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Great Performances: Sally

This (much belated) 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.


We met in Great Performances’ cafe, in the morning, before it was open.  I think Sally was grateful for a quiet, calm place in which to explain the business she so often has to pitch in a few seconds, behind the table at a farmers market or the bar at a large fundraiser.  The catering company, farm, and non-profit organization known as Great Performances is a multi-faceted entity that seeks to employ artists and dancers who are working towards their artistic career.  The task of explaining this particular company in three seconds strikes me too as daunting, though I’ve seen Sally do it.  I was grateful we had a little more time to talk, and she was eager to provide a glowing, more drawn-out description.

rentals_lrgIn 1979, Great Performances was established by the struggling young photographer Liz Neumark.  It began as a staffing company for women in the arts, including Liz, to sustain themselves in New York City.  When the catering industry took off in the 1980s, Great Performances launched full-on catering services, partnering in particular with the city’s cultural institutions.  Their business has only grown.  Today, they cater events images-2in venues throughout New York, from fundraisers in their own space on Hudson Street to events in the ballroom at The Plaza Hotel.  They also run their own staffing company, and manage the food service in several of New York’s arts-related institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Their menus draw from “New American cuisine,” and emphasize seasonal products local to the Hudson Valley.

images-1That’s one part of what Great Performances has become.  Part two:  In 2006, Liz bought land in upstate New York, and the catering company became the first in the nation to own and operate a farm.  Katchkie Farm occupies sixty acres in Kinderhook, New York, in Columbia County.  Now only in its second growing season, the farm now includes three greenhouses and a chicken coop.  About twenty-five percent of Great Performances’ catered events include some Katchkie produce.  While the main purpose of the farm is to provide produce for their catering, Great Performances’ catering clients must request the “local” menu to receive Katchkie products.  “A lot more clients now are asking for the ‘local route,’” Sally said.  “It’s a little more expensive, but primarily it requires trust and faith on the part of our client to ask for a whole menu from within 100 miles.”  During eight weeks over the past summer, the farm also services the Rockefeller Center Greenmarket, where, Sally mentioned, “we have to explain what ‘greenmarket’ is.”  Touristy as the market may be, the stand in Rockefeller center has gained Great Performances a growing membership in their “corporate CSA.”  Employees of a nearby corporation either receive weekly CSA shares of Katchkie produce, or coupons for $5-$10 bags of vegetables per week.

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The third component of Great Performances is the Sylvia Center, a non-profit organization that works with neighborhoods and children at risk for food-related diseases.  For the past three years, the center has worked with the students at P.S. 180 in Harlem, who help run a farmers market outside the school for community service credit.  Other Sylvia Center programs involve bringing NYC students to local city kitchens and up to the farm, always with a farm-to-table and nutrition focus.  “Some kids who go up [to the farm] have never seen a farm!” Sally mentioned.  “I’ve seen them react the realization that their food is a plant (‘Carrots?! From the ground?!’)  We introduce them to the way their food is grown, teach them about farmers markets, and cook with them using our produce.”

Just as it has from the beginning, Great Performances hires individuals who are particularly involved in the arts.  The employees have particularly flexible hours, allowing for days they need to audition, or nights when they’re performing.  They can leave Great Performances for an extended period of time, with the option of coming back (when the tour ends, or show closes).  Sometimes, they come back to help even after their careers have taken off!  Marcia Gay Harden once worked for Great Performances as a cater waitress, and now, after winning an Oscar for her performance in Pollock, she will be judging the scholarship contest held by the Sylvia Center for the students of P.S. 180.

A dance and Spanish major in college, in her first year at Great Performances, Sally was not the first to tell me that Great Performances is a wonderful place to work, and a gift to many struggling artists, actors, and dancers making their way in New York.  Those who work there are constantly learning more about the food industry while not being forced to abandon their ambitions elsewhere.  The company brilliantly connects the dots, between economic sustainability, human health, and environmental sustainability, in a way we can only hope to see more of in the future.

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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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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.

 

Brant Shapiro probably doesn’t get interviewed very often.  He is a true purveyor, a grocer, a man whose work is rarely appreciated in today’s food system.  Consumers don’t necessarily consider the products in one grocery store as any more difficult to source than the products of a more “healthy” food shop.  And one might assume that Brant’s store, The Health Shoppe, could get large quantities of organic produce as easily as any non-organic items.  Even if we’re aware that it is more difficult, we all know Whole Foods isn’t struggling to put food on the shelves, so who’s to say Brant’s business is any different from Whole Foods? 

