Friday, August 28, 2009

Food, Glorious Food

This was supposed to run on Tuesday, but ongoing technical issues delayed it until today. Enjoy!

Today was a rare treat--I got to spend two precious hours immersed in another century, surrounded by the scents, tastes, and textures of fresh produce and immersed in the comings and goings of my neighbors. In a squat brick building no more than 30' x 20', I played being a farmhand, a grocer, and a tavern-keeper, all while snacking on indescribably succulent cherry tomatoes and crispy green beans. It was an unexpected and wholly delightful experience, and I have the Crown Heights CSA to thank for it.

First, the facts: the CSA is new to Crown Heights this year, a product of the vision and very hard work of a core group of people who, volunteering their time, have brought the fresh, organic produce of Sang Lee Farms from the North Fork of Long Island to our neighborhood. Aided by the umbrella CSA organization Just Food, our good neighbors began selling shares (lump sums paid up front to the farmer in exchange for a "share" of his harvest every week for nearly six months) at Franklin Park in April, and now a wide swath of Crown Heightsers gather weekly at the bar's storage room to collect their loot. A limited number of subsidized low-income shares were offered, and organizers have sought to raise funds for more in coming years through bake sales and house parties.

So the CSA provides over 100 locals of all stripes with fresh, delicious organic vegetables (as well as coffee from Crop to Cup for those who ordered it) while supporting a (relatively) local organic farmer. Good is done, hurrah, hurrah. But now that I've spent a meager 2 hours volunteering to complement my usual 10 minute grub grab, I'm inclined to think that the best the CSA offers isn't captured in the baseline numbers. The tactile joys of fresh, organic food are many--tomatoes that taste less of water than of sugary, ripe flesh, crisp leaves of lettuce dripping wet with the dew they were plucked from, the delicate snarling aroma of a fresh head of cilantro as it pokes out of your bag on the way home--but they could presumably be acquired at a farmer's market, too. What a CSA offers that no other method of urban-produce-gathering can quite compare to (community gardens and urban farms excepted) is community.

In the course of 120 minutes, led by a brusque, no-nonsense volunteer squad captain so adept at pre-measuring a pound of tomatoes that she barely needs a scale, I saw people young, old of all hues and incomes saunter into our dark little cave. They went goggle-eyed over the two pounds of tomatoes on offer, whined about the abundance of kohlrabi (a German turnip-cabbage that often sits in my fridge until I try to munch it raw out of guilt), and picked merrily through the cute little yellow squashes. More importantly, they talked--chatted about recipes (apparently there are ways to make kohlrabi taste good!), exchanged produce nightmares (rotting apples, worm surprises), joked about their kids (some of whom toddled in with them and made much of the funnier-looking eggplants), and clucked about the slings and arrows the week had brought them. They thanked us for pre-weighing the potatoes, sniffed the herbs, and joked with our gregarious leader about anything that came to mind. People left with nearly 10 pounds of incomparable produce (for a full share), but they also left with a smile, a sense of welcome and belonging that lingers even past the satisfaction of a perfect, healthy meal.

I love the frenetic, vibrant nature of the urban environment, and I'm not about strike out for a clear patch of land to call my own (I've got no illusions about the "simple joys" of farm living--it's work like any other to coax edible food from the earth). Still, you can't have it all, and a city as large as ours can produce alienation and anonymity as readily as freedom and autonomy. In the absence of a single church or union hall where everyone from the neighborhood goes to mingle, the CSA is a mighty fine way to keep the loneliness at bay along with the belly full. Food brings people together everywhere--many thanks to the CSA leaders for bring it to us!

As a site note, don't forget to check out all the great Crown Heights events today, from Sue Rock's BBQ to the Flea Market to the Anti-Gun-Violence Mural Dedication.


  1. It was good to meet you. I didn't realize I was working with a local internet celebrity!

  2. I never noticed that the full shares included so much kohlrabi...our half share only had it once, and I thought it was pretty good.

  3. I loved working both of my 2 hour shifts. I wish there was MORE of a social aspect to the the CSA, though. Meeting neighbors was my #1 reason for joining (although the great tasting veggies are certainly a wonderful bonus!) but I feel that except when working, it tends to be a more in-and-out sort of thing. Our partial share has had some much kohlrabi - I feel your pain. It, along with beets, spend a long time in the fridge. - Liz