Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Locavores' Dilemma: A discussion about what to eat.

Thanks to my avid reading and tweeting on Twitter I found out about the event at the New York Public Library (NYPLI attended Thursday October 21, 2010 from @SlowFoodUSA.

The Locavores' Dilemma brought in former Cullman Center Fellow Melanie Rehak, author of Eating for Beginners, Chef David Shea of applewood Restaurant in Park Slope, and Steve Jenkins of Fairway Market; the discussion was moderated by another former Cullman Center Fellow Patrick Radden Keefe journalist and author of The Snakehead.  Odds are unless you're a New Yorker you might not have heard of any of these people (yet). I recognized Fairway, of  course, and had seen Melanie Rehak's book cover but did not really know much about any of the participants or what they do. Jean Strouse, director of the Cullman Center, gave thorough introductions for each participant (a recipe of hers is included in Eating for Beginners, which Patrick Keefe drew attention to due to her memorable instruction to "add a stick of butter" to a dish of brussel sprouts- and Strouse added joyfully "and bacon!").

So how do these people fit together to make for a discussion about locavory? Rehak lives in Park Slope just blocks away from applewood restaurant (small "a" intended). She is a locavore and spent time working in the applewood kitchen to write her book; she also follows the food the restaurant uses back to  its sources; spending time making cheese, picking greens, and even out on the ocean to catch the restaurant's seafood. Chef David Shea is a consistent voice and presence in Rehak's memoir. During her time working at applewood he encourages her to believe in herself and in her abilities in the kitchen. Steve Jenkins is a mainstay in the New York grocery scene and brought insight to the more commercial side of local sourcing and eating.

I was ready to write all about the discussion the moment I got home from the event but I also bought Rehak's book and decided I would read it first and then write about the event and the book in one post. Leaving the event I was enlivened and inspired. The discussion started with Jean Strouse's introduction and then Patrick Keefe took over as moderator. Patrick and Melanie were fellows at the same time at the Cullman Center, sharing food experiences together during their fellowship. One anecdote Keefe shared was about he and Rehak going to a Soup Nazi type take out place for lunch which had overnight changed to serving cream puffs. As he put it, the response to their request for soup was "No soup. Only cream puffs." This subsequently turned into their mantra and they decided to go on the "Cream Puff Diet," eating only cream puffs. This decision turned out to be what Keefe called a "terrible mistake." A humorous story to get the discussion warmed up. 

Rehak explained how she got the idea to write her book due to the birth of her son, Jules, who behaved the opposite of most children at his young age in that he stopped eating anything and started to be very picky. She also goes to applewood frequently and was a main factor in her decision to write Eating for Beginner's. Rehak is very gracious to David Shea and his wife Laura for welcoming her into their kitchen to work, without kitchen or culinary experience, for the sake of her book. Shea was asked at the discussion why he let her? His response: "Free help!" It was obvious from the discussion and from Rehak's book that Chef David Shea is always willing to teach and help people learn about food and technique. He encourages Rehak to have confidence in the kitchen and instead of doubting her abilities, he tells her how to do something and lets her go do it rather than shadowing her as she attempts, for example to obliquely cut parsnips on page 73 in the chapter School for Chefs. She realizes "I didn't have to do everything exactly the way David would have done it; I did have to do my best." 

Rehak does a great job of following the food she prepares at applewood back to its source. The way we think about food and local was one of the main topics covered at the discussion. Rehak remembers there being lettuce on a winter menu at applewood and Chef Shea remarked how die-hard restaurant guests question how 'local' this lettuce can be. This is one of the main issues that comes up when locavory is examined: how local is local enough? Is it a matter of miles? Steve Jenkins associates local coupled with the idea of convenience as well, especially when it comes to lettuce. Jenkins spoke more passionately about salad in this short discussion than I have ever heard anyone (think Alice Waters degree of love for salad with a greater focus on the olive oil than the micro greens). He feels guilty over the fact that he does not use his salad spinner anymore and prefers to use pre-packed salad mix (like from Satur Farms on Long Island) rather than getting a farm fresh, still dirty head of lettuce and investing the time  to clean and spin out the greens for salad. Jenkins says that "local is what your parents grew." 

Being a frequenter of the New York City Greenmarkets and being one of the lettuce washers (without a spinner) it is extra time that needs to be put into buying as local as possible, but many farmer's offer pre-mixed and I believe pre-washed salad lettuces to be bought by the pound (which is more expensive usually than buying a whole head of romaine for $2.00 that is almost as big as a beach ball). In a way locavory boils down to being similar to the way I think about religion: you have to do what works for you, and trying at all counts. Meaning, if you love love love lemons and need to have lemons everyday but you live in Vermont, where there are no local lemons because of the climate, then you allow yourself that lemon and try to keep other favorites local and try to make new favorites out of other local products. 

Balance was a buzz word doing the whole discussion and is definitely a theme throughout Rehak's memoir. She meets farmer's who allow their children to have McDonald's sometimes, another farmer who must have his Florida OJ every morning without qualms about it not being local. We are still living in a conventional food world and while in a lot of ways the commercialization of food is bad for the health of this country, it has also brought whole new foods into the spectrum of what is edible and available. You can eat your locally produced whole wheat bread AND have your French preserves, too. There is no reason to feel guilty for including some commercially produced products into your diet especially if part of the time you aim to make all your produce local. It is all about balance and finding what works for you.

