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Posts Tagged ‘community’

More People Than You Know

The other night I was introduced to a poetry professor from MIT and a photographer from NPR, after working all day with a 60-year-old woman who is stronger than many men half her age, and a 30-year-old man whose obsession with old Volkswagens leads him to sell the vegetables from our farm like a good car salesman sells lemons.

The next night I had dinner on the porch of the lodge in the next town over, with a mother of three beautiful children, who lives on the same street as her ex-husband’s mother and brother and sister-in-law. We ate together with a collared-shirt-wearing boy in his late 20s, who is building a house in the Common where he hopes to live forever, and a friend of his, who is deaf, who communicates wonderfully with hand motions and scribbled scraps of paper that pile up on the tables where we’ve spent time.

Every day, I’m surrounded by the people on the farm, who have their own stories. There’s the 80-year-old man who has helped build the new facility, who I see eating out by himself in Hardwick. There’s the guy who fixes all the equipment, and does much of the tractor work in the fields, who lives down the road with his family, and sugars every early spring. He’s been married since he was nineteen to a girl he’d met three weeks before he proposed. There’s a couple in their 30s – he runs the construction of the new facility, she helps with crop planning and farm regulations- who spent the last two years in the Peace Corps in Panama. He grew up here, and his parents and sisters live nearby, while her family visits occasionally from Virginia, where she (incidentally) went to high school with the Volkswagen vegetable man. There’s the woman who used to work for Phish, and the boy who got hit by lightning (or so I hear), and the man who once crashed Pete’s truck and gave up his motorcycle in exchange. There are all the previous men and women, girlfriends, boyfriends, sisters, brothers, neighbors, friends, who worked on the farm in the past, whose presence remains in stories and habits referred to every day.

There are the people I see at the bar on a regular basis. There’s a girl who manages the growing on a small farm in the next town over, and a self-employed man who I’ve seen go through the now familiar combinations of plowing, logging, sugaring, trucking, fixing up his house, and, as the weather’s grown warmer, building, gardening, trucking, and getting hired to use his tractor. There’s the girl for whom bartending is one of five part-time jobs, and her husband, who just started bottling and selling his cows’ milk this spring. There’s the brewer, who grew up here, whose family history is wrapped up in his town, who attracted over 600 people to his brewery’s first anniversary party last month. There’s the cheesemaker who wears short skirts and boots on a regular basis, and the cheesemaker who had triplets last year (who I don’t see at the bar), and the cheese sales lady who travels around to shops and grocery stores around the country training cheese sellers. There’s a boy who lives in a tent, and generally doesn’t wear shoes, who drives to Manhattan now once a month to sell the baskets that he weaves.

Along the way, at the farm, on the street, at the general stores, at one of the three or four places where we hang out, I’ve been introduced to Hills, Fullers, Moffatts, Gebbies, Johnsons, Kehlers, Rowells, Meyers, Manoshes, and little by little, the farm and local business signs, road names, and town stories begin to connect with faces and families, and with the reality of generations of people that have lived here and known each other for decades.

In his book Disappearances, Howard Frank Mosher’s narrator describes the men of his “Kingdom County” of 1932 as a lost breed. “They needed space in which to get away from people and towns and farms and highways, and other people needed space to get away from them, since authentic characters are not the easiest persons to live with.” The narrator concluded this description, “To live in a world without them, though, while it is certainly easier, sometimes seems intolerable.”

Living in the Northeast Kingdom, now, I have not gotten the impression that authentic characters are a population of the past.

At some point last year, I realized that small farms attracted me as havens of intimate stories, homes to close-knit hard-working people who are often fueled with a persistent, youthful adrenaline, no matter their age.  Good stories – true or false or somewhere in between – seemed to thrive among the people contributing to a working farm.

The fact is, the Northeast Kingdom itself seems to be just such a haven of intimate stories, home to just such hard-working people. For a girl who is always up for listening to another outlandish life history – and probably writing it down – it is a remarkably fitting place to be.  There has been something incredibly rich and hilarious and comforting to me, about living among the people in this area of Vermont. I hear more stories every day than I can remember by the time I get home.

