Urban Agriculture, Spring Fair Style

Sign for Urban Ag fairThis past weekend was the spring instance of a fair I wrote about last fall. ”Get Growing” was a nucleus of urban agriculture education within Mayfair, a large and well-established annual street festival in Harvard Square. One of the biggest problems of the fall event was attendance, and it was a pleasure seeing the Mayfair crowds get drawn into the Get Growing corridor and alleviate that problem.

But even more gratifying a sign of the fair’s growth was the caliber of exhibitors. This urban ag component of Mayfair hugged the sides of the cobblestone alley that connects two of the most-trafficked streets of Harvard Square. A beekeeper, a book swap, an urban compost program: more than 25 tables offered advice, knowledge, or products addressing the challenges of growing and harvesting food in the city.

My personal favorite wMap of Urban Agricultureas the League of Urban Canners. They’re not a business. They’re not really even an organization. They’re just a bunch of people who hate seeing good food in the city go to waste, and they get together to harvest the fruit that grows on public land (or private, with permission) in the Boston area–cherry and apple trees, grapes and blackberries, mulberries and peaches–and turn it into jam. Which they eat, and share. They’re launching interactive Google maps of the edible urban landscape and are always seeking contributions.

The beekeeper and vertical gardens were popular stands. A slightly odd note was a rabbit table next to these–not teaching folks how to raise rabbits for meat, but rather, encouraging them to rescue rabbits and keep them as pets. (As a friend observed, “They were a little…anti-agriculture.”) Out of the couple dozen tables, though, only one was not completely on-target, which is a considerable achievement for a still-young event with a highly focused message.

One practical product for any gardener–not just in an urban space–was a simple, well-designed rain barrel setup. Inexpensive and made of repurposed food grade storage barrels, these painted-to-order collection vessels divert rainwater from a gutter, filter it, and store 60 gallons at a time that can be easily drained out and used to water lawn or garden. A clever overflow tube allows excess to be directed at always-thirsted spots like saplings or rosebushes. I love useful clever repurposed things that solve a problem.

What else? Mushroom logs made from organic, locally sourced substrate. A service that will bike to you, take your food scraps, and bring you back nutrient-dense, mature compost. The wonderful Boston School of Herbal Studies, offering insight into the uses of plants that grow even in harsh city conditions yet are generally ignored. The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), with guides to Boston-area farms, raw milk providers, and more.

And the belle of the ball, Lucifer (Or Lucy, if you’re feeling affectionate.) Placid, pettable, and helping to demonstrate that chickens in close quarters have their upsides, she drew in passers by who may never otherwise have stopped to find out that most Boston suburbs have zoning laws that allow backyard coops.

Photo courtesy of Nina Piccoli

This event has so much room to grow, and this one Saturday demonstrated that the audience and the vendor base for an upwards trajectory. This is what the sustainable food movement needs: actionable, small steps that anyone can take; passionate advocates; and some fun. Connecting with our foodscape, however it’s boxed in or trellised or regulated, should never be a chore.

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Sustainable…beer?

It does defy the imagination: like all beverages in heavy containers, distribution seems like it must cancel out any efforts towards environmental responsibility lower down on the production chain. But those efforts do add up. Last weekend, I wandered by my beloved neighborhood chocolate factory and found they were having a party. A new, local “nano-brewery” was offering samples, and no, I couldn’t resist.

What’s the connection? Slumbrew, project of homebrew expert Jeff Leiter and Caitlin Jewell, uses Taza’s cocoa nibs to brew their Porter Square Porter (a nod to one of Somerville’s busier neighborhoods). In some ways, doing anything with Taza’s nibs other than eating them seems a little sad, but the resulting porter is creamy and way chocolate, with a surprisingly clean mid-palate. Delicious, though to me had more of a stout profile than a porter, lacking the signature bitterness.

Also on sample was a hefeweizen brewed with organic blood oranges (sourced from a small family grower in California) and local Massachusetts wildflower honey. I loved the porter, but I could drink this by the gallon. Literally.

