Archive for September, 2008

Radishes and Rubbish!

My friend Carla and I have always let our ostensibly similar interests take us in more or less opposite directions.  She studies socially responsible supply chains.  I study responsibility for the soil, and how to reduce supply chains to a single link.  In a class on How Stuff Is Made, she researched the gold mines where Balfour college rings begin their global journey to students’ fingers.  I documented a shop on the Lower East Side, where gelato is made from the milk and eggs of upstate New York.  When Carla went to Shanghai, China, I went to Berkeley, California.  When she got a real job in the social responsibility office of ABC Carpet & Home, I got a real job as the cheesemonger Anne Saxelby’s apprentice.  In a way, Carla thinks global, and I act local.  We proposed separate projects to the Sustainability Task Force, and they rather predictably put the two together.


Radishes and Rubbish is the magnificent (if rather lopsided) combination of our complementary desires: to expose students to the processes of production, and disposal, embedded in the way we live our daily lives.  It is the melding of two propositions: Mine to take students to several small-scale food production and processing sites within the five boroughs.  And Carla’s, to take students to some of the city’s enormous waste management facilities.

I hope to engage students with an uprooted system that is now regaining strength, of foods that never know a bar code or a cardboard box, and that are eaten so fresh they barely touch the shelf of cabinet or fridge; foods grown, made, or processed locally, by local people, who are faithfully devoted to steady production for their community.  We will visit urban farmers in Red Hook and East New York, makers of ricotta in Brooklyn, an Halal slaughterhouse owned by a father and son in Queens.  We will give students a taste for the reasons these individual people consider it important to make food themselves, and to supply their customers’ kitchens with high quality, reliable, fresh ingredients.

Carla will expose students to the garbage, recycling, and composting systems upon which our urban population relies.  The journey that our ‘stuff’ is on, and the impact that it makes, hardly ends in the trash chute, or at the curbside.  Breaking away from the anonymity of where our garbage goes, Carla is inviting students to bravely follow the green truck out of Manhattan, to come face to face with the scale of waste produced by our community, and to meet the trash heroes that make these systems run on a dime.  We will journey to a trash transfer station, a recycling hub, and a farm upstate that runs our composting program.

Each of our trips will include the first 13 individuals to RSVP.  We will provide transportation as well as a picnic lunch, made with fresh ingredients from the Greenmarket or a locally owned shop or business.  Please check out our website, Radishes and Rubbish, for more information.  All students (and the occasional non-students) are welcome!

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NYCS: Anne & Neil

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.


True to expectations, Neil and Anne chose for our meeting one of New York’s now numerous, rather expensive, cult-inspiring coffee shops.  We met at Café Grumpy, on 20th Street in Manhattan. The couple was predictably, almost professionally, excited about the coffee we drank there. The way they talked about coffees reminded me of the way fashion fanatics talk about a new pair of shoes, fresh off the runway. They sip the newest products, rather than slipping them on their feet, but the oohs and the ahs are similar, and the appreciation of quality and value invisible to most outside their particular circle of friends and fellow coffee connoisseurs. I found myself (chagrinned) wondering how much I had been missing, all this time contenting myself with Porto Rico‘s affordable Fair Trade Organic coffee, brewed eight cups at a time in my old drip machine. Fair Trade, I was informed, is Neil and Anne’s least favorite certification. They search out the highest quality beans, the acquisitions of direct trade routes, the treasured products of local roasters held in as high esteem as the most inaccessible, high-end designers. I was in for a lesson.

Anne Nylander and Neil Oney are the organizers of the New York Coffee Society (NYCS). Founder Daniel Humphries established NYCS just over a year ago, in March 2007, for the sole purpose of facilitating the appreciation of high quality coffee. The Society organizes events – cuppings – at which the general public has the opportunity to try coffees in a non-commercial environment. The cuppings are generally free or donation-based. They take place once a month, in all different places, highlighting coffees from various farms and roasters. No one is paid to put on the events, and no products are available for purchase.