For now, I listen mostly.  Work, and listen.  And for now, it seems that there are more people here – where I live in a town of one thousand – than I would ever have imagined.






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Young Blood in the NEK

This article was written for The Hardwick Gazette of Hardwick, Vermont.  An edited version was published in the paper on April 13, 2011.  The headline read “Young Returners and Newcomers Drawn to Opportunities and Lifestyle.”

Kids who were raised in the small towns of Vermont have not always been able to pursue their goals and make a living in the state they call home.  But to hear the stories of the young people who have recently returned or moved to the Northeast Kingdom is to realize that this is becoming a place for young people to do just that.  The strength of the community here, and an increasing number of steady jobs, is not only drawing Vermonters back home, but also convincing young people from around the country to consider life in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Some are idealistic, some are cynical, and some are naïve,” says Craftsbury resident Tim Patterson of the young people who have moved to the Hardwick area in the last few years.  “But all of them are ready to roll up their sleeves and work.”  Patterson, 28, was raised in Craftsbury and lived in Connecticut, Colorado, and in Southeast Asia, before returning home in 2009 to work as the Director of Advancement at Sterling College.

Another Vermont native, Anna Schulz, moved to Craftsbury two years ago to work with local schools and institutions as an Americorps VISTA through VT Campus Compact.  “I knew that I wanted to come back to Vermont,” says Schulz, 23, whose return followed her graduation from Harvard University.  Schulz lives in a house with a dozen other people under 25.  “We joke that we’ve lowered the mean age of Craftsbury by a few years,” she says.  “But we are attracted to the community.  The people here are generous, kind, hard-working, and humble.”

The community that drew Schulz and Patterson back home is strong enough to attract outsiders as well.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince Razionale lived in Boston and New York City before moving to Vermont this past January.  Razionale, 25, lives in Hardwick with his wife, Katrina Vahedi, and works in Sales and Marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  Vahedi, 29, is a native of California, lived in New York briefly, and is now working on a beekeeping project for Jasper Hill Farm.  Razionale believes strongly in the mission of the Cellars, and both he and Vahedi were attracted to the sense of community among agricultural businesses in this area.  The couple is expecting a baby in May, and their unborn child also played a large part in their move to the Northeast Kingdom.  “The quality of health care here, and ease of acquiring it, couldn’t be more different from what we would have suffered through in New York,” Vahedi says.  “Not to mention, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I love knowing that our kids will be able to call this kind of beauty ‘home.’”

While Razionale works in the Cellars, Ivy Pagliari milks the cows next door, in the barn at Jasper Hill Farm.  Pagliari, 29, grew up in Ohio and was living in China when she first came to Vermont, six years ago.  She needed to return to the states for a summer to renew her Chinese visa.  “I wanted to work on a farm that summer, and it was already April” Pagliari remembers. “So I found a place where the growing season hadn’t started yet.”  She worked on several farms before moving to Hardwick and starting work as a Milker at Jasper Hill Farm last Fall.  “Eventually, I’d like to have a dairy of my own,” says Pagliari.  “For now, this is a great place to work and learn and save money.”

Just down the road in Greensboro, Hill Farmstead Brewery recently hired Daniel Suarez, who moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in January with his girlfriend, Taylor Cocalis.  Cocalis, 27, is self-employed as the Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for food-related work opportunities.  The nature of her website exposes Cocalis to the increasing number of jobs available in this area.  “If I didn’t already have a job, I would be interested in so many of the opportunities available in Vermont,” says Cocalis.  “Most of the time I have to hold myself back from the positions I see.”

As a young person myself, I moved to Craftsbury last November to work in the field and the washhouse at Pete’s Greens.  I couldn’t help but want to live within an agricultural community that seemed so supportive of small, local businesses.  The first time I came to Vermont, I met Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn at Elmore Mountain Bread, Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Marisa Mauro at Ploughgate Creamery.  Their success and collaboration in their own ventures made me want to live near them, learn from them, and maybe (one day) start a business of my own here.  As Mauro puts it, “There’s so much collaboration between producers here.  We can bounce ideas off each other, and help each other out when we need it.  There’s no community, even in Vermont, quite like this one.”

