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The Menu Meeting

The following essay was written for the New Amsterdam Market blog, in preparation for New Amsterdam Market’s upcoming Winter Night Banquet.  The multi-course dinner will be the first in a series of events that will inform and benefit the development of the New Amsterdam Market School of Regional Cookery, envisioned as a place where all New Yorkers can learn to shop for and prepare economical and nutritious meals, season by season.  The meeting described was an effort to collaboratively design the banquet menu.

Our banquet chefs, Sara Jenkins and Odessa Piper, may both be well known for their work in the sustainable food movement, but they are not cut of the same cloth.  You meet the two women and imagine each presiding over a productive kitchen, one with a hefty cleaver, and the other with a magic wand.  Sara chuckles at the idea of lamb testicles, and lays down the law when it comes to Italian olive oil.  Odessa reflects on exquisite hickory nuts and daydreams about flats of fresh ground cherries.  Their personal styles are as different as those of April Bloomfield in New York and Alice Waters in Berkeley.  Yet they are both women, both in the same profession, and this weekend they came together to form the menu for a banquet.

Gathered round a wooden table in the Henry Street Settlement House last Saturday afternoon, we were an intimate crew, warm from the sun-reflecting snow that shown through the building’s high windows.  Robert Lavalva, Cerise Mayo, and the two female chefs, were joined by a cook who once worked in Odessa’s kitchen in Madison, the seafood purveyor who will provide the oysters for the banquet, a local neighbor and a gardener who will both be attending the dinner, the gardener’s daughter (an aspiring writer), a journalist who will be planning the place-settings for the banquet, and me, the Forager at The Spotted Pig.  We listened, as Robert introduced us to the space.

The house was built in the 1890’s, he told us, and the original residents undoubtedly sourced their food from the old Essex Street Market on Essex and Grand Streets, and from the Fulton Street Market where we hope the New Amsterdam Market will come to life.  He read a brief passage from The Market Assistant, a book written by the nineteenth century New York butcher Thomas Devoe.  Devoe described in detail the “large and famous Baron of Beef,” a cut “held in the highest estimation as the crowning dish for the Christmas dinner.”  We found ourselves envisioning our version of this crowning dish…. And the meeting was off!  And the menu began to take shape.

We would begin with oysters.  Sara wanted to use the Maine shrimp from Port Clyde.  Could we get fresh horseradish for the oysters?  Of course.  Would the shrimp need to be peeled?  No, you can eat the whole thing!  Isn’t Maine too far away to call local?  Robert explained his understanding that while Maine is by no means in our region, sustainability in fishing is less about the miles than the species of fish and the manner in which the fish are caught.  Maine would be ok for shrimp.  The horseradish would need to be from New York State.

We envisioned the beginning: we will come in and the piano will be playing and there will be oysters and shrimp.  And then Sara imagined we should have a consommé, filled with all variety of vegetables we can provide.  Cerise had given everyone at the table a preliminary list of available ingredients, and their sources.  Parsley root, potatoes, shallots, carrots, onions, and garlic from Muddy River Farm.  Chard, kale, spinach, and sunchokes from The Rogowski Farm.  Grains and beans from Cayuga Organics, meat from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, cheese from Saxelby Cheesemongers, and black walnuts and wild ginger from the Wild Food Foragers in Vermont.  Early Spring has a bounty to celebrate!  Sara and Odessa rallied back and forth about the vegetables in the consommé, deciding on potatoes, swiss chard, and barley.  Odessa debated how the vegetables should be cut.  Would we have vegetables in the salad as well?  No, because lamb testicles were on our list, and Sara was not about to leave them out.  She wanted to fry them tempura style, serve them with a good cutting vinegar and arugula, or watercress, and maybe black radishes.  Parsley would be appreciated.  Why does no one grow parsley in the winter?  Cerise chimed in that the herb is slow growing and not a particularly profitable use of greenhouse space.  We settled for shaved parsley root.

