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Archive for June, 2008

The season has changed, and the Seaport story has progressed.  Last December, as the cheese-grilling minion of the Saxelby table, I became one with the New Amsterdam Market.  My unsuspecting frozen fingers flew round the knives and boards and cheese and pickles with a contagious rhythm, a pulse of energy I’d caught from the stands, the purveyors, the foods, and the crowd.  We, together, were a Market, with a life of our own.

 

Yesterday, we the Market, hoping for the embrace of a City, took a leap, within the wonderful, invigorating process of courting New York.  The rhythm pulsed as before, and again, coaxed the City to dance.  The bell rang, and we knew it was time. 

 

We demonstrated our love!

The bakers borrowed knives and cutting boards to fill their baskets of samples in time; the cheesemongers welcomed assistance as gurus and gluttons piled round their tables; the farmers rattled off the retellings of their stories, explaining once again the locations of their farms, by the Finger Lakes, or the Appalachians, or the ocean to the East.  The popsicle makers dished out frozen cups of rhubarb, and strawberries, giggling in their green-striped shirts; and the caterers gracefully demonstrated their enviable experience with crowds.  Your strolling bellies began to bustle and jostle for tastes, and to fill with sliced loaves as they rounded the bakers dozen: a peasant bread of hearty grains and sea salt played neighbor to a soft dough filled with pistachios and rhubarb, offered next over from a country round encased in thick crust, embedded with olives.  Watering mouths quickly emptied little cups and bowls,vessels of frittata slices with greens, mussels and broth, white beans with chunks of chorizo.  The youthful smiles over the Bent Spoon coolers passed down the joys of ice creams, of sweet basil and goat cheese, blueberry maple syrup, strawberry crème fraiche, and sweet, cinnamon-ripe ricotta.  Homemade sodas and strong, iced coffee relieved the humid, sticky limbs that piled into the square, filing past the skyscrapers on foot or wheel, rushing ‘cross the river by boat or bridge.  Hunger surrendered, to Jimmy’s $3 toasts with guinea hen, radishes, and walnuts; to flats of foccaccia from Hot Bread Kitchen; to lavender cookies, and quiches, and honey straight from Queens.  Dry ice melted as St. Brigid’s women sold veal chops, John passed out sausages, and Anita butchered her Bo Bo chickens before the City’s eyes.  Frank served razor clam ceviche, elegantly scooped with a razor clam from a copper bowl larger than my fridge at home, and Tom offered up his Ronnybrook butters and yogurts to the masses of grateful, devoted devourers.  Nova and Les emptied their baskets of gathered, glorious goods, and Darren Pettigrew sold perfect, pearly oysters.  Barbara Mensch signed her books of photographs, her captured moments of the fabled Fish Market before it left our hoped-for buildings vacant.

 

The rhythm of the Market only quickened with the pounding of the rain on the highway ‘bove our heads.  The energy within us, the Market, proved how very much we need, beyond Greenhorns stickers and pretty pamphlets, an authentic, permanent place to share, and nurture, our healthy, pulsing passion.  It is our rhythm – one of health, community, and hard-working pride – that will strengthen the heartbeat of the New York public.  We need the City.  We are devoted to your land, your river, your bridges and highways, and to the jolts of our bicycles in the gaps between your Seaport cobblestones.  We need you more than once a season.  We need a permanent home, where you might learn, and dance to, our evolving, perpetual rhythm.

 

New York, we are yours.  Ask to have the Market back!  And we will come to stay forever.   

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The ongoing effort to establish a public, indoor, year-round market in Manhattan is alive and well, and this Sunday will gather a merry medley of regional food producers, purveyors, distributors, and supporters.  Butchers and cheesemongers, bakers and foragers, chefs and farmers, picklers and ice cream makers will come together to celebrate the abundance of our region, the bounty of early summer.  Arriving from a region extending from Quebec to the Fingerlakes to Southern Virginia, they will offer meats and cheeses, honey and fresh produce, preserves, foraged mushrooms, and their finest attempt at “the perfect loaf.”  Organizations working to support sustainable agriculture will be represented and joined by photographers, filmmakers, and the most eager young advocates of our nation’s rising agricultural movement. 

 

The Market will take place

Sunday, June 29th from 11am to 4pm at the New Market Square.