The reality of young people moving to the Hardwick area hints at a shift in the trend of rural-urban migration.  “Alternative agriculture and alternative energy are attracting young people to rural areas,” says High Mowing Seeds owner Tom Stearns.  “Some young people are coming here to stay, and some are coming to gain skills to bring back to their home communities.  Both are hopeful trends.”  High Mowing Seeds has nearly forty employees, several of whom are young people who returned or moved to Vermont to work there.  “Sterling College has brought in interesting people for decades, and many of them have stayed,” says Stearns.  “Now there’s a new generation of young people.  It’s not so much the educational institutions that are attracting them, but the businesses here.”

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy shares Stearns’ hopeful sentiments.  “We want to attract people here whose experiences elsewhere will contribute to this place,” she says, “and at the same time prepare people growing up here to stay and grow into the sort of careers that are becoming available in this area.”

Considering the appeal of this community, the young people who have returned or moved here, and the work they have chosen to pursue, it is clear that this effort is well underway.








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Plenty Alive!

The Greensboro Ice Fishing Derby on Caspian Lake this past weekend was a story I’ll be telling for a long time.  A good friend was visiting me from out of town, I was reporting for the local newspaper, and neither of us could have imagined a better way to spend our Saturday morning than tromping through the snow, over the ice, from shanty to shanty.

We met fishermen and firemen, dads by their stoves and drunks by their tailgates, teenagers with snowmobiles, 10-year-olds ready to sit by a hole in the ice from 4am until 2:00 in the afternoon.  We learned the language as we traveled the lake – tip-ups and jigs, flags, augers, lakers, shiners, smelts.  We learned the rules of the game, the hours, the baits, and the best times for biting.  We saw the clean aquarium look of a live well, the red bubbles on fish with the bends, the black tint of the second and third feet of ice below our feet.  For the hundredth time in the last four months, I wondered what I would be like, if I had been one of the kids we met there, growing up in Vermont.  Having grown up in Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Italy, and Brooklyn….I’ve had a good life.  But until this weekend, I’d never gone ice fishing.  Nor eaten venison, nor even heard of a deep fried turkey.

At least, for that matter, I’m growing up here now.

When we arrived at 7am, John showed us how a tip-up worked, how the flag whipped up as the wheel turned because the line was being pulled.  He showed us how the power auger drilled, in his case, an 8-inch hole in the ice, big enough to fit any fish, small enough to catch a toddler from falling through.  His son played in the snow while his daughter warmed water on the stove for oatmeal.  He told us how people had arrived for the derby long before the 4am start time.

Russell cooked up pounds of venison sausage at the grill in his shanty, placing the cooked meat beside a plate piled high with bacon from the morning.  He handed us a few hot patties in paper towels while Peter showed us how their car had gotten stuck the night before (when they arrived on the lake, straight after work), and how the ruts had conveniently forged their live well.  “Come back at noon!” he and his buddies offered as we began to walk away.  “We’ll be deep-frying a turkey!”

Chuck, who had plowed the snow on the lake (and who plows the snow everywhere, will pull your car out of a ditch anywhere within a 10-mile radius, do your logging, mow your lawn, and come to your barbecue) gave us little Snickers bars as he drove us across the lake to a few fishermen who in time handed us beers and cleaned a trout for us to have for lunch.  They were the only real fishermen whom we met, not just out for a day, for the party, the competition, or the family time.  They were out to fish, and had caught seven trout by the time we met them at 10am (at which point we indeed found ourselves drinking beer).  They could tell you what bait to use, what time to come, what spot to choose on the lake.  They had just come from a 4-day ice-fishing derby on Lake Memphremagog.

