The Sag Harbor resident, former owner of the health food store Provisions, member of Slow Food Long Island and organizer of the East Hampton Farmers’ Market talks about why she thinks the East End is poised to return to its sustainable roots.
Where was your interest in local farming and food culture born?
I was thinking about that and I actually think my first experience with health food was in 1968. I was living in Vermont in an unheated log cabin near Goddard and one of the fellows would buy buckwheat groats, cashews, almonds and such for the commune we were living in. It was the first time in my life I distinctly remember eating that way. I came from baloney sandwiches and fish sticks. My parents both worked with five kids in the city and would have our monthly delivery of frozen meats, so that was what we ate –that and fish sticks. But in Vermont we ate this other way, eating rice, buckwheat, nuts, dates and things like that. One day someone brought a chocolate cake in and I had not had sugar in my system for so long I got violently ill. I think that awakened my interest in eating and how important food is. Since then, I have always been interested in food, which I think is healing. It really landed full square in 1982 when I lived in Sag Harbor in a rented room with Linda Sherry and Linley Pennebaker (Whelan) asked me to join her in buying Provisions, which was where D.J. Hart is now … In those days, health food was nothing. Don Katz said to me years later that he bet his wife $100 we would not make it. The oatmeal craze, to lower cholesterol was the first big hit we had and it just sort of took off. People came in looking to buy one item and bought more. It was effective, and that was that.
Farmers’ markets on the East End have grown in popularity in the last five years. When did you see this trend take hold and why is it so popular to eat locally?
In 2004, Brian Halweil got onto the village Harbor Committee after he and his wife Sara bought their home in Sag Harbor after summering here for a number of years. As trends move from west to east, he suggested we have a Farmer’s Market in Sag Harbor as a part of HarborFest and the girls at Dockside allowed us to use their lawn. It was suppose to be a one-day event, but we finished out the month of September and went through October. I was involved with that market as a founding member of the EECO [East End Community Organic] Farm, which I was on the board of and whose farm stand I helped run for a number of years. There were about six of us that Brian got together to compose the first Sag Harbor’s Farmer’s Market.
Elise Collins had already started a market in Westhampton Beach, but there were not many before 2004. Certainly since then it has grown. Montauk just started its market on Thursdays and Southampton Village has opened theirs. We have another at Hayground in Bridgehampton on Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. that is just wrapping up and Friday mornings we have the East Hampton market at Nick and Toni’s, and of course, there is Sag Harbor on Saturdays.
I think they are popular for a number of reasons, perhaps the most overarching one being what happens to you when you shop at a local farmer’s market – the emotional quotient of seeing your neighbors, talking to the person who is producing your food – it becomes a fun place to shop. There is that side, and of course, the taste of the food because it was just harvested that morning, not shipped over the last week from California or Florida. But most importantly, the farmers’ market has become a community center, which is how it traditionally has been in Europe and Central America. They are the center of a village. They also enable young farmers to sell to their customers and get the most return. This will in the long run help local farmers like the Wesnofske Brothers in East Hampton, a third generation Polish farming family, that will be able to continue farming because of opportunities like this. It is a way of making a living as a farmer once more.
What is your hope for the future for local farmer’s markets?
I think there should be one in every village and hamlet. I hope they get bigger. I encourage more people to produce, catch and make their own products. It would be great to find a building year round for the markets. It would help farmers’ grow year round, which is possible. We need a building – that would be the wave of the future.
Amagansett does not have a traditional farmers’ market, although the Peconic Land Trust did purchase the Main Street farmers’ market and has leased it to Eli Zabar of Manhattan. Would that kind of space suit a year round farmers’ market?
I think that would be fine, although the space is not heated so whether it could be used year round would require some investigation. Someone has suggested the Polish Hall in Southampton and I do not know what Southampton Town has planned for the old Marders Building once the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton has completed construction [and moves out of the Marders Building]. It would be great to have a year round farmers’ market with a commercial kitchen in it, opening the space up to allowing people to make prepared foods and teach classes.
As a member of the local chapter of Slow Foods, what are some of the initiatives you would like that organization to tackle locally?
I am so happy that Josh Viertel is now the president of Slow Food USA. They have taken on this whole real food in schools initiative because Congress is getting ready to re-authorize the Child Nutrition Act in the fall and the money government reimburses to our schools mostly is for transportation, hard costs, not for food. Slow Foods strongly wants to ask Congress, and Labor Day is a national day of action, to up the ante and add one dollar in reimbursements per child so schools can have local foods in their cafeterias. We will locally host an Eat In at the Bridgehampton School from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Labor Day. There will be 250 of these events nationwide.
What are some of your favorite local farm stands?
I go to the farmers’ markets a lot, but when I go to farm stands it is usually what is on the way. I go to Marilee Foster and Pike Farms because that is on my way to Sagg Main Beach. When the apples come into season, I will go to the Milk Pail.
What chefs on the East End do you think embrace sustainable food culture?
Ted Conklin of The American Hotel was a pioneer because he was a farmer before he was a restaurateur. Also, Nick and Toni’s in East Hampton has been on the forefront. Like Ted, they have a garden at their restaurant. When [former owner] Jeff Salaway was alive he and Joe Realmuto and Mark Smith showed a deep commitment to local food, which Joe and Mark continue today. It’s a very special place. Talking to Balsam Farms is a good way to see what chefs are using local products because they know who is buying it. I know James Carpenter at The Living Room at The Maidstone Arms is focused on it and I hear Rugosa is as well, although I have yet to eat there. When I worked with the EECO Farm I delivered to Della Femina, and I know Yama-Q is very conscientious. Our farmers’ markets have a lot of chefs placing orders with the vendors.
Given the wealth of local food products at the end of the summer, what is your ideal Labor Day menu at home?
Eric Braun of East Hampton Farmers’ Market, one of the last of the dying breed of bay men, his fish and his scallops are divine. He also smokes his own bluefish. I would get corn from Balsam Farm and tomatoes from Marilee. I would get peaches from Wesnofske Brothers and blueberries from Pikes. Melons are just delicious right now. Balsam also has some wonderful fingerling potatoes and Sang Lee Farms has wonderful greens for a salad. And then there are pickles … I could just go on and on. I can’t think of anything better than all these different foods. The fruit pies are heaven right now. We are really so blessed with everything that is available to us right now. I feel very grateful.