Everyone: Come!  The more the merrier!

 

Check out some recent press about the Market, and the Seaport:

Slow Food USA: New Amsterdam Market Returns

Daily Candy: What to Do This Weekend

NYTimes: New Look Planned For Pier at South Street Seaport

Letter: The South Street Seaport’s Heritage

Showdown on South Street

Trying to Find the Right Balance for the Seaport

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Mussels with a Monger

The only reason to feel comfortable writing this is that the star of the essay is too busy running her shop to read my writing. I know she would, but am thankful she doesn’t have time, so she won’t be embarrassed at my tribute to her company.

 

One of New York’s most beloved cheesemongers, she invited me to her place the other night for mussels and oysters. She called at 2. Dinner was to be at 7:30. She’d simply bought more shellfish at the farmers market than she and her brother Billy would be able to eat. I was free. Her apartment is the best of bike rides from mine: Henry Street, with a detour by brownstones to the wine shop on Smith.

When I first started working for the monger, not long ago really at all, I remember how she’d introduce me to everyone: “This is my friend Annie! She’ll be working here a few days a week.” We only knew each other through my interest in working behind the counter, but I was “her friend” from day one, and it meant something. The way it means something when a random acquaintance remembers your name. She always introduced me as her friend. Not to mention the fact that her shop is a place where one needs to be introduced. My new face and distinctly different stature from the cheesemonger herself prompted everyone to ask – Who is this? And I was welcomed, again and again.

The evening hours of our dinner were those of a hot, muggy Brooklyn day, when one had, since the warm morning, been able only to consider the limited possibilities for human existence: air-conditioned movie theaters, cool cellar basements, ice cream, and lemonade. It had been one of those days when sweat was a given, and it was just a case of who had the best fan, and whether a few more inches of open window would increase the impact of a breeze.

Mussels and cool white wine sounded wonderful.

We spoke of the blackout of 2003, when I’d drank free beer and nearly free, melting ice cream on the promenade, and she had lain in the sun on the hammock of her little roof in Manhattan. I met my neighbors that day – heard them for the first time, through my open windows – and she had noticed all the dinner parties on the surrounding rooftops. We spoke of cartoons from years ago, which I wasn’t allowed to watch. She asked Billy to bring back Mahi Mahi from Florida, where he was soon to go fishing with their father and uncle. We listened to everything from Tenacious D to George Gershwin. We shucked oysters (thankfully I had some experience, from a day of dozens in Tamales Bay), and we established that mussels were easier, as they opened naturally in their pot of boiling broth. We ate mozzarella made only a day earlier, by a man we knew by name. We spoke of our farmers with the knowledge (and appreciation) that they had done more than find spots of shade in the heat of the day. When I told her I’d be leading trips of students in the fall to sites where food is produced in the city, she recommended Tom the butcher from Marlow and Sons, and the mozzarella-makers at Alleva Dairy. The other people we mentioned I knew already: Ian from Added Value is the person who first introduced me to the cheesemongers’ shop, and Rick makes pickles that are often paired with her cheese. We considered off-the-book trips to our friends at Six Point and Brooklyn Breweries, and maybe to a few of our home-brewers’ homes too. Every time I see the monger, this night included, we realize we have more friends in common than we knew, simply because they are the growers, harvesters, and makers of the foods we eat (and the drinks we drink).

I’m not sure if I’m trying to say that you make friends when you don’t have air-conditioning, or that the revolution of good food-makers has begun. Or maybe just that I love Brooklyn, and the way the heat brings out everybody’s most worn-thin, memory-woven clothing, along with our old school summer stories. The central idea is about people.  People who make things and share them, whether they draw cartoons, play music, or mold mozzarella. People who take pride in running a shop that doesn’t leave them time to read all the latest blogs. People who invite you to dinner cause the fridge is too full, and who marvel at the thunderstorm without worrying about when the dinner is going to end. You, the guest – you’ll get home. The rain’ll just add to the adventure.

This essay may not seem political or relevant, really, but I mean it to be. One’s pursuit of a certain happiness gets tangled up in other things, but depends very much upon the people in one’s life. The more I look into where my food comes from, the more people I have met – not the cold co-dwellers of apartment buildings, nor the silent sharers of elevators, but people who, within minutes, I might as well have known since grade school. People who work hard, but who can hang, and laugh, and share a meal. Not that you haven’t heard it before, but one more dinner prompts me to eagerly advise again: Meet the people behind your food. Cook that food yourself sometimes, and share it. Ask: Who owns your shops? Who picks the produce? Above all, Who are the makers?  For friendship, and laughter, and life in this heat… I can’t recommend it enough.

