“My whole philosophy is still bringing people together around the table,” says Tonja Engen, food writer and founder of Grazing Tables. “Grazing tables really became a natural extension of that philosophy, as a way to be at the table together and create this intimate, elevated way to entertain.”
Engen is a food blogger and author of the cookbook Tonja’s Table: Menus and Recipes for Every Occasion, which details her methods and recipes that run the culinary gamut. Her cookbook also reflects her time abroad, with many recipes centered around the European tradition of sharing food.
Now, she’s applying another aspect of European dining and introducing a new audience to the art of lingering. “One thing I loved when I was in Europe was that they would always do the salad and the charcuterie, fruit and cheese at the end of a meal,” says Engen. “It was a way to linger and graze around the table with people.”
Far from the last course, Engen has turned snacking at the table into the main event. As the name implies, Grazing Tables are veritable smorgasbords of tasty treats and savory meats that challenge the catering status quo. Engen, a former caterer, says it’s fun to see hosts able to relax and engage with their guests.
“Instead of running around, trying to keep things warm and bringing them back to the table, all of that is eliminated. The entire party is set up and ready to go, so all the host needs to do is enjoy the people around their table,” says Engen. The point behind Grazing Tables is to make hosting an event as easy and seamless as possible. Not only does Engen handle all the prep work, she sets up the artful array of food and collects the tableware after the event.
But hosts aren’t the only ones who catch a break. Engen’s also observed a happy phenomenon among the more reserved of us party goers. “One of the things I’ve noticed when I’ve done these Grazing Tables is that people who aren’t always comfortable at an event, it almost becomes this centerpiece talking point for them.”
Grazing Tables can be a great equalizer and serve as the perfect jumping off point for a conversation among friends and acquaintances alike, claims Engen. “It’s kind of like people talking about an art piece at a gallery,” she says. “People just start gathering and talking, and it’s fun to see that."
It certainly helps that the tables themselves make such a statement. Displayed on tiered boards and arranged in inviting heaps are ingredients ranging from charcuterie meats and cheeses to seasonal fruits, homemade pickles and handcrafted sauces. Engen shops for these ingredients herself, and easily customizes tables to preferences and dietary restrictions.
“I send clients a list of probably over 100 different ingredients by category, like, 'Here’s a lot of cheeses I use; here’s a lot of meats I use; here’s a lot of fruits, if they’re in season.' And then I ask if there’s anything they specifically want or don’t want on the table. It’s pretty easy to come to an agreement because there’s usually over 60 ingredients on a grazing table.”
Like a lot of her customers, Engen favors locally sourced products. “I love using farmers markets when I can,” she says. Due to Grazing Tables launching last fall, Engen didn’t get to enjoy the full benefits of Twin Cities area farmer markets as much. Over this summer, however, she was looking forward to building up those relationships.
Hand in hand with supporting local farmers is supporting locally owned businesses. From a popular food spot in Northeast Minneapolis to her own neighborhood in Edina, Engen’s quest to procure the perfect ingredients for her Grazing Tables has led her to the best vendors the metro has to offer.
“I have a list of purveyors I love to use. I love Kieran’s, I love the food building there. They have really excellent meats and cheeses. I love the France 44 cheese shop, that’s just right in our backyard here. I go to Lunds & Byerlys; I go to Trader Joe’s. I’ll even go to Costco, depending on what my clients’ interests and needs are.”
Engen has set up Grazing Tables for everything from corporate events to anniversaries and birthday parties, and the versatility doesn’t end there. Engen has been thinking up table theme ideas, whether regionally inspired like Mediterranean, or activity-oriented like a wine tasting, potentially even event oriented, like a Super Bowl party. “There’s a whole host of different types of tables I’m envisioning in the future,” Engen says.
The idea behind Grazing Tables is to encourage people to entertain more once it’s safe to do so, and to have more fun doing it. “My goal is to make it as easy as possible for you to entertain stress-free,” she says.
“I’m looking forward to getting more of these events going and showing people how much fun they are. Everyone who’s done one has said they’re never doing traditional catering again,” Engen says. Well, we’re certainly in the mood to graze these days. Yum.