A few organic and local ingredients does not a sustainable brewery make, of course. The bigger issues are certainly production and distribution. But even there, Slumbrew is thinking ahead, considering moving to canned beer for retail as a more responsible alternative to glass bottles. They’ve been thinking about ways to repurpose waste material from the brewing process, too, though haven’t come across a solution yet. Working with like-minded local businesses such as Taza has to be good for the company’s sustainability ethic: if a chocolate maker importing cocoa from South America can create a sustainable business model–which Taza has done–then so can a couple of folks making beer in Somerville.

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Nourishing Words: Opting Out of Black Friday

Things have been a little hectic in my world and thus a little slow on this blog, but fortunately, I’ve still got my favorite sustainable food writers to read to keep me thinking. Eleanor Baron at Nourishing Words always writes lovely prose on great topics, ranging from the mini (onions!) to the macro (consumerism). This Thanksgiving weekend, I am thankful for Eleanor and all the people like her trying to make this world a better place through thoughtful living.

Please visit Nourishing Words to read Eleanor’s full post on Black Friday–her sentiments really resonate with me–and to whet your verbial appetite, here’s a teaser:

Is it Thanksgiving anymore, or is it really just the unabashed opening of the floodgates of the Christmas shopping torrent, in which only the strongest among us will survive. Why black, I wonder? Could it be that, as a culture, we grieve for a time when holidays meant something simpler? If it is still Thanksgiving, what is it that we’re all giving thanks for? What possible satisfaction does participating in this frantic race to acquire more stuff provide? Can I possibly be the only one already feeling overwhelmed by stuff?

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Cambridge’s Urban-Ag Fair

Farmers’ markets, farm stands, pick-your-own orchards and food fairs always come into their own in September in New England, which is the only time here when the harvests of two different seasons overlap. The third annual Urban-Ag Fair in Harvard Square this past weekend was something different, though, and I didn’t know quite what to expect. I knew it would be physically small, just a blocked-off-street in the middle of Cambridge’s busy nucleus; and I knew it was supposed to promote urban agriculture (thanks to this modest announcement).

Urban agriculture fair food vendorUrban Agriculture fair Energy Alliance tableUrban agriculture fair bee and honey table

 

 

 

 

I arrived towards the end of the fair. Harvard Square on a beautiful weekend afternoon, for those of you who may never have been there on a beautiful weekend afternoon, tends to be nearly impassable. Introduce an event into the equation, and you could pretty much bodysurf from T to shining T stop. So I was surprised to find the fair moderately attended at best–and from how eager vendors were to engage in lengthy, energetic conversation with me, I can only assume the pace of the early part of the fair was about the same.

Urban Agriculture Fair Fenugreen paper stallThere were far, far fewer food stalls than I expected. Only one vendor had apples for sale, and he wasn’t even a farmer. Since the highlight was on urban agriculture rather than on agriculture near urban areas, I wasn’t expecting a heap of farmers…but it still seemed odd to have none in attendance. The most recent issue of Edible Boston highlighted two farmers who are using unwanted backyard space throughout the greater Boston area to “mini-farm”–where were they? And farmers representing their CSA program would not be out of place at an event with this theme.

I felt the fair lacked direction or a clear message. I was certainly happy to chat about a home energy audit, and to buy a new kind of paper that will supposedly keep my apples crisp an extra few days, and I fully enjoyed my grass-fed burger and pint of pumpkin ale. But where were the rooftop gardens? Where were the pamphlets on using your postage-stamp yard/porch/deck to grow container gardens, or explaining hydroponics?

Urban Agriculture fair book swap tableThe Boston Local Food Festival is just a few weekends away. I’ll be curious to attend the bigger, better-funded event and to see how they address the problems of focusing on a topic and educating attendees. I love that Cambridge wants to promote urban agriculture; I just felt that though the spirit may have been willing, the reality fell short of the ideal. But a small grassroots fair like this will take time to put down roots (as it were); they’re still figuring this out, I’m sure, as we all are. I look forward to next year’s fair.

