Local Sips

A week ago if you asked me where wine is made I probably would have described a small log cabin tucked into the rolling hills of a vineyard in California or Italy where grapes grow as far as the eye can see. I think I would have described winemaking facilities that have been in the family for years, with artisanal practices passed down from generation to generation. Admittedly, it’s a pretty romantic picture.

Indeed, if you had asked me about where wine comes from I definitely would not have described a new two room space tucked behind a classy, candlelit wine bar in the middle of one of Brooklyn’s most hip neighborhoods, Williamsburg.

But that’s exactly what Brooklyn Winery looks like: cozy, innovative, and hip. I was surprised to hear that the winery sources most of the grapes they use to make wine from the Finger Lake region of upstate New York–not a terribly long haul from Brooklyn (that’s the bit that surprised me most). The head winemaker, Conor McCormack, has developed his own set of artisan practices, integrating modern equipment and age-old techniques. He prides himself on his ability to let his wines showcase their own natural flavor, disturbed   minimally by processing. This allows for some rich local wines like Barrel Fermented Riesling, made from the grapes of Nutt Road Vineyard in Seneca Lake, NY.

This was all very clear when I entered the winery of one of their free, weekly tours. The tour guide described how different wines are made from fresh grapes in the large, stainless steal vats occupying the first of the two winemaking rooms. After describing the process by which wine temperature is regulated, she led us into a room that looked more like my romantic winemaking vision. In front of barrels and barrels of artisanal wine, the tour guide told us about the effect of different barrel woods on the taste of wine. I don’t know if I can do justice to the details, so suffice it to say they’ve got this down to a science.

Even the most passionate and well meaning environmentalist I have met are often hesitant to join the locavore movement because many have, somehow or other, come to associate locavoreism with denial and restriction. What is life if we can’t eat tropical fruits? Winter without fresh blueberries??

But the truth is, many of the most delectable treats are available right in our backyards. The choice to choose local does not mean never drinking a sip of wine again because you don’t live in California, for example. There are plenty of fascinating and delicious treats from nearby, like artisanal wines made in Brooklyn from grapes grown in the finger lakes (if you’re from NY, of course).

Creative and passionate artisans are making our world more hospitable by the day to those who choose (and can afford–the cost of many locally grown items is still an unfortunately restrictive in many cases) to eat locally.

I am hoping for all of our sakes that we as a community can keep up the good work.

But for now, working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding

Food Warrior, 2012

NYC

Not a Chicken, a Sammich

On a visit to the Biltmore Estate last spring, I stopped by the on-site barn to check out some of the farm animals living there. Wandering around the visitors section, I watched as children visiting the historic site with their families gazed, wide-eyed, at the livestock. One boy tugged his father’s sleeve and asked something to the effect of “why is that called the same thing as what we eat for dinner?” He was referring, of course, to one of the chickens strutting about the barnyard. After his father explained that this was no mere accident of nomenclature an expression that reflected a mixture of horror and fascination came over the boy’s face. Huh. I went to the barn to see the animals (they had a variety: chickens, goats, rabbits–most of the usual suspects) but what I came away with was a sense of disquiet.

It’s no secret that many kids growing up today have no idea where their food comes from. Just as the boy I observed that day in North Carolina had gone years without realizing that the primary component in a chicken patty once had feathers, many kids (and adults) couldn’t tell you how, let alone where, fruits and vegetables are grown. I’m sure many first graders would be shocked, and maybe a bit perturbed, to discover that those cute little baby carrots they dip in peanut butter (that is, if they’re lucky enough to be eating carrots and not some Nabisco concoction) grew in the dirt.

Of course, there are many reasons this is problematic. The system by which food is produced and distributed is rife with injustice that it is difficult to combat because the route from farm to plate is so mysterious and convoluted. Informed consumers (let’s say, those who know that a chicken patty is made from chickens) are potentially more likely to make choices that contribute minimally to the destructive system.

