When Narendra Varma, the executive director of Our Table Cooperative, was growing up in Northern India, Diwali — also known as the festival of lights, celebrated throughout India and among the Indian diaspora in other parts of the world — was easily the year’s biggest celebration. Houses and buildings were lit with oil lamps and candles, shining off the white plaster walls newly washed and patched for the holiday. Friends and family would send boxes of nuts, dried fruit, and candies throughout the five-day period, including sweets made with khoya, evaporated milk solids Varma compares to a nutty ricotta. The family would feast, fireworks would crackle, and the adults would stay up to gamble while the kids went to bed.
“Diwali was like Christmas and New Year’s Eve rolled into one,” Varma says. “There are religious connotations, but like Christmas here, it’s more of a cultural holiday.”
These days, Varma celebrates Diwali on his Sherwood farm and cooperative, albeit a little differently than he did in his early years. Sherwood community members and Oregonians descend upon the farm’s red barn and market, snacking on chaat and drinking wine from Willamette Valley vineyards. Indian classical music plays and, by the time the last course arrives, visitors have begun dancing. In past years, Portland chefs like Sam Smith (Sweedeedee) and Jasmyne Romero Clark (formerly of the Kann winter village pop-up) have come to the farm to collaborate with Varma, using produce grown onsite and meats from fellow cooperative members to build a menu. This year, Varma will handle the menu on his own, incorporating family recipes — things like his mother’s handi kabab — and singular dishes developed based on what’s available seasonally, whether that’s a take on baingan bharta made with butternut squash or a Bailey’s-spiked rasmalai, an Indian dessert made with clotted cream and cardamom.
“Initially it started as something that’s important to me,” Varma says. “We do it because it’s fun.”
Varma didn’t move to the United States to start a farm. After studying education in college, he transitioned into the tech world, working as a software designer at Microsoft. He got into agriculture with the help of his neighbors, opening Our Table as a co-op among farmers, Oregon-based producers, and fellow “members” or owners.
“We were trying to reimagine what a local food system would look like in a modern era,” Varma says. “How do communities feed each other locally, from the local farmshed?”
The 60-acre farm grows rows of dahlias and raspberries, hoop-houses full of chicories and salad greens, ground cherries and brassicas. Within the red barn building, a commissary kitchen processes produce for jams and chutneys, deli salads and soups, while the small grocery is stocked with Marion Acres chickens and Deck Family Farm pork chops, last-of-the-season Jimmy Nardello peppers grown out back. On fall weekends, children play at long wooden tables behind the market, crowding around the cider press or hopping on hay rides. On Fridays, the farm’s neighbors and Sherwood locals fill the back patio, while pizzas emerge from an outdoor, wood-fired oven.
Our Table’s structure includes three types of cooperative members: regional producers, which include places like Deck Family Farm and Garibaldi’s Community Supported Fishery; worker members, who work on the 60-acre farm or within the store or kitchen as salaried employees; and consumer members, who pay a one-time $150 initiation fee to participate in cooperative votes and share in profits.
“If we’re co-creating a food culture, we all need a seat at the table,” Varma says. “That’s why we’re called ‘Our Table.’”
That cooperative approach also applies to the programming at Our Table. Each member contributes to the offerings, whether it’s in the form of feedback, a member-owned winery offering pairings for a farm dinner, or families hosting events on the property. “One time we had these Peruvian neighbors of ours who did a Peruvian menu for the happy hour,” Varma says. “We all have our own food cultures. There’s always something specific to your house. If you can share that, that’s wonderful.”
With Our Table, Varma hoped to create a food culture collectively with his community in Sherwood, using produce and foods local to the area. His approach to Diwali is similar: a celebration of renewal and prosperity using what’s found nearby. Seufert Winery, based in Dayton, will be pairing wines with the dishes on the Diwali menu. Oregon-grown produce will appear in the chutneys and chaat on the table. And, for a little touch of Varma’s childhood, bowls of spiced nuts may make an appearance.
“Our motto is community through food,” Varma says. “It’s about sitting at a table together.”