Eating Through It

I’ve been thinking about working on a new board game (it’s an old-timey way of playing with your friends) called “My Unique Diagnosis for your Unique Ailment” (UDUA)1. This is inspired by the incessant reminders, courtesy of the opportunistic and pompously titled professionals, that we are sick. Sick & Special: yes, my entitled little millennials. Not to worry, though, as throughout the first world we have the technology to cure your chronic illness for the rest of your life. For a price, of course. And, perhaps, at the risk of some side effects, for which there is also a cure.

We are already in a galaxy far, far away. Where the distinction between physical and backlit screen realities has blurred and it’s imperative that I/we stay busy (read:distracted) or we’ll be consumed with an ennui that triggers my brassica allergy, causing IBS. But I know, as I neurotically fidget with my smart phone that when dormant is simply a useless, rectangular appendage (which, regardless of its ineffectuality I still rub anticipating genie-like qualities). Anyhow, I know this could be simply resolved if someone would somehow get some fucking wifi up in this joint! Jesus!

So, then, the niche for the game being made uncomfortably clear, perhaps UDUA would start with one player drawing an Ailment card:

UA: I feel lethargic and my left leg is hurting.

Then, the other players—as qualified as anyone else on a WebMD forum—have to diagnose the ailment and prescribe a remedy:

UD: Clearly you need to cut out gluten and obviously you have the onset of gout from excessive wine and meat consumption. You should be taking multi-vitamins, only drink cranberry juice (Ocean Spray is readily available), take 20mgs of Wellbutrin every 4 hours and go to the gym 4 times a week. Eat only avocados, green vegetables, rice and fish. Butter is ok but limit your coffee intake. Beware of cream or whole milk.

Though perhaps entirely inaccurate, that sounds more realistic than the answer I would give. My diagnosis might be more like this:

UD: Have you gone outside or touched a human recently? Try having sex while balancing a fat, grilled slice of acorn fed pork fat on a piece of rye porridge bread. Keep moving and eating, but breathe easy because the more you tremble the more likely the fat will fall off. Don’t drop the fat. And don’t mind the blood. I’m just using it to thicken your beet soup. You’ll be fine.

For years in my youth I thought masturbation, a great power we all share but which too often goes un-discussed, was enough to calm our collective neuroses. Clearly, I was too base and naive as a young man and I vastly underestimated the power of aggressively and deliberately disseminated, distributed, and displayed misinformation. I’m recalling Stripes at this moment: Bill Murray announcing “there is something wrong with us! Something very, very wrong with us!”

And no, it’s not that we all decided to join the Army. It’s something greater, far greater and it’s an unhealthy and, let us assume for the sake of skirting an greater malaise, unintended symptom of unfettered access to so much goddamned information! Merriam-Webster’s definition of “information” includes language about the “communication of knowledge”…also making an appearance more than once in this definition is the word “facts”. Well here’s a fact: I feel that most people have lost a connection to the earth and therefore to our bodies, which, I believe, slowly destroys self-confidence and awareness. Yup, it’s a FACT that I think this. And it’s now being disseminated throughout the grand disinformation dystopia. A virtual landscape where fact and fiction are bound by the glue of opinion, well informed or not.

I’ve spent much of my lifetime thinking about what I’m going to eat next . Below is a very rough timeline of the evolution of this exploration as I’ve aged and progressed as both an eater and as a chef:

What’s Mom cooking and when is it going to be ready?–> What do I crave, based on Mom’s repertoire?–> What other flavors are there out there? And of those, what do I crave?–> Back to Mom’s home cooked meals–> Please, I’ll eat anything: anything but the food in the school cafeteria!–> I can cook better food than the shit served at my college’s dining hall–> Hmmm, some people can cook better than I can…–> Some countries have better food than America–> I am going to travel and eat–> I am going to learn to cook–> I am going to travel and eat–> I am going to continue to learn to cook–> WHERE do I want to eat?

I’ll break from this rough timeline here, as this is a pleasurable yet poignant evolutionary pause . “Where do I want to eat?” is the point at which I find many of my peers now, whether culinary professionals or foodies with sharp and adventurous palettes. “Where do I want to eat” in this era of the restaurant boom is usually the second desire, other than for my most impetuous and wanton of colleagues, preceded by the first desire: “What type of food do I want to eat?”