Discussion attendees must have taken away the idea that each of these foodies was offering up: don't deprive yourself. It is not about either local or nothing at all. Anyone who has done one of the extreme diets where you eliminate a whole food group (carbs, protein) especially one you are used to having on a daily basis leads to binging and that is never healthy. Same goes for trying to eat local. If you are really craving raspberries in January you can have them but they will not be as delicious as they would be in July. If you know you will be craving summer berries in winter its best to stock up at the farmer's market in summer and freeze them for the frosty months. 

Being able to enjoy all the great food this nation has to offer is what is so great about being a gourmand. No need to have an identity crisis if you are a firm believer in slow, local food but love a product that comes from across the country. This reminded me of a conversation between Chef Tom Colicchio and Alice Waters that David Kamp writes about in The United States of Arugula. Waters is telling Colicchio about some pig she loves that comes from Oregon and Colicchio stops her and asks how it can be local if she is in California? Waters just says he's right, with guilt. Colicchio's response to this conversation was "Why?! You're supporting this farmer who's doing this wonderful thing up in Oregon! Why do you have to not support this person anymore?" We must remember balance and support local, sustainably raised food and not get too caught up in not enjoying something because it comes from too far away-- as long as most of what we eat comes from nearby.

So when you are faced with your own locavore's dilemma, choose the local when it is possible! Take the time to wash your own salad once in a while. Ask where the products in your grocery store come from. The more you ask, they more the store will supply based on demand.

To finish the discussion the audience was able to ask some questions. The best question was greatly insightful and I think it is advice we can all take to heart and think about every time we make food choices:
If you could tell 'us' (a room of New Yorkers) one thing about food what would it be? 

Melanie Rehak: "Stop complaining about what things cost at the farmer's market." 
She is so right! I, too, overhear people haggling and fighting about price at the Farmer's Market-- it is ridiculous! You're getting some of the BEST food on the planet (especially at the NYC Greenmarket's producer-only markets!) and you're arguing about a $2 head of lettuce? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Pay up-- give them extra! Buy on rainy days! LOVE YOUR FARMER'S MARKETS! 

Chef David Shea: "Eat grass-fed beef. Think about it."
Grass fed beef was brought up multiple times during the evening by Chef Shea. He is right. It is disgusting to think about conventionally raised animals but especially when it comes to beef. This one often comes down to cost for people's excuse why they don't buy it. But if you only bought beef when you could afford grass fed, you wouldn't be spending money to buy animals who lived ill and drugged up for most of their lives and instead would end up eating more vegetables and whole grains which are better to have more of than more meat. You would be healthier all around.

Patrick Keefe: "New York City has great tap water!" Drink it!
He is spot on! Keefe moved to DC recently and realized how good he had it having New York City water right off the tap when he lived here. I am a regular drinker of Manhattan water AND it eliminates thinking you must drink bottled water (which is a ridiculous cause of pollution). Even the American Museum of Natural History recommends it! Next time you are in the museum, read the sign above the water fountain. Dust off your aluminum water bottle you bought when the Nalgene BPA crisis hit and fill 'em up! Keep one in the fridge for when you want some cool water to go. If your water is delicious-- no matter where you live-- drink up!! Albany, my hometown, has the BEST water ever! I'm a lucky girl!

Steve Jenkins: "Appreciate your Olive Oil!"
Okay, this man LOVES Olive Oil like no one I have ever seen! He wants people to get to know  the smells, tastes, where it comes from, learn about the regions where it was grown, not the country. Use your vinegars, salads, eat less beef, more olive oil. Fairway is certainly a good start to learning to love your olive oil but plenty of food stores and cooking stores have a variety of olive oils and allow you to taste them. In New York City you can also check out The Filling Station in Chelsea market for a great variety of flavored olive oils. Check your local stores and ask around if your grocery doesn't allow you to taste test.

Great tips! It was a really great evening and made me nostalgic for sitting around in Ecocriticism class talking about Michael Pollan during college. 
You can WATCH the whole discussion on the NYPL website here:
The Locavores' Dilemma

Reading Rehak is fun, humorous, educational, and above all honest. She is a new mother and she doesn't gloss over the difficulties that come with that title. Spending time with her and David Shea in the applewood kitchen is a total delight and a fresh breath of air in all the world of food books about restaurant cooking; No yelling, no anger, and as far as I remember no expletives. Her trips to farm, field, and open sea made me jealous (until the seasickness kicked in, at least) and provide a modern gourmand escapism. If you love food and are feeling like you don't know what to eat anymore with all the politics mixed onto your plate, I would read Eating for Beginners and find a new lightness in the way you think about your next meal. 
Finally, Eating for Beginners falls into the genre of my favorite type of book-- one with recipes! I made my own version of those buttery brussel sprouts back a few weeks ago, but I plan to try more of the recipes she includes in her book. Her nostalgic candied orange peel sounds like a good thing to have on hand.

Eat and read up! 

Melaine Rehak: @melanierehak
Fairway Market: @FairwayMarket 
applewood/ Chef David Shea: @applewood_bklyn


Anonymous said...

I'm still not sold on the tap water tasting good (I'm just too loyal to ALB water) BUT I do agree the food at the Farmers Market's is FANTASTIC, and above haggling.

Chef Mike said...

I shop frequently at the farmers market and feel that I constantly reap the benefits. When the ingredients are that good they essentially cook themselves! Well worth the price.

Melanie Rehak said...

Thanks for this AMAZING post! It was a treat to meet you at the NYPL and now to be connected through Twitter. I'm so glad the book, and the panel, spoke to you so powerfully.--Melanie