Blue Heron celebrating 20th anniversary

The Recorder, October 19, 2017, by Richie Davis

SUNDERLAND — Customers know The Blue Heron restaurant for its fine dining specializing in using locally sourced ingredients for an upscale menu that’s varied, if not necessarily New England, cuisine.

But for a special 20th anniversary celebration planned for Oct. 27, owners Deborah Snow and Barbara White will feature a special Gullah menu that harkens back to their travels to the sea islands of South Carolina.

The “evening of Gullah culture and living” will feature stations serving specialties of the “low country” like She-Crab Soup, Pan-Seared Redfish with Succotash, Fried Green Tomatoes, Sautéed Okra and Fried Chicken with Country Ham Gravy.

Inspired by their lifelong love of food and hospitality, Snow and White opened the Blue Heron Restaurant on the banks of the Sawmill River in Montague in 1997. The Blue Heron quickly rose to prominence as one of the best restaurants in the Pioneer Valley. After a successful six-year run, Snow and White went in search of a new location to accommodate their growing customer base. The vacant Old Town Hall in Sunderland seemed like the perfect spot, and in 2004 the Blue Heron re-opened in its current home.

The Blue Heron is an intimate, relaxed upscale restaurant featuring globally inspired cuisine sourced ethically from the valley and beyond.

In addition to the Gullah-themed special menu, the “American Gullah Collection” celebration will feature the singing of contralto Xan Jennings, an Orangeburg, S.C., native with a master’s degree in music from Indiana University along with artwork by South Carolina artist Sonja Griffin Evans.

White and Snow met Evans in March when they revisited the South Carolina islands they explored 23 years ago as they contemplated opening a restaurant together.

“Barbara and I traveled, spending four months in an RV and visiting the Beaufort, S.C., area,” recalls Snow of the days after she left her job as head of dining services at Northfield Mount Hermon School, where White had been dean of residential life. As they contemplated where they would open their restaurant together, the two women visited The Red Piano Gallery, the oldest professional fine art gallery on Hilton Head Island, S.C. They explored Saint Helena Island, home of one of the first schools for freed slaves and one of the sea islands where enslaved Africans, mostly from Sierra Leone’s rice-growing region, were brought to work on rice plantations.

The Gullah culture, with its unique crafts of sweetgrass basket weaving, unique dialect and folklore, developed there in relative isolation on the islands from the mix of these slaves, as well as native tribes and indentured servants from Europe.

“We just loved the area,” Snow added. “It just really spoke to us about the strength and courage of the people and maintaining their local traditions. The African traditions there are probably much stronger there than anywhere in the U.S.,” in part because there were no bridges connecting the islands to the mainland until the mid-20th century, she said.

Meeting Evans and re-experiencing the Low Country culture this spring touched off conversations about a program to share the culture with this region, with its own strong history of the Underground Railroad, Sojourner Truth in Northampton and John Brown in Springfield.

The dinner, for which reservations are necessary, is one in a series of cultural events hosted by The Blue Heron over the years. Last year, it presented “a dinner and a conversation about race in America,” featuring authors Julius Lester and Barry Moser, black and white former Southerners sharing their very different experiences around race growing up in that region — and today.

Snow, a native Midwesterner who has been executive chef of the restaurant, said the Southern tradition around food is built around a strong connection to farms, although that connection in the South — where the growing season is longer and there’s probably more access to food anyone can catch or grow — has always been a strong one.

Closer to home, White and Snow watched as the local food movement has taken root over the past 20 years, with the emergence of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture’s “Local Hero” campaign playing a major role.

“When we began, there was no local food movement,” said Snow, who recalls their conversations with neighbors Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc about their plans to start Seeds of Solidarity Farm and their own plans to launch their restaurant. They began buying salad greens from the Orange farm from the start, as well as Diemand Farm, Mapleline Dairy, gradually working with other local growers as they geared up.

“The farms have grown, and there are so many of them,” she said, recalling that at the outset few of them delivered, so the co-owners would have to collect corn from Warner Farm and other farms. “The availability has really grown, and there’s so much variety that we have to make choices now.”

The restaurant, which started out at The Montague Mill, with a very small kitchen and seating for 40 to 60, launched “kind of at the number five,” Snow recalls: five red wines, five white wines, five appetizers, five entrees. In Sunderland, where there is room for as many as 200 and a full-time staff of 15, the menu has grown, often around what’s in season locally.

“We’ve really listened to our customers, who sometimes have told us this dish is too big,” said White, who retired about five years ago as the restaurant’s general manager. So it began offering smaller versions of full-size items. From the beginning, it has also served hamburgers, made from cattle raised at Shelburne’s Foxbard Farm, and welcomed customers who just want a burger or a salad, or just drinks and a snack.

“Our image has always been this high-end restaurant, and people felt, ‘I can’t go there …’” she said. “We haven’t changed our white-tablecloth look, but we present ourselves in a way that’s much more open and tell people, ‘It’s OK.’”

Snow adds that The Blue Heron, which does about 20 percent of its business catering private occasions, business retreats, parties and campus events, sometimes gets asked, “What’s your food like?”

“I tell people, “It’s kind of what we like to eat. And when we get bored, we change the menu.”