The Brooklyn Cure

In the past few months, this locavore has been splitting her time between two cities. My husband and I travel between Somerville, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York on a weekly basis. This was precipitated, in part, by my songwriter-husband’s need to be closer to the music, film and television industry where he has been working to sell his music. But I must admit, I also saw it as an adventure. In more than one publication, Brooklyn was noted as being ground zero for urban locavore efforts; from the outside, it seemed like you couldn’t throw a borough-raised egg without hitting a farm-to-table restaurant, community garden or artisanal food start-up. Plus, I thought, what better way to test out the tenets of the book I was writing than to have to start building my locavore network from scratch. I was up for the challenge. We found an incredibly lucky sublet, were able to rearrange our schedules to be able to spend four days a week in Brooklyn, and started our bi-urban adventure in early August.

 

Luckily, the first few weeks were easy, before my teaching schedule kicked in. I had plenty of time to research the numerous farmer’s markets around the 5 boroughs (ok, just Brooklyn and Manhattan – getting to the Bronx or Queens can take as long as a drive from our Somerville home to New Hampshire) and plan my day accordingly. I was still a tourist in my new part-time city, so a walk through Prospect Park, about a mile or so from my new apartment, ended at Grand Army Plaza’s large green market. I loaded up my canvas bags and navigated the subway home. A search for composting in Brooklyn led to a compost garden less than a ten minute walk away – and they hosted various open hours during the week where anyone could drop off composting for the community volunteers to do the dirty work, as it were.

But, I soon realized, that our cheap sublet came with a price: it was in a relatively isolated neighborhood – close to the train, but not really walking distance from the local markets that I wanted to frequent. If I wanted a certain cut of meat for dinner, I generally had to plan ahead and pick it up during my forays into Manhattan or the more, for lack of a better descriptor, yuppie Brooklyn neighborhoods. There were plenty of nearby bodegas, but even if we could navigate the language barrier, I was fairly certain there were no organic produce offerings and the meat I did spy on my few ventures into these stores seemed more “discount” than locally sourced. But a benefit to our frequent trips back and forth to Somerville was that we could buy meat and veggies from our favorite local market on the weeks we drove ourselves, and import them to South Brooklyn. This involved a lot of forethought, however, and was not exactly in spirit of being a locavore in my new city.

Then the latest charcuterie challenge was upon me and, at the same time, a few curve balls had been thrown my way. I had to make an unexpected trip to my hometown mid-week, throwing our otherwise well-choreographed schedule into turmoil. Then varying meetings and gigs meant that Steve and I would be commuting to Brooklyn separately by bus, rather than driving together. For the first time since we moved, I would have to find my ingredients in Brooklyn.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as if I suddenly had to learn how to shop in a remote small town or a foreign country. I was in New York City after all; if I couldn’t find dextrose here, then I couldn’t find it anywhere (or however the song goes). But I soon found that it wasn’t so easy. Luckily, I had salt-packed hog casings left over from previous sausage efforts, all the necessary spices in my cupboard and found everything else I needed with relative ease… except the meat.

I had decided to go with pepperoni for this challenge, partly because I loved the idea of elevating what is often viewed as the most ubiquitous and plebian of all fermented meat (although it might be less so if pepperoni was billed as such at the pizza parlor) – but also because of the location of our sublet: we lived among the largest ultra-orthodox Jewish population in the world, outside of Israel. If I did plan on hanging the meat in my new basement, I thought it might be more polite if it weren’t pork.

I started my quest for quality, sustainably-produced lean stew beef at the Flatbush Co-op, a fifteen minute walk away. Their offerings were a reality check – the cheapest beef was $15.99 a pound. I couldn’t stomach fifty-dollar pepperoni, so I wracked my brain for an alternative that didn’t involve graying packages in the back of dimly lit corner store. I recalled a newly opened butcher halfway home.

It was dark and nearing closing time when I walked into the shop. The small storefront was clean and spare; the Grand Opening banner was still hanging from the sign above, indicating that their meat was Kosher. I had done some research into Kosher laws for meat – basically a Kosher distinction should ensure that the animal experienced as little pain as possible during slaughter, the blood was drained thoroughly, certain safety and sanitary conditions were observed, and the meat was immediately washed, rinsed and salted, among other rules. In the depths of my memory, I recalled an expose on some Kosher meat, where a rabbi was present at an industrial slaughter-house as egregious as any profiled in Food, Inc. or Fast Food Nation, but I decided to go with my gut. Here was a proprietor who cared enough about his craft to open a butcher shop in a neighborhood where cheap meat was available on every corner. His shop was spotless, and the large beef shoulder in the refrigerated case looked deep red, slightly marbled and lovely. I could see into the back room where he had been recently grinding. So recent, that perhaps he wouldn’t mind grinding my shoulder for me, saving me quite a bit of time and mess. I decided not to ask where the meat was from, not to even hint at questioning the goods of a neighbor who so clearly appeared to care about cleanliness and quality of his product. Wasn’t buying from this gentleman – a seeming expert, who quickly sliced me off a perfect three pound hunk of beef shoulder, and then ground it and mixed it by hand for me for a full three minutes, all for less than six dollars a pound – the very epitome of buying local? Despite his limited communicating capacities in English, his warning that the meat was Kosher, washed and salted, did I mind?, we both seemed to understand that this was not a one-time transaction, but perhaps the first of many.

I brought the meat home, added the spices, curing salt and the live fermenting cultures and stuffed it into my hog casings all in less than an hour. While I worked, I silently thanked the butcher for the five minutes he took to grind and work the meat that saved me perhaps another hour in hand-grinding and clean-up. And I also thought about how my search for meat in my new neighborhood was in some ways symbolic of the converging identities of Brooklyn that I was only now starting to see. In my immediate neighborhood were Brooklynites who had lived there for generations; they had their own culture – food and otherwise – and I was, in many ways, and interloper.

And then there was the Coop that we had joined immediately upon moving. This was, to us at the time, what Brooklyn was: the mecca of organic and local and sustainably foods situated across from a Mexican restaurant, and catty corner from the bakery that had been on the same block for fifty years. But I had realized, by the time our permanent membership cards – emblazoned with our photos and names, ensuring us a 3% discount – had arrived in the mail that it was a great place for some items like bulk grains and a selection of dairy products from the Hudson Valley, it was also overpriced ($5 peanut butter?!) and, at a full fifteen minutes away (if walking briskly), a bit far. I was glad the Coop existed, but I soon recognized it wouldn’t be the only – or even primary – place I shopped.

It was only when I proudly wound my coil of pepperoni, and began looking around my new home for a place – semi-humid and around 60 degrees – where it might hang and not upset the neighbors, did I consider where I now fit in amid the tapestry of Brooklyn. Sure, I hoped to support local products and urban homesteading efforts – I had already found and begun volunteering at a nearby compost garden and had imported a few tomato plants and herbs for the front porch – but I also wanted to learn from and honor the great diversity of food and culture around me. But I realized, with my coils of Italian peperone looking to be hung in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood, that I could add as much as I learned. I vowed, despite the occassional language challenges, despite the downcast eyes I received from many neighbors, that I would be myself here in Brooklyn. I was as much Brooklyn as they were, and maybe, just maybe, we could learn from each other.

 

 

 

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