I’m freshly back from a wonderful weekend adventure with 5-year-old L., and my mind is churning on — what else? — food politics.
My fabulous firstborn and I took his first big train trip to New York City, to visit my sister, D. She and L. are kindred spirits, and for the longest time, she’s been promising him that once he reached the ripe age of five, he’d be old enough to come see her at her Brooklyn apartment. Of course, my kid doesn’t forget ANYTHING, so once his fifth birthday rolled around, we were booking train tickets and considering which of the many possible entertainments we’d pursue while we were there. L. chose the Museum of Natural History, the Hayden Planetarium, the Prospect Park Zoo, and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. D. and I chose the food.
I should mention before I go any further that D. is probably one of the key influences in encouraging me to think more carefully and educate myself about food. She read her first Michael Pollan book before I did and turned me on to some of the great writing and thinking that’s out there about the subject of conscious eating. I was already the kind of person who preferred cooking to prepared foods; farmer’s markets over supermarkets; and fresh vegetables to processed snacks; but my earliest attempts to educate myself about food were definitely shaped by D.’s shared interest in the subject. She and I think very similarly about most matters of food and eating, so it was a safe bet that L. and I would be able to somewhat closely replicate our at-home habits…at least while we were in the comfort of D.’s quaint Brooklyn apartment.
Eating out, I thought, would be another matter altogether, and I was prepared for that to be just fine — a boy’s first big city adventure should, after all, include SOME bending of the rules. D. and I agreed that we’d cook at her place for two of the three nights, as well as every morning’s breakfast; but as for lunches, we planned to be so busy that we realized eating out was going to be a necessity. I knew we’d manage to find something relatively appetizing — after all, it’s New York City, where there are no shortage of restaurant options — but I was under no illusion that we’d be eating health food.
I was, surprisingly and delightfully, WRONG.
On our first night in Brooklyn, D. and some friends of hers took us out to dinner at my sister’s favorite neighborhood haunt, a fabulous restaurant called The Farm on Adderley. When I say fabulous, I mean it quite sincerely; I’ve eaten at The Farm about two or three times in the space of roughly five years, and I’m such a devotee of theirs that I’ve Facebook fanned them even from Rhode Island, and I still dream of a house-cured salmon and pickled beet dish I ate there WHEN L. WAS AN INFANT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. Yeah. It’s that good. Even better, the restaurant’s About Us page reads, in part:
The Farm on Adderley tries to speak to the way we want to cook and feed ourselves and our neighbors. The restaurant aims to bring thoughtfully produced food and ingredients to our community in a totally accessible way. Much of the way The Farm has evolved has been to pursue the principles of supporting local farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs as much as possible, making delicious food from that, and serving it in a completely honest way.
It’s like this restaurant was MADE for D. and me. And, apparently, for L. My little epicure enjoyed a house-made Shirley Temple while the adults drank cocktails; lest you frown upon the idea, let me just point out that they MAKE THEIR OWN GRENADINE. Sans food dye; sans corn syrups or any other nasties; and mixed with a local small-batch soda. I was about as cool with him drinking one of those as I would be with ANYTHING. We followed the cocktails with appetizers — the roasted beet plate, shared between L. and me — and then the Carnivore Kid disdained the children’s menu further by ordering the grass-fed burger on homemade English muffin with a mesclun side salad. (I shared the salad with him and can’t resist telling you about my main dish: the butternut squash ravioli with poppy seed butter and fried brussels sprouts.)
It was HEAVEN. Naturally, I expected our food experience to go somewhat downhill from there — not every restaurant can be The Farm on Adderley, after all — but I have to say, it didn’t decline much. I think the worst meal we had all weekend was our Saturday lunch at the cafe at the Museum of Natural History, and I use the term “worst” very loosely. It took less than a minute for L. and me to locate something very acceptable from the cafe’s prepared foods case: turkey and cheddar on whole-wheat wraps, with some garlic hummus and pita chips to share. It wasn’t organic, and it probably wasn’t much in the way of local/sustainable either, but it was certainly one of the more nutritionally sane things I’ve eaten in a controlled environment like a museum.
After a dinner of slow-cooked grass-fed short ribs that night, we fell into bed and awoke ready to hit D.’s neighborhood farmer’s market. The greenmarket in her area — Ditmas Park — is no bigger than the little farmer’s market I frequent here at home, but it has a wide array of vendors and products, ranging from seafood to fresh pasta, vegetables to grass-fed meats and dairy. We treated ourselves to breakfast pastries from one of the vendors, and D. pointed out to me that I was chowing down on a totally organic, scratch-made, locally baked almond croissant. (Yeah…I know…sometimes my life is REALLY hard.) We followed our market rounds with a trip to the zoo and Botanic Gardens, and this is where things got truly mind-blowing, for me.
