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Great food for a great cause draws the best kind of crowd

Taste the best peanut brittle

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Great food for a great cause draws the best kind of crowd

Collegian File Photo

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By Emma Waldman, Collegian Correspondent

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Little-known by many and well-known by a few, the “Warm Up the Night Amherst” fundraiser is a “strolling culinary extravaganza” and foodie goldmine for any eating extraordinaire. The annual autumn occasion, along with its sister event “Light Up the Night Amherst” in the summer has been the signature fundraiser of Family Outreach of Amherst (FOA) since 2012.

The whole bazaar can be seen contained in one large white tent behind the Lord Jeffery Inn, with a warm glow emanating from within. Escaping the nippy chill into the excitement can be made even greater by the immediate inhalation of a warm spiced apple cider served by a smiling member of the University of Massachusetts swim team, who have been volunteering at these events since their conception. In my first go-round of the tent, I notice some folks mingling, some milling, some chatting and many focused solely on the food.

The provisions from various local vendors are impressive. The first taste I get is from Star Ginger, a wood-ear mushroom salad. Smoky and slimy, I would recommend to anyone who enjoys but wants to stray from seaweed salad. Johnny’s Tavern’s serving of pulled duck rigati, elaborately constructed in several steps of plating, was one of many rich pasta dishes offered by Osteria Vespa, Pasta E Basta, 30Boltwood and even the Works. Through the event, it becomes clear that there are not just local businesses reminding residents of their delicious food, but also volunteers proving they can handle the heat of the kitchen too. One of the tastiest dishes I had was a pulled barbecue chicken and beef stew, presented humbly by the hard-working volunteers at two insta-pots releasing tempting aromas, and cooked beautifully by the FOA’s own program director Laura Reischsman.

Several tastes were undeniably decadent. Osteria Vespa, an upscale Italian restaurant hidden behind the Amherst Cinema, presented what I first viewed as a sandwich but was reintroduced to as their own cured and roasted porchetta on herbed focaccia with an apricot and balsamic agra dulce with whipped goat cheese. The meat was succulent and flavorful, cut through by the sweetness of the fruit flavor and tart cheese, pulled together by the bread that was fluffy within with the perfect crunch of crust. UMass may boast, but it’s not often I get to indulge in such a gourmet and luscious dish. Nor am I likely to be provided oysters on the half shell by such an exuberant purveyor as the discovered jewel of the Lord Jeffery Inn, Emile. Emile provides several services for different parts of the Inn, and besides jumping between serving oysters and duck to eager guests, also serves as the Santa Claus in Amherst from November to December. When I admitted I’d never had oysters, he demanded that I try one first without any topping, and then add a vinegar onion sauce. But after that I was cut off. My lovely server was rationing the oysters, protecting them from vulture-like guests. He assured me that if he did not limit the servings, they would have run out long before the halfway point.

Emile was kind enough to enthusiastically direct me to his favorite items in the tent. At a table I had initially passed without much thought, I returned to try what I had originally thought to be red pepper hummus. This creamy orange dish was actually—get ready autumn lovers—a pumpkin spice goat cheese devised by Whole Foods. I’m not a pumpkin spice maniac, but even while trying to leave space for more, this is another taste that I couldn’t resist going back for. When paired with another subtly shining star of the night, spiced pecans made by a member of the FOA Advisory Board, it was one of the most delectable and seasonally appropriate things I had the joy of putting in my mouth. I regret not sharing it with a moment outside and another serving of the hot spiced cider. Another delicious combination brought by Whole Foods was their Keens Farmhouse cheddar with Stonewall Bourbon mustard. Even amongst all of the meticulously prepared dishes, and though my stomach likes dairy less than my eyes, I frequented the crudite and cheese plates presented by Whole Foods, Bistro 63 and Provisions.

As the night went on, some food remained untouched—many desserts were bypassed in favor of the savory dishes and the donut towers remained standing. Near the close of the night, as I dug my spoon into a second helping of tiramisu, I watched remaining guests continue to knock back bourbon and delight in learning about the appropriate pairings of cheese for a warm or cold sake.

Beyond the amazing food and drink, the real standout was the cause. Talking to a few attendees, I learned that most guests have been coming year after year and love the event, but truly show up to support the FOA. The enthusiasm and excitement of everyone, from guests to servers, was palpable. I was invited to try everything and describe the food so earnestly that I felt so welcomed and invited into this community. No business or restaurant was above the volunteers or guests. A server from Bistro 63 exclaimed that she would work the event for free if she could be paid in peanut brittle, speaking of the local brittle legend who makes a batch a week to give out, never sell, to local businesses and causes. Heading back out into the brisk night, rewrapped in cozy outerwear and with beyond satisfied stomachs and maybe even brittle stuffed pockets, I doubt a single guest was disappointed with their evening. Not even the one who almost tracked out a cluster balloons in her departure, perhaps in an effort to take a bit of the night home.

Make sure to watch out for next year’s event!

Emma Waldman can be reached at [email protected]

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