Mission Impossible? A Locavore’s Thanksgiving in NYC

Posted: November 24th, 2009 | Author:

Green Thumb Farm, Watermill, NY.

Every Thanksgiving, I set myself some challenge to tweak the traditional meal. This year, I decided to source ALL ingredients locally — within 100 miles of my home in Brooklyn, NY.

“Cranberry” Caveat
When I told food writer-activist, Chloe Bass, about this project, she said “Oh, my friend tried to do an all-local Thanksgiving last year. He got almost everything he needed, except for the cranberries. Beware the cranberries.”

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Local Scene
Thanksgiving started as a celebration of bountiful local foods available to the Pilgrims in the northeastern colonies. I live in the northeast, so I should be able to source almost every ingredient nearby without too much trouble. Researching origins of our food reveals the status quo of the food system and opportunities for positive change.

I defined “local” as a farm or a producer within 100 miles of NYC. For harder-to-find items, I stretched my definition to “regional” within 500 miles. Finally, I applied the so-called “Marco Polo” exception to foods never successfully produced locally, like spices or citrus.

Wherever possible I sourced from local organic farmers, but some local farmers are too small to maintain paperwork required for organic certification. So local alone prevailed when local and organic was not available.  Organic won out when there was no local option at all.

My family plans to gather for the feast in Shelter Island, NY.  Settled in 1652, just 30 years after the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the locale shares many attributes with New England including sandy soils, short growing season and mild temperate climate.

Aerial View of Shelter Island

I tested LocalDirt to help me find ingredients. Local Dirt is a website where buyers and sellers connect directly to purchase local foods. Local Dirt aims to create more efficiency in the growing demand for local food, reducing the current rate of 40% spoilage.

Like so many internet sites, Local Dirt is a great idea not yet useful or effective. A 100 mile radius search using Local Dirt, for instance, displayed locations of a few farmer’s markets in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  I was not able to search by product name, like “cranberries”.

The best information for local Thanksgiving ingredients was available by word-of-mouth. I relied on the knowledgeable managers of NYC Greenmarkets, like Betsy in Carroll Gardens. Farmers themselves are experts in their products and extremely informative. Lastly, amazing agricultural associations and university departments provide guidelines, history and research that opened my eyes wider to see interesting details of each food I explored.


Free Range Turkey Farm

Of course, we have to start with the Bird of Honor. Turkey meat is now a year-round big business in the U.S. with 2.7 million metric tons produced in 2007 valued at $3.71 billion, according to the USDA.

As with all other industrial meat products in the U.S., turkey production is dominated by a small number of gigantic multi-national corporations. The same meat-packing conglomerates are also responsible for factory farming of chicken, pork and beef — mistreating animals, workers, the environment and consumer health.

It is unfortunate then that most consumers are going to get their big birds from one of the top five meatmakers: Butterball (a joint venture of Smithfield & Maxwell Farms), Jennie-O Turkey Store (Hormel), Cargill Meat Solutions, Farbest Foods, Inc., or House of Raeford Farms, Inc. The first three companies listed above process 88% of all turkey purchased in the U.S.  The relatively good news is that mass-produced turkey is free of hormones and steroids, but, unless it’s labeled “organic,” the turkey may have been given antibiotics.  The top five turkey-producing states (in order of volume) are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas, Virginia and Missouri, according to the National Turkey Federation. (Source: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center)

Turkey farming in the Northeast is very small scale. Undaunted, my first step in finding my local gobbler was googling “Local Turkey Long Island.”

As it turns out, I could bag my own wild turkey on Long Island. The turkey hunting season in Suffolk County started November 18 and runs until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  The wild turkey population has grown from 75 and endangered just a few years ago to over 3,000 today. I’m no hunter. And I have heard that other hunters tend to shoot at more nuanced human mimics of turkey calls.

Seeking a safer option, I found “Consumers Have Taste for Local Birds” from NY Times in 2007, listing six possible turkey farms on the East End. First, I called Garden of Eve, a certified organic farm in Riverhead. (FYI the number listed should be 631.722.8777).  I spoke to Melissa Rebholz, Farmstand Manager, who informed me that the Garden of Eve’s turkey trailer burned down to the ground last year. So no birds this year. When I asked her for a local turkey recommendation, she told me she buys heritage birds from Tamrack Hollow in Burlington, Vermont, 802.535.1515.  Too far for my 100 mile radius. Sensing a knowledgeable source, I asked “How about local cranberries?”

“I worked for NYC Greenmarkets for years and I have no idea where you can get cranberries in New York state.” Melissa said. Drat!

Next, I dialed Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton, 631.537.0335, not the most likely-sounding spot for turkey. Farmer Art Ludlow told me that he had gobblers ranging from 17 to 24 pounds. Jackpot! Ludlow raises only a small number of birds on his dairy farm (which produces excellent cheese varieties), so I reserved right away — two 17 pound turkeys to feed our gathering of 20 people. Art told me to come pick up the fresh-killed poultry the day before Thanksgiving.  Now that’s fresh.

Pork Diagram – See Bacon

Bacon and Sausage
There’s always a bit of bacon in Thanksgiving recipes, probably because it was a widely available preserved meat back in the day. And Sausage is to stuffing as turkey is to gravy.  Despite my love for the funky flavor of nitrates and fat and the snap of a good casing, I can’t deal with buying bacon or sausage from ginormous meat packing mega-corps. (See “Turkey” above).

For the last few years, I have been satisfying my desire for bacon and sausage with a locally produced product from Dines Farms from Oak Hill, NY. Jay Dines comes around to my neighborhood every Tuesday as part of Cobble Hill CSA pick up from Green Thumb Organic Farm, the first organic farm on Long Island (in continuous operation as a farm for more than 300 years by the Halsey family!).

CSAs are a group of folks who buy shares in a farm’s harvest which is then delivered to them at one drop location each week from April to December.  For more information on joining or starting a CSA, contact Just Food.

Side Note: I have ordered good local turkey from Dines before. This year, I wanted to nab the heavyset birds closer to my final destination in Shelter Island and I wanted to explore the availability of turkey on the East End.  It’s my challenge, remember?

