Do It Yourself


A friend of mine describes NYC as “no excuse living.”  For people eager to get your hands dirty this spring, I offer the end of all excuses:  Join us next Wednesday, February 16th, for a screening of What’s Organic About Organic? together with ioby (“In Our Backyards”).

What’s Organic? stirs passion about the need for a clean, transparent, and organic food system.  The next step is action!  Erin Barnes, one of the founders of ioby, will be on hand to offer a variety of opportunities to dig deep in NYC urban agriculture.  You’ll be able to sign up for springtime garden projects right at the screening.

And the venue?  None other than the newly-opened Greenpoint CoWorking, a space for independent workers by Sara Bacon.  It will be an evening of food, drink, and kindred company — get your tickets here!

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In the press release for Chautauqua: Creating Community Through Food, the latest series of imaginative food events by Derek Denckla, I’m drawn to a simple phrase tucked in parenthesis:  “and vice versa”.

The full line reads, “Chautauqua aims to create community through food (and vice versa), assembling a series of innovative and diverse events and exhibitions harking back to historical cultural gatherings started in NYC and held in rural farm communities all over America.”  The series begins with a Farm City Book Club meeting on Tuesday, February 22nd, and will explore food via art, sustainability, history, and more on a weekly basis for the next five months.  He’s got an incredible line-up and you can find it all right here.

Denckla Speaks Chautauqua at 61 Local

What I like about the vice versa is that it makes a two-way street; an exchange.  Yes, through these events, we’re going to break bread and expand the table.  Yet in the vice versa — creating food through community — we’ll also create sustenance.  This two-way exchange leads to a trademark in Denckla’s work that I always appreciate: “…collapsing the distinction between maker and consumer” (phrase also from press release).  It reminds me of Denckla saying that his 2010 Farm City series sought to get people to realize we don’t have to be “alienated consumers.”

These ideas recall a conversation I got to share last summer with Professor Joan Gussow.  We were sitting in her garden, after roasting freshly-harvested eggplants, and she was asking me a series of questions such as, “Did I know how to hem a pair of pants?”.  While I was busy thinking of the tailor I’d call, she answered for me by saying, “It’s disempowering not to be able to do things yourself.”  Thus implied…and vice versa.

So, let’s make some food — and ideas, conversation, and connection, while we’re at it — in these coming weeks.  The venue is Local 61, a new bar/restaurant at 61 Bergen Street in Carroll Gardens dedicated to local food and beer producers.  The place is warm, cozy, and exquisite.  See you there.

Inviting...

61 Local Sign Says It All: Drink, Idea, Food, Conversation, Connection

Brooklyn in Proper Perspective

Under the Vines and Above Our Heads

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote of “the patience of vegetables and saints.”  Yesterday, above the endless activity that is New York, I caught a peek at this patience.  It’s there, in a squash blossom, under the vines and care of Ben Flanner.  This little flower is one of the many saintly jewels growing at the Brooklyn Grange, an 18,000 square foot rooftop farm located in Queens.  (Our guess is right: the name came before the location.)

It is pure inspiration to walk a rooftop farm.  As we look to use our urban space better, as well as shorten the travel distance for our food, I hope the these farms become commonplace.  I also hope that we’ll always keep the feeling of awe that they spark.  The contrast of green leaves fluttering against a backdrop of skyscrapers is striking and lovely all at once.

You may remember Ben from a story last summer about his initial rooftop farm project in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  I got curious to see his latest effort — a farm three times the size as last year! — so I stopped by the market at Brooklyn Grange.  It’s open every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in the lobby of the building, among other times and places.

The market trip reminded me of another quote, often said by a friend of mine:  “May you live in interesting times.”  Indeed.  How wonderful that a trip to pick up tomatoes and Swiss chard included these images:

From the Street: First Sign of Grange

A New Way to See the Citicorp Building

The Contrast of City Street and Leafy Green

American Ingenuity

The Subway as Backdrop

Peppers and Visitors

To the Market!

Market Choices in the Lobby on Northern Boulevard

Why, Hello There, New York City

Now for the best story of Summer 2010.  A couple of weeks ago, I went to Springfield, Missouri, the land of my high school and my Dad’s side of the family.  You may know it as the Queen City of the Ozarks.  Or the hometown of Brad Pitt.  Or perhaps the birthplace of the über-famous Bass Pro Shops.

Today the city has a new source of renown:  They just started a Slow Food chapter, called Slow Food Southwest Missouri.  I was thrilled to be a part of the chapter’s inaugural event on July 26th — and for reasons I did not anticipate.

