One evening last week, a storybook tale was about to unfold in the long fields near Honeybrook in Chester County, the last sun silvering the sky, and a soft chill coming up beside the old stone barns of Wyebrook Farm.
William Woys Weaver wasn't really noticing. He was busy in one of the rustic shelters, spooning out the contents of gallon-size jars he had used to pickle, well, just about anything that couldn't outrun him - curly garlic scapes and lima beans of various origins, sweet-and-sour purple grapes, and spicy baby corn and okra.
And a subtle chowchow. And, of course, red beet eggs. And more.
But the story was, at its heart, about him, and the sweet taste of validation he (along with close to 40 invited guests) was about to savor. For the first time, his pickup crew of seasoned chefs - "adherents," might describe them better - were about to show off the stylish versatility of local ingredients in a heritage-food dinner: It was the debut, you could say, of Weaver's dream team.
Among its ranks were Steve Eckerd, an alumnus of Le Bec-Fin; and Rob Marzinsky, who made his bones at Fitler Dining Room; Brent Golding from Lancaster; and Palmer Marinelli, the organizer, who refers to himself as a "food activist." Up from Baltimore, where he considers Weaver's teachings a "user's guide" for Pennsylvania produce and meat, was Woodberry Kitchen's chef, Spike Gjerde.
Most were in their early 30s - about half Weaver's age - and one could surmise that he was tending the seeds of continuity, nurturing the fragile first tendrils of his long-germinating Keystone Center.
Its full name is a mouthful: The Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism, more a blueprint, until recently, than something you could touch, feel, and taste. It is based in Devon, in Weaver's rambling home, a former stagecoach inn, called Roughwood.
Weaver established the center to document and, equally, to promote the food traditions of Pennsylvania's larder - the origins of catfish and waffles (which were on the menu that evening), and country scrapple, saffron noodles, fruit pies, and German-inflected Christmas cookies that carpeted the Lancaster County countryside each December.
But beyond that, he saw the center's mission as a savior of threatened heirloom-seed stock. (A recent rescue involved planting seed plots of a rare Tutelo strawberry corn.)
And it was to be a cheering section, too, for fading regional flavors - the wintergreen whiff of wild, red teaberry; the stealthy heat of white fish pepper; and the black currant leaf that added a grace note to the vinegar in the pickles Weaver was scooping from his jars.
But the Keystone Center has been a bit of a one-man band, searching for traction, looking to find a niche and voice. It was hard to tell who, if anyone, was listening. Yet Weaver soldiered on - releasing new books, consulting on menus, collecting his seeds, teaching at Drexel University, including during one semester a class on an inelegantly named delicacy called stuffed pig stomach (a surprisingly tasty terrinelike concoction featuring sausage, potato, and onion).
The question was whether - for all his scholarly exertions and dirt-under-the-nails, seed-saving gardening at Roughwood - Weaver could get beyond the lonely soapbox and find himself a proper pulpit.
One answer came from Eckerd toward the end of the dinner. Weaver, he said, was such a fount of knowledge about local plants and farming, about cultural heritage and cookery, that he had bequeathed a new level of creativity and energy to Keystone's chefs and board members: "He has changed the way I cook," he said, "and how I think and speak."
For good measure, Eckerd said, Weaver is having that same effect on a growing circle of devotees eager to soak up his lifetime of exploration of - and dedication to - the region's food traditions.
Weaver, indeed, has been an intrepid chronicler of that history, a nuanced story of the authentic Pennsylvania Dutch front and center. (He reports that he has identified 1,600 dishes of theirs not found anywhere else in America.) He has a small bushel of books on the subject to his credit: an excellent one on heirloom vegetables and seeds; another on the hardscrabble cookery of buckwheat farmers; and, recently published, his Dutch Treats, a deeply researched volume on regional baking crafts.
So the circle has expanded. At the farm tables last week and on benches with sheepskin pelts were farmer Glenn Brendle of Green Meadow Farms and his son Ian, who delivers local produce to Center City restaurants; award-winning cheesemakers - Sue Miller from Birchrun Hills, and stalwarts from Doe Run, Stacey Gentile and Sam Kennedy; and Dean Carlson himself, whose Wyebrook Farm acquisition saved the stone barns and precious grazing lands from commercial development.
They sampled pre-Prohibition Dad's Hat Rye whiskey punch. Pastured pork. And pepperpot soup (a legacy of Philadelphia's trade with the Afro-Caribbean, but this night featuring a broth more redolent of pho, the signature of another, more recent immigration of Vietnamese).
At the end, finally, chef Jon Adams curled scoops of silky teaberry ice cream over slices of pumpkin cake.
A guest could imagine Weaver's having a Cinderella moment - a hidden treasure stepping tentatively onto a wider stage, hoping that the night would be the beginning of something bigger, that it wasn't a dream.
Keystone Center: www.keystonekitchen.org