Union Square Market carrots photo by WallyG

Sweet Potatoes, Turnips, Carrots, Onions, Garlic
Thanksgiving is all about star side dishes from the root cellar which can be obtained in abundance from almost all Farmer’s Markets in NYC.

It’s sort of shocking that most supermarkets stock root veggies harvested around the globe. A quick check of the (small) organic section in Met Foods in Brooklyn reveals the following provenances: garlic from China (!), onions from Texas, sweet potatoes from Georgia, carrots from California. Ask your grocer to switch to local.

Why not use foods from my CSA for Thanksgiving? An issue with a CSA is lack of choice. This week, the farm share consists of winter radishes, cauliflower, fennel, radicchio, garlic, and bok choi. Not exactly traditional Thanksgiving fare. Plus, the quantities would not be enough for a big group. So I will look elsewhere for these seasonal goodies.

I decided to get all of these Thanksgiving vegetables from Sang Lee, a certified organic farm in Peconic en route to our destination. My family has been shopping from Sang Lee Farms for more than ten years because it has excellent produce. Sang Lee is a family-run business that has been expanding and branding its operations very successfully while many other family farms in the area have folded, being one of few North Fork farms to supply Whole Foods in NYC.


Union Square Market. Photo by Walking Off the Big Apple

Brussel Sprouts
Another hearty, seasonal veggie that can be readily found in farmer’s markets this time of year.  Local farms sell the sprouts still attached to the stalk, keeping them fresh. The supermarket variety are sold in a round waxed carton. By buying sprouts locally, you save all that packaging and transportation. Karen Lee is setting four stalks of Brussels aside for me from Sang Lee.

Brussel sprouts are a relative newcomer to Thanksgiving and would not have graced the Pilgrim’s table, having been brought to the U.S. around 1800 by French settlers in New Orleans.  Long Island’s climate is well-suited to this cultivar of wild cabbage and the region has become the third largest producer of the crop in the U.S., most of which is grown in California and Washington. When I visited Green Pea Market on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, I saw sprouts for sale on the stalk! Alas, the label read: “Salinas, CA.” Ask your local grocer to carry Long Island sprouts.

PSRT 3Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (and Celery)
Most of these herbs are still growing in NY state before the first frost.  After confirming with Karen, I am getting these ingredients from Sang Lee along with marjoram and mint.  I could have gotten these items from any good farmer’s market this time of year. And so can you!

Milk & Cream
Let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a heavy meal calling for milk and cream.  Industrial milk is a major gross-out: feeding corn to an animal with seven stomachs for digesting grass; adulterating its body chemistry with hormones and antibiotics and crowding giant herds together like milk machines rather than animals.

I have been buying dairy from Milk Thistle in Ghent, NY which sells at the Farmer’s Market in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on Sundays. Mostly what I buy is their excellent yoghurt which has a runny texture and a real snappy tang. Milk Thistle is a micro-mini operation with only 30 grass-fed, free ranging cows.  (FYI Stonyfield Farms, now the third largest producer of yoghurt in the U.S. and certified organic, started with just seven cows).

Milk Thistle dairy products are excellent quality and sold in old-timey thick glass bottles (for which you have to pay a deposit until you return them next time). It’s no accident that celebrity chef David Chang of Momufuko (and author of the currently best-selling cookbook in the U.S.) mixes his bevvies with Milk Thistle at his Milk Bar in NYC.

Ronnybrook Butter. Photo by tiny banquet committee.

This is the weirdest thing.  Milk Thistle doesn’t make butter. Almost none of the small dairies make butter. Why? Economics. One pint of cream produces 1 cup of butter, or 1/2 pound.  Dairies can sell the pint of cream for the same price as a pound of butter. So why go through the laborious process of making the butter? I guess I could make my own butter from cream.

Homemade Butter Recipe: Beat cream beyond whip cream stage until it breaks down and curds floating in liquid buttermilk have turned golden color; strain curds into cheesecloth and squeeze out remaining liquid; then beat curds with cold water and squeeze again to remove last of the buttermilk.

I considered breaking the “rules” and buying butter from either Organic Valley, headquartered in LaFarge, Wisconsin, 1000 miles from Brooklyn, or Horizon Organic, the largest organic dairy in the U.S., based in Boulder, Colorado.

Both of these national brands are corporations that purchase and package milk from 500 or more farmers that adhere to the company’s organic production quality standards.  Horizon has recently come under fire for running factory farms following the legal letter of “organic” without really improving dairy farming practices or the environment.  For instance, Horizon claims that its herds have “access to pastures” but are sustained with “certified organic feed,” which means that its herds are neither guaranteed grass-fed nor free-range.

In the nick of time, I remembered about two local dairies that make organic butter: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, Websterville, VT (300 miles north) and Ronnybrook Dairy Farm, Ancramville, NY. Both dairies distribute their products widely to local specialty stores but not all locations carry butter.  So call ahead. I was able to get 4 pounds of Ronnybrook Butter at Cobblestone Foods, Brooklyn. Be prepared for sticker shock as local organic butter is almost four times the price of standard butter. Another more affordable local option is butter from Cabot Cheese Co-Op, available in most supermarkets. Cabot is not organic but it’s a good quality product made only 300 miles away.

I could not find any local olive oil or vegetable oil. I use Frankie’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil sourced by Frank Castronovo, founder of restaurants of the same name in Carroll Gardens and the Lower East Side. Frankies’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil is cold pressed from organically grown Sicilian olives in the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) of Nocellara del Belice. For other vegetable oils, like Canola, I use Spectrum organic.  Spectrum is located in Boulder, CO, part of the Hain-Celestial Group. Definitely not local.

Most holiday desserts call for refined sugar crystals. Refined sugar comes from either sugar cane, grown in Florida and other Gulf States, or sugar beets, grown mostly in Idaho. Since the first sugar refinery opened on Liberty Street in 1739, New York City became an early epicenter of a thriving sugar industry in the U.S.