Around 11:30, we brought the laker home and baked it in the oven according to the fisherman’s mother’s recipe.  A splash of milk in the pan, butter, onions, and garlic in the cavity, heavy salting.  We warmed up, over our break from the derby, at home, eating the trout, with fresh bread and salad.  Try and tell me the story of a better Saturday.

We returned by 2 o’clock, to learn that the best fish of the competition was a 27.5-inch brown trout caught in the Black’s Cove section of the lake at about 7am.  We learned the largest fish ever caught at a Greensboro Derby was a 34-inch laker in 1989.  We learned that one of the firemen’s sons had caught the first legal fish of the day, an 11.75-inch perch.  We were reminded to write in the local paper that this was a catch-and-release event, and always had been.  Amidst the primarily male crowd of green camouflage and black carhartt jackets, baseball caps and furry hunting hats, and the occasional neon orange scarf or royal blue beanie, little boys shared their triumphs of the day with the old-timers of Greensboro, who knew all of their names.  One loud-mouthed two-foot tall redhead couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  “I caught a pretty big perch out there!” he announced proudly.  “And he was plenty alive!”

The only publicity I saw for the derby was a note with the details in marker taped to the outside wall of the local general store, and a small blurb in the proceeding week’s local paper.  The cash prizes and the equipment raffled off at 2pm were funded by businesses in Greensboro and surrounding towns.  The Greensboro Fire Department organized the event, taking over for a family that had put on the derby for the past 37 years.  Three generations of that family were there, fishing.  If there is a more beautiful, low-key, locally supported event, anywhere, I have yet to see it.

The derby was not an agriculture-related affair.  It was not the kind of event an essay here might have covered in the past.  But it was the kind of thing I’ve come to witness, having visited and lived in a few rural places, just in the past year or so.  The derby made for the kind of day that I crave – one based on a mildly crazy concept (to sit out on a frozen lake for ten hours), which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t explicitly represent any world-changing effort, and yet which generations of people appreciate and enjoy, together.  I’m not quite sure what to compare it to.  The atmosphere at the derby fit right in with the questions and debates of the annual Town Meetings that took place in each town across the state last Tuesday, and with the basketball game in Plainfield this weekend where three generations of women watched their daughters, granddaughters, and older sisters play at the local high school.  The derby was one more ridiculous, colorful day that built upon the white landscape where I have come to farm.  It was one more event that reminded me, after the millionth inch of snow fell and the temperature dropped below zero yet again, that life in Vermont can be plenty alive.

 




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The Only Grease

This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City.  Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.

The flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant relies tremendously upon trust.

Food from small farms comes to the restaurant I work for via: the farmers market (delivery by me), direct delivery by the farmer, and delivery by distributors that work specifically with small, local farms.  The flow – the chain, the route, the number of hands that the food passes through – is minimal.  But there is plenty of room for error.

The chef and cooks of a restaurant need to trust the farmer, forager, deliverer, or distributor to say – on the phone – when products are not good or not available, to inform them of the highest quality items being harvested, to keep them up to date and not leave them in a lurch.  The restaurant needs to trust suppliers to maintain their prices, and not take advantage of an account and a regular order; to invoice the right weights on meat and fish and cheese; to allow for credit for returned product. 

I need the chefs to trust that their forager chooses the best berries, tastes every ear of corn, and that when I say the cucumbers are all large and mealy, that I’m right.  The chefs need to be able to trust that I will tell them (and that I will make sure they’re listening) if I didn’t get all they asked for, if a farmer said it was the last week of something (ramps, asparagus, or favas), or if a farmer won’t be harvesting baby arugula next week because the plantings are off and there wont be anything to harvest.  The chefs need to trust that I will warn them of any change in the day-to-day food supply that will affect their preparation for service.  The day-to-day food supply is always changing.  

The farmers, in turn, often have to trust that the restaurant will pay them in a timely fashion, either by cash or check at the market, or by a check in the mail that may arrive once a week, or once a month, or even less often, though their products might be available at Union Square on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  For now, the farmers have to trust the restaurants, or they might lose the business.  Often, this trust is based simply upon a personal relationship.  Farmers market “invoices” are not the most official of documents. 

