Farm City

As research for of the upcoming Communal Table pickle making workshop at the Old Stone House in September, I've been visiting the farms we'll be buying produce from (the farms are part of a tour during the Farm City event... itself part of Crossing the Life festival http://www.fiaf.org/crossingtheline/2010/2010-09-ctl-farmcity-tour.shtml which we'll be part of. This past week I visited the East NY Farmer's Market over on New Lots Ave, the Hattie Carthan Community Gardens in Bed-Sty, and BK Farmyard's acre on the lawn of the High School for Public Service in Crown Hts. All three of these gardens nurture youth empowerment, community activism and food justice, and the markets offer fresh and affordable vegetables in neighborhoods fresh vegetables are hard to come by.

Tooling around in my car, getting lost (poor sense of direction) and becoming found, seeing my beloved city anew with each foray, I am forever awed by the expanse of NYC- by the vast riches of culture but also by the scope of poverty and the divides between neighborhoods. Often, driving through the vastness of Brooklyn I despair the possibility of creating a more just and peaceful world. These markets are bright spots bursting with goodwill and hopeful energy, and for me, getting to talk with people I would not ordinarily meet is a joyful experience nearing the spiritual.

I bought half a dozen empanadas, tasted peanut punch and spice bread, learned about a new squash varietal and saw the magnificently lewd red seeds (?) that are inside a ripe bitter melon. I saw people taking care, kids proud and learning, listened to the sing song of vendors, smelled the perfume of sage. I realized again that in the narrowness of daily life the assumptions and thoughts that flow from limitation must be vigilantly challenged, and that a wonderful way to do this is to stand in a market and take it all in. Then take the goodness home and cook something to share with family; it is a joyful experience nearing the spiritual.

Meanwhile, it made me realize Deena and I have to totally rethink the menu we're planning for the Farm City Tour. Weeks ago, writing the proposal for this event I was thinking about what might be ripe during Brooklyn's September, and I ran these produce selections through my brains storeroom of tried and true recipes. I didn't even think to consider bitter melon or cucuzza squash or callaloo or peanut juice or spicy empanadas. What was I thinking?

Brooklyn farms are most importantly about her people and their stories, more so than about the actual vegetables. The acreage is small but the yield is mighty. Communal Table's great opportunity will be to pickle and preserve a tiny bit of it.


Meat proved hard to present:
not 'cause some feel it's wrong consuming flesh- or because of CAFO's (concentrated animal feeding operations) or rGBH (artificial growth hormones) or the disproportionate acreage devoted to corn and soy to feed livestock when the same acreage could feed humans, or even the manure generated green gas gasses trapped in the stratosphere.
For me it was because of the hands-on attention grilling meat requires, and the particular kitchen lay-out of our hosts gracious home. Instead of being "front of the house" at our party I spent the whole night tending stove.

In the days before the event Deena and I ran about
speaking with butchers- finding out the where and why of what
they were selling- mostly we bought from shops Suzanne Wasserman, our film-maker guest speaker recommended, so we knew we'd be able to get reputably raised and interesting cuts. Fleisher's in Kingston actually gifted a dozen plus chorizo sausages (thank you Jessica and Joshua!) As usual our menu ideas changed daily. I wanted meat appetizers but a veg meal that focused on the grains and grasses we feed to livestock- Deena (vegetarian that she is) thought otherwise... then I worried there wouldn't be enough and did the usual adding and adding, while D. tried to pair things down.

We had Malaysian Jerky, Liverwurst canap├ęs and grilled steak with shredded Shiso to go with Bloody Martini's, and a Carpaccio and Arugula first course. This was followed by grilled Flanken (thinly sliced beef rib,) Chorizo, Lamb and Apricot kebobs, Grilled chili-rubbed Corn, Oats, groats and barley salad with eggplant and mint, and sliced heirloom tomatoes (to say nothing of the lemon shortcakes with blueberries and cream.) All local/organic and from what I can tell, sustainably grown... (by young white folks... hmmm!?)

The meat of the matter however (for me at least) is the storytelling. Viewing Suzanne's clip of "Meat Hooked" touched upon our collectively focused, reawakened effort to eat consciously- and after viewing, a vocal few passionately engaged in dialogue about slaughterhouse regulation and whatnot. Called to table, the conversation broke into multiple threads. We'd set a beautiful long outdoor table (and re-set and wiped it down multiple times before we all sat down because of intermittent drenching showers.) Long, flower-strewn tables look cool- but do not engender group conversation... so aesthetics aside, the table proved a detriment to the conversational engagement we'd envisioned for the evening. Missing too was Deena's or my gentle nudge to steer conversation, as we were cooking-away apart from the

There is no doubt Communal Table puts out a mighty spread- as beautiful, tasty and thoughtful as could be- but what's still elusive is our intent to use the meal as a forum for storytelling. Pat read Roald Dahls "Lamb to the Slaughter" a masterful story- albeit long, and despite the glorious setting, fine food and flowing drink, folks squirmed; so not used to extended listening are we. Ukulele Sara sang several sexy songs about pork chops and butchers, author Steve Stern and graphic novelist Sabrina Jones shared "Hippie Hog Butcher of the Ozarks" which'll be published in the upcoming World War 3 issue # 41 "Food Chains" (that I'm co-editing! www.worldwar3illustrated.org) Beck amused with tales of raising cattle... It sounds like plenty- and we had invited each of these specific stories, but there followed no eruption of spontaneous storytelling or impromptu poems. Is there hesitation to engage with each other and the food in dialogue that shares our histories and dreams? Or was it that it's such a consuming effort to turn out food for 30 that I am missing the nuance of experience? Is this actually happening during our Communal Table salons?

Also, not to burden any potential readers to this blog- there's still the financial conundrum. No matter what we charge it is both too expensive and not enough to cover costs (this event was $55 per guest.) I bring this up not to complain, but because its interesting to ponder how as a culture we value food and entertainment, and how paying for an experience sets up hierarchical expectations between server and served. Deena and I are hardly ground breaking activists, the political consciousness we mark at table is gleaned from the populace. We're hardly ground breaking culinarians either, though our spread is mighty fine. These traits alone garner paying crowds to workshops or restaurants and underground supper clubs. Nor are we offering a bohemian basement where for five bucks cover and a beer you can hear young poets. We're trying to combine: political passion, exceptional and thoughtful food and engagement with all of this through storytelling( and on occasion hands-on making or tasting things.)

I know there's a marked divide between front and back of the house experience... I'd so love for our guests to use this blog space to offer feed-back and suggestions as to how we can combine all these experiences into an evening's salon.

With luck, our upstate NY, October 4th salon might just bring all these elements together. We've invited NY Mycologist Paul Sadowski to lead a mushroom foraging walk, which'll be followed by a mushroom supper and then a bonfire 'round which we'll serve homemade apple jack (and demonstrate how its made) and tell stories from the realms of fungi, fairies and ghosts.

Here's a list of the butchers we used:
Jessica and Joshua Applestone of Fleisher's http://www.fleishers.com (chorizo)
Jake from Dickson's Farmstand in Chelsea Market http://www.dicksonsfarmstand.com (beef)
The jerky was like sweet, salty, spicy candy and came from Malaysia Jerky at 95A on Elisabeth St. http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2009/03/malaysia-beef-jerky-in-chinatown-nyc.html