to keep up with the moves for the first few songs, but we soon left the floor open for the experts, who do-si-doed and swung their partners until nearly 1 a.m.
As the sound of the square dancing gave way to the crickets, one smitten reveller announced: "That was the most fun I've had all year."