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Eat, drink and be merry

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Skyler Golden prepares lunches as Shawna Williams takes orders Thursday at the Truffle Pig Kitchen food truck/trailer during the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market at Hawthorne Park.
After two years of restrictions, the Rogue Valley is ready to wine and dine again

Festivals focused on food are whetting appetites in Southern Oregon once again, making for what should be a sweet and savory summer.

“We definitely get the feeling this year that everyone’s back on board,” says Skyler Golden, a chef and co-owner of Truffle Pig Craft Kitchen.

“So we’ve been getting calls left and right to make up for the last two years,” says Golden’s sister and business partner Shawna Williams.

As more than two years of coronavirus restrictions and concerns fade into memory, organizers for the region’s signature events are gearing up for hungry crowds. Enthusiasm isn’t just for the food, they say. Venues and festive atmospheres that promote a common cause — or simply a shared experience — will likely be hot tickets this summer.

“That social aspect of food bringing people together — I think is what people are most looking forward to,” says Dana Keller, events officer for Asante Foundation, presenter of Oregon Wine Experience.

More than 5,000 guests are expected at this year’s OWE, which has a new, larger location. After two years of last-minute changes, virtual festivities and online auctions, says Keller, there is “no plan B” for the wine competition and fundraiser Aug. 17-21 at Stage Pass near Jacksonville.

“We’re just going for it.”

Photo by Steven Addington The Oregon Wine Experience, set for Aug. 17-21 near Jacksonville, involves 25 culinary partners, 80 wineries and 300 volunteers.

The effort involves 25 culinary partners, 80 wineries and 300 volunteers, many longtime donors of time and goods to benefit Asante and Children’s Miracle Network — to the tune of more than $8 million since 2014. While Seven Feathers Casino Resort and Coquille Indian Tribe each present “marquee” events, other, smaller businesses, including Truffle Pig, work more quietly behind the scenes on dishes that evoke Oregon’s bounty and, above all, pair well with wine.

“We ask them, ‘What do you do well?’” says Keller.

For Truffle Pig, it’s infusing locally grown, seasonally fresh produce with international techniques and seasonings. A level-one sommelier, Golden is a favorite at local wineries’ release parties and live musical performances. The sophistication that Truffle Pig brings to the region’s estates and tasting rooms carries over into regular weekly menus, available at local farmers markets.

“People love to eat at the farmers market,” says Williams. “It was such a lunch destination for so many people. So it really did dampen the spirit with COVID.”

Shoppers’ spirits, though, are rejuvenated since the market’s March opening, which reinstated on-site consumption of both ready-to-eat foods and grocery items. Previously, everything from carrots and cookies to meals in takeout containers had to leave the premises before customers could take a bite.

“That was really hard,” says Williams.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jerry Painter sells doughnuts Tuesday during the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.

Hardships, however, haven’t gone the way of mask mandates in the food service industry. Price increases, supply chain snags and labor shortages aren’t likely to ease anytime soon, say Golden, Keller and other culinary veterans.

“People don’t have the staff that they did a couple of years back,” says Keller, formerly food and beverage director for Neuman Hotel Group.

For lack of qualified employees, Golden and Williams have coaxed their parents out of retirement. James Williams was the former chef-owner of Ashland’s Omar’s and met his wife in the locally beloved establishment. And although Golden and Williams both grew up in the restaurant, they say they never expected to jump through the state’s legal hoops to employ high school students.

“That’s kind of our biggest hurdle right now,” says Golden of slim hiring prospects.

Suppliers also tightened their belts during the pandemic, dropping small accounts like Truffle Pig, which has scrambled to find replacements for everything from paper products to bottled beverages. Because the menu is designed to change weekly, Truffle Pig can substitute ingredients and has managed to avoid major price increases, says Golden.

“We’ve been focusing on local as much as possible, says the chef who regularly purchases from Fry Family Farm and Cherry Street Meats, both based in Medford.

Yet the challenges compel Truffle Pig and other mobile kitchens to pick and choose which events promise the best returns. Southern Oregon Lavender Festivals in June and July, says Williams, are big for Truffle Pig, which still can’t shake the specter of event cancellations on short notice. They’ve consequently committed to more private catering events, such as weddings.

“COVID still exists,” acknowledges Alison Hensley Sexauer, executive director of Rogue Valley Food System Network.

Although statewide restrictions look unlikely, RVFSN is still navigating staff, volunteer and participant reluctance about a “drinking and dancing party all day,” says Sexauer. So the nonprofit organization scaled back its annual Brews, Bluegrass and BBQ for a “lighter event” that requires a “smaller lift” to pull off, she says. A benefit, BBB was online the past two years but aspires to raise its historical $10,000.

Hosting 3,000 guests for eight hours at Medford’s RoxyAnn Winery in previous years, RVFSN intends to sell only 1,000 tickets for this year’s June 4 four-hour bash that headlines bands Hot Buttered Rum and 33 String Drive, at least a half-dozen food trucks and local brewers of beer, cider and nonalcoholic beverages.

Keen to support musical performers, which also have been hard-hit the past two years, Sexauer says she’s had an “‘Alice in Wonderland’ moment” as RVFSN has reemerged for in-person tabling and networking locally.

“I think it’s a little bit surreal for people.”

The virtual realm, meanwhile, has become reality for some fundraising events, including OWE. Despite moving online last year, OWE all but matched its previous earnings record, and organizers realized a digital auction block expands participation outside the banquet room and even the region, says Desirae Myers, communication and marketing manager for Asante Foundation.

So the Founders’ Barrel Auction retains an online bidding format going forward, says Myers, while the 2022 Medal Celebration will be live-streamed Aug. 17, kicking off five days of OWE festivities.

“It can help grow the event,” she says. “I think folks will experience something different than they ever had before.”

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.