Unfortunately for our locavore Thanksgiving, the era of refining sugar in New York pretty much ended with the closing of the last large-scale plants in Brooklyn, such as Revere Sugar in Red Hook and the recently-departed Domino Sugar in Williamsburg. The Pilgrims eating Thanksgiving probably did not have access to any refined sugar as it became a product of the New World colonies later in the 18th Century.  So I guess history has come full circle for the local availability of sugar.

Locally, honey can be substituted as a sweetener.  Honey performs differently in recipes (using about half the quantity which changes volumes) and does not caramelize like refined sugar. So we will probably use both.

I am planning to obtain honey from the The Hamptons Honey Company in Southampton when I pick up the turkeys from Mecox Bay Dairy in Bridgehampton. Established in 2002, The Hamptons Honey Company works directly with a network of local beekeepres to bottle raw honey from Long Island directly at its source without being filtered or pasteurized. In the City, Whole Foods, Garden of Eden and Dean & Deluca carry this brand.

Anne-Marie Borghese (See “Wine”) told me that the best honey she has ever had in her life was made by Mary Woltz of Bees’ Needs Honey Company.  Woltz has over a 100 hives in places like Marder’s, Quail Hill Farms and the Green Thumb Farm.  Woltz sells her honey at East End farmer’s markets and is a major force behind many local agricultural innovations on Long Island.  To find a local honey near you, Long Island Beekeepers Club maintains a “Local Honey Directory”.


NY Wheat Field

In the 18oos, New York produced loads of potatoes and wheat. Not so today. I thought that I was going to give up on local flour until Melissa Rebholz told me about Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, NY.

Since 2006, Wild Hive has produced stone ground flours exclusively from grains harvested from local and regional organic farmers. Don Lewis has operated a successful bakery & cafe since 1982.  He decided that he wanted to take his business a step further towards sustainability and produce his own flours with a gristmill custom-made by a local craftsman. Commercial milling uses steel grinders and filters that make flour white yet remove fiber and nutrients from grains.

Stone ground flours have superior flavors, texture and nutrition as less of the germ is removed. Lewis was honored by with an award from Slow Food in October 2008 in Italy for his commitment to artisanal production methods and his vertically integrated model of production. Surprisingly, Wild Hive seems to be the only exclusively organic operation of its type in New York State that I could find.

Union Square Market. Photo by Walking Off the Big Apple

Apple pie!  What could be more American? Luckily for locavores, New York State produces a lot of apples. New York apple growers rank 2nd nationally making about $185 million each year. All the more strange then that most grocery stores carry apples from California (Met Food), Massachusetts (Trader Joe’s) and even as far away as Chile and China!

My sister-in-law is a serious baker : seriously good.  Not surprisingly, she is the designated “Pie Master.” Dean & Deluca is her source for the best in baking, Macoun is her apple.

Dean & Deluca sources their Macoun apples from Terhune Orchards, Princeton, NJ.  I spoke with Terhune Farmer Richard Czech about organic labels and apples:

Organic is tough for apples when grown on a large scale as they are highly susceptible to pests and fungi. We use biodynamic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) process recommended by Cornell University. Also, we will soon be using the GAP system to publicly disclose which crop protectants were used, labeling produce ‘red, yellow or green,’ based on the health hazard represented by the spray or treatment.

IPM, promulgated each year by Cornell University, sets standards updated each year to respond to specific pests and diseases.  IPM standards are not as tough as organic certification but provide for light judicious spraying intended to protect consumer health.

GAP is an acronym for “Good Agricultural Practices.”   GAP can include “organic” farming standards or alternatives to organic. I was impressed with Czech’s attention to the details of the issue of consumer health.  Our discussion shows  just how complicated changing the local food system can be.

For those of you who want local and organic apples, including Macouns, you can purchase from Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, NY, available at Whole Foods, many supermarkets and NYC Greenmarkets.

Black Walnut on the Tree

Tough one to crack. I struck out with all my personal contacts, so I called Liz Perillo of NYC Greenmarkets who told me “Some folks have chesnuts but our growers don’t bring in tree nuts much.” Perillo recommended I contact Northern Nut Growers Association, Inc., established in 1910 to bring together people interested in growing nut trees and to publish articles, research papers, and monographs on nuts, nut tree growth, and nut tree culture. Wow! Representative of the NNGA, Thomas Molnar of Rutgers University responded to my query for almonds and hazelnuts as follows:

I do not think you will find any almonds grown within 100 miles of NY.  Nearly all of them are grown in California – they are not adapted to the northeast.  You might be able to buy walnuts (Persian/English and black walnuts) from Francis Woodward of Medina, NY – woodwards-walnut-world@live.com

I run a hazelnut breeding/research program at Rutgers and might have a pound or two of nuts to spare, if that would help.  They are not grown commercially yet in the northeast, but we are changing that.  We have a wild hazelnut in this region, but the nuts are smaller than that of the European species which most people are familiar.

Our native nuts are the eastern black walnut and hickory.  Hickory nuts are hard to come by commercially.  I bet these local nuts were included in early Thanksgiving feasts.

I contacted Francis Woodward and ordered five pounds of Black Walnuts, shelled by hand. My father-in-law and I planned the menu with a walnut recipe. Then, we remembered that some of our family members are allergic to walnuts! Despite our best efforts, we will use organic California hazelnuts falling under the “Marco Polo” exception.

Side Note: Black Walnuts are native to North American and do not taste like English or Persian Walnuts, which you might purchase in a grocery store. Black Walnuts have a sharp flavor — reminiscent of a pine nut — musty, bittersweet and oily, making for an excellent pesto. Black walnut meats are about two-thirds oil, containing antioxidant omega-3 fats. Roasting mellows the intensity of flavor but does not remove it. The small size of the meat and the difficulty of extracting it from the shell have made black walnuts less commercially viable and rarely available in stores.


Chardonnay Grapes at Castello di Borghese

Over the last twenty years, the North Fork of Long Island has come to be known as one of the premier wine-producing regions in the US, home to dozens of award-winning vineyards, abounding with wine tours and tastings.

