No sooner had we pressed “send” on an e-mail inviting readers to tell us about their most beloved food institutions than enthusiastic submissions began to pour in from all over the country. Many readers raved about their neighborhood co-ops, community gardens and farmers’ markets. Others paid tribute to quirky connoisseurs, one-of-a-kind eateries and various sources of culinary inspiration. Below, a flavorful sample. –The Editors
The best place in New England for corn and tomatoes in August is Pete’s Stand on Route 12 in Walpole, New Hampshire. A family-run operation, the tiny stand is not organic, biodynamic or otherwise fancy. Tourists pull in to the dusty parking lot, only to find themselves elbow to elbow with tiny old Polish women who might be overheard sharing a gulumpke recipe while routing through the green beans, selecting a pound one bean at a time. Pete, whose World War II stories, taunts and bright cackling laughter alternately delighted and infuriated customers for more than twenty years, died nearly a decade ago. Pete’s son Mike and Mike’s son John carry on the family business in a much quieter manner, but they still plant cabbages for the Polish ladies and take orders for bushels of overripe cucumbers from avid picklers. There are no heirloom tomatoes, ramps or fresh herbs at Pete’s Stand. Instead, there are vegetables for the community they are grown in, a relationship between three generations and one stretch of fertile ground, and the memory of Pete bellowing, “No stripping the corn!” in English, Polish and, when appropriate, Ukrainian.
Columbia is home to an amazing market called The Root Cellar. It’s like our farmers’ market, but you can shop there every day. All the produce, meat, cheeses and a variety of other foods and goods are local and organic. It has even expanded into a restaurant with about eight tables, serving breakfast and lunch. Again, everything is locally produced–right down to the ketchup! The Root Cellar has transcended my need for an ethical food shopping experience with its worker food-exchange program, which employs folks by paying them with groceries. As someone who has anxiety attacks when writing checks to any corporate chain, I gladly spend my modest food budget there.
The food at the Central Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, stands for something much greater. Lancaster and its marketplace were deeded in 1730 from the same plot of land; by the terms of the land grant, city and market together established the common rights of all members of the settlement not only to food but, more broadly, to a realm of civil order where agriculture, commerce, health and sociability all become fundamentally public concerns. Nearly 300 years later, the Central Market remains the heart of community life here. Its survival asserts that with the authority of government comes the responsibility for sustaining the well-being of all citizens. For me, market days are hopeful moments in grim times. When I buy my food at the Central Market, I am returning to the ground on which this city was born, in a sense affirming a centuries-old commitment to a civic life built on the ideals of peace and shared wealth.
Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina, will always be at the top of my list. It’s touchy to talk about barbecue in North Carolina–there’s a hard, long-running battle between Lexington-style (moist but not wet chunks or slices of pit-cooked pig with tomato/vinegar sauce) and what they serve in the eastern part of the state (mushy pork, vinegary sauce). Bridges’s is Lexington-style, chopped with chunks and cooked on hickory in pits out back. A key feature is the coleslaw, made with barbecue sauce instead of mayonnaise and served right on your sandwich. I haven’t lived in Shelby in twenty-one years, but Bridges’s phone number is still on speed dial on my cellphone, and I pick some up whenever I’m headed that way.
Wyoming is one of the few states that still support Bush, and Jackson is the summer watering hole of Dick and Lynne Cheney. Between Republican steakhouses and fast food for the plebeians on vacation, there isn’t much–but there is the Harvest Cafe, a cheerfully defiant counterculture spot. Memorable homemade pie, good organic salads and strong espresso, plus couches to sit on, New Age magazines to read and live music at night–if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
St. Peter, Minn.
Patrick Moore, the cheesemonger at the original store in the Lunds supermarket chain, is an erudite cheese expert who is also utterly devoid of attitude. Every time my partner and I enter Patrick’s domain, he greets us with enthusiasm and starts pulling out his latest “finds”–which always come complete with a story. On our last visit, he presented us with a piece of smoked chèvre–yep, smoked chèvre–that he’d procured at a small cheese-making operation in central Massachusetts. “You’re not gonna believe how this guy smokes this cheese,” he began, and we were off to the races. From his pungent lair on Lake Street in Minneapolis, Patrick Moore is doing his best to make Velveeta a four-letter word.
New York City
As a home cook and full-time father of a 2-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy, there is no place I’d rather be in New York than the Union Square Farmers’ Market. I take the kids there three days a week to meet their mom for lunch, and then I do that day’s shopping before taking the kids home for their afternoon naps. It’s true to say that if it weren’t for the market and what it offers me (fresh, local, seasonal food) and the children (a leisurely and sensual relationship to food, plus free samples!), I’d find living here excruciating.
By far our favorite food institution is our home garden, which provides healthy and safe produce for our family while reducing our reliance on grocery shopping and fossil fuels necessary for food distribution. We continue to be amazed by how much food we can produce year-round on a small piece of ground that sees snow frequently in winter.
DAVID & LINDA YOUNG
We don’t have the time or the acreage to grow a big garden ourselves, so we were delighted to find the Charlestown Cooperative Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture farm in southeast Pennsylvania, about twenty minutes from our home. For a modest annual fee, we get to pick up our weekly share of fresh organic produce from June to November. The farm also allows us to introduce our 2-year-old son to the land, to good food and to the wonderful farmers who grow our vegetables. In addition to the food, there is a wonderful community that has grown up with the farm, with cooking demonstrations, potluck suppers, a food-related book club, films about food politics and an annual barn dance to celebrate the harvest. The farm provides much more than food–it has nourished our family in every sense of the word.
