Food Heritage

In one of his early books, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan struggles against the enemies of weeds and a woodchuck as he cultivates a garden. His daydreams escalate into their total annihilation (gasoline down a burrow hole included) until, chapters later, he pauses to ask, “What sets us apart from other species is culture, and what is culture but forbearance?”

This question has stayed with me. After looking up forbearance in the dictionary (air high five for honesty!), I realize the question is asking us, “What is culture but restraint?” Now I agree: restraint is not a word that stirs passion. Nor is its close cousin “patience” anything to dance to all night.

Yet when it comes to producing food for an ever-growing population, these words are our highest call. They are for long-term vision, not short-term profit. They ask us to be the earth’s guardians. They don’t ask us to maximize food growth via any means necessary – CAFOs, pesticides, etc – only to deplete the resources given to us. In other words, what is culture but the call to act in honor of our highest, collective selves?

Thinking about Pollan led to another book, Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money by Woody Tasch. It examines the harm done when our economic engine runs white-hot, running solely on financial ROI as its fuel. It’s centered on the thesis, “the basis of the economy is soil fertility.” Recently, I was grateful for the opportunity to write about Slow Money as a guest for Mission Markets; please find the full post here.

In the nearly two years of writing Groundswell, I’ve learned two primary things: 1) We have a broken food system, but there are countless people working to change it. Many of them are business owners. These businesses patiently do good and create strong livelihoods. If we can’t figure out how to earn our keep in sustainable food, then the changes we want won’t be sustainable. 2) When the farmers invite you to dinner, go no matter what. It will be the best meal of your life.

Lastly, in Slow Money, Tasch writes, “Entrepreneurs and farmers are the poets of the economy …. Ideas in a business plan; seeds in potting soil; rhymes in search of new reasons.”

As someone with a little bit of humble experience as both an entrepreneur and a poet, and with much respect for farmers, I find a lot of inspiration in this quote. The common trait in poetry and entrepreneurship is that they both make the heart soar. They both fly in the celebratory spirit of the unknown and the possible.

So, dearest readers, it’s time to fly and put Groundswell down for now. If you find you miss this somewhat informative, yet smart-alecky voice, you can find me writing for If you’d like to be notified if and when Groundswell starts back up, please subscribe with your email. Simply stated, it’s been a thrill to write about you and for you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading.

Downtown Express recently published an article about the faltering finances of the Seaport Museum New York, the historic component to South Street Seaport, a museum/shopping development opened in the 1980s.  The key phrase was:  “…the problem lies in the clash between the district’s commercial character and the museum’s historic presence.”

In response to the story, I wrote a Letter to the Editor.  They didn’t publish it; all their letters this week address the SoHo Business Improvement District (BID) concerns.  So, here’s the letter now on Groundswell – feedback welcome!

Keep Scrollin’

New Amsterdam Market - Summer 2010

Dear Editor:

Re: “Seaport Museum flounders, but hasn’t yet sunk,” (Vol. 20, Number 41, Feb. 23rd-March 1st)

My family has been in the West Village for over thirty years, and I remember skipping through the fanfare of South Street Seaport as a kid in the early 1980s.  Thinking back on the years that followed, my family returned to the area occasionally with out-of-town guests.  It was a way to spend time with visitors; however, as a local family, it did not have an enduring draw.  During the 1980s-1990s, I went to the Seaport five or six times.  In 1999, while on an escalator to the food court, two visitors summarized my feelings about it, as one said to the other, “I feel like we could be home in Minneapolis.”

I’m not writing to disparage Minneapolis.  On the contrary, I’m writing with great respect for the uniqueness of local communities everywhere.  In our shared city, I have recently returned to the Seaport regularly for one vibrant, new venue:  The New Amsterdam Market.  In the past 18 months, I have visited the market – and its host neighborhood – at least a dozen times.  It’s held in the same place where the Dutch started their markets 400 years ago.  Its vendors are food entrepreneurs from this region.  When I buy produce there from the Queens County Farm Museum, I support the only continuously working farm in New York City since the 1600s.  Now in my weekly grocery shopping, I experience the history of the Seaport and the city.

In this same issue of Downtown Express, there was a great article about the Taste of Tribeca, described as one of the “most anticipated” spring events downtown.  In the Letters to the Editor section, SoHo residents lamented that their neighborhood has become “a shopping mall for tourists.”  Isn’t it evident from these two topics alone that New York City is strongest when we celebrate our extraordinary neighborhoods?