Anne became co-organizer of the New York Coffee Society in January 2008, and Neil naturally became the “third half” of the group’s leadership. She is from Seattle, had her first espresso when she was twelve, and has been in love with coffee as long as she can remember. She decided to make a career of it two years ago, worked at Joe and Café El Beit, and attended countless trade shows and regional competitions. In June, she started up TempTamp, a barista temp agency that hires high quality baristas and offers temporary barista services and barista training and consulting to businesses in New York. While Anne and Neil went on a road trip last year ostensibly known as the “road to epiphany,” she admitted, “it was really sort of a coffee crawl.” Asking Anne to explain her obsession with coffee was somewhat like asking her to explain her personality.

The characteristics of the quality of coffee sought out by the NYCS are more numerous and complex than I can be even begin to outline. High quality, Anne explained, is somewhat equated with sustainability and social responsibility, since the quality of coffee increases directly with practices considered responsible and sustainable: the beans are shade-grown, grown at high elevations, often organic, and cultivated in a bird-friendly manner. Numerous certifications and business models can guarantee one or more of these characteristics, including the Rainforest Alliance and Bird Friendly certifications and the Direct Trade process of purchasing coffee.

The heroes of the Direct Trade process are Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea and Peter Guiliano of Counter Culture Coffee. Both Counterculture and Intelligentsia are roasters that have invested in the quality of their coffee as well as the social stability of their sources. They establish long-term contracts with their farmers, providing incentive for a long-term commitment to sustainable practices. As Anne explained, it’s otherwise safer for farmers to produce commodity coffee despite vulnerability to price fluctuation. Many countries have protective markets for the coffee crop, but the specialty market provides an alternative option. Farmers are otherwise inevitably subject to price fluctuation or government protection. Although specialty coffee farmers grow less product, they earn more, and can actually manage to make a profit, as opposed to the majority of coffee farmers, who struggle to break even.

“Fair Trade Certification guarantees farmers a fixed price which isn’t very high (the commodity price + $0.05, or at least $1.35/lb) and a social commitment that’s difficult to track,” Anne said. “The Direct Trade process promises a higher price (at least $1.60/lb), and focuses upon the transparency of the trade route. The farmer knows the price of his coffee through the entire process – farm to mill to roaster to retail. He won’t be shocked to find out the disparity between what he’s paid for his coffee beans in his country, and what we pay for a cup of coffee in the US.” The Direct Trade process, though not yet formally certified, guarantees direct communication between grower and roaster, and a particularly high cupping quality. Counter Culture Coffee coordinates with an outside panel that judges its purchasing process for “Direct Trade Certification,” while many good roasters like Stumptown Coffee from Portland, or Gimmé Coffee from Ithaca, can only claim to use the Direct Trade process. “Small roasters usually don’t have an independent organization backing them up,” Neil explained, “so you have to trust their word. And in the case of Gimme and several others, we do. They try to operate in the most transparent way possible, and only associate themselves with green coffee buyers who do the same, thus assuring quality and sustainability.”

There are many more specific elements, of course, within the demands of the coffee connoisseur. Once picked, coffee beans must be depulped, fermented or dried to dissolve the mucilage, dry- or wet-washed, and then dried to 12% moisture before packaging. Then they are roasted. Then ground, then brewed. While the beans will stay fresh in their green form for up to nine months, they don’t fly very well once roasted, and should be consumed within two weeks of their roasting date. Neil explained, “Coffee is like wine before roasting: it’s fermented, the terroir is important, and it lasts a long time. But after roasting, the beans are more like a cheese. Roasted beans are susceptible to air and moisture, and need to be brewed before too long.” Good roasters will always put the roasting date on their bags, and will normally ship the coffee to their customers the day after roasting. According to Neil and Anne, beans are best brewed within fourteen days of this date.

Local roasters (particularly those who ostensibly follow the Direct Trade model) provide the most direct route possible to consumers. Neil and Anne recommend Gimme! Coffee, Stumptown Coffee (soon to start roasting in New York), and of course Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. Although the latter two are not locally based, they are primarily responsible for the increasing strength of the New York coffee community. “Compared to the Pacific Northwest,” Anne mentioned, “we’ve got nothin! But this culture is definitely growing here.”

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