The Health Shoppe is smaller, for one thing, and isn’t considered “gourmet.”  But the biggest difference, in fact, is the shop’s dependence on an individual like Brant.

In the 1950s, Brant’s great uncle established the first health food store on Long Island.  His father and uncle worked there until 1969, when they opened their own store, The Health Shoppe, in Morristown, New Jersey.  They expanded the business to include four locations, each of them sites where one could find a selection of vitamins, supplements, and minerals.  By the time Brant came on the scene in the’90s, a different sort of health food store was a spreading phenomenon.  Bread & Circus became the largest natural food retailer in the Northeast, before it was bought by Whole Foods in 1992.  And it was around this time that Brant decided to convert The Health Shoppe into a store where customers would find a selection of produce and food products, in addition to the former vitamin-rich inventory.  Brant is responsible for sourcing that selection.

All the produce at The Health Shoppe is Certified Organic, as well as all the poultry, milk, and juices.  The shop sells no products that contain corn syrup.  Brant bases his supply choices upon his own experience and education.  “I used to love fancy foods and fancy wine,” Brant said, “but the more I got into that stuff, the less fancy it got…until I hit the soil.  I know the best of foods have a lot more to do with dirt than anything else.”  This knowledge may be spreading, but the unique products Brant seeks to supply are still difficult to source.  Brant buys cheese for the store from Mateo at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, and Karen at Three-Corner-Field Farm in New York; yogurt from Patches of Star Dairy in Pennsylvania; bread from Kathy at Bakehouse; and eggs and produce from John at Runnin’ Free Organic Farm in New Jersey.  “Local farmers get dibs on the market,” Brant said, “but it takes a lot of coordination.”  For example, Runnin’ Free Farm delivers four times a week, but other suppliers are less consistent, and may not normally sell their products to wholesale customers.  “Sometimes I have to sit down with farmers and establish what they’re going to charge me,” Brant explained.  “It’s sort of a big experiment.”

Experimenting or not, Brant manages to keep a lively business in Morristown, New Jersey, a town not known to be particularly progressive.  “We try to educate people on the ethics of food,” Brant said, “but in general all I can do is make sure I’ve chosen carefully what to sell in the shop.”  All the prepared food in the store is made from scratch, and there’s not a Heinz Ketchup or Mayonnaise bottle to be found.  “We boil the chicken for the chicken salad from the bone,” Brant elaborated.  “We make everything at the sandwich bar except for the hummus.  And all the produce, grains, and beans are Organic.”  As Brant described it, The Health Shoppe is sort of a mutant store – the busiest hour is lunchtime, and the place has a co-op feel, though it’s not cooperatively owned or operated.  “It’s the way I want it to be,” Brant said, “and the way I think it has to be.  For me…Well, running the store this way is exactly what I want to be doing.” 

The Health Shoppe sponsors a weekly farmers market just outside the store and participates in an annual New Jersey farm tour event and open house.  Morristown Hospital recently asked Brant to set up a market on the hospital grounds.  While the community of New Jersey farmers and food producers is growing in strength and popularity, Brant said many customers still don’t know or ask much about the connection between the store and the local farmers, and don’t always appreciate the products or the prices.  “People complain sometimes about our prices,” he said.  “But if they only knew!  If I took into account the time and logistics involved for getting the yogurt for example: my purchasing yogurt from the Greenmarket, carting it through the city in my cooler, to my fridge, then back to the cooler, into the store…this stuff could cost $70!  But that’s where it’s at right now.  These are the foods I want in my shop.”

Brant admitted he suffers from a bit of a professional identity crisis.  “I’m not a producer, or a butcher, or a cheesemonger,” he said, “and I’m not just a guy who buys and sells things to make money.  That’s why, really, it felt good to be at the New Amsterdam Market.  It gave me some identity.  That Market gave me a place as a purveyor.”

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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.

 

As Anita Lee began explaining what it means for Bo Bo to sell “Buddhist Style” chickens, I realized I had asked her to break down the poultry business into more basic terms than she might have imagined.  I didn’t need to ask twice.  Nearly overflowing with youthful cheerfulness, Anita offered to tell the story of Bo Bo Poultry.  She is a woman, who, through self-reflection, has boiled “sustainability” down to her own base definition: Telling the truth.