Long Island’s first grape vines were planted by Hargrave Vineyards in Cutchogue, NY, which was subsequently acquired by Anne Marie and Marco Borghese. Castello di Borghese has maintained production of a unique red wine consisting entirely of Cabernet Franc, usually known as a blending grape in Bordeaux when mixed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vinified alone, Cabernet Franc is known as Chinon from Loire. Borghese’s Cabernet Franc has a smooth, slightly earthy finish with no jammy richness, making the wine a natural pair for the mild flavor of turkey. For years, I have been talking up the charms of Borghese Cabernet Franc to anyone who will listen. And here I am doing it again.

I spoke with Anne Marie Borghese, spouse of Marco, asking if Borghese produced a vinegar too. “We did,” she said, “and we have one bottle left of a limited edition vinegar, produced in partnership with nearby Satur Farms to dress their greens. I know it’s around because it’s in my pantry. I’d be glad to give it to you.” I thought it only fitting to invite her and her family to our Thanksgiving feast. Graciously, the Borgheses accepted. Now that’s getting to know your local farmer!

For white wine, I plan to select a White Label Chardonnay from nearby Lenz Wines. This wine is produced without oak which gives it a nice dryness, clean on the palate with a citrus fragrance. The Lenz Chardonnay aligns well with the turkey, tasting light on fruit and lacking the oaky-buttery finish that might overpower the food.

Now, I know that the Pilgrims would have brought cakes or cones of salt with them from England. However, after a while, I would guess they harvested sea salt. The producer of sea salt closest to Brooklyn is Maine Sea Salt. I ordered myself a pound of coarse grounds. Local salt! It’s interesting to think that we rely on this staple and have no idea where it comes from. Obviously, it’s pretty hard to adulterate salt.  So even if it comes from Nepal, usually, it’s only sin is the transportation costs.

The Elusive Cranberry arrives in my kitchen

The piece de resistance!  The cranberry, along with the blueberry and Concord grape, is one of North America’s three native fruits that are commercially grown.  According to the Cape Cranberry Growers’ Association:

“The name “cranberry” derives from the Pilgrim name for the fruit, “craneberry”, so called because the small, pink blossoms that appear in the spring resemble the head and bill of a Sandhill crane. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water. Instead, they grow on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds, commonly known as “bogs,” were originally made by glacial deposits.”

In addition to Massachusetts, the major growing areas for cranberries are New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, and in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Quebec. Very few cranberries are grown in NY.

To find a local grower, the Cape Growers’ instructed me to contact the Cranberry Institute. Who knew there was such a place? When I asked them for a local cranberry farmer, the representative, who declined to be identified, gave me the telephone number for Cliffstar Corporation located in Dunkirk, NY.

Cliffstar is not a farm, it is the largest independent grape, cranberry, and prune juice processor, and one of the largest private label beverage suppliers in the United States. Cliffstar buys cranberries from partipating farms all over the northeast. Melissa Slavin at Cliffstar shared the name of one of their farmers located in NJ who gave me the name of his neighbor who still had the fruit.

When I called Bill Poinsett of Poinsett Cranberry Farm in Browns Mills, NJ, an hour and half south of NYC, he educated me further about his trade:

The cranberries that you want for cranberry relish are “dry harvested.” Very few growers dry harvest because it is done by expensive machines or by hand. Most growers flood their fields so the berries float to the top to get a greater yield. Wet harvested berries can only be frozen or made into juice. I sell dry harvested berries locally out of my wife’s beauty salon, Edie’s. We put a sign in the window and an ad in the local paper. We sell 12-15 pounds of cranberries a day out of her shop.

Bill agreed to send me 2 quarts of his cranberries by mail. “Oh, they’ll keep for two weeks left outside this time of year.” And he was right. Poinsett’s cranberries were the biggest reddest berries I had ever seen.  How much? $2.00 per quart and $6.00 for shipping for a total of $10.00.

Right after I received my cranberries, I got a call from Chloe. “I’m at the Union Square Farmer’s Market and, guess what, they have local cranberries!” So, if you want to spare yourself my interesting but now pointless odyssey, you can head over to Union Square and get your local cranberries from Breezy Hill Farms.

Research for “A Locavore’s Thanksgiving,” has given me renewed sense of the bounty of our local farmers and the variety of producers that exist within 100 miles of NYC.

I am impressed with the breadth knowledge of the people who work at NYC Greenmarkets and their determination to find solutions with me.  I have a renewed respect for the local food commitment shown by Whole Foods and other establishments less known as locavore-friendly, like Garden of Eden and Dean & Deluca. Could these grocery stores and specialty markets buy even more locally? Certainly. I was inspired by people and by resources about food from Northern Nut Growers Association to Cornell University Extension and everything in between.

Even with all these amazing discoveries, there remain many challenges and opportunities for positive change.  Local food is still too expensive in terms of product costs, information costs and transportation costs, effectively putting a totally local diet out of reach for most consumers.

Product Costs
Local products usually cost two times as much as comparable standard ingredients in the supermarket. Local plus organic drives the price even higher. Most Greenmarkets take food stamps and EBT cards. However, the consumers in between rich and poor will find it hard to justify spending up to four times as much for local, organic products.

Information Costs
I loved the hunt, spending hours chatting with farmers, browsing markets, and grilling friends to find the missing pieces for the Thanksgiving feast. Who has time to spend on in-depth food research during the work week? A central, reliable clearinghouse for information about local food options, like LocalDirt, would make research more intuitive and quicker. Right now, there are too many different sources — all relaying small slices of the local food information pie.

Transportation Cost
In order to obtain all of the staples and seasonal foods, I had to travel to many different locations or pay shipping. I am not certain, but I think that if I belonged to Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC), the locavore Thanksgiving could have been close to one-stop-shopping. PFSC staff has spent many years researching local farmers and producers.

Recently, I tried to join PFSC. It’s nothing personal but PFSC has effectively closed its membership, struggling to accommodate its staggering 15,000 members. Few other markets or co-ops have achieved the depth and breadth of products available at PSFC. Admirably, PSFC is engaged in an effort to advise others about starting copycat co-ops. Maybe “Co-Ops For All” would solve all of the challenges with product costs and information costs.