See, D. and I don’t know the neighborhood around the gardens as well as some other parts of Brooklyn; and we assumed, wrongly, that there would be plenty of restaurant options when lunchtime rolled around. There were…if we wanted Popeye’s Chicken or Burger King. Shudder. Some frantic searching on D.’s smartphone told us that if we walked a mere mile or so, we’d come upon a few options that sounded promising, so we set off…with a five-year-old in tow…trekking block after block, stomachs rumbling…
When we reached the point where I had a grouchy, limp L. dangling from my back, and even D. and I were starting to despair that the approximate “mile or so” was some cruel joke from a Sartre play, we stopped and pondered our options. Here we were, right near the Botanic Gardens, which we’d planned to visit after a quick bite. And yet, not a single viable source of food seemed within reach. Until D. consulted her phone again, in desperation, and said, “There IS a cafe in the Gardens. I didn’t know that.”
Light slowly dawned in my brain as I remembered, dimly, the visit J. and I made there about two years ago. “Yeah…I think I got a coffee there. Not sure what they’ve got for food.”
D. peered at the screen. “It says they serve a full lunch menu. Should we check it out?”
It was, obviously, a rhetorical question, and soon we were ambling through the gardens with absolutely no eye for the gorgeous scenery; we just wanted to reach the Terrace Cafe. It’s a nice but unassuming walk-up place with cafeteria trays and self-service, so my hopes weren’t terribly high. Not that I cared, much — we just needed to eat.
Oh. My. Did we eat.
It turns out that the Terrace Cafe serves entirely local, seasonal, sustainable foods. The menu changes daily. The specials are outrageous. And for under $20, L. and I ate a beautiful lunch in a breathtaking setting, our plastic trays laden with sweet potato quiche, fresh salad, organic seven-grain bread, and freshly roasted turkey. We sipped house-made lemonade and herbal iced teas, unable to believe our good fortune.
D. and I reflected on the weekend’s food adventures afterward. “You know,” she said to me, “I think it’s really interesting that we didn’t even TRY to find this stuff, and yet, we somehow ate all healthy and mainly local and organic all weekend long.”
She had a point. It was one thing for us to eat dinner at The Farm, knowing what we’d find there; and it was no big deal to make organic, sustainable dinners at D.’s apartment, since that’s the kind of food she buys and cooks anyway. But the rest of it? The greenmarket, the decent museum food, the amazing serendipitous cafe lunch at the Botanic Gardens?
It was all RIGHT THERE. It might sound like we were in some amazingly posh area, but truthfully, Ditmas Park is a mixed bag. It’s no Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope, both of which are pretty ritzy (and priced accordingly). My sister and some other professors live there, in the same buildings as cab drivers, street vendors, and the guy who owns the bodega down the block. There are families struggling to make ends meet, and older people on fixed incomes, and lots of regular working-class people who probably don’t have the means to treat themselves to a meal at The Farm on Adderley like we could.
But ALL the people in the neighborhood go to the greenmarket. They may not all have access to the finer organic dining opportunities we enjoyed, but they show up for fresh produce on Sunday mornings when the vendors set out their wares on the corner. And while Ditmas Park is no food desert — there are small food markets there — I can see how the farmer’s market’s presence could help people to eat far better, far healthier, than they might in its absence.
Which makes me think: Which came first? Was it the amazing greenmarket, or the little eateries springing up with their farm-to-table wares? Were the food stores as plentiful before the foodie culture’s slow infiltration? Or is it possible that, despite the fact that they may seem to be comically out of step with some of the neighborhood’s residents, places like The Farm on Adderley and the Terrace Cafe elevate the eating opportunities not only for those who can afford to patronize them, but for those who can’t?
When a farm-to-table restaurant opens up in a neighborhood with a class divide — or even, more aptly, a sort of class “stew” with all different socioeconomic strata mingling closely together — it may seem that it serves only the upper crusts of the area. But is it possible, I wonder, that with the growth of that one eatery, a small swell of support for better food gains hold? And as those who can afford the best begin to demand it, and more opportunities for them to access the local, seasonal, organic fare they want move into the neighborhood, does it sometimes happen — just perhaps — that those who couldn’t afford or gain access to better food before become the unexpected beneficiaries?
Sure, the grass-fed short ribs and the artisanal croissants are likely out of reach for the less financially secure shoppers at a greenmarket like the one in Ditmas Park. But what of the apples, the kale, the root vegetables that are the real backbones of a market that supports higher-brow foodstuffs? With sudden access to an array of fresh, responsibly farmed, healthful produce — often at reasonable prices, and at many markets, available to those who pay with SNAP benefits — can’t ALL the residents of such an area eat better, even if they’ll never step foot in the posh organic cafe?
I’m just theorizing, for sure, but it really did stop me in my tracks when I realized how easily we’d accessed the food we ate — and if it can be easy for those of us who are lucky enough to afford, at least to some extent, the privilege of healthy food, can’t it SPREAD? Can’t, over time, entire food cultures be shifted, beginning with the buying power of those who do most of the buying? And if that’s the case, then aren’t we all truly voting with our wallets each time we make a decision about purchasing food — voting not only for our own health and our own futures, but for others’?