The ability to be trusted could be called an expectation of each individual’s employment (forager, deliverer, distributor, farmer, chef) – it could be called honesty, or reliability.  But in the flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant, the variables are too many, the structure too loose, and the needs too personal, for these general terms.  Seasons change, trucks break down, greens wilt in traffic, peaches bruise in a ten-minute car ride, invoiced meat arrives and needs to be prepared and the scale is upstairs.  You have to trust that everyone is doing their best.  The time necessary for all the check-points needed if this trust is lacking….is precious.  Many check-points are necessary regardless.  

So everyone working must be one hundred percent responsible for everything they touch, see, notice, or doubt.  Someone who too often questions the effectiveness of others takes too much time.  Someone who is not trustworthy clogs the flow of food.

And, as I mentioned already, trust in this food chain is personal.  Aside from requiring conscious honesty, responsibility, and expertise, this trust requires a certain knowledge of personal tastes and preferences, a certain loyalty to friends, and an ability to run along the precise, perfect line that is not only a long relationship, but a consistently reliable one.  There is a sort of mafia of affiliations in a restaurant – a family – built of favors, collaborations, and debts.  To breach the trust amongst this family is to achieve a certain personal and practical failure, while to fulfill one’s duties within it is to become valuable and needed.

Participation in the flow of food from a small farm to a restaurant requires trust.

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Butchery

There is certainly a difference between sharing a meal with people and sharing the butchering of a meal.  And most people – even doctors – would not want any learning experience to involve physically sawing a corpse in half.  A butchery workshop, therefore, doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable gathering of family and friends, nor like a particularly pleasant educational opportunity.  Yet, somehow, it can be both.

In a break from the usual pattern on this site, pictures will be prominent here.  The subject of this essay inspires a craving for images.  But the point is more in the history, and in the story of a profession of profound importance.  Butchery is a craft, a formerly respectable career of prominence and skill, rendered nearly obsolete by the industrialization of agriculture.  Should strong regional food systems truly begin to emerge across the country, it is a craft we will have to recall.

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Jake Dickson led our butchery workshop last Friday, accompanied by our host, Moe Albanese, of Albanese Meats and Poultry.  We butchered two small pigs, raised by Jenny of The Pig Place in Fort Edward, New York, and processed at Hilltown Pork in Canaan, New York.

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We began by sawing the first pig in half.  While the half-pig remained intact, Jake pointed out the loin, ham, belly, shank, shoulder…as well as the head, feet, tail, and teeth.  We proceeded to butcher each of the two halves of pig, each differently, so as to produce a variety of cuts.  From those first halves, we cut little pork chops and baby back ribs, two hams, and thick bacon.  From the second pig we saved the head to make head cheese, removed the bones from the whole loin for porchetta, left the double ham for good presentation, and cut the picnic shoulder, as well as the boston butt.

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Meanwhile, Jake told us about what breeds are good for this quality or that characteristic; why some farmers feed pigs a vegetarian diet and some don’t; and how pigs hold flavor in their fat (like apples, or acorns), and thus foraging affects the taste of the pork.  As Moe nodded agreement (and instinctively, endearingly, repeatedly reached for the knife to correct our novice butchery), Jake told us about the change in the meat industry over the past fifty years.

 Moe’s father opened Albanese Meats and Poultry in 1945, a few blocks away from it’s current location on Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston, where it has been open since 1945.  With the help of her son, Moe’s mother ran the butcher shop until she was 90 (1995), and Moe has run the business ever sinceIn 2009, he is nearly alone in his profession on a block where seven butchers once served the local population of European immigrants.  Our two pigs hung on the shop’s old hooks where whole animals used to hang daily, ready to be butchered according to each customer’s requests.  But Moe hasn’t butchered whole animals for his community in over twenty years.  The industrialization of meat raising and processing has dumbed down the butcher’s profession, and  Moe now receives “boxed meat,” just like most grocery stores and super markets.  The meat is shipped into the city, neatly packaged, already prepared in standardized cuts.  The modern “butcher” is in fact a low-skilled worker, trained to slice big cuts into smaller cuts, in large amounts, as quickly as possible.  The high quality product, transparent sourcing, personal interactions, and customized services of a true butcher shop are nearly impossible to provide, and are no longer even expected.   