I hope the Seaport Museum New York survives its difficulties.  This is not an “either/or” debate.  Cultural and historical venues always improve our city.  As for this New Yorker, I look forward to returning to the New Amsterdam Market this spring.  I hope the city understands it’s time to give the market a permanent home in the Seaport.  The locals would love that.

Nicole Reed

Lunchtime at the Market

Mr. Stokes -- GRILL A CHEF -- Will See You Now

Beautiful Packaging

Brown paper packages tied up with string and seed packets from the Hudson Valley Seed Library — yes, these are a few of my very-very-number-one-forever-most-favorite things.  Take a look at these beauties found yesterday at the New Amsterdam Market.  Priced at $3.50/packet, I stocked up to fill Christmas stockings soon to be nailed to the wall with care.  (Greetings from NYC; what’s a mantle?)

The mission of the Hudson Valley Seed Library is glorious:

  1. to create an accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring farmers and gardeners; and,
  2. to create gift-quality seed packs featuring works designed by New York artists in order to celebrate the beauty of heirloom gardening.

Can I get an AMEN?  (And some seeds for Christmas?  Thank you, beloved family and friends.  Did I mention you’re the best?)

The First of the Jewels

Suited Gentleman Not Included

Lady Lovely

Yes, I'll Take the Whole Display, Please. Thank you.

Post-election update:  Unfortunately, Francis Thicke got smoked on November 2nd (and not in the tasty way).   In the final result, Iowans voted 67% for Northey and 37% for Thicke.

As The Iowa Independent stated in their review of Northey’s win:  “…large and small farmers in the state…have found at least current compromise with larger agribusiness and now depend on those relationships to maintain the family income and property.”  Don’t we call that “hog-tied”?

Let’s find the silver lining:  The pounding in Iowa reminds us that there is still work to do.  It has been said — mainly by David Axelrod in Obama’s run-up towards his successful election — “Be wary of the echo chamber”.  That is, if we’re only talking to one another and wholeheartedly agreeing with every word, we’re in a closed communication loop.  We lose the broad view.  Now, coming up over the horizon in that view, can you see the Farm Bill of 2012?  Yeah, me too.


For people who eat, there’s a bellwether election underway in Iowa.  Voters in the nation’s food basket will soon decide between Bill Northey, the incumbent funded by large-scale commodity farming, and Francis Thicke, a regional dairy farmer backed by a PhD in soil science.  Thicke advocates for sustainability by encouraging farmers to generate their own energy onsite.  He also wants farmers to process their crops, thereby cutting out an unnecessary middleman.  And he’s in favor of giving local communities the right to vote up or down on any new CAFOs in their region.

In the days leading up to the vote, the two candidates are within the margin of error.  Here’s the full article from Joe Frassler in The Atlantic:

Conventional vs. Organic:

An Ag Secretary Race to Watch

With the URL, eaters are primed for pork this Saturday, October 2nd, when Governor’s Island will transform into a celebrated outpost called Pig Island.  From 11:30 am to 4:30 pm, more than twenty top NYC chefs will offer pig-centric dishes to an anticipated crowd of 1,500 people.  In addition to The Pig, the event will honor his buddy, The Local Farmer.  Already the chefs of Pig Island are amassing their dominions:  Yesterday, one-by-one, they came by Union Square to pick up pigs from Paul Dench-Layton, the owner/farmer of Violet Hill Farm in Sullivan County, and one of the suppliers for the event.

Sporting the Double 29!

“All of my pigs are free-range, heritage breeds.  We’ve got blacks, reds, Yorks, and others,” explained Dench-Layton.  The description of his pigs was bolstered by his t-shirt, showing the Zagat rating for his farm — including TWO 29’s — in quality and service.

What struck me most about yesterday’s pig pick-up was its transparency.  There, in the busy lunch hour of a public park on a blue-sky day, was a farmer carefully laying out whole slaughtered pigs for his customers.  The chefs carried them away over their shoulders, excitedly planning for recipes with days of attentive preparation.  The farmer’s children were in the middle of it all, handling the pigs with comfort and ease.  If part of reinventing our food system is knowing where our food comes from, I can’t think of a more public forum than this.

“You see that we need to respect them [the animals] from the beginning to the end,” said Ed Yowell of Food Systems Network NYC, as he watched people gather around the pick-up table.  Food Systems Network NYC is the charitable partner for Pig Island and they work to secure “a strong and just regional food and farm economy,” he explained.  He went on to say that they’re thrilled to be involved and declared one of the organizers, Jimmy Carbone, to be “the patron saint of not-for-profit food organizations” in New York City.