In order to break down the farm to plate mystery, some farms, such as the Battery Urban Farm, are focussing their efforts on teaching kids about agriculture. Founded only two years ago after 8 students from Millennium High School’s Environmental Club requested a space in which to grow vegetables, the Battery Park Urban Farm has already made a huge splash among local kids. Through programs that bring students to the farm on a weekly basis or for one-time farm field trips, the farmers working in Battery Park have already helped hundreds of kids engage with the idea that food does not simply appear but has to be grown or raised. By June, 2012 they were working with 800 students and have been expanding further since. After weeding, digging, and harvesting, many of these kids are allowed to take home fresh, organic produce to eat at home.

The bulk of the farm’s output, however, goes to two local school cafeterias. School children thus have access to about 150 pounds of fresh produce, in many cases cared for with their own hands. In a huge city, that’s an unprecedented experience for many of the kids. Many of them, according to the farm, leave workdays on the field with a better understanding of where food comes from and what makes it grow.

Though the farmers and teachers in Battery Park focus just on teaching about organic produce, I think they are teaching the kids more than what a ripe tomato looks like on the vine. They are teaching them to question and to wonder about what sustains them, something everyone, children like the little boy at the Biltmore and adults alike, should do.

As I explored Battery Park Urban Farm, it seemed to me that the success of a projects like this makes a huge difference in the lives of all who are allowed to share in it. Children pranced up and down rows picking ripe fruit and talking about compost. Maybe some day all children will get to do the same.

But for now, working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding 

Food Warrior Intern

Summer 2012

NYC

Pretty Much Everything a Company Should Be

Can a company that’s cranking out enough product to reach 25 states in the U.S. and 20 countries around the world still retain it’s homemade feel?

Maybe it’s usually true that quantity is inversely proportional to quality. The beauty of local food artisans is not only that their product is more transparent, meaning it’s easier to determine what exactly went into it and who was involved in its production, but also that artisans producing only a small amount of food or drink are able to make every little bit high quality.

But some artisans, such as the co-founders of The Brooklyn Brewery, Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, have found a way to retain quality even while expanding beyond the local community and selling the product to a wider range of customers. And they are taking bold steps to do so; when I visited the brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I had the chance to marvel at the company’s newly renovated space that will allow it to double output by the end of this year and quintuple by the end of 2013. In this facility in NYC, the now hugely successful microbrewery produces beer that makes it all the way around the world.

Though the Brewery has expanded, one employee explained to me, every person involved in producing the craft beer remains committed to maintaining the highest taste standard possible. This business is not just about optimizing profit, but about creating unique and delicious beers. For them, it’s all about the special quality of the flavor. And it seems to me that their recipes working; hoards of Brooklyn Brewery fans fill the tours offered by the brewery every weekend. Afterwards, they are invited to enjoy uniquely Brooklyney beers, like Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Pilsner, and Brooklyn Pennant Ale.

Despite the company’s expansion, The Brooklyn Brewery remains committed to the local community. The brewery prides itself on the hours its employees spend volunteering in the community and the funds it donates to local organizations. Brooklyn Brewery is also proud to brew beer in a community with a long and rich history of micro-brewing.

As the neighborhood has changed, so, too have brewing methods. Nowadays, breweries like The Brooklyn Brewery use huge shiny machines with lots of winding silver tubes to brew their beer. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the love these beer masters have for a cold beer and a thriving community.

Working chard and playing chard in New York City,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding 

Food Warrior

Summer 2012

NYC

Bubbly, Beautiful (and Foraged) Bounty

Humans began to farm and it was all downhill from there.

Or so would say many foragers like Zaac Chavez who argue that the most environmentally friendly (that is, low-impact) way to eat is not to grow but to findAgriculture necessarily depletes natural resources; even most organic farming is water intensive, alters animal habitat, and thus, many would argue, exploits the earth.

