A vegetable garden springs up in Detroit, thanks to the nonprofit Urban Farming.
By CHRISTINE MUHLKE,
New York Times
Published: October 8, 2010
When I began writing about American farmers and food artisans for this magazine’s Field Report column two years ago, I set out to learn the story behind the people whose ingredients were driving chefs to create great dishes. Little did I know it would become a column about communities — of producers, of customers, of eaters and enthusiasts.
Source: “The Atlas of Food,” by Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, 2008.
After transcribing the first five or so interviews, I adopted the shorthand “comm”: “I don’t think that I would exist w/o the comm of ppl that are my customers and my suppliers,” I typed for Jeff Ford, a baker in Madison, Wis. “We’re showing how to build a local comm, we’re not showing em how to farm,” I scribbled for Tim Young, a Georgia marketing-service entrepreneur turned farmer. “Another piece for me about urban homesteading is rebuilding comm — it’s such a cliché — but rebuilding comm around food,” said Anya Fernald, a consultant for food businesses in Oakland, Calif. In a recent interview with Evan Dayringer, a farm apprentice, there are 26 comms in the course of three hours. At this point, my computer just fills in the word after the second M.
What are they talking about when they talk about community? In their case, it’s the network of people that they gradually knit around themselves based on a shared interest in food, from the grain supplier to the bakery apprentice to the farmers’ marketers and restaurateurs who order the loaves. It’s the schoolteacher who buys bread every week who eventually asks the baker if he’ll teach her students how to make pizza dough. It’s the cheese maker who trades for baguettes. It’s the sous-chef who receives the daily delivery and becomes a drinking buddy.
In even simpler terms, community is built upon conversations. People like to eat, and they like to talk about it. Ask a stranger anywhere in the world what or where he likes to eat, and chances are he’ll open up. (I’ve unexpectedly gotten out of speeding tickets because I told the officers I was hurrying to get to a local restaurant or gristmill before it closed.) Working and living around food allows you to interact mainly with people who find pleasure in similar things — which could, of course, become frustratingly limiting. But according to the men and women I’ve interviewed for Field Report, this sense of connection with and appreciation by the people around them makes the crushing work and razor-thin margins worth it. As Jeff Ford of Cress Spring Bakery, who sells to some of the 20,000 visitors to the Madison farmers’ market every Saturday, told me, “People hand me money all day and tell me they love what we do, so it’s really not work at that point, it’s my social life.”
Food communities take many forms. Not all of them have the righteous, rarefied aura of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco or the cool graphics of the food vendors at the Brooklyn Flea. And not all of them begin with a financial transaction. There are cookie swaps, canning parties, community-supported agriculture, crop mobs, cooking clubs, cow shares and more — all of which are subject to the preciousness, insularity and childish infighting of a self-selecting group. (The politics of potlucks.) And then there is the Web, where strangers bond over their lack of conviction about a certain pizzaiolo, form underground restaurants based on a chef’s disregard for the place of figs in California cooking or cheer on a home cook from Tel Aviv in an online recipe competition.
While these small-food communities are growing in pockets of America, typically around cities and universities, they have yet to become the norm. The number of farmer’s markets increased to 6,132 this year from 1,755 in 1994, but fast food is still a $170 billion industry — up from $6 billion in 1970. Class issues are inevitable with a movement driven by the college educated, regardless if they can sweat $25 for the chicken they believe is the only kind of chicken people should be eating. And the fact remains that those who are growing, distributing and serving this food can’t always afford to buy it. The idea of good food for all is still fairly (organic, heirloom apple) pie in the sky.
Or is it? The strongest example of a food community I’ve seen was in Detroit, where a vibrant farming scene has sprung up literally from the ashes. In a neighborhood that is a true food desert — there are no national chain grocery stores within city limits; more than 90 percent of food providers are places like convenience and liquor stores — I watched young men and old women socialize while picking collard greens in abandoned lots brought back to life by the Urban Farming organization. There was no fence, no supervision, no charge. Some of these people — neighbors — haven’t spoken to each other since the 1967 riots, the Urban Farming organizer Michael Travis told me as we watched. But, he added, not all of the visitors know how to cook those idealized greens. That’s another program they are working on.
A few miles away was a model of the new scrappiness that has taken root around food, one that relies on collaborative rather than conspicuous consumption. I visited a block where young artists and college debtors have formed a wonky farm village, a postindustrial, preapocalyptic vision, complete with pheasants running between the raised garden beds built with floorboards ripped from an abandoned factory. I was shown around by Carolyn Leadley, who grows sunflower sprouts in her attic and bikes with them to restaurants and farmers’ markets for cash and trade. Why go back to the land when it’s cheaper in the city?
Some people want to become their own closed-loop supply chain; others wish to cut out price-jacking middlemen. In order to do so, they are learning to raise, butcher and cure meat; to grow and preserve fruits; tend and pickle vegetables; make bakery-quality bread in a cast-iron pot; turn milk into cheese; and mill grain — the better to make your own moonshine. (One sign that those small-batch kimchis and handmade chocolates are more than a cutesy trend? The government has realized that it has to regulate them: the Michigan Cottage Food Operation bill was signed in July.) Since these skills are decreasingly passed on by elders, Americans of all ages have been signing up for classes, apprenticing with experts, chatting up farmers and heading online to share their findings. Friendships are made, networks are formed, delicious things are shared.
The new food movement is still labeled as Do It Yourself, but it’s really Do It Ourselves. As Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food organization, told attendees at Slow Food Nation in 2008, “Happiness and pleasure involve depending on others.” In this case, dessert is included.
Christine Muhlke is the food editor of the magazine.