The conversation, the crafting of this menu, mixed together our pools of knowledge with refreshing simplicity.  We all learned and contributed from our individual perspectives on farming and seasonality, professional cooking and plate presentation, urban histories and rural traditions.  Robert humbly asked what, in fact, was a consommé?  Clarified stock, Sara answered simply.  It was originally an Italian food for the sick, she explained.  Adding vegetables is really an American slant.

Everybody knows a ribeye, Sara declared, so she suggested a beef shank for the meat course.  The shin of the animal, less familiar, not very tender, in need of slow cooking.  Sara had tasted a plate in Italy: beef shank with lightly cooked, lightly pickled vegetables, quickly blanched in a hot brine.  This would be her chance to try making it herself.  She could use the oven at Porchetta.  The vegetables would be carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.  She could put the bone from the shank to good use, to make the consommé.

The discussion continued with Odessa musing on the rich nuttiness of Jerusalem artichokes and the contrasting sweetness of parsnips, and Sara describing her memories of lamb testicles – she used to eat them with her Mexican kitchen crew, braised with tomatoes and chilis, when they were getting lambs at her restaurant.  The banquet guests would be the perfect audience for this food, otherwise too outlandish for even a New York restaurant menu.  Melissa, who will be helping with the place settings, raised the question of what should be plated, and what would best be served family style.  The soup will be difficult to carry, so Sara suggested that the broth be poured at the table over the vegetables in each guest’s bowl.  The gardener volunteered her homegrown chamomile for tea.  The gardener’s daughter wondered whether we might include Cayuga’s grains.  We defined Freekah, complete with Robert’s explanation of how the early wheat used to be burned in the fields, creating an unintended pleasant, toasted flavor.  We wondered if green garlic would be ready in two weeks, if watercress will yet be growing at the stream heads.

We forged ahead with Cerise explaining Anne Saxelby’s suggestions for the cheese course: either the fresh goat cheeses that will just be coming into season, or a single cheese in it’s seasonal variations, to demonstrate the effect of the seasons on the flavor of the milk.  Odessa piped up in favor of the seasonal demonstration, before realizing that local honey was available, which she immediately wanted to serve with a fresh goat cheese.  Regardless, we knew Anne would present the cheese with her ever-evolving charismatic knowledge of local cheese making.

Odessa already had her dessert imagined.  Heirloom apples halved, deseeded, roasted with maple sugar, wrapped in phyllo dough articulated with hickory nuts.  Could we have local brandy?  Raw cider?  Had we invited any artisan chocolate makers?  In fact, the Mast Brothers will be making a chocolate especially for the meal, with black walnuts from the Vermont foragers.  Odessa expressed her love-hate relationship with black walnuts, but forged on with her chocolate ideas.  Could we get frozen fruit?  We could dip the fruit in chocolate…we could entooomb it in chocolate!  We settled for the apples, and the chocolate already arranged.

And we reviewed the menu from the beginning.

OYSTERS

From Long Island, with fresh horseradish, shucked on ice.

SHRIMP

Whole, from Maine.

SOUP

A consommé made from the beef shank bone, with parsley root, potato, swiss chard, spinach, and barley, the broth poured at the table.

SALAD

Tempura lamb testicles with watercress, black radishes,

A mustard and squash oil dressing.

MEAT

Beef shank braised with lightly pickled carrots, onions, celery root, and green garlic.

NAVY BEANS

From the Finger Lakes.

ROASTED WINTER VEGETABLES

All of the wide variety available.

CHEESE

A fresh goat’s milk with honey.

DESSERT

Baked heirloom apples with maple sugar and hickory nuts

CHOCOLATE

Made with black walnuts.

The cheese and bread we’d been eating at the table suddenly left us hungry for this beautiful meal.  And we around the table smiled shyly with the pleasure of early accomplishment, with the excitement of the event just two weeks away, and the many preparations still to be made.  “Well,” Robert concluded simply, “I think we have a banquet!”  And we all couldn’t help but agree.