Happy Locavore Thanksgiving!

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Kombucha Culture Brews in Brooklyn

Posted: November 19th, 2009 | Author:

“We live in New York. Why are we drinking kombucha that comes from the West Coast?” asks Eric Childs, founder of Kombucha Brooklyn.

Fair question.  The answer?  Brew your own.

“Kombucha” is a beverage made by incubating the Kombucha “mushroom” or “scoby” in sweetened tea.  A real mushroom is technically a fungus. Kombucha, however, is actually composed of various yeasts and bacteria held together by a thin gelatinous membrane produced by the host micro-organisms (see picture above). Kombucha has become increasingly popular as a health drink.  Some devotees claim that Kombucha fosters hair growth and prevents cancer. Most drinkers of Kombucha refer to its probiotic cleansing properties.

Recently, Kombucha has evolved from entirely hippie home brew to big business beverage. In a recent roundtable sponsored by Beverage Industry magazine, marketing pro Margaret Draganchuk (of Bushwick-based Virginia Dare) underscored the potential growth of the Kombucha sales marketplace “Some of the top growing trends include an increased focus for improved nutrition . . . . with new interest in . . . Kombucha teas.” And Kombucha was featured on “Gossip Girl” — the litmus of commercial cultural relevance.

The large commercial producers of bottled Kombucha are all located on the West Coast: Wonder Drink Co. from Portland, Oregon, EX Drinks US LLC  from Anaheim, California, Millinieum Products GT’s Kombucha (Synergy) and Carpe Diem USA Inc. from Santa Monica, California, the last company being the brain-child of Red Bull founder, Dietrich Mateschitz.

Bottled beverages provide liquid gold profits for the companies that produce them but are not so good for the environment. Beverages cost little to manufacture using relatively inexpensive ingredients and consisting mostly of water.  Hence, the significant costs for drink makers are marketing, transportation and distribution. Transportation costs are considerable because water is also one of the heaviest foods to ship based on a weight by volume basis. There’s no reason why kombucha, or anything else that’s a normal part of our diet, should come from 3,000 miles away.

Eric Childs is the founder and operator of Kombucha Brooklyn, a small batch bottling operation. He ferments approximately 600 gallons of kombucha per month.  Brewed in Brooklyn, for Brooklyn, Kombucha Brooklyn is only sold in Brooklyn stores and will soon be on tap at select Brooklyn bars. Childs is even toying with idea that future brews would mix in Brooklyn water, rather than bottled. Get the idea? It’s all local.

That’s a good thing for Brooklyn.  Locally-produced or homemade Kombucha could form part of de-centralized food production. Local food preparation and production is equal in importance to growing local food for a number of solid reasons:  (1) Economics: Why pay for something at a store that you easily can make at home for less?  (2) Environment: Why truck something heavy across the country using fuel and spewing emissions when you can walk or bike to buy something that was made down the street? (3) Cultural Knowledge (Means of Production): Why outsource food preparation and production skills to the food industrial complex when we can foster and build that same knowledge and expertise for ourselves and for our communities?

Other Brooklynites are joinin the locally-made Kombucha culture.  Ortine, a restaurant in Prospect Heights, offers home-brewed Kombucha on the drinks menu.  Kombucha Brooklyn is sold at least 8 local businesses so far, and will soon be on tap at a Greenpoint bar. Know of other Brooklyn businesses brewing their own? Let us know!

Kombucha Brooklyn Home Brewing Kit

Bucking the big bucks beverage trends, Kombucha Brooklyn does not ship their bottled beverages to private buyers. Instead, Childs encourages you to make your own.  Kombucha Brooklyn will supply you with a kit (see picture at left) with all materials and information needed to DIY. In that spirit of promoting local beverage self-reliance, Childs is spreading his love for the “buch” by teaching at Brooklyn Kitchen. I took Child’s Kombucha class last Wednesday and learned about the history, benefits, and preparation of kombucha.

Kombucha is the ultimate heirloom. The cultures cannot be created synthetically in a lab. Each living “scoby” (an acronym for “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) is descended from an original culture. The kombucha we’re drinking now is directly related to the kombucha given to ancient samurai for strength or enjoyed by Tibetan monks.

How to brew your own? I’ll leave the teaching to the experts (see sources below).  However, here are the general lessons that I learned about Kombucha-making:

IT’S EASY. Dismayed by handling slippery live cultures? Concerned about mold? Kombucha can easily be brewed at home, using only the precautions common to most cooking: keep your hands and surfaces clean, and if anything looks moldy, don’t eat it.

IT’S QUICK. The first fermentation cycle takes only 7 – 14 days; a secondary cycle, to get the kombucha bubbly, takes 3 – 5. How do you know when it’s ready? Taste it!

IT’S CHEAP.  The raw materials are a “scoby” culture, water, tea and sugar.

IT’S FLEXIBLE. Don’t want to start your brew right away? Going out of town for the weekend? Place brewing jars in the fridge. The cold slows down the fermentation process. When you get back, remove jars from the fridge and your culture should pick up where it left off. All the scoby needs to survive is tea and sugar.

IT’S SAFE.  Fear not.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not found pathogenic organisms or health violations in the commercial production of the Kambocha.  Home brewers should use caution selecting the container in which you steep Kombucha. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that Kombucha tea not be prepared or stored in containers made from such materials as ceramic or lead crystal, both of which contain toxic elements that can leach into the highly acidic tea.  Kombucha’s yeast does produce trace amounts of alchohol, so anyone who is allergic to yeast or alcohol should be forewarned.

At the end of the class, I was given a lovely “just add water” home brewing kit: a quart size mason jar, two teabags, a quarter cup of organic sugar, some “Kombucha Brooklyn” stickers, and my very own scoby (sometimes called a “mother”) in a test tube. I’m a few days into my first fermentation cycle. So far, I can report that it’s as easy as making tea, as promised by Childs.  I’m excited for the results. Stay tuned!

