Capturing the Locavore Spirit on the Road

21 Sep

[From Rachel]

I have traveled a lot this summer, and it has truly been great.  Each of the NOFA-NY on-farm workshops I have been to (and which I have planned) included a shared meal, and since there were farmers involved, the food was naturally sourced from nearby.  Additionally, when I travel, I tote meals, ingredients and just about anything I can to avoid relying on restaurants, though I do seek out natural foods stores with prepared foods, or restaurants with an organic and farm-to-table perspective about ingredients sourcing.  Chains are out of the question for anything besides stay-awake emergency coffee.  Mostly, I stick to my stash of fruits, homemade bread, and whatever leftovers I’ve boxed up for the trip.  I’d like to take some time to tell you how this went for me on a recent trip to Long Island, New York City and Poughkeepsie.

This trip presented me with a challenge to being able to control the food I’d consume on the road.  I was faced with a significantly long trip for which I could not pack enough to supply each meal.  This was hard for me, but I was comforted knowing that I’d be near farms and farmers’ markets and staying in houses, not hotels without kitchens.  I packed ingredients to make cornbread for my first stop–a field day and potluck at Quail Hill Farm (all the way at the tip of Long Island).  After an 8.5-hour trip (I drive slowly and take frequent breaks), I arrived at the house of two of the farm’s apprentices.  I was a bit road-weary, and I thought I’d have to break my local-foods vow with a scoop of ice cream (but I crossed my fingers for a locally-owned scoop shop, at least).  Never fear, they told me, they had half a pint of Ronnybrook ice cream that they had to save from melting during hurricane Irene’s power outages at the farm.  So I guess it never hurts to ask, and I was glad to have that to calm me down after the trip, while I stood in the kitchen and chatted about recent goings-on with the farmers.

The next day I had to find lunch.  Being in the Hamptons, there was not a shortage of delicious food that I could have spent money on, but would it satisfy my desire for a simple, local meal?   The fields were right there, and there was a kitchen available–why would I step off a food-producing establishment to get food from far away?  So I got the full Quail Hill Farm CSA member experience.  I harvested what was left over after the members had gone through and picked a few days prior, according to the very nice directional signs.  Quail Hill Farm’s CSA is almost entirely pick-your-own, a neat concept!  I got a little greedy gleaning off the plants and from the storage cooler (with everyone’s blessing) and was soon toting a bag of radishes, turnips, kale, spinach, herbs, peppers and tomatillos.  A weird mix, and I was really hungry, and a little disconcerted by the beachy humidity and wind.  I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got back to the kitchen.  Wash, slice and steam those veggies.  With food that fresh, it’s all I would need to do.  While the veggies steamed and released incredible smells, I chopped up some herbs.  I dotted a little Ronnybrook salted butter into the hot steamed veggies, and poached an egg for protein.  It was pure meditation on vegetables…and it was delicious.  It made me laugh when people passed by and commented on the wonderful look and smell of the food.  I couldn’t really take credit for much of that–the quality of my meal was a direct reflection on the skill and care taken by the farmers in raising healthy and vigorous plants bearing beautiful edible products.  And to think I had not prepared any of this ahead of time!

The turnips (red skin) look like radishes, and the radishes (watermelon variety) look like turnips!

At the potluck dinner, it was clear that we were in fall mode.  We enjoyed cornbread, baked pasta, squash and pasta salad by a fire, while we watched and felt the cold front move in.  I think everyone in New York felt that shift at about 6pm last Wednesday.  Songs were sung and company was enjoyed…then we all ran to our cars to get warm again.  It was such a low-key moment, when locavorism was unspoken and assumed.  As I left, Scott Chaskey, the 22-years-running farmer at Quail Hill, former NOFA-NY Board President, current Board member, presenter of our field day, and superb writer and amazing human being, sent me off toward the next leg of my trip with a jar of the farm bees’ honey and another pint of ice cream.  The generosity of the farmers’ gestures is an example of what makes local food work, and why it’s worthwhile.  I had no food for lunch, and there was the easy route of going to a restaurant.  But I would have sat there alone and eaten.  End of story.  But at the farm, there were kale and other veggies to be gleaned and radishes and turnips were sitting in storage.  From that, I got a meal so simple and elegant it would take Alice Waters’s breath away.  I still ate alone, but in the company of the spirit of generosity from the farmers.  Farmers want to feed you!  So give them that opportunity!  Visit their stands, their stalls at market, join their CSAs, attend their events.  You’ll end up with a feeling of sublime satisfaction, both emotional and physical.  