But it’s all too easy to forget about that in a day and age in which most locavore and environmentally conscious folks are just happy to have any alternative to the factory-farmed, mass-produced nonsense available commercially.

This summer I’ve met many curious and passionate food artisans who present such an alternative. There seems to be something special for them about bringing the delicious and nutritious up from scratch; it’s this quality, I think, that moves artisans to persevere through many botched batches of home brew and less-than-tasty homemade ice cream. At the very least, every recipe that doesn’t quite make it to market reflects an admirable bravery in its creator that makes food artisans different from the rest of us lay people. (Speaking of bold, Jonathan Soma, creator of Brooklyn Brainery, reported earlier this summer at Public Assembly that no amount of mayo can redeem a batch of pulled pork ice cream. So take that as a warning, in case you were thinking of giving it a shot. Author’s note: he should have seen that coming, no doubt.)

With so many creative minds at work, it’s easy to get caught up in all the whimsey and to lose site of the bigger picture. If you believe, as I do, that the work of food artisans can play an important role in transforming the American food system, what makes it so? What are the broader implications of their experiments and market appeal?

Meeting the creators of Brooklyn Soda Works and reading about their many carbonated adventures got me thinking more deeply about artisanal alternatives. Specifically, the couple’s dabbles in foraging for herbs and roots with which to flavor soda reminded me that, for many artisans, producing food is not just an exercise in creativity but a way to feed communities while reducing human impact on the earth.

When I asked about how they come up with so many unconventional flavors such as Grapefruit, Jalapeno & Honey and Cardamom Cream Soda, the artists/chemist duo told me that they are always trying to think outside the box to create the most flavorful sodas possible while using as many local, organic ingredients as they can.

And it was this attitude that inspired Brooklyn Soda Works to get in touch with Evan Strusinski, a professional forager who sells foraged food to restaurants in New York City. Using some of his foraged foods and some of their own, the couple created Japanese Knotweed and Honey Soda, Angelica Soda, and Foraged Rootweed Soda. In all of their foraged flavors, Brooklyn Soda Works allows the natural, potent flavor to shine through. To a pallet accustomed only to hyper-processed sodas with no distinguishable flavor this is apparently a little jarring at first because the flavor is so rich, though I imagine the experience is ultimately empowering. There is a sort of rush that comes from sitting back and letting the Earth provide what she will. In doing so, as I learned from the folks at Brooklyn Soda Works, you might just find a rich an exciting flavor that you might never have discovered otherwise.

And so the food artisans of NYC remind me not of the power of human creativity in discovering new (and age old) ways to make every bite and sip an ecologically sound adventure.

But for now, working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding

Food Warrior

Summer, 2012

NYC

Urban Farm Strategies

I read recently in A History of the World in 100 Objects about the ancient tools used by homo sapiens to grind spices. Apparently, after the advent of farming–that is, when people shifted away from their nomadic hunting and gathering ways and began to strategically grow food–the ability to process foods using this technique and others gave homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage because it allowed them to access foods that other animals could not, for lack of opposable thumbs and humanoid brains. So human life persisted because people found new and clever ways to bring food to places where it had not existed before. Humans not only discovered that it is possible to plant seeds and grow crops but also that some vegetables that are inedible when raw can actually be cooked and rendered thoroughly nutritious, like the potato.

Fascinatingly, present-day humans are faced with a similar challenge. We, too, must find a way to produce food where there isn’t any, and where traditional methods are woefully inapplicable. While early farmers adapted by developing agriculture and doing away with the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, many contemporary farmers must learn to rethink age-old growing techniques. We must do this because approximately 83% of Americans now reside in metropolitan areas, according to the United States Census Bureau: metropolitan areas where acres and acres of open fields and expansive grazing land are simply inaccessible.

But even though our neighbors are no longer cows and ears of corn, we humans haven’t yet given up on the whole agriculture thing.