If your interest in brewing Kombucha has been piqued by this post, the next Kombucha Class at Brooklyn Kitchen will be held on December 8, 2009.  If you can’t make the class, check out Childs’ “How To” video posted on his Brooklyn Kombucha website or other DIY sites like Happy Herbalist. You can order a Kombucha “kit” (pictured above) from Childs or obtain a Kombucha “mother” from several online sources. Another informative Kombucha website (with a scary talking avatar) is Kombucha America.  You can also check out a very good Wikipedia entry on “Kombucha” and the Kombucha Journal, produced in Germany but translated into English.  Happy buch-day!

Filed under: Test Kitchen, Urban Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Food for Thought and Thoughts for Food

Posted: November 16th, 2009 | Author:

Recently, my pal, Chloe, urged me to include more posts about preparing and producing food, saying:

It would be nice to have follow-up on cooking local food.  

What do we do with all the food that we grow or buy locally?

How can we make things from scratch that we would otherwise purchase?  

What are the advantages healthwise and climatewise?

I couldn’t agree with her more.  

I am a pretty avid home cook and seeker of good eats.  That’s a big part of what motivates me to write about urban agriculture: having enjoyed, literally, its fruits (and vegetables and meats).

The way we eat is of equal importance to what we eat.  

Our cultural attitudes towards cooking and eating sets priorities for growers and for governments alike. The dialogue on urban agriculture would be woefully incomplete unless we set a goal to include the perspective of the home cook, the professional chef and the food processing companies, no matter how small. McClure’s pickles anyone? Marlow & Sons? How to use up 10 lbs of CSA apples in one week to liberate space in your fridge?

The exploration of how we eat — the cuisines, the methods, the flavors, the recipes – is essential to understand the pitfalls of the food system status quo and the vast potential for change.  In a sense, eating and its many pleasures drives the specifics of the conversation about urban agriculture. 

Suddenly, I am struck by the idea of establishing a “test kitchen”.  In a sense, thegreenest.net has been envisioned as a test kitchen for all sorts of ideas about urban agriculture.  So the metaphor is good fit.

So look for an upcoming post about my effort to source as many local ingredients as possible for a Thanksgiving meal. And Chloe –not satisfied with critique without action– has generously offered to add her voice with a post about local kombucha-making (and hopefully more to come thereafter).  I am excited to embark on these topics and share some good eats.

Filed under: Test Kitchen, Urban Agriculture | 1 Comment »

2009 Fall Leaf Collection Crisis: NYCLeaves to the Rescue!

Posted: November 14th, 2009 | Author:
Fall leaves set out as regular garbage curbside in NYC

Fall leaves set out as regular garbage curbside in NYC


You may be surprised — as I was– that NYC is neither collecting nor composting leaves this Autumn.

According to NYCWasteLe$$, the curbside Fall Leaf Collection program has been suspended until further notice due to budget cuts.  To make matters worse, the Compost Givebacks Program has been suspended as well, lacking leaves as raw material to make more compost.  

That’s a shame.  From 2000 to 2008, NYC Department of Sanitation composted an average 20,000 tons of leaves each year. Leaves were collected each autumn during a four-week period beginning in mid November. Formerly, the Compost Giveback program provided residents free, high-quality compost from the Fresh Kills and Soundview sites.

In 2009, however, Fall leaves will be collected with regular household refuse on regularly scheduled refuse collection days. Paper lawn and leaf bags are no longer required because leaves will be collected as regular trash. 

Why is this a problem?  According the NYCWasteLe$$:

Though New York is one of the world’s densest and most populated areas, nearly two thirds of the city consists of low-rise housing with tree-lined streets, front gardens, and backyards—all of which produce leaves and yard waste.

If it’s not composted, it’s landfill.

Personally, I was thoroughly bummed at the sight of hundreds of bags of leaves placed by the curb in my neighborhood, including my own nine –gulp!– trash bags full of leaves. I do not have the capacity to compost this quantity of waste myself. Unable to bear the thought of adding leaves to landfill, I removed my bags of leaves from the curb, determined find somewhere to compost them.


When faced with an urban gardening question, I did what I usually do: I called the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Unfortunately, the Botanic Gardens can compost only the leaves from its own trees. However, I learned about an coordinated effort by community gardens around the city to compost leaves and other yard waste called: NYC Leaves: Project Leaf Drop.  

NYC Leaves ”is a volunteer-run, neighborhood-based coalition of gardeners and greening partners who are harvesting residential leaves for compost this Fall.” Through the excellent and helpful NYCLeaves site, I found out that the nearby Wyckoff-Bond Community Garden was accepting leaves on Saturday November 14, 2009. Eureka!

I marked my calendar, raked some more leaves in the days between and was (almost) euphoric today when I dropped the leaves off today. Upon my arrival, garden volunteers weighed the leaves to document the yield and the need for the City to fund the leaf collection program again. It wasn’t that much more effort than the actual yard clean-up.

Victory! Volunteers David and Peter taking my leaves for compost at Wyckoff-Bond Garden


Here is what you can do to solve your own leaf guilt:

(1) RAKE your leaves.  Bag them.  Store them.

(2) FIND a community garden near you that is composting leaves.  Here is a special list of participating gardens in Brooklyn, BKDECAY. 

(3) SAVE THE DATE – The next scheduled leaf drop-off dates are Saturday and Sunday, November 21 and 22, 2009 from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm.  

(4) DROP leaves at a nearby garden.  Pumpkins too.  See below.


My mums and pumpkins on the compost pile at Wyckoff-Bond Garden!

What about pumpkins and mums and other fall decoration? I took these items along in a separate bag, hoping I could compost them. Luckily, the Wyckoff-Bond Garden accepts such items but not all community gardens will.


Here are some other actions that NYCLeaves reccommends doing to solve The 2009 Leaf Problem: 

(1) Sign the Petition to bring back city-wide leaf collection and composting! 

(2) Enlist a Community Garden – Ask your local community garden if it would like to participate in NYCLeaves and you may be able to drop off leaves earlier than a scheduled collection date.  Most community gardens already have composting bins. Note: Do not to leave bags outside the gate of the garden (or risk a hefty fine).

(3) Volunteer with your local garden on drop-off days.  At least three volunteers are needed at each participating garden, so take this opportunity to help the greening of your community. Great way to meet your neighbors, too.