Founded by Richard Lee in 1985, Bo Bo Poultry now supplies seven out of every ten chickens in Chinatown.  Anita’s father Richard bought his first egg-laying farm near the Catskills in 1978.   In 1985, he opened a live poultry market beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, and with the help of his brothers, chose to raise particular breeds of poultry popular among Asians for their taste and form.  Rather than the prominent breasts and small limbs of the “efficient” chickens grown by the majority of America’s poultry farmers, the Lees raise Barred Silver Cross (or Black Feather) Chickens.  Whereas the quickened growth speed of industrially raised chickens produces a full-sized bird in four to five weeks, Bo Bo’s breeds grow at their natural, slower pace.  The cost is higher: the chickens require more feed.  But they are physically able and have time to walk around and grow muscle.  “The taste,” Anita said, “is much richer and completely different.  It’s like something we would have eaten 60 years ago.”

Richard Lee’s original live poultry market in Manhattan was regulated by the State, and thus the products of the shop were restricted for sale to in-state HRI (hotels, restaurants, and institutions).  Bo Bo Poultry earned a USDA license for a facility they built from scratch in Williamsburg in 1998, and their business has expanded ever since.  In addition to full-size chickens, the shop sells poussins, fowl, quail, partridges, silky, quail eggs, roosters, and rabbits, based upon season and availability.  While the U.S. poultry industry is primarily based in the Southeast region of America, Bo Bo’s farms are spread throughout New York and Pennsylvania.  A map of Bo Bo’s farm locations reveals they lie a maximum distance of 200 miles from the processing plant in Williamsburg.  According to Anita, it’s currently more sustainable to raise poultry in the areas outside the SE region.  Bo Bo’s farms invites community farmers to pick up the chickens’ manure to be used as fertilizer, for example, whereas many Southern poultry farmers find they need to truck their manure thousands of miles to reach farms who can use the manure from this poultry-rich region.  Otherwise, the waste is often kept in lagoons, which can runoff onto neighboring properties.  The New York Area also happens to be the main Asian distribution capital of the East Coast, a convenient destination for Bo Bo’s wholesale distributors.

As we spoke, the story of Bo Bo Poultry turned into something of a cultural lesson.  “Chinese people will cook a chicken every day!” she said, which makes it possible to guarantee fresh products to Bo Bo’s Asian customer base.  While trying to develop a way to sell chickens in more diverse markets, Anita has noticed that “Americans” tend to only buy a chicken once or twice a week.  Asians are also very frugal, she mentioned.  She questioned me about the “American” tendency to waste so many parts of the animals we eat.  Restaurants in Chinatown, she explained, will order whole pigs, whole chickens, whole duck, and will use the whole animals in their meals. The fact that Bo Bo sells “Buddhist Style” chickens means the birds are processed in accordance with Buddhist religious beliefs, requiring that the head and feet remain on eviscerated poultry.  Not only are the birds thus suitable for prayer, but “we can use everything,” Anita explained.  “We use the neck and the feet for stock.  I’ve seen how “extraneous” parts are wasted, even in cooking schools here!”  Anita she said.  “You have to be able to look at the chickens’ eyes, to see that they are fresh and healthy.  How can you know a bird is fresh, if you are only looking at parts?!”

Anita emphasized that Bo Bo chickens are a very good quality, simple product.  The chickens are free roaming, slow grown, and raised without antibiotics or hormones.  “Pastured raising is difficult,” Anita mentioned, “In order to supply the demands of a city like New York, you would need to dedicate all of New York State as farmland.”  Having just read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she was keen to consider how Bo Bo might improve their practices.  Pollan spent a chapter of his book highlighting the pasture-perfect system of Polyface farm in Virginia, and Anita mentioned how she’d like to visit their farms one day.  “But if Polyface raises about 12,000 broilers a year,” she said.  “they can’t feed New York City.  You can’t feed our population with 35 chickens a day.”  Anita also mentioned the way Joel Salatin won’t ship chicken via mail order.  “That way he only reaches a small community,” she said.  “Bo Bo aims to be the middle ground, enabling greater access to good, simple, products consistently, at an affordable price.

Anita thanks Michael Pollan for beginning to bring to light many issues relevant to the poultry business.  “You didn’t used to know, or ask, where your McNugget came from,” she said, “but Pollan has opened the doors – now we can talk about it!  We don’t have to pretend we’re something that we’re not, but we can discuss what we can do better, and move forward honestly.”  While neither organic nor pasture-raised, Bo Bo chickens are affordable.  Bo Bo charges half the price of organic or pasture-raised chickens.  Most people who visit Bo Bo’s retail store, Anita mentioned, buy their chickens with food stamps.  And even Chef Dan Barber buys a significant percentage of Bo Bo poultry for his restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.  “Organic usually means substituting inputs that increase the price substantially and don’t guarantee a good product,” Anita said, “What is important is trusting and knowing the people that produce and process your food.  We choose to remain affordable for our customers, while keeping our standards of good quality feed and good farming practices.  If our farms were to start raising chickens organically, their costs would go up, we would have to pay them more, and we would have to raise our retail and wholesale prices.  We don’t want to price people out of good quality poultry.”