And yet, for the most part, only those who live in something resembling a city are really able to allow the type of food to inform their choices. I have made my home both in cities with the widest range of eateries and ethnicities, and in rural areas with almost no choice at all. For city folk, ethnicity is often the first question that comes to mind. For those who live elsewhere, the choice most often made is to cook at home, or knowingly risk your postprandial wellbeing for a simulacrum of what most people call a dumpling. It is dispiriting how often we’ll delude ourselves, hoping against hope, merely to taste the “exotic.”

Access to good food is better than ever. And yet, ironically, commensurate with this unprecedented access our supposed “sensitivities” to such foods have grown increasingly out of whack. The reasons are endless and the number of proposed solutions just as endless.2 I had paused charting the evolution of thinking about what I am going to eat next. I had paused because I had found myself stuck in the “where—in which restaurant—and what type of food do I want to eat” phase of my evolution for some time. Many friends, people I know and respect, many smarter than I, are stuck there still.

I think of one of Modiano’s characters, “bathed in that smile that is distant and dreamy, rather than jovial… Searching for settings made for enjoyment and ease but where one could never be happy again.” Sentiments such as these seem appropriate for most of us who look to others for direction and assurance—or the restaurant in heaven—about what we should eat, what to wear and how we should look. I’d rather be a “blissful idiot.” I see, however, a more common response, the human pathology to clutch at whatever or whoever will play the role of shepherd in a desperate attempt to avoid drowning in individuality or what I refer to as aloneless. Aloneless is our modern act of self-reliance. Not necessarily going into the woods to fend for yourself without any modern conveniences, but having the strength of character to make your own decisions, move against the flow and, simply, have an opinion.

I’ve found it difficult watching some-not all-chefs become media super stars and, as a result, shepherds, specifically those who will whore out to whomever or whatever is paying top dollar. I can’t blame them. They have families to care for and—well, working as a chef is physically and mentally taxing, requires long hours, and will eventually drain even the strongest, most balanced and healthy individual.

But, after all, they’re just chefs. Not the exponents of the kind of expert opinions to which I ever intended to hitch my wagon. They are certainly not to be taken as seriously as my life coach (who once worked as a line cook. But then decided he would try acting. But when that didn’t work he went into fashion for a bit. But recently really, really got into these spin classes and now he understands how one can truly empower himself, and get six-pack abs, and he’ll your measure your calories daily or, wait, a calorie is a unit of measurement already, isn’t it? Anyhow, you really shouldn’t eat that croissant ).

A shepherd, other than one literally watching over the sheep, should invigorate the spirit of his followers so they no longer require sustenance or “maintenance of morale,” as E.B. White called it, from external stimuli. Of course, this would put most shepherds out of a job, an action counterintuitive to one’s survival instincts. Even the meekest of shepherds may have a hard time with that… unless he has a rent controlled apartment.

But I digress. I’m not interested in shepherds per se (other than that I hope that soon we’ll be able to hire one at Fish & Game farm) but I am interested in how my question, and the answer, has evolved. How I am thinking about my next meal has evolved. In turn, if you are a customer of Fish & Game, how I think about yours has also evolved. Because I create the menus based on what I want to eat. And I’m thinking about what I should eat all the time.

But the question has changed from “what” to “where” to “how.” How is this raised? How does it affect my surroundings? Living in the Hudson Valley, in the woods, amongst the trees, rotating through the seasons with the animals and with the plants has accelerated (or, perhaps presaging a bit of Kantian reasoning ) dovetailed with my evolution. This is particularly true during the crisp and sunny late fall afternoons and the still and silent winter days when the distractions seem to die with the plant life and introspection takes a stronger hold.

What perhaps once was but has long since been lost may be coming around again. I’m talking about where I’m finding my place, alongside Kevin and Jori, in the role of chef as curator. We’re the ones who ask how. We can’t dig deep enough! A few other such chefs are earning the trust of the dining public. Those who work as curators of a balanced experience, who find and cook and serve the most well raised animals of the finest breeds. Curators who seed and plant and also buy the healthiest vegetables grown in some of the best soil we’ve seen. Curators of an idea and an understanding of how our bodies respond to food, taking into account the temperature and the season. Evolving into this role has been a process of discovering what my body both needs and craves in step with what nature is offering (I’m still learning to keep time).