“We’re supporting local farmers — that’s number one,” Carbone said, with a pig hoisted high on his shoulders.

Jimmy Carbone of Jimmy's #43 Promotes Pig Island

Chef Matthew Weingarten Has Plans for "Whole Hog Sausages" Using Every Bit of the Pigs

Chef Chris Rendell of Double Crown, Jimmy Carbone, Ed Yowell, Kristin Pederson, Lauren McGrath

FREE and open to the public:  If Brooklyn had a county fair, this would be it.  And like every good county fair, people would come from far and wide for the cook-offs and blue ribbon winners.  Farm City.US, brought to us by Derek Dencla and his comrades at the French Institute/Alliance Française, is a series celebrating the edible that begins this Sunday.  Derek has his sensibilities in both the art and local food worlds, so I anticipate a unique vision behind all the happenings.

The venue is in the spacious art gallery, the Invisible Dog in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.  Bring your best blue ribbon game face and find the full list of events here!

**Closing hour update from the newsroom on Friday, September 10th:  Kerry Trueman has posted a wonderful exchange with Derek on Civil Eats.  From her questions, Derek explains both the road leading to FarmCity.US and the possible promised land of urban agriculture in our future.**

Dr. Vandana Shiva; Photo courtesy of The Center for the Study of Science and Religion

Last week I got to hear one of my heroes speak:  Dr. Vandana Shiva.  As she took the stage, Reverend Arnold Thomas of Riverside Church introduced her as the “world-renowned environmentalist.”  To many she is best known for her interviews in movies such as The Corporation.  To the growing community of food activists, she is the pioneer who delivers the precision cut message.  The international effort to fix our food is an emerging movement; new ideas come fast and fervent.  Dr. Shiva is the steadfast voice, now decades in progress, that deeply resonates.

In her words, she started her organization, Navdanya, in 1987 once “I realized seeds were being patented.”  The main corporation to patent seeds is, of course, Monsanto.  They do a good job of telling the world that they are up to good deeds — potentially ending famine, for example, by creating drought-resistant crops.  Dr. Shiva, however, explained the danger at hand in an analogy to the BP oil spill.  Consider her words:

In the Gulf of Mexico…I keep thinking, ‘This is supposed to be a high tech industry in a high tech society.  And they can’t figure out how to stop that leak’….Just as BP doesn’t know how to shut down the oil spill, Monsanto doesn’t really know how to control pests…Every season, you have new pests….The consequences are a 30-40 times increase in pesticides.  And this technology was supposed to replace pesticides.  In your country, the herbicide-resistant crops have created superweeds to such a large extent that 5.4 million acres have been overtaken by superweeds.

For the past four months, the world has watched unending amounts of oil being unleashed into the Gulf.  At the risk of sounding alarmist, imagine if such a disaster hit our food supply.  We know now that BP was not ready for its worst-case scenario.  Is Monsanto?  Do we really want to wait and see?

At another point in her talk, Dr. Shiva told the story of a 1983 Indian court case that halted destructive limestone mining in that country.  The judge in the case ruled, “If commerce starts to destroy life support systems, commerce must stop because life must carry on.”

Yes, this landmark case in India occurred prior to our current era of intense globalization.  Yet it’s basic premise has not changed.  It’s not tree hugging; it’s common sense.  “We are first and foremost still citizens,” said Dr. Shiva, “And our highest duty is to maintain the living systems of the Earth that support our life.”

Rabbi Lawrence Troster of GreenFaith and Dr. Vandana Shiva

Well Attended at Riverside Church South Hall

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.

Last night in a small forum opened to the public, the Sustainability Practice Network held a panel discussion, moderated by the RiskMetrics Group, about the future of sustainable agriculture.  The speakers were an important group of corporate and non-profit voices:

  • Michael Doane, Agricultural Economics and Sustainability, Monsanto
  • Ani Gulati, Assistant General Counsel and Sustainability, General Mills
  • Chip Jones, SVP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Dean Foods
  • Jake Baker, Climate Change Investment Research, Deutsche Bank
  • Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance
  • Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

Admission:  I’m inclined to judge these names and titles quickly, breaking them down into “us” and “them.”  Afterall, I grew up as our culture started to summarize complex issues in the few words of a bumper sticker or a t-shirt slogan.  To the credit of everyone involved last night, the panel facilitated a conversation.

Continued below

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

As an easy definition of sustainability, we say it’s when something is good for the three P’s:  people, planet and profits.  In speaking of agriculture, the P in people quickly becomes the P in population.  The human race is expected to nearly double in size to 9 billion by 2050.  No one is sure how we will feed this many.