As for the New Amsterdam Market, Anita believes it will critically encourage the dialogue Michael Pollan has begun, in addition to serving the neighborhood’s needs.  “I like the idea of having a market at South Street Seaport,” she said, “because a lot of people are moving into the neighborhood, and a lot of people live in the nearby subsidized housing.  These are people who cook at home, and who want fresh, whole foods.”  Anita imagines the market will also serve as a great educational incubator.  While they closed their retail shop in Manhattan this month, Bo Bo would consider reopening their store down at the Seaport, where both wholesale and retail customers could come and speak to Anita about Bo Bo’s chickens.  “The one thing about our store I miss – the reason we had a retail shop – is that I can tell customers about their chickens.  I think that’s the most powerful marketing tool, to tell them everything I can.  The truth is not always beautiful!  But I think we have a sustainable business, because we are open for discussion.”

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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.

 

The Queens County Farm Museum lies a few miles South of Little Neck Bay, occupying forty-seven acres in the Northeastern section of Queens, New York.  It is the largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland in New York City.  The farm dates back to 1697, when the Adriance family began farming on the parcel they would own throughout five generations, for over a hundred years.  New York State bought the land in 1926, to grow fruits and vegetables for the rehabilitation of patients at the Creedmoor State Hospital.  In 1975, New York State Senator Frank Padavan wrote the legislation that transferred ownership from the state to the New York City Department of Parks and protected the site from future development.  Today, the Queens County Farm Museum is still owned by the Department of Parks, and is operated by the Colonial Farmhouse Restoration Society of Bellerose, which seeks to preserve the historical buildings and stories of the land from the 1930s.  As a New York City Landmark, the Farm Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places, and provides many educational programs, public events, and services.  More than 500,000 people visit the site each year.

At thirty-three years of age, Michael Robertson is the first farmer to cultivate the land of the Farm Museum in over fifty years.  Originally from a suburb of Kansas City, MO, he studied philosophy in Boston, and spent time on a farm in Guatemala before returning to the States to begin farming in Texas.  Most recently, he worked as an apprentice at Hawthorne Valley, a 400-acre biodynamic farm in upstate New York.  Just last year, realizing he wanted to farm and live in New York City (if at all possible), Michael rather fortunately happened upon the website of the Queens County Farm Museum.  He called to ask if the Museum might be interested in hiring a farmer and converting the property back into a working farm.  The answer was yes.

Of the forty-seven acres of the Queens County Farm Museum, about seven are occupied by visitor attractions: historic buildings, the Amazing Maize Maze, and a pumpkin patch planted for Pick-Your-Own-Pumpkin weekends in October.  Another twenty-five acres are brush and woods, overgrown with decades of unfettered, invasive plants.  Michael is currently cultivating one of the remaining fifteen acres – with the help of compost from the city – and plans to expand this space in the near future.  While approaching the farm with a knowledge and understanding of the biodynamic methods of Hawthorne Valley, and of the sustainable practices of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, Michael must take baby steps towards the reestablishment of a real working farm on the Queens property.

The Farm Museum has existed primarily as a historic landmark for the past thirty years.  The Colonial Farmhouse Restoration Society has kept sheep and goats at the farm for the purpose of seasonal events and festival entertainment.  While the individuals running the museum are receptive to the idea of converting the land into a working farm, many of them have little or no experience in productive agriculture.  “In my work here, I have to be flexible to accommodate the needs of education and entertainment,” Michael explained.  There will certainly be a period of adjustment as current priorities (three or four busloads of visiting children per day, a non-organic corn maize, animals for petting, and historic preservation) coordinate with the needs and requirements of sustainable agricultural production.

If all goes well, Michael will sell his produce at the Union Square Greenmarket throughout the coming fall and winter.  While the Farm Museum depends largely upon grants and education programs, Michael hopes the farm will one day be not only environmentally but financially sustainable.  Over the next few years, he will assess the potential for cultivation on the acres currently overgrown with woodland and brush.  He hopes to farm about eight to ten acres, to raise animals for fiber on the cleared pasture, and eventually to start up a micro-dairy.  He has little doubt about the healthy local market for fresh produce.  Michael already delivers fresh vegetables to a few restaurants in his neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and eventually he would like to organize Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership for the farm, while continuing to sell at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan. 