(4) Spread the word at your local library, school, church, arts collective CSAor BID. For flyer ideas, check out NYCLeaves Tools and Printable Flyers to post around your block.

Although a few bags of leaves each Fall may seem like a small amount of additional waste in a year of creating tons of residential garbage, composting leaves is an important way to recapture the valuable energy and nutrients created by local plants. I also believe that widespread composting represents an important behavioral change that can help bring about a mental shift, conceiving of urban space’s potential for making food from plants in the City.

Filed under: Composting, Urban Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

“Nanofarming” with Artist Bryony Romer

Posted: November 11th, 2009 | Author:

Do you dream of growing lettuce on a lampost?  Radish on powerlines?  Bryony Romer does.

Recently, I visited with artist Bryony Romer to talk with her about her installation “Nanofarming” at the J.J. Byrne Park at 5th Avenue and Third Street, right in front of the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY which was part of “Brooklyn Utopias?” curated by Katherine Gressel during September and October 2009.

She took me on a walking tour of her idea for farming forgotten spaces to produce food.

I asked her why Nanofarming was an art project rather than a science experiment.  ”Nanofarming is both an art and a science.  What artists bring to the dialogue is a visualization of the impossible.  That’s not what most scientists do.  Maybe physicists.” 

Why lamposts?  

Growing food in New York City is a challenge because of all the shade from buildings. Plants need lots of light to thrive.  That’s why I thought of planters on lamposts because they are sited to provide light. I wanted the installation to remind people that there are all sorts of places to grow food that are only limited by a lack of imagination.

For her project, Romer used humble, everyday materials to communicate her message that farming is possible anywhere by anyone.  Romer raised the lettuce, radish, mustard greens and pole beans from seed at home. She then planted  the seedlings in salvaged, repurposed soda bottles cut off at the top and filled with planting media.  

“The only drawback was that I had to water alot.  Next time, I would install a reservoir to draw moisture from underneath. Nanofarming II!  Watering was good for community engagement because I had to get up on a ladder. Everyone who walked through the park wanted to know what on earth I was doing.”

The results are stunning.  As you can see, the plants are thriving and getting lots of sun.  The radishes were pushing out of the tops of the containers.    

On November 3, 2009, Romer de-installed the farm and harvested the food.  I will keep you posted if she has another iteration of this radical style of urban farming in the future.  Until then, I reproduce below Romer’s Nanofarming Manifesto in its entirety.  I hope that you are inspired to grow sweet peas on your window screens and tomatos on traffic lights.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | Tags: , Brooklyn Utopias?, , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Apples and Anti-Pasta: Food Politics at Performa09

Posted: November 7th, 2009 | Author:

Performa09 HQ at 41 Cooper Square

Performa09, the biennal performance art festival in NYC, serves up some provocative ideas about food.  Two events, “Creation” and “Pasta Sauna” touch upon themes that track some major issues in food policy. Art may not provide us with new models for urban farming, but these two performances illuminate delicate, complex layers of meaning that would not be easily expressed in polemic or prose.

Photo by Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.


For the Opening Night Benefit Dinner on October 30, Jennifer Rubell (Yes, Steve’s offspring) planned an “interactive food journey” called “Creation,” consisting of a series of comestible installations on all floors of the venue X initiative (formerly Dia Center). A center piece of the show involved three mature apple trees, cut down and lying on a gallery floor with the fruit still attached.

The piece dramatically juxtaposes different consequences of being cut off from the source of sustenance, highlighting human separation from a state of nature idealized as the Garden of Eden. The uprooted trees have been removed from the nourishment and the stability provided by the Earth. The trees will now wither and die, even as the audience may enjoy a bite of its last fruit. The experience amplifies the consumer’s everyday experience of apples obtained from the produce aisle of the supermarket.  

In both gallery and supermarket, the apple has no connection to the land that produced the plant.  Consumers are conditioned to accept the supermarket apple. By contrast, the apple tree laying on the gallery floor harks back to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree which is similarly a bit shocking and morose. Viscerally, the viewer sees the felling of live trees for art’s sake as wasteful — the image of tree trunks resting on a gallery floor seems unnatural. Yet we do not hesitate when presented with a plastic bag full of Red Delicious, available at all times, regardless of the season.

Interestingly, even the viewer’s dismay at the presence of the felled trees is itself an unnatural response, reflecting urbanites sentimental view of the nature of agriculture. Farmer Tom Wickham who provided the apple trees told the New Yorker: “A grower has to be brutal and clear about removing old trees. There’s a cycle.” In other words, fruit trees have a life cycle that urbanites may not fully appreciate.

Rubell’s severed apple trees underscore the consumer’s physical alienation from modern means of agricultural production and the apple itself tracks the history of consumer alienation from bodily health and taste. In a recent NY Times editorial “Apples, Apples, Apples,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote:

Modern agriculture, as well as our carefully created preference for processed over fresh food, has pushed us . . . toward uniformity. Apple production has been outsourced, driven to China like so much else. And even in formerly great apple-growing states, including New York, the number of different [varieties of ] apples has greatly diminished. . . . 11 varieties make up 90 percent of all apples sold in this country.

In 1905, by contrast, there were more than 6.500 distinct types of apples. “19th Century apple diversity reflected  . . . a taste for difference.” Today, consumers are faced with a “choice” of apples selected for profitability by mega agrobusiness whose dreary monoculture saps the vibrant diversity from our palates and from our planet.


Another work presented at Performa09 grappling with the meaning of “food” in the mechanized age is “Pasta Sauna” by “Proef” Eating Design, brainchild of Marilje Vogelzang of the Netherlands.  (“Proef” means “test” or “taste” in Dutch).  

Pasta Sauna is a ritual performance enacted daily during lunch time at 41 Cooper Square in the lobby of the Performa09 headquarters. As I entered the large exhibition space, I encountered a small frame of a house built of crude dimensional lumber and covered with translucent polyurethane plastic sheeting. To one side of the “house” was a long table covered with small glass bowls each filled with a small ball of yellow dough — pasta — and topped with another glass bowl of the same size.  