Urban Agriculture Fair, Harvard Square

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The Porch Garden

I am no horticulturalist, nor is my thumb particularly green. But for the first time, I’ve been home for a full growing season and have attempted to make use of what small outdoor space is allotted to me in my very urban living conditions: a south-facing back porch.

I am mildly embarrassed to share this meager effort–a quick Google search will show you dozens (a sampling of the thousands) of super-producing, well-organized, beautifully-cultivated porch gardens. Mine…well, I’m trying. You have to give me that much. As my personal sustainable food philosophy is akin to the Chinese proverb that cautions a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, I’m just taking my own advice.

Two people are responsible for kicking me into gear this year: my good friend and my father, to whom belong the greenest thumbs I know. My friend gave me two Brandywine tomato seedlings (an heirloom varietal valued especially for canning), as well as a tiny Japanese cucumber (I mean, really tiny, like pea eggplant tiny). My father has provided materials and advice, and will probably still let me have some of his amazing tomatoes when–excuse me, if–my own don’t happen to make it.

The tomatoes might prefer to be elevated and receive more sun for more of the day, but they seem to be doing all right in their floor-level pots at the moment, flowering away; there’s only one tiny little fruit on there so far, but in the 100 degree heat-wave we’re having here in Boston right now, more may explode over the next few days.

The cucumber is doing alarmingly well. I thought there was merely one plant in the pot my friend gave me–turns out there were actually three seedlings, and they’ve all survived. However, I was leery of repotting out of a ceramic pot when (a) the plants were already established and (b) the pot was already the maximum size I felt comfortable resting on the balustrade of the porch. So I water them frequently and feed them at least weekly, and so far this seems to have been enough. I’ve loved watching the cuke grow: when I water it in the morning before work, I’ll encourage a tendril around a piece of twine. By the time I come home, the slender, eager curl will have wrapped tightly around in perfect tiny coils. If I could sit still long enough, I could watch this beauty grow. I’ve already sampled one of the fruits, as well. Olive-sized, with a strong cucumber flavor that is slightly more sour than sweet, it makes me want to fresh-pickle them and serve them with a Nicoise salad…or throw them in a dry martini.

Where excess herbs go when they dry

Plus, my three boxes of herbs are doing well. Some are thriving, some are just scraping by, but heck, they’re alive–and contribute on a regular basis to my kitchen habits. Three kinds of mint in one box (chocolate, Kentucky peppermint, spearmint); lemon thyme, English thyme, and oregano in another; and lavender, sage, and Greek oregano in the third.

And of course, summer’s darling: a pot stuffed full of basil, sweet and globe. Basil’s packed full of nutrients, and it’s such a treat to be able to throw handfuls of fresh leaves into a salad or to toss them simply with pasta and shaved pecorino.

If this experiment goes well, it may embolden me to be more adventurous next year, perhaps putting up a screen between rafters and balustrade and training beans and more cucumbers along it. I wonder how many plants would fruit on the wrong side of the screen, however, making it difficult to harvest and a potential danger to unwary passerby below.

But one thing at a time, I remind myself. First to see through this year’s labor, and if I’m lucky, enjoy its flavorful, easily-plucked fruits.

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Eating Ithaca

Organic strawberriesFew things in the world please me as much as fresh food, well prepared. Eating local is a good way to up the chances of flavor-packed food–plus, it comes with those nice socially responsible benefits like a lower carbon footprint and supporting your local economy. In some cases, organic farming methods can provide better flavor, too, by reducing the interference of chemicals with the taste of sun and soil and plant–for instance, in strawberries like these.

I like eating local food around Boston. Lots of good stuff (and oh, the fish…). But Ithaca, New York remains my personal foodie mecca. There’s a big enough population to keep a network of highly skilled farmers, vintners, butchers, and chefs in business, and enough cheap(ish) land and water to keep them all well supplied with locally sourced products that one can actually afford to eat on a regular basis. I went to school in Ithaca and fell in love with the region during that time: apple picking every fall, buying crates of second-best peaches during their two-week glorious heyday for cobblers and pie, learning that one could buy meat from the person who killed the animal, exploring local vineyards. (Here was born an eternal love for Rieslings that taste like lemon-spritzed rock. But better.)

