This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
By the time one finishes a conversation with Gabrielle Carbone, it’s impossible not to wonder what flavors have popped into her mind, how many cones she has imagined or remembered, and how many of her rapid thoughts, as she would say, will soon “snowball” into something new and marvelous. She and I sat this week on the wooden planks of the pier by the Brooklyn Bridge, her head dwarfed by a scoop of ice cream she skillfully saved from puddlehood in the heat. As the thin woman spoke, I wondered whether her particular metabolism magically turned cream to creativity, and whether she might have produced over a thousand flavors by now (rather than 400), had she not been occupied with running a business. “The sweet basil and goat cheese ice cream? I thought of that in seven seconds!” she said. “If I had time, I could really create something!”
While those ignorant of Gabrielle’s talents might advocate giving the ever-energized woman a well-deserved vacation, I’m afraid the daily regulars at the Bent Spoon have no such thing in mind. Residency in Brooklyn has limited me to far-from-daily consumption of Gabrielle’s creations, but I have visited The Bent Spoon a few times, and have several friends whom I can’t imagine would last even a week without a trip to the shop.
The Bent Spoon is located in Princeton, New Jersey. Since it’s opening in 2004, Gabrielle Carbone has made her ice cream straight from scratch, and the focus has been the same: as often as possible, the ice cream’s ingredients are not only organic, but sourced from local New Jersey farmers. These ingredients include berries, herbs, fruits, cheeses, honey, cream, of course, as well as the hundreds (thousands?) of dozens of eggs that go into the ice cream every week. Gabrielle, co-owner of the shop along with her husband, Matthew, gives the impression she doesn’t have time to be following some kind of local food trend. She just remembers where the good tomatoes came from when she was a kid! Straight from her Italian family’s garden by the home where she grew up in New Jersey. “Food was the center of every holiday,” she said. “Fresh food from a local garden or farm was one of those things you just had, and then you got to college and realized there was a need for it.” Both Gabrielle and Matthew grew up in the Garden State, and (as they say) have wholeheartedly embraced the bountiful New Jersey “terroir.”
“It’s like an insurance policy,” said Gabrielle. “If you put good stuff in what you’re making, it’s gonna taste good.” Gabrielle knew that high quality food was available in her state, and “the ideas just snowballed!” she said. “By now we’ve come up with 400 flavors, and it’s really easy – I think of something I like, mascarpone for example, and then I’ve already got so many good flavors at my fingertips! Blueberry mascarpone, cranberry mascarpone, lavender mascarpone.” She talks fast, almost like a little girl. “We have so much to choose from! There’s a pear and grape trellis we’re allowed to pick from, literally around the corner from the shop. We make the best concord grape sorbet I’ve ever had! Well, the only concord grape sorbet I’ve ever had….”
The creator of The Bent Spoon holds a unique position in the community of New Jersey farmers and Princeton restaurants: she is a sort of middleman between them, and one whose talent is greatly appreciated. The retail shop is the focus of Gabrielle’s business, but The Bent Spoon also distributes ice cream to about fifteen restaurants in the area. While these restaurants otherwise seek to source directly from farmers, they appreciate a producer whom they can count on to buy local ingredients.
In fact, there’s more demand for their ice cream than Gabrielle and Matthew can produce. “Sometimes farms deliver our ingredients when they’re delivering to restaurants as well,” she said, “But sometimes we have the members of our staff go pick blueberries for us. Most often we have to pick up our ingredients from our sources. We meaning me, in my car, driving out to the farms.” Too small for most distributors, The Bent Spoon often has to make do with such time-consuming practices. “There aren’t more people making ice cream this way (from scratch, organic, local),” Gabrielle said, “because right now, it’s not a good business model. It’s pretty much impossible to run the shop and have a balanced life.”
Balance or no, Gabrielle has managed to render her ice cream a tasty connector of peoples and communities – of producers and consumers, farms, schools, and restaurants, children, chefs, students, and other food businesses. The public schools in Princeton and the Whole Earth Center, a local health food store, have worked together with The Bent Spoon for nearly two years, to create the School Gardens Community Confections Program. School gardens, local farms, and food businesses donate ingredients to The Bent Spoon each month (mint, for example, peaches, coffee, or chocolate), and the resulting 80-100 pints of ice cream are sold (monthly) at the Whole Earth Center. Except for just enough money to cover the cost of packaging, all the proceeds go back into funding Princeton school gardens. “The students grow or help harvest something, they get to eat it in ice cream, and the money they spend goes back into their garden’s growth!” Gabrielle said. “I love that kids here get to be a part of a circle like that.”
One might wonder how The Bent Spoon survives the seasons, or be surprised to find their raspberry sorbet still available in February. “I can’t have a case of cheese-flavored ice creams all winter,” Gabrielle admitted. “I have to have some of the things people want to have, to keep a business.” But if she must get raspberries from California in February, they will be organic. “I freeze New Jersey blueberries and strawberries, but I don’t have room to freeze raspberries too. And when it comes down to it – I can’t be sure what’s more sustainable. Plugging in an extra freezer to keep raspberries all winter? Or having them shipped from California? Of course I’d rather have New Jersey berries, but I do what I can.”
Though most (really, more than most) of her hours are spent in the shop, Gabrielle tries to find time to step back a little from the daily tasks of The Bent Spoon. Two years ago, Gabrielle learned last-minute of Terra Madre, Slow Food’s World Meeting of Food Communities in Turin, Italy. More or less overnight, she gathered together her farmers and collaborators, and was welcomed to attend the event as the Community of Central New Jersey Ice Cream Makers and Vegetable and Herb Growers. “I try to keep up on current issues and food policies,” she said. “But when you have a business, it closes you off to a lot of stuff. Sometimes you can have a greater impact if you step back a little bit, and look at the bigger picture.”
After Terra Madre, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini came to visit The Bent Spoon, and “it was the greatest thrill of my life,” Gabrielle said. “I remember him laughing, saying he had never heard of a ‘Community of Ice Cream Makers and Vegetable and Herb Growers!’” She said it was great to feel she was (at least) a small part of the ongoing, larger efforts to change our food system. “And that includes the New Amsterdam Market,” she mentioned. “It really helps us small guys do our job, to know this large-scale, organizational work is being done as well. It is a service to us all.”