As part of the trip, I wanted to learn about the local food scene in Springfield and connect with the people who are building it.  I sent an email to my friend and food activist, Melissa Millsap.  She’s the Wonder Woman behind Urban Roots Farm, as well as the edible garden program of the Springfield school system.  It also turns out that she’s on the council, if you will, of local superheroes in the movement for good, clean food.

For the event, it was decided that we’d host a farm-to-table dinner, along with a screening of Shelley Roger’s lively documentary, What’s Organic About Organic?.  Amanda Millsap Owen, owner of Home Grown Food, a sweet marketplace that sources all its products from nearby farms, offered the lot next to her store as the venue.  A local artist created a beautiful promotional poster and the ticket sales took off.  By the morning of the event, we had over 65 tickets sold.  We were thrilled.  (And little nervous — could we pull it off?)

On the day of the event, a team of guys put up a huge white tent.  They hung rows of lights and set up the audio visual system.  Another group set the tables.  It was hot and humid, but we were a steady machine.  A big thunderstorm rolled through around 5 o’clock, and we kept on.  The Do-It-Yourself talents of this crowd got it done.

People were due to arrive at 8 pm, and we were ready for them by 6:30 pm.  And then…

Continued below

Hours Into The Original Venue

The Lights Go Up!

We decided one side of the tent should be a little more taunt.  We pulled up one of the rope lines, adjusted it to a few feet away, and started to hammer in the new stake.

WE HIT A GAS LINE.

Suddenly the whole lot reeked of gas.  There was no avoiding it.  A call went out to City Utilities.  They came down and ordered us to leave the premises.  They said — under no uncertain terms — that we could not host our public event there.

I would have photos of this part, but at the time, it was too tense to whip out a camera. Homer says it best.

Amanda, and her husband Ryan, then made an amazing offer.  “We just moved into a house two blocks away, why don’t we hold it in our backyard?,” they suggested.  And with that, the crew picked up every table and chair and walked it all down the gravel alley way to their yard.  The guys set up the screen in its new place on the side of the garage.  We hung white lanterns on the clothes line to help people find their way.  What happened then was a beautiful dinner, followed by an inspiring film, all under the stars.

Thank you to everyone involved — it was an unforgettable night.  The only way I can describe it is to say, “it did my heart good.”  I could not wish for than this:  A breezy summer night, breaking bread with friends and family, and conversations fueled by the spirit to make our world better.  Thank you to everyone in the Slow Food SW Missouri chapter for making it possible.  Now to many more!

Up and Running at the New Venue!

The Crowd Gathers for the First Event of Slow Food SW Missouri

The Backyard is Set for Farm-to-Table Dinner

With a Toast to Our Local Farmers!

I LOVED This Menu -- Both Its Design & Content -- Thank you all!

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.

For the latest update on helping the honey bee, please see: This post from February 1st, 2010.

As we sat down to lunch at a Manhattan diner last week, my friend said simply, “I’m worried about the honey bees.”  I knew exactly what he meant: our honey bees are dying out and people are not sure why.  The scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  In some instances, commercial beekeepers say a full third of their hives have died in the past few seasons.  It can seem like a small matter, but in earning their reputation as diligent workers, bees build the world we know.  But what can we do?

Luckily, in the words of the poet June Jordan, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”  We have a world to fix and it’s time for the Do-It-Yourself approach.  In the case of beekeeping, people like Sam Comfort will show us the way.  I heard his talk last month at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare, an all-day event that put the rubber to the road for sustainable farm practices.  This month he’s in a Discovery Magazine article entitled, “Who Killed the Honeybees? We Did.”  The “we” here are large-scale beekeeping businesses that routinely send out hundreds of hives to pollinate a single orchard or crop.  By lumping all the bees together and not giving them diverse species for pollination, the bees get sickly and die.

Comfort refutes this system and instead sees the solution in creating “an infrastructure of small-scale beekeepers.”  His company, Anarchy Apiaries,  is about letting “the bees do their thing.”  Take them out of the monoculture environment and open up their food sources again.  To learn more — and be inspired — see the Discovery Magazine article linked above.  Then perhaps we’ll see each other in Sam’s circle next spring.

Sam Comfort addresses a crowd at the Skillshare; one woman inspects a honeycomb

Sam Comfort at the Germantown Community Farm Skillshare

Handmade Hives of Anarchy in the Grass

Handmade Hives of Anarchy by Sam