So in a recent overdue visit with some dear friends who live there, we ate our way around the city as I desperately attempted to do Everything All At Once: dinners in, dinners out, fruit picking, city wandering. The farmer’s market was just getting into full swing, so between that and my friends’ garden we had some pretty fabulous dinners: grilled chorizo and (admittedly non-local) shrimp with quinoa tabbouleh; bratwurst and smoked kielbasa, served with sauteed kale with mustard; superb fresh salads from the garden.

For dessert? Organic strawberries by the bucketful. Literally. We turned them into shortcake with local cream; strawberry-rhubarb pie; and homemade strawberry ice cream. And, of course, ate them gleefully by the handful.

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Food Production Meets State Protectionism

Old tractor in an apple orchard in upstate New York

One of my favorite places in the world: Littletree Orchards, New York

This little blurb from a Long Island news site caught my eye, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Why yes, it’s about time!”:

The bill (S.2468), sponsored by Senator Thomas Libous (R-C-I, Binghamton), requires state agencies with food contracts to buy at least 20 percent of their food from New York sources.

There may very well be similar legislation on the books elsewhere, or even enacted; I’m not sure what the best way is to research this. What I do know, from my years in the wine industry, is that this sort of protectionism is in place in nearly every state to support in-state viticulture. (That’s why, fellow residents of Massachusetts, it is so ridiculously hard to buy other states’ wines at your local shop.) And from my time in Ontario, I know that Canada has similar policies in place for everything from book sales to wine sales to music (minimum content programming, wherein a certain percentage of everything played or shown must be Canadian; this led to an awful lot of Avril Lavigne on the air at the time, but it does make some sense).

The Manhattan skyline from Staten Island ferry

The City

This New York bill is not yet law, but I hope it will be. New York State is so oddly divided between The City and Everywhere Else that it has led to no end of problems fiscally and politically. New York City is the Québec of Canada: Its industry essentially subsidizes the rest of the state, since agriculture, quarrying, tourism, and other ye olde forms of revenue have steadily declined as business has ascended. And like the Québécois, you often hear New Yorkers talk about how they’re sick of doing all the heavy lifting. And to be fair, you often hear up-staters talk about how they’re sick of the dirty politics and urban-focused legislation that ignores their very valid needs.

Field in upstate New York

Everywhere Else

This bill would help close that gap. It’s not like small farmers have lost revenue because they’re sick of making money: it’s because retailers would always rather buy from the cheaper supplier, now generally to be found in California, or Georgia, or Mexico. Instituting a minimum in-state product purchase requirement for retailers would drive state funds back into the state and–hopefully–breathe some life back into the flagging agricultural industry in New York, which has a rich history and incredible future potential.

Just to inject a little more odd perspective from my past, I hope New York manages to get ahead of the curve on this one and not be left behind as has happened with the solar industry. Although another way of looking at it might be that New York’s refusal to jump on the kind of solar industry incentives offered by neighboring New Jersey might be a key component of boosting agriculture now: When land is cheap (as it is, relatively, in much of New York State), solar developers would snatch it up for large solar installations if the state instituted a very competitive incentive structure as New Jersey did. With that land still available and hopefully more attractive if agriculture once again takes precedence, farmers can integrate renewable energy (hello to methane digesters and wind in addition to solar) in ways that balance land use as oppose to monopolize it.

P.S. This bill is sponsored by a Republican, in case that slipped your notice. Good food policy should really be non-partisan, and this made be happy to see.

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Overcoming Inertia

Spring in New England is always an adventure. Some years we go straight from sleet to beach days. Some years–like this one–we get weeks and weeks of cool, breezy-sunny-damp weather. Tulips and redbuds and dogwoods and lilac and fruit trees bloom at the same time. People with allergies are miserable. The world looks decked out for a party. You take a look around and realize that a winter of denning needs to be cleaned out, all on one sunny weekend. The world has pushed past winter’s inertia, taking the energy of months of rest and pouring it into growth. Dull roots, as T.S. Eliot observed, have been stirred with spring rain. It’s neither an easy nor a painless process, all this growing.