In becoming true curators and taking this role very seriously, we are seeking a unity between nature and culture in order to create a “moral whole,” which Kant considered the end goal of reason. The idea is not strict, nor is it exclusive. In fact, to work and to be true, it must be inclusive and holistic: from animal to plant, from blood to water. And, for us, it must be delicious.3 This is becoming intuitive, but we’re only at the beginning. Curator is a title not easily earned. But this is the next step. The next generation of great chefs will be guardians of the healthiest foods, understanding and sensitive to proper land stewardship. This commitment will hopefully inspire a widespread courage among diners to drop the absurd and undeserved taboos placed on simple, natural foods and give themselves up to a real experience. To learn how to eat again. To eat without it being too cerebral. To experience the emotion of pleasure evoked by food.

If there is a place for chef as a political figure, a leader or an advisor, this is how (s)he should use his power. The chef as curator simply provides what is truly good and available at that time and place because (s)he lives it, everyday. Because (s)he has done deep research (and only now, and still only the very few, can be relied upon to have done this research, and to call bullshit when necessary). It is political to promote what is good by growing it, cooking it and eating it. To properly curate for our customers and to build a new trust and relationship between customer and chef, a more personal relationship. To stop appropriating buzzwords which lose their meaning as soon as they are hashtagged—and just pay more attention. This is the chef’s skill best utilized: to intuit and then cook what is good for your gut based on constant contact with the product, the land, the farmers and the foragers.

Not every chef can do this, nor can every restaurant provide this service. It can only become instinctual through a direct and day-to-day relationship with nature. We should be eating it all, all that grows that is. But from where, at what time and in what ratio are only a few of the questions we have to ask ourselves? That is the purview of the curator. When you find one of these places—a thoughtful, considered, curated restaurant—you’ll know it. And if you’re listening to your body without distraction, you’ll also know it is time to, as Herbie Hancock said, “hang up your hang ups,” and just eat.

1Both the full title of the game and UDUA are copyrighted and patent pending which I executed while writing this and simultaneously emailing with Legal Zoom.
2And I feel lethargic and my left leg is hurting.
3We might find ourselves in the midst of a philosophical dialectic when introducing deliciousness to the discussion; however, we’ll leave that for another time.

Zakary Pelaccio is the chef of Fish & Game in Hudson, NY and the author of the book “Eat With Your Hands.”

A version of this article appears published in the Fall 2014 Newsletter from Fish & Game titled Fall: Year Two, which can be seen here.

Governor Cuomo Announces New York Selected For USDA Pilot to Increase Procurement of Locally-Grown Produce in Schools

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that New York State has been selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in a federal pilot program for the procurement of locally-grown produce in New York State schools. The Pilot Project for Procurement of Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables was included in the 2014 federal Farm Bill and creates a new project to procure unprocessed fruits and vegetables. New York is one of eight states selected to participate in this first-of-its-kind federal initiative, the application for which was submitted by the New York State Office of General Services.

“New York is a nationally recognized leader in the promotion and support of locally grown food, and with this selection we will ensure that students have access to fresh and nutritious locally-grown produce,” Governor Cuomo said, “I thank the USDA for partnering with us to showcase the very best of New York’s thriving agricultural industry.”

New York’s pilot will be administered by the State Office of General Services and will begin in Rochester. Next week, OGS will begin talking with farmers, food hubs and schools in the region about the program and how they can participate. Because many of the Rochester organizations have not worked with the USDA before, OGS will help walk them through the process.

Today’s announcement comes on the heels of the Governor’s newly-created “Buy NY” initiative, which was announced at last week’s Upstate-Downstate Agriculture Summit. “Buy NY” is a joint effort by the State Department of Agriculture & Markets, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, Office of Mental Health, Department of Health, Office of General Services and Cornell Cooperative Extension to leverage existing centralized contracts regarding the purchase of State food products, including produce and dairy products.

The USDA first established a Farm to School program to improve access to local foods in schools in 2010 and, in order to establish realistic goals to increase the availability of local foods in schools, USDA conducted a nationwide Farm to School Census. The first survey was taken during the 2011-2012 school year.