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Listening, Learning

In last week’s New Yorker, an article entitled Testing, Testing, written by Atul Gawande, details the author’s optimistic perspective on the Senate’s new health care bill.  Gawande highlights and applauds the bill’s inclusion of pilot programs reminiscent of those responsible for transforming American agriculture in the early 20th century.  “While we crave sweeping transformation,” he writes initially, “all the bill offers is [these] pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments.  The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of [such] magnitude [as that of our health care system].  And yet…history suggests otherwise.” 

Gawande goes on to explain that agriculture was, like health care, a ridiculously expensive and yet crucial sector in the early 1900s, when “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food…and farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American work-force.”  The author credits former “agricultural explorer” Seaman Knapp, hired by the USDA in 1903, with getting farmers to farm differently through efforts that started with a pilot program.  Knapp’s work began in Texas, where he encouraged a single farmer to test out a list of simple innovations, including “deeper plowing and better soil preparation, the use of only the best seed, the liberal application of fertilizer, and thorough cultivation to remove weeds and aerate the soil around the plants.”  The success of this initial program led other farmers to follow Knapp’s guidance, leading to similar “demonstration farms” across the country and to the establishment of the USDA Cooperative Extension Service, employing seven thousand extension agents nationwide by 1930.  Other USDA pilot programs led to comparative-effectiveness research, investment in providing farmers with weather forecasts, seasonal statistics, and tremendously helpful information broadcasting.  Gawande claims that the “hodgepodge” of pilot programs led to ultimately successful change, in that agricultural productivity increased dramatically, food prices fell by over fifty per cent, and farming came to employ only twenty per cent of the workforce by 1930.  “Today,” he goes on, “food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force.  It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.”

Testing, Testing makes several worthwhile, take-home points.   The author characterizes the reformation of the health care system (like the transformation of the agricultural system) as a problem which is not “amenable to a technical solution,” or a “one-time fix,” but rather one that requires a process of change.  He recognizes farming and medicine as both involving “hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country.”    And he encourages his readers to resist their cynical reaction to the government, writing that his solution is one in which the government “has a crucial role to play,” to guide the system, rather than running it.  He rather shockingly fails to mention, however, the failure of the agricultural transformation that is his model for modern day health care reform. 

The failure of the 20th century agricultural transformation is made manifest in the one product that (appropriately enough) both farming and health care would ideally generate: human health.

Over the past century, food prices have indeed gone down, agricultural production has indeed gone up, and America has, on paper, been relieved of devoting to agriculture the significant force of labor formerly required by farming.  This was all considered a success for several decades, until obesity, diabetes, early sexual maturity, and E. coli food poisoning (along with dozens of other health problems) were recently recognized as the effects of industrial agriculture.  The modern American diet – of highly processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup, meat from animals injected with antibiotics and hormones, and genetically modified foods not quite approved for human consumption – is one of the main causes of our deteriorating health.  Not to mention that industrial agriculture has irreparably damaged our nation’s environmental health, has dangerously demolished biodiversity, and still employs a fantastically under-paid, under-represented workforce of undocumented immigrants.

Gawande perhaps deserves the benefit of the doubt, for his article is optimistic, and encourages the American people to see more in the new health care bill than 2,074 pages that do not “even meet the basic goal that [we] had in mind: to lower costs.”  But his comparison begs for the recognition of what went wrong in the transformation of agriculture, because of a lack of holistic thinking, of preventative solutions, of respect for resources.  This time around, unless we are careful, the price drop and the productivity increase will still not provide the one thing we all want more than a smaller bill.  It will not provide us with health.