This is also the time of year people are in furious garden-planning mode. In some parts of the country there are already seedlings in the ground (and have been for months), but up here we can rarely get tomatoes out before June. Not that I’m one of those people. Even when I’ve had garden space, I haven’t been in town for long enough at a time to pursue a garden. Or, to be honest, even healthy houseplants. This year is a little different for me: I expect to be around the duration of the remaining spring, summer, and fall, for the most part, and I have a lovely deck with a southern exposure that seems designed for herbs and tomato pots. I’ve already, with the help of an extraordinarily green-thumbed father, put up containers of thyme, oregano, rosemary, mint and chervil. Basil and tomato seedlings are hanging out inside waiting for more sun.

All of this moving forward calls up questions for me about overcoming inertia–transforming the energy of a fallow period–in other areas of my life. Specifically, my writing. On this blog, it seems to be getting harder rather than easier as time goes by for me to find interesting things to write about in an interesting way. I’ve reached a plateau that required a great surge of energy to push forward. Sure, other things have been distracting me, like looking for work more reliable than my freelancing (it seems the opportunities that most interest me are ones that won’t pay my rent). But more than anything, I think, I’m still seeking a way to transform the inertia of thinking into the directed energy of doing. I’m hoping that the transformations around me will produce a similar effect within.

A more personal post than I’m used to putting up here, certainly. If you’ve read this far, you probably don’t mind–but I’ll try to get back to more pertinent posting soon. There’s a lot going on in the world of food and agriculture at the moment, although with agricultural enterprises also turning their energy to growing stuff, rather than to fighting for or against legislation, some aspects of this arena have slowed down a bit.

One thing that is happening is farmer’s market season! Over the next couple of weeks, Massachusetts markets will be opening all over the place. On the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets website you can sign up for reminders about your local market dates, look at details for the upcoming strawberry dessert festival, and you know, other cool stuff. I can’t wait to start enjoying the literal fruits of the transformations I see going on around me.

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Defining Sustainable Food

The Atlantic posted an article today about what Associate Editor Daniel Fromson calls “the biggest problem” of sustainable food: its lack of a clear definition. Myself, I’m not sure this is the biggest problem. It’s a work in progress, which makes sense for something still in its ideological infancy. Bigger issues, to me, are mainstream resistance to accepting the need for a system rehaul (see also: climate change), and working against the massive–and toxic–inertia of Big Ag.

However, Mr. Fromberg summarizes nicely the main challenges facing a single, cohesive definition for sustainable food. His points are taken from the observations made by panelists at The Atlantic‘s 2011 Food Summit. I recommend you just click through and read his full coverage, but here are the elements that panelists said a definition of sustainable food must comprise:

  • Reaching a compromise between agricultural productivity, environmental health, and quality of life concerns
  • Addressing hidden costs or externalities within the food system (i.e., pollution and health care costs)
  • Acknowledging the reality and potential benefits of GMO products
  • Working within the boundaries of finite resources and keeping those resources in balance [This point, brought up by Molly Jahn, to me, seems like the heart of sustainability and possibly its definition.]
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Spring Desserts: Mocha Meringues, Berries & Custard Cream

Whether you celebrate Passover or Easter or just plain old wonderful spring, the egg remains the symbol of life and renewal. The two following recipes are a perfect match: one uses the whites, the other the yolks, and their flavors work great together. Plus, they’re Passover-friendly with only one minor tweak.

The thing is, I really love bread and bread-related products. For pasta, I am a bottomless pit. So for the one day (or seven, if I’m in a self-denying sort of mood) a year during which I must abstain from all things bread, what on earth am I supposed to eat for dessert? Matzoh flour does make an acceptable substitution (or potato flour) in many some recipes, and there’s the classic flourless chocolate cake. But I wanted something more fun this year so I made two things. Neither of them made it to the seder table–there might have been a teeny bit too much food already–but man, were they good the day after.