Prior to the creation of the Census, the New York State Department Agriculture and Markets surveyed more than 1,000 school food service directors across the State to gauge their interest in farm-to-school initiatives and to identify barriers and opportunities. As a result, in 2012, New York was selected as one of only five states across the country awarded funding from USDA’s first Farm to School program, immediately enabling the State Department of Agriculture and Markets to implement the best practices and opportunities identified in the survey.

Though still in the early stages, the program has already been successful: In 2013, Benton Berries, a local farm in Penn Yan, NY, made weekly deliveries of tomatoes to Binghamton, Johnson City and Owego-Apalachin school districts. Approximately 3,000 pounds of local tomatoes were served in 16 cafeterias to more than 11,500 students in total that year as a result. Also in 2013, the Binghamton City School District served approximately 12,000 pounds of local apples from Reisinger’s Apple Country, an orchard in Watkins Glen, N.Y, to 6,000 students in 10 school cafeterias.

“Inclusion in this pilot program is a testament to the hard work of numerous state agencies at the direction of Governor Cuomo to find multiple opportunities to bring more locally grown and produced products to the tables of New Yorkers,” OGS Commissioner RoAnn Destito said. “Since 2011, OGS has been working with local farmers through our warehouse in Long Island. Over 225,000 pounds of local potatoes, apples, cabbage, carrots, turnips, broccoli, corn and beets have been distributed to 36 school districts. We are looking forward to using what we have learned through that initiative statewide and will be working closely with schools and vendors to ensure this pilot is successful and becomes a permanent program.”

“I believe that the procurement of locally-produced foods in schools and institutions is nothing short of a golden opportunity for New York agriculture,” State Agriculture Commissioner Richard A. Ball said. “Through this pilot program and also Governor Cuomo’s “Buy NY” initiative, these opportunities will only continue to grow. Today’s announcement is great news for my fellow farmers and youth who represent our state’s bright future.”

Provisions in the federal Farm Bill require that the selection of states included in the pilot must be based on a demonstrated commitment to building their own farm-to-school programs, the quantity and variety of local fruits and vegetables producers in the state, and the number of local education organizations serving different population sizes and geographic regions in the state.

Senator Charles E. Schumer said, “Through this innovative federal-state pilot program, New York will provide schools throughout the state with locally grown fruits, vegetables, and produce; it is a win-win for New York farmers and students. Now, New York’s agriculture will not only be farm-to-table but farm-to-school.”

Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee said, “This is great news for our schools and our local farmers. New York State is home to a strong agricultural industry that has the potential for even more growth. By connecting schools throughout the state with locally-grown food, we can give our children better access to healthy, nutritious food options, while strengthening New York’s own agricultural industry. I look forward to working across all levels of government and with USDA to continue to build on this important initiative.”

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter said, “We have taken remarkable steps as a nation toward combating childhood obesity, and this is another step in the right direction. It’s essential to set our young people on a positive course early in their lives, and that includes providing healthy, nutritious meals during school days, especially in communities where access to fresh, local produce is limited. Not only will this improve our kids’ health, but it will save them a lifetime of higher medical costs from health problems associated with obesity. Furthermore, this will be a boon to local growers, who are the backbone of the upstate economy and consistently provide New Yorkers with fresh produce options.”

Congressman Chris Gibson said, “Empowering school districts to purchase local fruits and vegetables gives our students fresh and healthy lunch options that help foster a deeper appreciation for agriculture and the importance of farms to our communities. I am proud to have authored this provision of the Farm Bill, and I look forward to working with farmers and educators in the Hudson Valley and Catskills to establish new farm-to-school partnerships through the USDA’s pilot program.”

This Farmer Wants to Help Youth of Color Reconnect With the Land

Leah_Penniman

When Leah Penniman posted on Facebook about an upcoming one-week Black and Latino immersion program on her upstate New York farm, it filled up in 24 hours. The program at Soul Fire Farm is designed for young people of color, “to ease them back into relationship with the land,” says Penniman.

This farmer/educator’s life is rooted in a commitment to fighting racism and dismantling what she calls “oppressive structures that misguide our food system.” Penniman wants everyone—regardless of class, color or creed—to have access to fresh, healthful food and an understanding of how to grow their own.

But some African-Americans see “stoop work,” such as picking cotton, harvesting peanuts, and gathering produce as triggering activities that recall slavery and suffering. Where Penniman sees nourishment and abundance, others see what she calls “land-based trauma in our people.” The immersion program, says Penniman, is a “humble attempt to reclaim the right to belong to the land and have the land belong to us.”