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This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

Assata Shakur has now lived in Cuba for thirty-five years. She was a Civil Rights activist, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, and is today just 61 years old. State and Federal police departments harassed and assaulted her throughout her years of activism, convicted her of many crimes she did not commit, and victimized her and her community through the FBI’s Counter Insurgency Program (COINTELPRO) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Cuba granted her political asylum when she escaped from prison. In her autobiography, Assata, she relates the horrors of her time in the hospital and in prison before and during her trial for the 1972 New Jersey Turnpike Shootout. She tells this brutal story in sections, spliced with the chapters of her childhood in New York City, and her youthful years of gradual political and philosophical growth.

The publication of Assata in 1987 gave a powerful, personal voice to the violent and enraging racist reality confronted by black activists during the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the book speaks as much of a woman’s childhood memories and their importance, of her youthful decisions, judgments, and actions, and of her mind, always learning and expanding, even while fighting a world of aggressively closed and narrow mentalities. Assata was a formidable individual, yet she acted as a participant in a movement, rather than a leader. Two years ago, when I first read her work, it was her mention of and reflection on her smallest actions that changed my perspective. Her simplest stories fueled my love of the otherwise humbling, often fundamental, elements of my own social education and participation.

Assata was nearly eighteen when she became friends with a group of African students at Columbia. “One day,” she remembers, “Vietnam came up. It was around 1964 and the movement against the war had not yet blown up in full force. Someone asked me what I thought. I didn’t have the faintest idea. I said, ‘It’s all right, I guess.’” When she justified her stance by saying that, you know, the United States was fighting the war for democracy, against communism, “the brother asked [her] if [she] knew anything about the history of Vietnam,” and proceeded to explain about colonialization, exploitation, starvation, illiteracy, and the long fight waged in the North. “I sat there with my mouth hanging open.” Assata remembers. “He knew all this stuff and he wasn’t even studying history. I couldn’t believe that this African, who didn’t even live in the u.s. or in Asia, could know more than me who had friends and neighbors who were fighting over there.”

She began to read about the war, to educate herself, and found that the Africans had told her the truth. “I never thought I could be so easily tricked into being something I didn’t understand,” she writes. “It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.” Five years later, as a member of the BPP, Assata was assigned to the children’s breakfast program in Harlem, and woke up early in the morning to make the kids’ pancakes, eggs, and sandwiches. “Working on the breakfast program turned out to be an absolute delight,” she recalls. “The work was so fulfilling. From the first day I saw those kids, my heart went out to them. They were such bright, open little people, each with his or her own personality.”

Assata’s activism was one of important friendships, gradual education, intent observation, and seemingly intuitive self-reflection. She respected those whose work she truly admired, and voiced thoughtful disapproval of others’ work, even when she knew criticism was not welcome. She volunteered for the groups and organizations that she saw were doing good. She heartily accepted that opening her eyes would mean having to act. The day-to-day construction of her convictions reflects these simple, grounding principles.

Just as Assata built up her convictions, and did not let them make her self-righteous, so should we. By knowing that we do not learn in order to lead, but to open our eyes, and to act as a result. In the social movement towards environmental justice and food sovereignty, we who participate will need to embrace the power and fulfillment to be found in even the smallest forms of participation. The work of this movement will necessarily evolve as we become better informed of opportunities for change, but it will most likely continue to be the work that is least valued in our culture. We will continue to cultivate land, pick tomatoes, organize our communities, sort garbage, drive trucks, set up market tents, weigh vegetables, cook meals at soup kitchens, outdoor markets, senior centers, and at home. None of these constitute or lead to a highly paid or well-respected career. Nor do they give us a specifically strong voice in Washington. But they are each a way of participating in the movement, and each is as necessary as cooking breakfast was for black children in Harlem in the 1970s. Working towards the freedom of all people to understand, decide upon, and control what they will grow, cook, and consume, it is our (ever-growing) knowledge and our fulfillment that will be our strength.

Shakur, Assata.  Assata: An Autobiography.  (Lawrence Hill Books: Chicago, 1987).