That was only days 1-2 of my trip!  Over the next few days, I was hanging out with my college friends in the city.  Normally I try to eat all the exotic foods that I can’t cook for myself when in New York City.  This time I wondered how I would fare, given a tighter budget and a commitment to seeking local foods (there are some great but upscale local-ingredients restaurants in the city, but I wondered if I really had the energy and funds to go that route for a few days).  It ended up that I didn’t go totally locavore in what I ate, and I am okay with that.  Here’s why:  I was MORE of a locavore than any recent NYC trip in my recent memory.  I was outspoken about my commitment to eating local and organic–I remained true in spirit, if not in actual action.  For starters, I ate both dinners in my friends’ apartment.  I can’t remember the last time we had not chosen to go out to celebrate my being in the city.  The first night, it was a simply meal that my one friend prepared (not using local ingredients, but the care and emotion taken in a meal came from within a 250-mile radius, and I accepted without judgment or hesitation).  I declared that I would cook for Saturday’s dinner.  We invited another friend living in the city, and my plan hatched.  I discovered a tiny new Greenmarket in the Socrates Sculpture Garden, several blocks from their apartment.  I scoped it out and scored plenty of beautiful produce to add to the growing stash.  I reported my findings and gave the market my seal of approval.  I think my friends will start shopping there (I advised them to start there, THEN go to the supermarket if you need more stuff.  It’s a great piece of advice to help people wrap their heads and finances around buying local food).  Then I went to Manhattan to enjoy a lunch with a dear old friend at Angelica Kitchen.  The restaurant is legendary for using local producers and for making very beautiful plant-based foods, before it was hip.  It was extremely enjoyable and I was glad to introduce my friend to this concept that I am so passionate about.  My friend learned that she likes non-spicy kimchee, and was impressed by the vegan butternut squash soup.  Before leaving Manhattan, I stopped at the huge and famous Union Square Greenmarket.  It used to overwhelm me with its booth after booth of loaded tables and pushy (sorry, NYC, but it’s often true that you can be a bit hasty at this market instead of enjoying the interaction with the vendors) customers.  I no longer feel this way…I have met many of the farmers at field days, the NOFA-NY Winter Conference and the NOFA Summer Conference.  I just went and visited familiar farm stalls, even if the people staffing them didn’t know me.  And for all you who live in NYC and are throwing up your hands at not knowing where to buy local flour: Cayuga Pure Organics sells whole grains (rye, oats, wheat berries and freekeh) and farmer-ground flours, beans and polenta.  Now you know–you don’t need to settle for bulk grains across the street at that national big-name expensive food store!  For dinner I made: bean soup with canary beans from a New Farmer Development Project farmer selling at Socrates Sculpture Garden’s market, roasted root veggies and potatoes, roasted winter squash, and freekeh.  It was actually my first experience cooking the roasted green spelt grains, and I was nervous since I didn’t know what sort of flavoring to put into it.  I threw a few golden raisins (not local) and apple cider vinegar into that pot, and that was all it needed.  What a flavorful and complex grain!  My friends (non-vegetarian boys who are adventurous eaters…but still…boys who may not have appreciated hippie girl food) were SO into the Freekeh.  They loved the whole meal, and to think we didn’t have to leave an apartment!  We even polished off a pan of apple-pear crisp after our starchy and lovely turn-of-the-season dinner.  It wasn’t all 100% local, since I didn’t have my pantry of local versions of the standard items, but it easily could have been.  I didn’t worry about that aspect at all: the spirit remained.  In fact, I was not stressed at all, like I usually am when trying to find the perfect NYC dinner spot to enjoy company of my best friends.  I cut out the middle man: the other cook,  and I think we created a new standard for my visits.  I cooked, showed off what I love about seasonal and local eating, and remembered how much I love my friends, especially because they not only ate, but asked questions about what we were eating (killed the joke that we were eating “roasted green smelt”) and even about farming and plants in general.  Being a locavore enhanced my ability to connect with my friends this trip, that’s for certain.

The next day, I went to my final field day for the season, up at Poughkeepsie Farm Project.  And guess what!  We ended with a fantastic filling potluck heavy on the potatoes and apples.  We were all hungry after 3 hours of learning about cover crop rotations.  It was blissful to sit and continue to talk and form friendships at those picnic tables (while being eaten by mosquitoes, who have a taste for local farmer blood apparently).  Through local eating, I connected with SO MANY people on my 5-day trip, had enlightening self-aware experiences, and realized, once again, that food breaks barriers if you let it.  Use the locavore challenge as the catalyst to connect with your spiritual self, your friends, your family and your farming community.  If that’s not reason enough to host or attend a potluck as part of our Potluck Across New York on Sunday, Sept. 25th, I wonder what could convince you!

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