Instead, people are rapidly developing new techniques that will turn the cityscape into farmland. Many farmers and agro-enthusiasts have looked upward for a tract of land, turning rooftops in to luscious gardens.

But this process comes with its own set of challenges and those seeking to grow food in the city are tasked with overcoming obstacles, just as their great-great-great-great-great-great-great…great grandparents did when they boiled the first potato and planted the first seed.

The wonderfully inventive people working at Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm are some such people. Lauren, one tireless agro-advocate who has been instrumental in the success of the garden, and the rest of the team knew that they would have to think outside the box (or maybe inside the planterbox and outside the plant bed?) if they wanted to grow food for the community and the MCCNY Sylvia Rivera Food Pantry on the roof of Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. They knew, for example, that typical plant beds with typical soil would be too heavy for the roof and might cause it to sag, or even collapse (yikes!). So they developed a system that optimizes the space they have but is still light enough to keep the roof from caving in; instead of rows, they plant in kiddy pools with foam blocks underneath that help distribute the weight of the bed. They also use specially engineered soil that is lighter than the soil normally used in agriculture.

Rooftop farms must also think creatively about pest control. Although they don’t have to contend with voracious deer and ground hog appetites, they do have to worry about pigeons swooping down to take a nibble in what Madeline, my fellow intern, called the Battle of Pigeon v. Produce. Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm thwarts the pigeons by affixing a lightweight netting over each plant bed.

There are other adjustments that must be made for an urban farm to operate, added Lauren. Hell’s Kitchen Rooftop Farm is able to begin the season earlier than they would on the ground because they are closer to the sun. They also need to take safety precautions like building a high fence around the roof’s edge in order to allow children to visit the farm (this particular farm not only seeks to feed the local community but to educate children about agriculture).

Though the farm is only in its second year, it is already demonstrating some of the innovative techniques that urban farmers around the world will have to adopt if agriculture is to succeed in metropolitan settings.

Indeed, urban farming is clearly not as simple as dropping a farm on top of a building and calling it a day. It takes much creativity and hard work (imagine having to heave pounds and pounds of soil up 6 flights of stairs before you can even get started). But after seeing beautiful, blossoming rooftop farm in Hell’s Kitchen, I believe it is totally worth the trouble.

But for now, working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona T. Roberts Golding

Food Warrior Intern

Summer 2012

NYC

People’s Pops

In recent years, many people have decided to fight back against a national food market that provides unsafely grown fruits and veggies and unethically raised livestock. I’ve noticed that many of those who frequent farmer’s markets or plant their own gardens are pleasantly surprised to find that organic and local also often means fresh, unique, distinct, and unpredictable. Instead of buying a box of bland, uniform strawberries at the supermarket, people are buying strawberries that come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of tartness from local farmers. It seems to me that many of these folks are hoping to take the homogeneity out of their diets.

And in the world of sustainable eating, it’s not just fresh produce that’s getting a makeover.   Tired of the tasteless items that pass for food in the supermarket, many food artisans are taking innovative approaches to crafting food items such as pickles; beer; cheese; tempeh; cider; bread; and, as I discovered when I visited People’s Pops, popsicles.

When I approached the popsicle stand in the East Village, the first thing I noticed was the list inventive flavors available that day: strawberry balsamic; rhubarb chamomile; blueberry mint; coffee and cream; and, for the less adventuresome, strawberry. While I delighted in my frozen treat (I chose blueberry mint, in case you were wondering) I heard about the history of hugely successful popsicle business. 

I learned that four years ago, three business partners named Joel, Nathalie, and David went to work to create a “better popsicle” out of fresh, local, tasty ingredients. Though they believe that small businesses have an important role to play in the market, they are not opposed to expanding business, noting that with every year that passes, their business grows a little and they are able to provide more jobs and produce more popsicles without lowering their standards. They still  make delicious, interesting, and beautiful pops from ingredients purchased from local farmers, though they are making more of them than when they started. In fact, it’s possible to get a People’s Pop all over NYC; they sell at the Brooklyn Flea Market, the New Amsterdam Market, on the Highline, in the East Village, Chelsea Market, and Park Slope.