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Columella: On Agriculture

This is one in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s colloquium topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

The work of a Roman has again, like The Georgics, presented me with strikingly familiar ideas, written about today in all the papers and blogs and research reports, and yet well known to a writer in the 1st century A.D.

The twelve volumes of De Re Rustica, by Lucius J. M. Columella, offer what may be the most comprehensive account of Roman agriculture in existence.  Through this work, Columella does not lyrically entertain nor pleasurably instruct his audiencebut rather educates his readers, politically and practically.  He believes, as Jefferson did nearly two thousand years later, that the practice of agriculture is perhaps the one “method of increasing one’s substance that befits a man who is a gentleman and free-born.” He recognizes the practice of agriculture as “the art of highest importance to our physical welfare and the needs of life.”

The work is rather like a grassroots organization’s guidebook, back when twelve volumes was perhaps the appropriate length for such a thing, and begins with a relatively brief raison d’etre, just as we would today:

– Columella laments the fact that “we think it beneath us to till our lands with our own hands, and we consider it of no importance to appoint as an overseer a man of very great experience.”  He explains, “The common notion is now generally entertained and established that farming is a mean employment and a business which as no need of direction or of precept.”

– He worries about the migration of the population from country to city.  “We have quit the sickle and the plough and have crept within the city-walls; and we ply our hands in the circuses and theatres rather than in the grainfields and vineyards.”  He cites the initiation of importation, a clear result of the slothful activities of young men in the city.  “We let contracts at auction for the importation of grain from our provinces beyond the sea, that we may not suffer hunger; and we lay up our stores of wine from the Cyclades Islands and from the districts of Baetica and Gaul.”

– He questions the lack of a single institution devoted to the education of farmers.  He attests, in defense of the material to be learned, “For my part, when I review the magnitude of the entire subject, like the immensity of some great body, or the minuteness of its several parts, as so many separate members, I am afraid that my last day may overtake me before I can comprehend the entire subject of rural discipline.”

Finally, the author embarks upon his own, detailed education of those who wish to pursue agriculture.  “One who devotes himself to agriculture should understand that he must call to his assistance these most fundamental resources: knowledge of the subject, means for defraying the expenses, and the will to do the work.” When choosing land, “two considerations are of chief importance – the wholesomeness of the climate, and the fruitfulness of the region; and if either of these were wanting and one had none the less the desire to live there, he had lost his senses and should be turned over to his legal guardians.”

And the instruction goes on.  Forever.  Most succinct and poetic of all is the following little passage, on fertility, and mortality, in man, and in nature:

“It is a sin to suppose that Nature, endowed with perennial fertility by the creator of the universe, is affected with barrenness as though with some disease; and it is unbecoming to a man of good judgment to believe that Earth, to whose lot was assigned a divine and everlasting youth, and who is called the common mother of all things…has grown old in mortal fashion.  And furthermore, I do not believe that misfortunes come upon us as a result of the fury of the elements, but rather, because of our own fault.” 


Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus.  On Agriculture, Ed. and Trans. Harrison Boyd Ash (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1941).

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The Georgics

This is the first in a series of short essays related to Annie’s colloquium, Brooklyn Brews and Oyster Pie: Visions for a Local Food System in the New York Region. An explanation of the “colloquium,” as well as a link to download Annie’s colloquium topic (the rationale), can be found under Gallatin Colloquium, in the Research section of this site.

Nine years of Latin courses – long years of conjugations, translations, and interpretations – did not once shine light upon The Georgics. The poems we read were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The epics were about love, and war, politics, and the gods, and deceit. The common portrayals of Roman meals emphasized the bare breasts of the women and the lounging comfort of the men, dangling grapes over their mouths, pouring another glass of wine. There was a story here and there of a young man leaving his plow for the sword, or the war hero returning to his fields after victory. But these were stories of strength and manhood; of the beauty of bloodshed, and the power of military strength.