Michael estimates he might eventually supply a CSA of two hundred members, though increasing production to this level will of course require hands and arms besides his own.  He imagines creating a sort of miniature CRAFT program for Long Island.  CRAFT, or the Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, is a cooperative effort of organic and biodynamic farms in the Hudson Valley, the Berkshires, and Pioneer Valley, organized to enhance educational opportunities for farm apprentices.  While the creation of a similar program, to connect the farmers in Long Island, is a long way off, Michael will certainly be using what community support and knowledge he can gather, as he is the only farm in the city larger than an acre or two.

Not that farming in New York City is lonely.  “Most people decide where to live based upon proximity to family and friends – based upon community,” he said.  “My community is here.  I didn’t feel I should have to isolate myself, to be a farmer.”  While he has a lot of work ahead of him, the Queens County Farm Museum does allow a farmer the best of both worlds.  Michael, as he’d hoped, is able to cultivate true farmland and still live within his own urban community.

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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.”

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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.

 

Meeting with Jessamyn Waldman was a close-up reminder of the multi-faceted creativity and perseverance it will require to build a new food system in this country.  Jessamyn has her own perspective on sustainability, a powerful one, of immigrant justice and fair labor practices, and one she has made manifest by baking bread, a substance she considers simultaneously cultural and universal, common, and yet symbolic.

Hot Bread Kitchen is a non-profit bakery business that provides employment opportunities for immigrant women while honoring and preserving their bread-making skills and traditions.  Just over a year after founding the Kitchen, Jessamyn now works part-time with four bakers to produce a small set of breads: French baguettes and multi-grain loaves, Italian focaccia, hand-ground Mexican corn tortillas, and an organic, Armenian lavash.  The ingredients in the bread are locally grown and organic whenever possible.  While the women of Hot Bread Kitchen sell at the community market in Dumbo and at the Brooklyn Flea, most of their breads go to wholesale customers.  Their products can be found in Manhattan at Eli’s and Saxelby Cheesemongers, and in Brooklyn at Blue Apron Fine Foods, Foragers MarketGet Fresh,Greene Grape ProvisionsMarlow & SonsStinky BrooklynUrban Rustic, and Victory Café.

Jessamyn rushed in late to our meeting at Blue Marble, and while I was afraid the whole conversation might be conducted out of breath, she was poised and articulate within seconds.  Originally from Toronto, Jessamyn came to New York for graduate school, and previously worked for the United Nations, as well as several NGOs, all of which were primarily related to migration issues.  After finding herself “totally uninspired,” most of her time spent on administration and paper work, she tried education, hoping it would prove to be a more hands-on, satisfying field.  “I did a good stint in New York City public schools,” she said.  “But the bakery idea developed, over years of meeting people – funders and investors – and I eventually came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be happy in any other job until I tried it.”

While working part-time as the administrator at a local high school, Jessamyn earned her Master Baker Certificate from The New School.  She then began work as a baker at the New York restaurant Daniel.  She looked into organizations with moderately similar missions to her own, including Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, and St. John’s Bakery in Toronto.  She founded Hot Bread Kitchen in May 2007, and received a grant from the Eileen Fisher Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs in November 2007.  

Jessamyn attributes the in-progress-success of her business not only to the quality of her breads, but also, primarily, to the overwhelming appeal of the idea behind the bakery. “The last thing I want to do is come across as benevolent, as a do-gooder,” she said.  “But I provide a living wage.  It’s paid training. And I think the women I’ve worked with greatly appreciate the opportunity to have that.”  Jessamyn founded Hot Bread Kitchen with the knowledge that in New York City, immigrants make up 66% of low-wage workers, and the majority of immigrant women get stuck in low-paid domestic work.  She recognized that the overwhelming majority of bakers in the city are men, even while immigrant women often have valuable bread-making skills and experience from their home countries.  New York has hundreds of restaurants, representing dozens of ethnicities, Jessamyn mentioned, “and almost all cuisines include some sort of baked bread-like substance.  But few restaurants actually make their own bread.” “It’s a powerful symbol,” she said.  “Bread works as an image and a concept.  There’s something very visceral about it.  It conveys the message of multiculturalism.” 

Hot Bread Kitchen bakers currently include women from Afghanistan, Togo, Mexico, and Ecuador.  They currently bake bread only a few times a week, in the commercial kitchen of the Artisan Baking Center in Long Island City.  As employees, the bakers are offered weekly ESL classes, taught by volunteers. Jessamyn looks forward to the growth of Hot Bread Kichen, to the establishment of a permanent bakery location, and to offering the bakers full-time jobs. A recent recipient of the 2008 Echoing Green Fellowship, Jessamyn is only now able to devote herself full-time to Hot Bread Kitchen.

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