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After only two of my five recent months in Berkeley, I had come to notice and enjoy the youthful history of the place, a past of energy and resistance that confronted me at every corner.  As I wrote in February, the history of Berkeley seemed to factor into every event I attended, every classroom I entered, every street I walked upon.   So many of the people I met in California had an extensive knowledge of, or even experience from, the local past that lent them a stabilizing sense of place, a curious pride in where they lived.  They spoke of it in conversation, painted it in murals, and counseled it in their daily lives.

 

I wondered at the way my life in New York had never seemed to include such a community-based, personal appreciation of the city’s history.  New York’s past had only spoken to me in what I’d considered the rather monotone voice of Ken Burns’ documentaries, or through the words of historical novels like Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley.  The books and the movies spoke of an invisible time, of buildings I could no longer see, and landmark city squares long since torn up and redeveloped.  The Onion Tours of Manhattan neighborhoods seemed to primarily highlight historically prominent buildings or businesses commemorated merely by a plaque, if they were visibly remembered in any way at all.  As New Yorkers, I thought, perhaps we are proud enough of our city without needing the past to lend substance to our pride.  We need no historic “sense of place” here to feel the history-forging energy pulsing in our people.

 

Back in New York, just a few weeks into working for the New Amsterdam Public Market Association, I have begun to realize what we are missing here, what it would be like were our history even just to echo from the remaining cobblestones, to sound from the horns of the boats on the river, and to ring round a commerce revived in the now vacant market halls of the Seaport.  Such an historical presence might still be brought to life in New York, and would not only lend a (perhaps superfluous) sense of place and pride, but would potentially do something much more powerful, and perhaps necessary: it would inform the change and action we require, in our age of global warming and agricultural crisis. 

 

As New Amsterdam Market’s Robert Lavalva can explain in much more passionate depth and detail than I have yet absorbed, the Seaport is a unique neighborhood in part because it was saved from development by the City in the late 1960’s.  Barbara Mensch captured in photographs the local livelihoods that were soon to disappear, but there was more to the area than her “old timers.”  The Seaport was considered a neighborhood of an historically small scale, commercial prominence, and cultural legacy that merited preservation, where New Yorkers might learn of the City’s past, and experience something of what it was like, without any need for tacky recreation or reenactments.   The landmark district was extraordinarily preserved from destruction and redevelopment, yet rather than foster relevant, historic businesses, museums, markets, and open spaces, the area digressed from this purpose, and surrendered itself to commercial enterprises and fast-food chains.  Today there remain two, currently vacant, buildings, which the New Amsterdam Market would preserve from this same unfortunate, impending fate.  The Market would in fact return the buildings to their original use (!) as market halls.

 

What I find extraordinary about the Market project, in this context, is that the sort of wild and agricultural commerce to be encouraged is at once historically appropriate for the Seaport neighborhood and particularly relevant to the City today.  Our food system is in crisis, and we must embrace the practice of skills and businesses that thrived before cheap energy became a necessity, and before industrialization enabled anonymous factory-style production of our food.  Energy is no longer cheap, and industrial agriculture is debilitating not only our health, but that of our land. 

 

We, of the City, require what the Market identifies as true purveyors – grocers and butchers, cheesemongers and foragers – whose sources are personal, whose knowledge and expertise we can trust, whose growth will depend upon our support rather than our oil, and whose friendship we deserve.  As it is envisioned, New Amsterdam Market would be the oft advised, rarely taken step into the future with an eye on the past.  The steps towards our future food system require this attentiveness to historic practices, and the Seaport neighborhood, with its own history in this work, is a perfect place for these steps to begin.

 

The essentially agrarian ideals of the Market may be accused of catering to nostalgia, but there is more than sentimental value in the past the Market would embrace.  If the New Amsterdam Market were to be allowed to bring the Seaport market halls back to life, it would bring life back to the history of New York as well, utilizing, of course, the history-forging energy that I have always known to pulse within this city.

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