Mocha meringues

Mocha meringueThese were adapted from a recipe on Butter Sugar Flour, which was in turn adapted from a magazine recipe. To make them entirely kosher for Passover I ought to have substituted potato starch for the cornstarch, but I looked in three large, well-provisioned grocery stores and couldn’t find it, and gave up. I’m all about celebrating freedom from oppression for all people, all the time, but I’m not so much an observant Jew as a benignly interested cultural participant. Anyway, these meringues melt like cotton candy in your mouth, and have a surprising kick of flavor from that layer of chocolate. (Incidentally, I am wild to know the secret to getting the chocolate layer thicker, as in the photo on BSF’s website.) I made a double batch of these and it worked fine, and gave me six whole yolks to use in the custard.

  • 3 large egg whites
  • 2/3 c superfine sugar (or grind some granulated sugar in a coffee or spice grinder)
  • 1 t cornstarch
  • ½ t white vinegar
  • Generous ½ t vanilla extract
  • 2 T cocoa powder
  • 2 t ground coffee (add up to 1 tsp more if you want a very strong mocha flavor)
  • 4 oz high quality chocolate, such as Taza’s Mexicano discs, for melting
  1. Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl or stand mixer, whisk the egg whites to soft peak stage. Keep whisking while you add the sugar slowly, until the mixture is stiff and shiny. Whisk in the rest of the ingredients (except chocolate) to combine.
  3. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small plain tip with the meringue mixture; pipe 1″ circlets onto the parchment-lined pans. This should make about 60 small meringues.
  4. Bake for 22-25 minutes, depending on how crispy you like your meringue. Cool completely.
  5. Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler–or in a microwave, let’s be honest. Dark chocolate way preferable. (My local favorite producer, Taza, has a coffee flavor of their traditional Mexican-style stoneground chocolate; I used that to excellent results. I also tried their new ginger flavor, which I liked, but my discerning taste-testers did prefer the coffee.)
  6. Use a small spatula to spread the melted chocolate on the flat side of one meringue, and stick another on: voilá, meringue sandwich. Let harden, distribute, enjoy.

vanilla custard creamFresh Strawberries with Vanilla Custard Cream

Oh June, with your small, super-sweet local strawberries! Whenever will you arrive? Meantime, the berries come out of California are awfully good at the moment. I don’t let myself buy internationally imported berries, but once they’re in season anywhere in this country I just can’t help myself.

This easy custard cream is a fancy step up from the lightly whipped cream I usually serve with fresh berries, and I’ll be making it again. And again. I adapted this from several different recipes I found floating around the interwebs, none of which called for lemon zest–but I think it’s essential.

  • 2 pounds fresh strawberries (or other fresh fruit), washed, hulled, and sliced. If they’re under-ripe or not that flavorful, toss with about 1/4 c sugar and let stand for a couple of hours.
  • 1 vanilla bean*
  • 2 cups milk, cream, etc (I used 1 c heavy cream and 1 c 2% milk)
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 5 T sugar
  • zest of half a lemon
  1. Split vanilla bean and scrape out beans. Put beans, pod, and milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat and bring just to the boil. Meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar in a medium bowl thoroughly to combine.
  2. Once milk mixture boils, pour a little bit into the egg mixture, whisking vigorously all the while. Add in a slow stream or by the quarter-cup until mixed.
  3. Return mixture to pot and warm over medium-low heat, stirring (not whisking, unless you see clumps forming, in which case turn the heat down a bit too) until the custard thickens, 4-5 minutes.
  4. Pour into clean bowl. Add lemon zest. Allow to cool for a couple hours in the fridge. Remove the vanilla pod before spooning over fresh berries and swooning.

* If you don’t have a vanilla pod lying around, do everything else the same except just whisk in a generous teaspoon of pure vanilla extract along with the lemon zest in Step 4. It won’t be the same, but it will still be delicious.

Strawberries and vanilla custard cream

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