A question emerged from the panel:  To feed the growing population, do we need to increase food production or can we accomplish this by improving food distribution channels?

To this end, Josh Viertel gave an astonishing statistic:  Last year we made enough food to feed 11 billion people.  “We don’t have a production gap, we have a distribution gap,” he said.

Michael Doane of Monsanto advocated for increased production as the solution.  His company develops biotech seeds — seeds infused with a trait to resist drought or certain pests, for example — that create more prolific crops.  According to him, there are two billion acres of biotech crops around the world.  They are starting biotech rice in China.  (Yes, the biggest crop among the world’s largest population is going biotech.)  Only the Europeans are holding out against this technology.

In response, I understand the quickening of our collective heart rate as we think about a food crisis one generation away.  Many forces are working to address this immediately.  But in the break-neck pace of solution (and market share gain), we risk undermining a delicate ecological system.  Monsanto has a Research and Development department that constructs new seeds to conquer the traditional problems of farming.  But the problem with genetically modified seeds or biotech seeds is that Nature also has its own R & D department.  The biotech seeds may solve a weakness for awhile, but over time, Nature returns with a more robust pest or plant disease.

At very least, biotech does not solve problems for the long term.  At very worst, it irreversibly tampers with the agricultural heritage of which we are the guardians.

We have many compelling possibilities to address food insecurity and planet peril, such as:

  • Improved distribution channels, including the decentralization of food.  More local providers and thus shorter food chains.
  • Vertical Farming:  An urban-based system using closed-loop hydroponics.  Crops are located where the population lives.  We preserve seed integrity and there’s no need for pesticides.
  • Sustainable fish cultivation.
  • Increased global productivity through better farming techniques and training.
  • And the expansion of our growing surfaces:  Rooftops, abandoned lots, etc.

Yes, these other ideas are in the nascent stage of development.  But when we consider what’s at stake — food for human beings — how can we not develop these ideas first?  The answer to the question of whether it is increased production or improved distribution is likely both.

Not at the risk, however, of manipulating seeds when many other workable solutions exist.  I stand with the Europeans on this one.  Readers, I’d love to hear from you.

Garlic with your toothpick?

Toothpick with your garlic?

I’m not sure why, but this came as news to me:  Plants and vegetables go extinct just like animals.  In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In Peru, the original home of potatoes, Andean farmers once grew some four thousand potato varieties, each with its own name, flavor, and use….Now, even in the regions of Peru least affected by the modern market, only a few dozen potato varieties are widely grown.”

This story is being replayed in fields around the world as our global crops condense.  Industrial corn and soy beans lead the way, knocking many colorful lineages out of the dirt.  The good news is we have organizations like the Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, a “Fort Knox” of heritage seeds, to help undermine the monoculture crops.  The best road to salvation for heirloom produce is fun to travel:  We need eat it!  Get a demand going for these unique characters, keep their seeds, and plant them again next year.

With this in mind, I headed to the 21st Annual Saugerties Garlic Festival in upstate New York.  I’ll admit that I always figured there was only one kind of garlic.  Turns out there are hundreds…ahem, several (see sign below) varieties available in the Northeast.  Nor is garlic just for stir-frys and staving off vampires.  My friend and I tried garlic chowder, mozzarella cheese infused with garlic, a garlic-stuffed pretzel, garlic-sauteed mushrooms, garlic ice cream–and he did a garlic shot.  Also, nearly every farmer promotes his garlic with a hosting trick that’s hard to imagine in one’s own home:  Little plates of garlic to be sampled with toothpicks.  Through it all, I learned that my favorite garlic is Spanish Roja.  It’s earthy and warm without the pungency that I never knew I could skip.

As we were discussing our discovery of heirloom varieties, my friend summed it up:  When we were kids, we recognized diversity in food “based on cans and labels.”  Tomato sauce was Prego vs. Ragu.  Who knew what type of tomato went into it?

Thinking of how our next generation will know their food, I plucked a slice of German White garlic off the plate and savored the abundance of our heritage.

Ahem, Correction

Ahem, Correction

Garlic Shot: Old Friend = New Man!

Garlic Shot = New Man!

After this grimace, came a new outlook on life. A spring in his step and a declaration that the rain was "pure liquid sunshine."

After this grimace, came a new outlook on life...a spring in his step and a declaration that the falling rain was "pure liquid sunshine."

See It to Believe It

See It to Believe It