To the rear of the “house,” a small group of people in white kevlar jumpsuits huddled.  The backs of their coveralls were painted with slogans like “Abolish Pasta” in thick sloppy brush strokes. (I couldn’t help but think that they looked a little like Oompa-Loompas). I will call this group “Anti-Pastas,” for reasons that will become clear later in this post.  

At the side of the Anti-Pasta crew and adjacent to the “house” was another long table with condiments, herbs, olive oil and cutting boards. Inside the make-shift “house” were three A-frame wooden ladders. Within the frame of each of the three ladders were small tables bearing pots of boiling water on hot plates, providing the steam for the “sauna”.   A mechanical pasta machine was lodged on the topmost step of each ladder.

At noon, one of the Anti-Pastas mounted a painted plywood box and began to recite the following words from a long paper scroll:

no more spaghetti for the italians!  no more knives and forks!

abolish pasta! it is an absurd italian gastronomic religion.  it is completely hostile to the vivacioun spirit and passionate, generous soul of the neapolitans.

pasta, 40% less nutritious than meat, fish or pulses, ties todays italians with tangled threads to penelope’s slow looms and to somnolent old sailing ships in search of the wind.

pastasciutta, however agreeable to the palate, is a passeist food because it makes people heavy, brutish, deludes them into thinking it is nutritious, makes them skeptical, slow, pessimistic. . . .

These words are borrowed from the Manifesto of Futurist Cookery (1930) by Fillippo Tomasso Marinelli, father of Futurism. Futurism has inspired many of the works in Performa09.  The original Futurist Manifesto (1909) launched an artistic movement throughout Europe that sought to align itself with everything new and modern, eschewing the old and traditional. Futurists glorified science, progress, technology and speed.  Futurists’ work aimed to be provocative, tossing out the status quo and old certainties. To support his screed against pasta, Marinetti mustered the opinions of doctors, professors, hygienists, and impostors. Marinetti claimed that pasta caused lethargy, pessimism, nostalgia, and neutralism.  In short, pasta represented everything opposed by Futurists.  

F.T. Marinetti eating pasta!

At the time of its release, surprisingly, Marinetti’s anti-pasta campaign was taken seriously and debated widely. The Manifesto of Futurist Cookery bears a striking resemblence to more serious extremist political tracts that aim to change the unhealthy aspects of the general public. Frighteningly, Futurism shows the fun-house face of radical impulses that later turn into the nightmare of Fascism. The tone and invective of Marinetti’s writings can map onto present-day critiques of popular eating habits, like Michael Pollan’s best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma. Both authors share a desire to re-shape the readers’ attitude towards cultural norms of eating.

Oddly, Marinetti’s manifesto — extreme as it sounds today — seems to have accurately predicted the actual future of the food industrial complex. For instance, beyond his attack on pasta, Marinetti believed that modern science would allow us to replace food with free, state-sponsored pills consisting of albumins, synthetic fats, and vitamins that would lower prices for the consumer and lessen labor of the worker. Marinetti’s vision sounds strikingly like the processed food industry today with its low-cost state-subsidized high fructose corn syrups, transfats, and fortifications of chemical additives for vitamins and minerals. Similarly, Marinetti wished for totally mechanized production that would permit humans to be at leisure and pursue nobler activities. Indeed, modern food processing has certainly freed up more time formerly spent at home cooking, yet our surplus hours seem to be spent in front of one screen or another in the very state of lethargy that would have appalled Marinetti.

Proef’s visualization of the Manifesto on Futurist Cookery captures some of Marinetti’s punchy pasta prescriptions but ellided some of the more sinister undertones. The coveralls and public reading of the argument against pasta preserves the clownish polemical tropes of Futurist writing. We were instructed by the Anti-Pastas to find a partner, take a glass bowl of pasta and enter the “sauna.” Upon entering the plastic-sheeted “sauna,” visitors begin overheating from the steam billowing from the pasta pots. On the chilly Fall day that I attended, all participants wore heavy coats.  It got uncomfortable fast. 

We handed our glass bowl to an Anti-Pasta perched at the top of a ladder who fed the pasta through the machine.  The pasta machines were modified with a hidden music box. The Anti-Pasta fed a long roll of paper with holes into the machine alongside with the fresh pasta. As the Anti-Pasta turned the machine’s handle, it played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”  Slowly, the pasta emerged thinner and thinner from the machine in a long, dangling sheet. Another Anti-Pasta beneath the ladder was waiting to receive the pressed pasta and drop it into the pot of boiling water. After 2 to 3 minutes of simmering, the pasta was cut into two pieces and each half was placed in one of the two glass bowls.

Upon exiting the sauna <<relief>> we were instructed to season the pasta as desired. Attendees took to the work enthusiastically, dashing a bit of olive oil, grating some Parmeggiano Regiano and even cutting up some of the fresh herbs. I spoke to Katleen van Lengendonc from Belgium about her pasta. “It tastes very good,” she said, “And it’s a nice to tell the world about Marinetti’s ideas.” I asked her if she felt sleepy, apathetic and backward-looking. She laughed. Pasta has so thoroughly conquered the tastes of every culture in the world that it’s hard to take Marinetti seriously today.  

Overall, I think “Pasta Sauna” was a clever kinesthetic way to encourage exploration of Marinetti’s thinking. “Pasta Sauna” brought the vital and absurd qualities of Futurism to life. Proef’s objective may have been to induce laziness and lethargy, but I was motivated to understand what Marinetti said about pasta and why he said it. In the end, I was left wishing that Proef had mixed more of Marinetti’s troubling textures into their anti-pasta.


Both performance pieces challenge their audiences to explore the cultural, political and economic distortions of our experience of food and our need to eat. The powerful visual metaphors offered by Rubell in “Creation” and the laughable but all-too-believable recitation and ritual presented by Vogelzang in “Pasta Sauna” remind the participant that food and eating are freighted with broader implications beyond our personal appetites.

Filed under: Urban Agriculture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Shel Silverstein, , , Verlyn Klinkenborg | No Comments »
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