KARIN SCONZERT & TIMOTHY MORTON
What embodies the best of our food culture? Easy–a radio show called The Restaurant Guys, hosted by the co-owners of two New Jersey restaurants. Francis and Mark, who own the Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi restaurants, host a daily one-hour radio show (available as a podcast) dedicated to “food, wine and the finer things in life.” Besides being well versed in all things epicurean, these guys are witty, intelligent and engaging. Topics range from interviews with famous chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers, to discussions with authors and activists about sustainable agriculture, organics, marketing to children, farm-raised seafood, raw dairy, etc. They’ll talk about Häagen-Dazs and White Castle as proficiently as they’ll talk about Château d’Yquem and foie gras! They should be applauded not only for their pursuit of quality food and wine but also for maintaining relationships with local purveyors. They champion artisan food and wine and sneer at industrial agriculture, and they do it passionately.
If you are so lucky as to find yourself in downtown Kapaa, Kauai, please visit the 100 percent vegan, certified green, organic oasis of the Pacific: the Blossoming Lotus Restaurant. With menu items like Padma’s Living Pad Thai, made with young coconut flesh and fresh, perfectly matched spices, or the Vegan Omelet with Tofu Bacon (a Sunday brunch favorite), you’ll wonder if all food isn’t supposed to be followed by a euphoric high. Much thanks to the Blossoming Lotus for providing sustenance based on a food philosophy of raising community and consciousness.
New York City
To be a takeout junkie is a badge of honor in New York, so no garden-variety celebrity chef could inspire such abnormal urban behavior as cooking. Jacques Pépin propels me into the kitchen. It’s not just that he makes me a better cook. He makes the least interesting part of any cooking show riveting. While his competitors toss half-full cans and jars out with the flourish of a Swedish muppet, he diligently scrapes mixing bowls clean with a spoonula. To watch him cook is to be reminded of a time when families ate together and nature’s whims–not Monsanto’s–dictated the availability of ingredients. It takes a master chef to teach the whats and hows. Pépin even tells us why: for pleasure, for friends and family, for the most civilized creative act this side of art and music.
The Waverly Farmers’ Market unites black and white communities in a spirited niche of north Baltimore and lures my girlfriend and me from sleeping in every Saturday morning. We savor Gold Rush and Pink Lady apples in the fall and spring, apricots and white nectarines in the summer. We shell out extra dollars for Zeke’s home-roasted coffees, a small price to pay for Chiapas beans, fairly traded and grown in shade. For small change, they’ll sell us a sole piece of ginger, a jalapeño pepper, a bulb of garlic. Friends who sleep until noon don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a ritual that frames my weeks, a sign that this weary city is still so relentlessly alive.
The Oxford Farmers’ Market Uptown encompasses two markets: one on Tuesday afternoons and one on Saturday mornings. I have been deeply involved in the creation of both markets, having been a part of the original groups that created them and also serving as a board member for two years. I have been selling at both markets since their inceptions, and in that time I have built up a very nice customer base that allows me to make my living solely from farming. Farms tend to be remote, the work physically hard and the hours long, so going to the farmers’ markets is also how I get to see my friends and hear the local gossip.
Green City Market in Lincoln Park, Chicago, has great organic vegetables and fruit from farms in the surrounding area whose owners pride themselves on sustainable farming. They have unusual vegetables, like purslane and black Tuscan cabbage; an enormous variety of tomatoes, onions, radishes and lettuce; and the best eggs I have ever eaten. I look forward to it every summer, even though my budget takes a hit. I only wish that those kinds of foods were available to more people.
I suspect that when I die, heaven is going to look a lot like Dean & Deluca. But when I want a taste of paradise in the here and now, I take a trip to the Hong Kong Supermarket in Edison, New Jersey. An emporium of Asian foodstuffs, the Hong Kong Supermarket offers everything from lurid Japanese sweets to complex Thai sauces to delicate Chinese teas. Brought together under the rubric of a pan-Asian regional identity, the Hong Kong Supermarket, part of a national chain, could be critiqued as ignoring differences among nations that have singular and often antagonistic histories. Instead, I see it as demonstrating the complex interplay between the traditional and the postmodern that is the best of our food culture today. As I wander the aisles, blissfully filling my cart, I daydream about the other shoppers: What are they looking for when they come here? And what do they do with their treasures when they get home?
Hotlips Pizza has been my favorite Portland food institution since 1985, when they opened. The food is delicious, always super-fresh, and most of their ingredients come from local farms. They change their salads and pizzas as the seasons change and make the most unbelievable soda pop from local berries (flavors also change seasonally). The staff drive electric cars for delivery, and just seeing one of those cars with red lips on it lightens my mood.
Vegan Action (www.vegan.org) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping animals, the environment and human health by educating the public about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle and encouraging the spread of vegan food options through a number of public outreach campaigns. A vegan ethic and lifestyle is an all-encompassing way to say yes to life and no to cruelty and killing. Vegan Action consciously tries to create a kinder, gentler world for all beings.