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The actual process of change in the meat industry over the past fifty years is a story of immense complexity, inhumanity, danger, and waste.  The history of butchering in New York City begins with prominent figures of practiced skill, proceeds through cycles of immigration, threats in sanitation, gangs and wars, surges in population, industrialization, and barely survives to the present day.   I have learned only little of this enormous and intricate story of meat, but one brief workshop brought that little to life.  No textbook or lecture, demonstration or meal, could ever have made me so eager to learn.  It was a gathering of family and friends like no other.

 


Although most animals are skinned when slaughtered, Hilltown can leave the skin on, through a process of dipping the bodies in boiling water and removing the loosened hairs with a machine (much like that used for removing the feathers from chickens).

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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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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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A number of high school kids and I planted a pear tree in the Kresge Organic Garden last weekend, during our visit to Santa Cruz. The tree will grow fruit, in a number of years. And we who planted were welcomed to come and eat the pears upon our return, whenever that might be. Of course, the gardeners said, the fruit would be ours to pick and eat! Though there was no database to track our participation, nor any document detailing our due recognition.

Last week, I invited my new roommates to join a few friends of mine, who had come to our apartment for a potluck dinner. As my frittata was pulled from the oven, bulging with spinach and goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes…they hesitated to sit at the table we’d already piled with breads and cheeses and plates of roasted squash. “How much would we owe you?” they asked. The phrase echoed somewhere hollow in my ribs, and has done so since in my dreams, to be honest. I said “Nothing!” and that it was just a dinner, to be shared. If they really felt guilty about it, they could cook dinner for me sometime (!). I tried to put my rationale into words: As far as I’m concerned, we all save money by using it for each other. And the money spent…is spent well. But the two girls with whom I now live sheepishly made their own dinners, and retreated to their rooms to eat. The idea was too foreign. They do not “share” food in the house. Each of us has our own quarter of the fridge, and our own cabinet. And the concept of shaking this system with a shared meal seemed simply too complicated. We wouldn’t be able to mark it up on the “money owed” whiteboard, along with the rent and utilities.

This Wednesday, I was invited over to an apartment for dinner with some kids I have only just met. We made pizzas together. By the dozen. Margarita classic, bitter greens with lemon and ricotta, sautéed mushrooms with pancetta, potatoes sliced thin with garlic and spinach. When Bekah and I arrived, there was a plate of foods to eat right away – sliced salami and cheeses, sautéed beets, and fresh bread. There was more than we could finish before leaving, three hours later, five hours after the eclipse had begun. The party had gathered to watch the eclipse. And my senses gathered to relish the evening. We typed stories on Ryan’s typewriter, washed the pizza down with wine, exchanged numbers, and breathed in the cool air from the window while our bodies baked in the oven’s company. We talked about cheese for the most part, for that is how we met. And let it be known: the Cowgirl Creamery Staff and the Saxelby Cheesemongers’ Apprentice have made friends. The night filled that hollow space in my ribs, quieting the echoing question, reminding me what it meant to know that nothing was owed.

———-

Back in the Kresge Garden, in Santa Cruz, we recognized that we were sharing in the making of something that would give back to us, no monetary values assigned. When we cook and eat with other people, we take part in a something quite removed from the price of the ingredients.

My friends and I get a lot of our food through our jobs at restaurants, our friends at farms and bakeries, our plots in gardens, or on the (well-stocked) streets where we know to look. We couldn’t ever afford it, really (though we’re working on bringing down those prices), so we find a way to distribute and exchange among each other. Until now, I hadn’t recognized what comes of lifting food away from the monetary value it might otherwise be assigned, and making it something to be shared, freely. It’s hard to describe… You forget where your pockets are. And use your hands more. Some part of your soul is more full. Life is better. It feels wonderful, to share what one has, and to have others share with you.

