The Politics of City Cooking
A Visit to a Greenmarket Makes a Statement
I was standing under a tarp, buying radishes, at last Saturday's Union Square Market. The canvas roof was protecting the workers and the customers from the sun, but mostly it was shielding the fragile lettuces and herbs on the table below. As I waited to pay my $1.00 for a bunch of white-tipped radishes that I'd later eat for lunch (in a sandwich, sliced, on a piece of good bread with sweet butter and sea salt), the woman standing next to me said, "this is my favorite time of year." The expression on her face was no less than bliss. I knew exactly how she felt.
Being at that Greenmarket was sheer joy. Although it was as jammed as Times Square at curtain time, for once I didn't mind a crowd. In addition to the radishes, I bought sour cherries for a pie, 2 pieces of fresh pork belly from Flying Pigs Farm, a dozen eggs (6 eggs from Flying Pigs and 6 from Knoll Krest), a head of simply gorgeous red lettuce, tiny red potatoes still dusted with dirt, baby beets, small zucchini, a basket of New Jersey cherry tomatoes, chives, mushrooms, and two buds of fresh garlic with the stalks still attached. As I walked to the subway, I got tempted by huge stalks of red gladioli for $7 a bunch that I managed to add to my haul.
Over the next few days I used all my purchases:
- I boiled the potatoes to barely tender, skins washed but left on, and tossed with unsalted butter and snips of the chives.
- I cooked the beets in the way I learned from Thomas Keller's Bouchon: washed, drizzled with a bit of olive oil and a sprinkle of water, salted and wrapped in foil and roasted at 375F; after about 45 minutes they were tender and the skins slipped off, and with a touch more oil and salt, they were perfect.
- I sliced and separately sautéed the zucchini and the mushrooms, but then combined them and served with braised pork.
- The lettuce became the centerpiece of a simple salad, adding only halved cherry tomatoes and a plain vinaigrette.
- I made a cherry pie, adding sugar, tapioca and a little fresh lemon juice.
Eating these meals I knew that food couldn't get any better than this -- not due to my kitchen skills but because of these ingredients.
While at the market I got to spend a few minutes with Jen Small, who with her husband, Mike Yezzi, owns and runs Flying Pigs Farm, and we pondered the crowds and what lies ahead for food in our city, in our country. She told me how she once brought friends who live near her Battenkill River Valley farm, about 200 miles north of NYC, to a Saturday Union Square Greenmarket. They marveled at the quality of the foods sold there, saying it was so vastly better than what's available in their rural upstate town where some of it is grown. This disconnect made sense to me because I believe that it is, ironically, our cities -- and city cooks -- who are demanding that our food be better.
Unlike in many countries, including Italy, France and Mexico, where food cultures are sustained at all socio-economic levels, in the U.S. it has become the responsibility of our best educated and most resourceful. Across our country, and certainly where our poorest live, food choices are controlled by huge food industry conglomerates and grocery chains. In NYC -- in the five boroughs and throughout our neighborhoods -- we have our Greenmarkets and artisanal purveyors. In much of America there's Cheetos.
As farm policy in our country begins to finally undergo some essential scrutiny and change; as the concept and practice of sustainability becomes understood, advocated, and widened; as consumers get wise to labeling and insist on knowing what's really in the food and where it came from; until these and other changes occur, we are all at risk.
Looking around the market on Saturday afternoon, I saw hundreds of New Yorkers (nearly none of whom, by the way, were overweight; this can't be a coincidence), happily stocking up. I saw bulging string bags, filled wire wagons, and city home cooks actively talking with the farmers and producers, -- and with each other -- about what to buy and what to make. For an advocate like me, it was like seeing my candidate win the primary and then get a landslide at the general election.
Great ingredients aren't only available in our Greenmarkets but also in the hundreds of other small merchants across the city. So whether you're at Union Square on a sunny summer Saturday, in Chinatown buying fish, or in Astoria getting groceries on a cold winter day, you can buy the best, healthiest and most flavorful ingredients available anywhere in the world. Let's not take it for granted.