Now in its second year, the immersion program brings young aspiring growers and novice farmers from nearby New York City and Boston, as well as further afield, to learn basic sustainable farming practices and whole food preparations. Topics range from soil chemistry to how racism has impacted people of color’s relationship with the land.

“I believe that we mixed up the oppression of racism and named it the land herself and strove to divorce ourselves from her in an effort to get free,” Penniman says, “But without the land we cannot be free.”

A seasoned high school science teacher, Penniman runs Soul Fire Farm with her husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff. The 72-acre property, raises more than 80 varieties of vegetables and around 20 types of fruits, as well as laying hens and meat chickens. It is also certified naturally grown, an alternative to certified organic. The couple, who met in college and have two children, purchased the land in December 2006 and began farming part of it in 2010.

The family deliberately chose Grafton, a small town with a population of around 2,000, 20 miles east of Albany near the Massachusetts border. It is rural but not isolated. They wanted a steady stream of visitors from neighboring cities and the ability to deliver to urban dwellers. But the rural life is not without its challenges, especially in an area with limited agriculture, poor soil, and steep slopes.

“We came to this land with experience reclaiming contaminated urban soils and an interest in applying these techniques to marginal rural land,” she explains. “We have met with great success, after much hard work.”

SoulFireFarm
Soul Fire operates a sliding scale CSA; diversity in produce is as important as accessibility for people regardless of income. During the growing season, fruits and vegetables are distributed to around 55 families in low-income urban enclaves in Albany and Troy. In 2015 the farm share will take a break to honor the Jewish agricultural Sabbath known as Shmita. The farm accepts federal government programs intended to help poor people pay for food, such as SNAP and EBT.

In addition to the farming immersion program, Penniman and her husband work with apprentices for longer periods. Hundreds of children also come through the farm each growing season, through established youth programs such as residential foster care or Boys and Girls Clubs. This year, Soul Fire farm also piloted a week-long restorative justice program through the Albany County Courts. Penniman’s goal for this group was simple yet profound: “We want them to leave feeling valuable and as though their contributions matter.”

Farming found Penniman accidentally. Raised by her father in rural Massachusetts, she developed a deep connection with the forests, rocks and water. But it wasn’t until she spent time with her Haitian-American mother in Boston, where she landed a summer job as a farm program participant with The Food Project, that she got a feel for what it’s like working in the dirt. The program, she says, did a great job integrating a “hands-on the land” philosophy, while feeding people in need and developing social change leaders in the community.

Penniman was hooked. She worked on farms for several summers and it quickly became a source of happiness and comfort. “The land is not very interested in race or the petty conflicts of humans,” she says. “I farm primarily because I love the land and believe that she loves me, provides for me, holds me up when I feel unsure.”

As a farmer of color in a largely beige landscape, she is always on the look out for ways to connect with other minority farmers. She is active in the Black Farmers & Urban Growers organization. “I have attended and presented at that conference every year since it began, under the deft leadership of Karen Washington. For me, having predominantly black farming spaces is essential and shores up my reserves to navigate the largely white agriculture world.”

It’s a small but tight community. “I had one African-American woman call me from Boston—cold call—just to make sure I really existed, a black woman farming,” she says. “She wanted to farm and was feeling isolated in the white farming world and needed to know she wasn’t ‘crazy.’”

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Food Institute earlier this year, Penniman spoke on a panel with a new generation of farmers. There she addressed the need for intergenerational support among farmers of color.

“I think it is especially important for young folks to connect with elders who are aging out of the profession,” she says. “Many African American farmers from the South are finding themselves without heirs to receive their knowledge and experience.”

At her core, Penniman is always a teacher. In early 2015, the 34-year-old Fulbright scholar, who has taught in Haiti, will head to Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico with her family to teach, of course, but also to learn about local farming practices. She plans to write a class curriculum in Spanish and English intended to integrate sustainable food practices into math and science lessons.

“I see my personal mission in life to joyfully and reverently connect youth to the intricate miracle that is this living planet and to their own power as agents of positive change in the community.”

Photos by Capers Rumph. From top: Leah Penniman, participants in Soul Fire Farm’s Black and Latino Immersion Program.