On gastronomer environmentalism--from the Hudson Valley to a Harlem Frugal Feast

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On the heels of our last Frugal Feast, hosted by my friends and Harlem neighbors Caitlin and Alex, I had the thrill of attending a conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a working four-season farm and educational center in New York’s Hudson Valley with a simple mission: to improve the way America eats and farms.

Not only did I get to tour the Center’s impressive greenhouse and livestock barns (the ewes were lambing at the time—a very special treat!), but I also got to experience what was on the other side of that farming: meals prepared for us by chef Dan Barber and his amazing team at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant of truly extraordinary quality and beauty, sourcing from the abundance of the surrounding fields and pastures, as well as other local farms.

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Right upfront I’ll say that while the ingredients going into our meals could not have been more sustainably grown—Stone Barns is a world class laboratory for innovation in sustainable farming practices—this was not exactly a frugal dining experience. But with every bite of these [truly life-altering] meals, it drove home a simple point, too easily overlooked: food is about pleasure.

At the heart of the Frugal Feast concept is the belief that eating well doesn’t have to be expensive. As I described here, over the course of 18 Feasts and counting, we’ve tried to show that eating real food—that is, buying fresh ingredients, cooking at home and eating a meal in good company—is not only a better alternative for eaters, producers and the environment, but at $5 (the maximum budget per person), a more affordable one as well. 

For me, the idea of eating “well” has been inextricably linked to NRDC’s work on creating a more sustainable food and agriculture system. I’ve tried to emphasize the positive health and environmental impacts we can have when we reduce our meat consumption, the benefits of organic agriculture, and the importance of supporting livestock producers who are demonstrating that there’s an alternative way to raise animals that doesn’t rely on the worst practices of intensive factory farms, such as reliance on massive quantities of antibiotics.

But I’m now struck by just how joyful and creative and delicious our dinners have been—how full of pleasure!

Mark Bittman recently touched on this notion in a terrific Opinionator post featuring snippets of his “chat” with Carlo Petrini, founding father of the Slow Food movement. Asked if the early perception of Slow Food as an organization of “gourmets” was inaccurate, Petrini replied: 

“One problem, of course, was that gastronomy became equated with “gourmet-ism,” or something of concern only to bon vivants….But now, he said: “A gastronomer who is not an environmentalist is just stupid. Whereas an environmentalist who is not a gastronomer is sad. It’s possible to change the world even while preserving the concept of the right of pleasure.”

The gastronomer-environmentalist! Environmental sensitivity and pleasure framed not as a series of tradeoffs, but as two sides of the same coin. It’s an inspiring and powerful idea—made all the more so, I think, by the fact that that you don’t need to be eating at a place as unique as Stone Barns to put it into action.

Which brings me back to Caitlin and Alex’s Feast.

While most of us can’t grow all our own food, or even purchase all our food from farmers with whom we have a personal relationship, there are opportunities every day to chip away at this goal and buy a greater and greater share of our food from people we know and trust. 

One way is to take a page out of Caitlin and Alex’s book and join a CSA—a Community Supported Agriculture program in which consumers essentially buy “stock” in a local farm and then get “repaid” via regular deliveries of seasonal produce as it's harvested. Not only are CSAs an affordable way to eat ultra fresh produce and get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking, but they’re also a great way to support sustainable, year-round agriculture in and around your community and get to know the farmers growing your food.

Caitlin—one of the most natural gastronomer-environmentalists I’ve ever met—cooked in large part from seasonal ingredients straight out of her weekly CSA share.

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Here she is in her own words on hosting her first Frugal Feast:

“When Sasha first told me about Frugal Feast, I was immediately super excited. Not only did this mean new friends with similar values, but it meant cheap, delicious food! After attending my first Frugal Feast I immediately volunteered to host.

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As the day approached, I got a little nervous...could I stay within budget? Could I cook for ten people without being a stress case? Alex even told me he planned on staying away from me the day of because he anticipated a freak out. I'm happy to say I stayed sane! (Alex was happy too).

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Being members of a CSA definitely helped the cost. The mushrooms, root vegetables, onions, garlic and yogurt all came from our weekly Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op box. I started cooking in the morning so I could get the bulk of it out of the way, leaving time to enjoy the company of our guests (and the wine). Alexis' wine pairings were a perfect addition to the meal and she even managed to find biodynamic wines for our budget, which was amazing. Overall I'm extremely happy with how everything turned out.

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I think Frugal Feasts is such a fun, smart idea and it really goes to show that it is possible to eat ethically on a budget. This may sound hyperbolic, but I really think Frugal Feasts could change the world!!  I can't wait to host again when the weather gets warmer. We plan on foraging for some of our ingredients in Central Park (don't be scared, we'll have an expert guide and dining en plein aire on the rooftop garden!)”

And lest you think Alex just sat around while Caitlin toiled away in the kitchen, he made sure to do his part by actually building us the dinner table upon which we feasted!

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With 10 guests, Caitlin had a $50 budget to work with. Here’s her delicious menu, with links to recipes. 

And, as Caitlin mentioned, her Feast featured our second attempt at pairing our Frugal Feast with frugal wines, as selected by our wine maven Alexis (with a budget of $10 a head):

"Caitlin wanted to start with an aperitif while people arrived so we had a Cava from Spain to sip on. I chose the Italian Pinot Grigio because -as someone noted- the general impression we have of Pinot Grigio is "cold and crisp". Not a strong endorsement for a grape that is very aromatic when the wine is made well, and I was hoping to improve its reputation. I knew we were having the rosemary white bean soup and kale salad and I wanted a white that would match them both and not get lost. The red was a biodynamic wine from the Cotes du Roussillon and perfect for the price. It was rustic and paired well with the ragu and polenta. For dessert we were able to find a sustainably made, late harvest dessert wine made with Torrontes from Argentina."

Not a bad gastronomical or environmental showing, huh? All for $15 bucks! 

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