There are a lot of points to be made here, but I’ll stick with the simplest one, for clarity’s sake: If you haven’t made dinner with your friends in a while (or ever), I encourage you to get to it. Don’t ask them to pay you back. (Ask them to bring wine.) Find a garden to grow the food if you don’t have the money to buy it. I promise, whatever you spend, you’ll be paid back many times over.

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A month ago, I wrote an essay entitled Recognizing Accents. I wrote on the importance of knowing and acknowledging all the different voices that contribute to the movement for nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community.I have had to acknowledge recently, while I listen to these voices, that I tend to work hardest on my own, that I resist compromising my ideals and priorities just to collaborate with an existing group or organization, though my contribution to an established system might be more powerful than the actions I take on my own. Admittedly, ego plays a role in how I work, and ignorance too, of those whom I might join. But predominantly there is a feeling of responsibility in me to function independently, so I might control the way I live and act as much as I can. An event this week gave me a perspective on how to achieve something needed in this life of mine, and I think by many of us who are socially and politically active: a balance of personal control, collaboration and solidarity, and appreciation for the variety of actors with whom we collaborate.This balance focuses on biodiversity: a recognized asset of nature, and, as I’m coming to recognize, a value that can indicate a certain way of life.mono.jpg For as long as I’ve been interested in agriculture, I’ve learned why biodiversity is on the top-ten list of the advantages of small-scale family farming, and why monocropping and seed loss are some of the most destructive aspects of industrial agriculture. But only after listening to Andrew Faust this past Wednesday, did I consider that there could be more to supporting biodiversity than staying small, rotating crops, and saving seeds.

Andrew Faust is the founder of the Center for Bioregional Living in Lyndell, Pennsylvania. Faust has recently moved to Brooklyn, and normally leads workshops on bioregional permaculture, or teaches courses on creating self-sufficient, “permanent” landscapes. This week, the Gallatin Consciousness invited him to lead a workshop at NYU on “Permaculture: Natural Design and Ecological Consciousness.” Faust mentioned in the final hour of his talk (unfortunately, the only part I was able to attend) how permaculture is decidedly “anthropocentric.” It focuses on developing a biological infrastructure, or landscape, that is admittedly centered around human needs. But our destructive capacity as humans, Faust said, indicates our generative capacity, and the power we have to affect the environment we inhabit. It is the loss of biodiversity that is perhaps our greatest problem, he said, and a life that encourages biodiversity is the key to caring for the earth and ourselves, and improving our quality of life. For all the ideas Faust shared, about oil use and chemical exposure, agrarian thought and biological philosophy, military infrastructure and the pros and cons of modern technology, these were the two concepts that stuck with me: that he used the word power to describe what we, as humans, have within Nature, and that the best way to focus our efforts for change is to encourage biodiversity.

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Similar to the Real Food movement I strive to support, an ecosystem focused on preserving biodiversity has no independent actors. There’s no one who lives “on the outside,” and from there “has an impact” on the environment. Living responsibly in a biologically diverse landscape means acting within it, and being acted upon. It means being a link in a cycle of life, a circle of distinct living organisms without hierarchy or rule. Imagining that we, individually or as a species, are somehow superior, or have the right to take control over this system, separates us from the circle, and disrupts the cycle. We are not superior. What we are is powerful. We have the ability to tear the circle apart, to destroy the biological system, to ignore the way we contribute to a network that we need, and in which we are needed. We are capable too of adopting the responsibility that comes with our power, of controlling not the system, but ourselves. We can play our part, knowing we are a powerful presence on this earth. We can have our ego if we must, and act with proud control over ourselves, knowing we are powerfully dependent. We depend upon others, and others depend upon us.Encouraging biodiversity in agriculture is best for the fertility of our land, the health of our diets, and the security of our farmers. The more crops we grow, the less our land is stripped of particular nutrients. The more variety in the food we eat, the more nutrients we ingest. And the more crops a farmer produces, the less he risks in the failure of a single crop.Whether referring to soil or society, biodiversity indicates a balance in life that we would do well to embrace. Not only do monocropping and genetic modification threaten natural biodiversity, but the modern societal pressures to be independent, and even to make change and have an impact, can be detrimental to our human need to work with each other, and recognize the contributions we each make to each others’ lives. As humans, we can literally protect and support the natural diversity of our landscapes, and socially, we an act in concert as powerful individuals, living with eyes open and hands held, acknowledging our differences, and our mutual dependence on each other. As Faust described to the crowd of NYU students and village residents this week, “We are constantly being indoctrinated” with values and ideas about how we should live. “We need to learn to turn off to the barrage of information,” he said, “and tune in, to what we really need, and what needs us.”

