By Annette Hinkle
It started out as a simple enough idea. Write stories about people in a small community who produce food in a sustainable manner, add a dose of great photography, then print a few thousand copies and distribute liberally among friends and neighbors.
Back in 2002, when Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian published Edible Ojai a 16 page newsletter about food and its makers in their community north of Los Angeles, they could not have envisioned they were perched at the edge of a revolution. To them, the publication simply paid homage to the farmers, cooks and food lovers they knew and admired.
But it turns out that the birth of Edible came at a critical juncture and it has since been at the forefront of change — represented by a shift in the way people talk, read and even write about food.
“Edible parallels what’s happening to the food chain and the media market,” notes Sag Harbor’s Brian Halweil. “The grassroots media movement and publications like Edible is parallel to the grassroots food movement.”
So while the Gourmet magazines of the world struggle to hold on — products of corporate publishing Goliaths unable to adapt in changing times — publications like Edible are growing by leaps and bounds. Since 2002, Edible has sprouted, one community at a time, from that single newsletter to a family of 70 independently produced community publications coast to coast (including parts of Canada).
On this side of Long Island, we have Edible East End, published by Stephen Munshin and Halweil, executive editor. Halweil and Munshin joined the Edible family fairly early on, back in 2005, when they were both looking for a side project to occupy their time. In the years since, the venture has turned into far more than a side business, and they now publish five Edible East End’s each year as well as Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan editions.
And they’ve found there’s definitely a market. After decades of being encouraged to embrace fast food and processed fare, people everywhere are reclaiming what they eat, often rejecting food produced in vast quantities and trucked in to supermarkets from hundreds of miles away in favor of local farmers markets and sustainable growing methods.
“It’s smaller scale, more decentralized,” says Halweil. “Maybe you spend more time cooking and shopping, but people are willing to invest more in food experiences. People are cooking with kids, taking cooking classes, having fun potlucks. Not that diner parties didn’t exist before, but there’s a fascination with food now where people want to make it a much bigger part of their lives.”
Helping to spread the word this summer is “Edible” a newly published hardcover book highlighting some of the best of what the country has to offer by way of sustainable food production. The book is divided by geographic region and offers profiles written by contributors from various Edible publications. From Hawaii to New England, the book includes farmers, fishermen, brewers and butchers around the country. An index hits the resources and highlights of each region, and of course, there are recipes which are divided by season and were created with the idea that the dish should be universal enough to be made by anyone living anywhere.
Edible East End’s contribution to “Edible,” the book, is a profile piece about Sag Harbor’s Scott Chaskey, director of Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Amagansett. Written by Geraldine Pluenneke, the story not only highlights the many wonders of the Quail Hill property, it also pays homage to Chaskey’s skill as both a farmer and a poet.
“We were able to check a lot of things off the list — it was a CSA farm owned by a land trust, and it’s organic,” says Halweil when asked how he and Munshin settled on Chaskey and Quail Hill for the piece. And like any good story, it’s ultimately about people with a passion.
“What you see in the book are 70 Edibles from around the country, in small towns, big cities, red states and blue states,” says Halweil. “There’s universal appeal. A point a lot of observers make is they are all different. The tone is different, the content is different, they focus on different interests depending on whether they are rural or urban. But it doesn’t matter, because you’re writing about people in your community.”
And community, Halweil note, is the hallmark of this new food movement. He describes an experiment he read about designed by a professor at UC Davis in which students were sent to a supermarket and a farmers market to count the number of conversations people engaged in at both locations. His results found that people had 10 times more conversations at the farmers market than they did at the supermarket.
“People see themselves voting with dollars when buying energy efficient cars and their food,” he says. “Buying a whole animal from a farmer is a way to have a relationship with your neighbors and split a pig, as well as detach yourself from industrial meat.”
And if Halweil needed validation that he was on the right track in his work with Edible, it came recently when Rachel Wharton, his deputy editor at Edible Brooklyn, won the best Food-Related Column at the James Beard Foundation Awards.
“When she won, there was a gasp,” recalls Halweil. “Then people started cheering. It was the passing of the mantel from the Gourmets to the Edibles of the world.”
“Part of what the magazine and the award reinforces is more and more people see food as a way to touch the world around them,” Halweil explains. “To affect landscape, improve economy, give neighbors a job as opposed to just the experience of eating food. These are things you can touch, meet and support.”
“There are all sorts of wonderful benefits to knowing the people behind your food.”
Top: Quail Hill Farmstand in an image from “Edible,” the book.