At 20 years old, when I was a very susceptible young thinker, I read Wendell Berry's essay "The Pleasures of Eating." To this day, it remains the most powerful essay I've ever read about food.
Beginning with the simple assertion that "Eating is an agricultural act," Berry deftly unfolds the tragedy of the modern American food system, then lays out a short charter of actions for the ecological eater. He ties our good health to food sovereignty: the ability to grow our own food, or at least understand where it comes from. He links food quality to healthy soil, healthy soil to good farming, and better farming stewardship to the sustainability of our watersheds, our country, and the planet. To eat well is as simple as maintaining a healthy curiosity about the connection between dirt and dinner.
The essay concludes with a list of common-sense ways an eater can do this. He asks that we cook for ourselves, try to grow our own food, make friends with farmers, and investigate the stories of our favorite plants. I can remember exactly what I did next when I finished the article: everything, precisely as he suggested.
In the seven years since, I've read countless more essays by Wendell Berry, and by many other good thinkers and doers. Some, like Berry or Keith Stewart in Port Jervis, New York, both farm and write eloquently about their experiences. And as I read, I grew—both intellectually and in my garden. I learned how to raise vegetables. As an undergraduate, I started in West Africa with chocolate (because I like to eat it). I graduated, got a seasonal job at the New York Botanical Gardens, and over the five winters that followed, traveled to nine countries, returning each spring through fall to farm and garden back in New York City.
Today, I farm a 6,000-square-foot roof-turned-vegetable-farm on the shoreline of the East River in Greenpoint, North Brooklyn. I believe it's the only full-on commercial green roof growing in the country, to date. Built atop a sound stage warehouse by television and movie production company Broadway Stages, and installed by green roof company Goode Green, the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm is entering its second spring this year. I aim to produce enough food to supply area restaurants, a weekly farm-based market, and a new community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program that runs the length of New York City's 22-week growing season.
In addition to food production, the Rooftop Farm hosts classes and workshops on composting, beekeeping, greenroofs, seeds, and soil. The educational arm of the farm is an offshoot of Growing Chefs, a group I founded five years ago as a food education program. At the beginning I worked principally with children, and now with green-thumb-eager adults, teaching cooking and gardening—how to how to grow your own food, build culinary confidence, and compost. Now Growing Chefs includes a whole team of nutritionists, green thumbs, and foodies, all of whom are the most giving, cheerful people you've ever met. Simply, we believe that everyone should be empowered to eat well, and that to eat well encompasses the narrative of food from field to fork.
I'll admit that when I launched Growing Chefs, I was deeply involved in international food politics. I was freaking out about food security, the genetic modification of crops, and the quickening loss of seed diversity. Happily, though, I was also learning how to cook. Growing Chefs became a lens through which political and ecological issues could be addressed over the breaking of bread. I found the issues I cared about were significantly less boring to the listener when presented simultaneously with a good meal.
At the farm, I work to further these conversations, which is how I ended up spending a long three weeks this December and January poring over seed catalogues looking at salad greens. There's a joke among the farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket in downtown Manhattan that New Yorkers don't love to eat food, they love to talk about food. (In the five years I worked at the farmers' market, I probably dealt with close to 500 questions about arugula.) This winter, I picked out a new rooftop salad mix from a half-dozen seed catalogues, cross-referencing the farm notes from last year ("July 27: purple mizuna: gone to SEED all BITTER. DAMN IT") with the seed companies' notes on their stock. Among a dozen others, I chose Early Mizuna, known for its vigor and yield; Tokyo bekana, with with bright, ruffled leaves that easily bulk up a salad mix; and Mei Quing Choi, good for heat resistance and with a beautiful, thumb-shaped leaf. The result is a mixture that reads like poetry but has the solid backing of heat tolerance and strong production rates:
pizzo, waido, red
komatsuna, black summer
choi, vitamin greens--
In late February, between planting out my tomato seeds and wading through 2009 farm-year taxes, I picked up a book of Berry's poetry to help lift the circles out from under my eyes. It seems that whenever I'm exhausted, there is Mr. Berry with a clarion call.
I had been thinking of how difficult it is to grow in the city, of the lack of good soil and land access, of the smog and the trucks rumbling by on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Sometimes it makes me happy, and other times monstrously depressed, to think of the stubbornness of nature below and above New York City: of weeds prying up through sidewalk cracks, or the red-tailed hawks circling their way back into our ecosystem by nesting on Fifth Avenue. How heartening, how necessary, that the passage I first opened to was this:
In a country once forested, the young woodland remembers the old, a dreamer dreaming of an old holy book, an old set of instructions./And the soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest/And under the pavement, the soil is dreaming of grass.