January 2010

Over a century ago, George Ohr, the ceramic artist known as the Mad Potter of Biloxi, Mississippi, called his handcrafted pieces his “mud babies.” I’ve long adored this phrasing and it came to mind last weekend when I saw these these beautiful glass babies.

The Glass Babies from La Ferme de Mesenguy

They are jars of pork paté from La Ferme de Mesenguy, the farm owned and operated by my friend Cécile’s family, located about an hour north of Paris, France.  She’s living and working in New York now, but every trip home brings a suitcase full of paté back through American customs.

For anyone who has established their hooks into New York, we all know the first few years can be slippery.  So on Saturday night, we toasted to Cécile’s arrival here one year ago.  To celebrate this important milestone, we also opened the paté.  In the words of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, “Work is love made visible.”  In this case, it’s also love made delicious.

It’s intriguing how life puts people in our paths.  In addition to Cécile’s upbringing on a farm and appreciation for the craft of making food, her long-time boyfriend, Damien Kuhn, has a sustainable food business in France.  It’s called Producteurs Locaux and he connects local French food producers with their consumers.  We didn’t have time on this visit for a full debrief of his work, but I promise to learn more on his next trip to New York.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

I’m writing this on the day after voters in Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate, ending the 60-vote coalition of Democrats.  Exactly one year ago on this day, our country celebrated the inauguration of President Obama.  Broadly speaking of the American cultural landscape, it feels like we’re swinging on a pendulum:  Do we want change or not?

While the pundits debate and the pollsters tally, here’s a reminder about our committed citizens.  Seth Wolcott-MacCausland, owner of Pumpkin Village Foods, is one of them.  He’s a man in a van with a plan to connect Vermont farmers to the New York City market.  I caught up with him as he made a delivery to the Bedford Cheese Shop in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

At the Corner of Bedford & Immensely Wonderful

Seth Prepares Green Wind Farm Maple Syrup for Retail Sale

Before he was a man in a van, Seth was a guy at the door.  He started his growing business, Pumpkin Village Foods, in March of 2007 by knocking on doors and introducing his artisanal Vermont products to shop owners in New York.  In the beginning, it was slow going, but with persistent legwork, he has doubled his company’s revenues since the first year.  Now in his monthly road trip, he distributes the carefully-crafted wares of nine different Vermont producers to about twenty stores in the city.  The products include maple syrup and candy, honey, pepper sauces, apple cider, French-style nougat, and tomato marinara sauce, among others.  His network of vendors continues to expand and new products are added regularly.

“All of these producers use the best ingredients.  Now they want a selling partnership and they’re looking to come to New York,” explained Seth, “I feel so lucky to be a part of this connection between conscientious producers and consumers.  The shifting public consciousness with regard to food sourcing is wonderful and motivating.”

Vermont Specialties Awaiting Their Shelf Moment

With this momentum underway, Seth anticipates that his distribution trips will increase by fifty percent in 2010.  By the fall of this year, he’s planning to deliver every two weeks, in order to expand his line of perishable products available at the bigger stores, such as Eli’s in Manhattan.

What kind of retail food buyer receives Seth in NYC?  In the words of Charlotte Kamin, the buyer for the Bedford Cheese Shop, “In our store, we want the least amount of processing involved in the production of the products.  Everything has a story and it gives a face and a name behind the food.”

Now as we change the American food system, let us never doubt a story like this.

Seth Wolcott-MacCausland in Wiliamsburg

The Delivery Dashboard in Williamsburg: Photo by Seth

In the past couple of weeks, people have been using sweeping hand gestures and saying, “This has been the decade of…[insert emphatic declaration here]”.

For me, the wide arc of my arm expresses a change in the final years of our decade: People are no longer satisfied to eat and drink mindlessly, without any idea of how it was produced.  We want to know the origin and process behind what we consume.

Often the most fun way to learn about the process is to do it ourselves.  In the spirit of the New Year, let me raise my glass high and introduce you to City Winery, the sole operating wine maker in New York City.  This bar, restaurant, and live music venue opened about a year ago in a beautiful and expansive loft in SoHo.  In fact, the space is so expansive, it hardly feels like Manhattan.  We must be at the center of something, however, with the world-traveled wine list and the famous musicians who routinely play their stage.

I was lucky to receive a tour by Josh Dorf, brother of City Winery owner, Michael Dorf.  One of the highlights was learning how patrons can procure their own entire barrel of wine, custom made to their specifications.  In creating the barrel, people select the fruit and type of barrel (there are many variations of oak, for example).  Then they are invited to participate as much or as little as they wish.  The winemaker, David Lecomte, will expertly guide the process that can take anywhere from 8-24 months.  A barrel yields 21 cases of wine, and depending on the package, the prices are in the ballpark of $20-$40/bottle.  That can be the range for an unmemorable bottle bought hurriedly–now imagine bringing our own carefully crafted wine to dinner parties for years to come for the same price.

Then imagine being the most favored guest to all invitations in 2010.  Happy New Year!

Custom barrels of wine--awaiting their time--from City Winery

Custom Barrels of Wine Awaiting Their Time

Customers can produce Kosher wine, too. In the final step here, the Orthodox Union watcher will sign this seal to verify no one else touched it.