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My sister was concerned that an essay based on political theory and poetry might turn out a little heavy for Thanksgiving. The sources of my thoughts today are theoretically Hannah Arendt and Wendell Berry. Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist, and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Berry is a farmer and prolific writer, the poetic voice of modern agrarianism. They are not so heavy. I hope I might convey something of the weightless depth with which they write. And while I will work with the words of Arendt and Berry, I consider them now only because of the beauty of the trees on my street this morning. Before going home to the soups and the bird and the pecan-laden pie crusts, and the coma of gluttonous fullness only cured by a walk in the crisp late-night air…it seems appropriate to write of unprepared, under-analyzed beauty.hannah.gif

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that Aristotle “distinguished three ways of life which men might choose in freedom.” These three ways of life had in common that “they were concerned with the ‘beautiful,’ that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed: the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.”Arendt wrote also on the way Greeks viewed mortality, in their cosmos where everything but humans was immortal. “This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line, in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”wendell.jpg

Upon returning to Kentucky after six months in California, Wendell Berry wrote Notes from an Absence and a Return. He wrote of walking on the woods floor, and being reminded of “the sense, joyful if anything is, of time passing beautifully, of time passing through beauty, fulfilled in it in degree and detail beyond calculation, and so not wasted or lost. Walking among all these flowers…One is aware of the abundance of lovely things – forms, scents, colors – lavished on the earth beyond any human capacity to perceive or number or imitate. And aware of the economy, the modest principle of the building earth under the dead leaves, by which such abundance is assured.This is the enemy in man’s ‘war against nature.’All these places of unforced loveliness, whose details keep touching in my mind the memory of great paintings, now lie within the sound of the approach of an alien army whose bulldozers fly the flag of the American economy (hardly the economy of the topsoil). This country is an unknown place suffering the invasion of a people whose minds have never touched the earth.”Berry wrote that the redeeming aspect of his sense of involvement with and responsibility to the earth “is that it does not stand alone, but is only part of a process, a way of life that includes joy. Not always or necessarily or even preferably the dramatic joy of surprise – though that is one of its possibilities – but the quiet persistent joy of familiarity.”ginko.jpg

Walking down my street this morning in Brooklyn, where the fall yellows and reds shown bright and clean from an overnight rain, the thoughts of Arendt and Berry drifted round me, as though sounding quietly from the two books in my backpack. “The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made;” Berry wrote, “it is the one we must be choosing and making. To keep it alive we must be perpetually choosing it and making its difference from among all contrary and alternative possibilities.”What I heard, in these words, on my street,was that we may choose and make a life concerned with the beautiful, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds. Man’s war on nature is a result of the rectilinear life that we choose instead, in which we value only that which is necessary and useful. Our sense of involvement and responsibility need not be a battle, as we so often frame it, the activist struggle of strength and victory. Our involvement and responsibility is a way of life, that includes joy. This quite, persistent joy of familiarity may be one we feel at the Thanksgiving table tonight, or it may not. But I write in the hope that this joy, as the familiar beauty of the trees on my street, might remind us we have a choice: to join the immortal cycle acknowledged by the Greeks, and live in its dance, of unforced loveliness.

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