We did learn of the prominent gods charged with agriculture, grain, and growth: Ceres (Demeter), and her daughter Proserpina (Persephone). Theirs was the story of the seasons. Their tale told of how Proserpina had been kidnapped by Pluto (Hades) and taken to the Underworld, where she had eaten of his food – the pomegranate seed – and so was forced to return to him for a certain period each year. During this annual time her mother caused plants to die, and would not allow the earth to fruit. Proserpina’s return to her mother each year signaled the return of fertility, the bursting of buds, and the sprouting of seedlings: the beginning of Spring.

This is all a Latin student of today might learn of farming in Ancient Rome. And I’m sure a student of modern agriculture would learn little more of ancient practices. Yet Roman agriculture was perhaps as primitive as Roman architecture. Farming was in ancient times, as it is now, the basis of human existence.

Virgil wrote The Georgics in 29 B.C.E. Reading this poem more or less makes up for nine years of silence on the soil and the seeds, and the gods with their celestial signals for agricultural action. Virgil instructs his readers – in verse, no less – on the correct time and manner for sowing each type of seed, the type of hills over which to guide one’s sheep, and the care with which to keep and honor bees. He offers not only detailed direction but too the myth behind the need to slay a two-year-old calf when one’s bees die off.

As city dwellers of the 21st century plant their urban farms and build their green roofs, as new small farmers crop up throughout the United States, as peoples throughout the world attempt to achieve food sovereignty and end their dependence upon profoundly destructive inputs – as agriculture attempts to embrace the ecological systems by which it functions – the knowledge we need is hardly different than that which Virgil offers. We would do well to learn from books like this one.

The following passage details instructions very much the same as those taught today in New York:

Next I come to the manna, the heavenly gift of honey.

Look kindly on this part too, my friend. I’ll tell of a tiny

Republic that makes a show well worth your admiration –

Great-hearted leaders, a whole nation whose work is planned,

Their morals, groups, defences – I’ll tell you in due order.

For a start you must find your bees a suitable home, a position

Sheltered from wind (for wind will stop them carrying home

Their forage), a close where sheep nor goats come butting in

To jump on the flowers, nor blundering heifer stray to flick

The dew from the meadow and stamp its springing grasses down.

But mind there’s a bubbling spring nearby, a pool moss-bordered,

And a rill ghosting through the grass:

See, too, that a palm or tall oleaster shadow the entrance,

For thus, when the new queens lead out the earliest swarms –

The spring all theirs – and the young bees play, from hive unprisoned,

The bank may be handy to welcome them in out of the heat

And the tree meet them halfway and make them at home in it’s foliage.

(Book Four, Lines 1-27)


Virgil, The Georgics. Trans. C. Day Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 65.

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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 the first in 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.

 

A conversation with a working chef is usually a somewhat brief, rapid-fire exchange.  You the non-chef must make your point, and make it quick, preferably to the rhythm and speed of vegetable chopping, egg whisking, or bread slicing.  If the chef likes you, he or she might look up. 

Not so a conversation with Caroline Fidanza, chef of Brooklyn restaurants Diner and Marlow & Sons.  Caroline met me with a confident, modest manner, a warm, thoughtful eloquence.  New Amsterdam Market has had a few years to gain her dedicated support and understanding, and sitting at the white chipped tables in the handsomely dark, dim lighting of Marlow & Sons, I was charmed by her welcoming warmth, her glow of youth and experience.

 

Diner opened in 1998, on Broadway and Berry Street, a sunny Brooklyn corner jutting from the shade of the Williamsburg Bridge.  Caroline has been the executive chef from day one.  “The values of using fresh, local foods had been instilled in me while working at Savoy,” she said, and Diner’s owners Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth needed no persuasion to prioritize these values in their new restaurant.  Beyond being a result of her own influence, Caroline mentioned, Diner’s farm-to-restaurant sourcing really began when Andrew’s father-in-law started organic farming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  “He introduced us to the community of Amish farmers there, and suddenly we really had access to better product.”  Ten years ago, Caroline explained, farmers weren’t delivering to the city quite like they are now.  “We went to the Greenmarket and bought what we could,” she said, “but when it came down to it, there just wasn’t enough room in the car!  We really needed the farmers coming to us.” 