All that being said, these folks haven’t lost their do-it-your-self spirit, as so many expanding small businesses might. In fact, the team encourages people to try popsicle making themselves. That’s why they published People’s Pops: 55 Recipes for Ice Pops, Shave Ice, and Boozy Pops from Brooklyn’s Coolest Pop Shop. 

I know that I’ll definately be back for more.

But until then, working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding

RTF Food Warrior Intern

NYC

Focused on Flavor

As a kid, the winter usually made me forget the taste of a real tomato. I would make do with the grocery store “tomatoes” that, in retrospect, didn’t taste too different from the grocery store cucumbers or peppers or carrots, no matter how they were sliced or spiced (if you can’t see what I’m going for here yet, they all tasted a little like this). April would arrive and I’d still be thinking that vegetables (or vegetable-y fruits like tomatoes) are just alright, nothin’ special.

Then WHAM! the cukes, zukes, basil, chives and tomatoes would start popping out of our family garden like nobody’s business. One bite would remind me how a vegetable is supposed to taste, namely fresh, flavorful, and delicious (minus the zukes–I’m not really partial to zukes). There is such a tremendous difference between the taste of a mass produced tomato shipped from across the country and one grown organically in the backyard that it’s almost as if the two are not even related (if you’ve got a crazy cousin or two you probably know just what I’m talking about here).

But don’t get me wrong. I am not ungrateful for the bounty of fruits and vegetables available to me in the winter while I was growing up. I have no doubt that even the wateriest of watery tomatoes was better for my health than a hyper-processed alternative would have been. Fresh vegetables are full of nutrients that are hard to get anywhere else, even if produce from factory farms is often grown with unhealthy amounts of chemicals. I believe strongly that children should have access to vegetables, even if the only options are watery and a little icky. 

That being said, if you can have fresh and delicious vegetables straight from the garden why choose anything else? If you have a plot on which to grow and a big fat green thumb, what are you doing with those watery tomatoes in the summer time?

That’s a really good question, say the owners of Bell Book & Candle, a restaurant in the trendy West Village of NYC. This eatery takes an artistic approach to food, seeking to provide only the highest quality dishes to the patrons in a hip and relaxing atmosphere where the lights are dim and the chairs are comfy. And they also have other goals, says John, one of the restaurant’s co-owners. They seek to provide a menu made up of dishes made from as much sustainably grown produce as possible. This means that the cuisine served at Bell Book & Candle changes throughout the year as the chefs strive to serve only what is in season.

At this point it may be starting to appear that BB&C is just another trendy local eatery serving trendy local (and delicious) food. But if you’re thinking that Bell Book & Candle is run of the mill, think again.

Shortly after arriving at the restaurant, John ushered us up what felt like 100 flights of stairs and onto the roof of a building just adjacent to his restaurant. On our way up he explained to us that 60% of the organic greens served in BB&C comes from their very own rooftop garden that is tended by the restaurant staff and one summer intern. The garden uses a system of aeroponics, an innovative, resource efficient alternative to traditional farming. The plants grow in luscious green towers framed against a background of some of the most famous steel towers in the city, including the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center.

John believes it is not only the planet that benefits from the restaurant’s environmentally sound choices. He believes that BB&C’s food is fresher and tastier than it could ever be otherwise. Rather than being made with bland ingredients, their dishes are exploding with flavor.

It seems that organic growing is not just for the environmentalists and health nuts among us, then, but for the foodies who get a kick out of  chowing down on the highest quality produce available.

Working chard and playing chard in NYC,

Yona Tali Roberts Golding

RTF Food Warrior Intern

Summer, 2012

NYC