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Slice of life

Wood-fire smoke, live music and festive laughter float in the air. Families and friends, neighbors and new acquaintances share picnic tables and conversations underneath strings of glowing garden lights. Smiling teenagers toss made-from-scratch pizza dough high in the air and load the crusts with farm-fresh toppings before they’re baked to perfection in adobe ovens.

Any way you slice it, this is no ordinary outdoor dining experience. This is Millsap Farms’ Pizza Club, where the distance between farm to table is measured in mere steps. Curtis and Sarah Millsap started throwing these weekly pizza parties on their Springfield, Mo., farm in the summer of 2014, inspired by a visiting worker who had experienced a similar event in Wisconsin.

“We thought it was a cool idea because it brings community and food and farm space together, and that’s really what we’re all about,” Curtis said. “But it took a few years for the idea to percolate and for all the stars to align to make it happen.”

In 2012, the Millsaps employed an intern who had masonry experience and offered to build an outdoor pizza oven in the traditional Spanish “Horno” style. That was the spark Curtis needed.

“We built one oven, and the next year, we built a second oven and practiced on friends and family for about eight months or so,” he said. “We finally started including the public, and it just kind of ramped up from there.”

Now, some 250 people will gather every Thursday night— and a few Fridays and Saturdays—from May through October to enjoy pizzas topped with inventive combinations of the more than 120 types of fruits and vegetables grown in the farm’s fields and high tunnels. The menu changes seasonally and reflects whatever ingredients are left over from the Millsaps’ community supported agriculture subscriptions and farmers’ market sales.

“Sarah designs all the pizzas, and she’ll ask every Monday morning, ‘What are we going to put on pizzas this week?’” Curtis said. “It’s usually based on what’s in season or something we have in excess.”

Feeding the large and lively crowd takes around 25 volun­teers each week. The Millsaps’ 10 children are among those workers and often recruit their teenage friends to help prep, cook and serve pizzas.

“It’s a great community activity,” Sarah said. “Our volunteers have fun and enjoy camaraderie with their friends and neighbors, and we really wanted that experience for our family.”

Each week the Millsaps serve up four varieties of pizza. Classic cheese is a staple on the menu, but the other three pizzas vary. Sarah said she works hard to serve something new each week, but favorites are often repeated, such as the “B.A.T.”—bacon, arugula and tomato.

“The B.A.T. is one that we do quite often, and the veggie pizza is also popular,” Sarah said. “In the spring we’ll have blueberries on the pizza, and in the middle of the summer there will be peaches. In the fall, we’ll use apples and pears and a lot of butternut squash. It’s fun to see how it changes through the seasons.”

Among the more unusual concoctions, Sarah said she’s created a Thai pizza with a peanut sauce base and another pie with salmon and dill.

“Sarah’s not afraid to do weird things on pizza,” Curtis said. “My father-in-law calls them ‘who-da-thunk-it’ pizzas. You can’t really go wrong. I’ve never had a bad pizza.”

Along with funky combinations and fresh flavors, part of the pizza’s appeal comes from the way it’s cooked. The Millsaps’ wood-fired earthen ovens reach 800 degrees and cook each pie in less than three minutes, crisping the bottom while keeping the top soft and bubbly. They’re served buffet style, all you can eat. Upon arrival, guests are issued a paper plate that they can continue filling to their heart’s content.

“We love that it’s farm-to-table and that there are unique recipes each time,” said Tiffany Butters of Strafford, Mo., who visited a pizza night last September with her husband, Bryan, and their three children. “The atmosphere is great. Everyone’s like family. The kids have fun, and we can let them enjoy themselves without worrying.”

The dining area is nestled in a grove of trees with picnic tables situated around a fire pit and a stage where different musi­cians play each week. Those who don’t snag a seat are welcome to bring lawn chairs and blankets and set up camp under the lights. A limited selection of beverages is available on site, but guests are welcome to bring their own as well. They can also shop for produce and cut flowers at the self-serve farm stand before or after dinner.

Curtis typically offers a tour of the 20- acre farm at some point during the evening, sharing information about his family’s pro­duction practices, describing what produce and flowers are in season and introducing them to the farm’s precocious pigs, which assist in the composting process.

“What we do for the soil and the air and water is super important,” Curtis said. “I want it to be better than it was before we got here. I think that’s the steward’s job, to use the land while improving it. By focusing on the health of the land and the health of the crop, we think that leads to healthier food. We have a wide range of customers who want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s impacting their community and the world. If you buy off the grocery store shelf, it’s really hard to know those things.”

Likewise, the pizza night crowds fit well into the farm’s mission of connecting peo­ple, community and nature. Here, under the warm lights and evening skies, envel­oped in the savory aromas and free-wheel­ing atmosphere, social barriers fall away in a spirit of community. It’s what the Millsaps envisioned when they started their uncon­ventional farming journey 15 years ago and something they hope to continue cultivat­ing for years to come.

“People come together from all differ­ent walks of life and all different places, and they share a table together and have conversations that they never would have with someone they might not have met otherwise,” Sarah said. “We’ve loved seeing this develop over time and look forward to seeing new people join us on the farm every year.”

Pizza nights begin this year on Satur­day, May 6, and continue through the end of October. To join the Pizza Club, a dollar from the first ticket purchase is the membership fee. A limited number of individual night tickets are also available but routinely sell out. For adults 13 years and older, make reservations online at millsapfarms.com/pizza-club. Children ages 4 to 12 will be accounted for at the door, and those 3 and under are free.

Millsap Farms is located at 6593 N. Emu Lane in Springfield. For more information, visit millsapfarms.com or follow the farm on Facebook.

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