Marlow & Sons, Andrew and Mark’s second restaurant, opened next door to Diner in 2004.  Both locations serve lunch and dinner, on tables in and outdoors.  Caroline and I sat inside, where the warm lighting reflects off bottle-lined shelves and mirrors, and chalkboards list the offerings of the day.  The July 11th menu included a soup of Kale-Ricotta Tortellini in a Vegetable Broth with Parm & Basil; a list of sandwiches: French Egg Salad, Italiano, Pressed Fontina, and Pork Tenderloin; and various plates, including toast with house-made nut butter, quiche, charcuterie, chicken liver pate, and a market salad.  There were cheeses available from New York, Virginia, and Oregon.  For desert: house made strawberry ice cream with a brown butter cornmeal cookie.

To reach Marlow & Sons’ back room of tables, one must walk through a shop in the front, where they sell cheeses from upstate New York, Vermont, and Pennsylvania, local honeys and yogurt, milk, fruit, vegetables, granola, and pastries and sandwiches made in house.  They also carry Fra’Mani sausages from Berkeley, imported mozzarella, various specialty sea salts, Rancho Gordo beans and lentils, pastas, olive oils, grains, coffee, popcorn, canned tomatoes, and olives.  Asked how these products are selected for the shop, Caroline explained that the offerings cater to the needs of a kitchen, but reflect the increasing availability of local products.  “We want to have products that complement our regional food, like olive oil, and sea salts, but we are also switching out everything that’s not local as it becomes available from nearby.”

The shop also sells the Diner Journal, a publication that was, until recently, written and designed entirely by the staff of the two restaurants.  Originally created in lieu of a cookbook, the quarterly magazine contains articles about various food products, recipes, and related artwork.  Writing for the journal “helps all of us think on a much broader level,” Caroline mentioned.  “I learn something every time we put it together.  Like the practice of grafting an apple tree.  I just never thought about it, but you have to graft very tree!  That’s so much work!”  

The crew at Marlow & Sons and Diner has supported New Amsterdam Market since the very first market event in 2005.  “I remember the first time I really understood the New Amsterdam Market vision for the Seaport,” Caroline said.  “I was immediately sold, from that first minute.  It’s ridiculous that New York doesn’t have a permanent market like in San Francisco and London.”  Caroline recognized that she doesn’t normally work at markets, but that she feels “the New Amsterdam Market serves our interest in extending our community.  Ultimately,” she said, “the individuals here at Marlow, and those working to create the Market…we all really believe in each other.”  She remembered the heirloom apples, chocolate producers, and Hamptons honey of the first New Amsterdam Market, at the Municipal Building.  Marlow donated house-made ice cream.  “But that day was more about individual producers promoting their own businesses,” she said.  “This past Sunday [June 29th], it felt more like the vendors came together, to promote the Market itself.”

Caroline emphasized the community element of the “sustainability” she feels will be encouraged by the New Amsterdam Market.  A strong force behind her commitment to regional foods is a feeling of loyalty to New York State.  “I’m looking to New York to rally together,” she said, “to have it’s own economy of food production.  This city forgets it’s connected to the state!  New York State is struggling, and has been for a long time.  I will always choose stuff from New York, even if New Jersey is closer.”  Raised in upstate New York, Caroline admits to thinking her hometown Poughkeepsie “was the worst!” when she was growing up.  Now of course, she wishes New Yorkers would take more pride in the food produced in their State.  She is sure the farmers and producers in the state would rally, if there might be a consortium with a place, a Market of sorts, where the economy could thrive and the community might gain strength.

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