Our friend Jonathan Taylor writes:
I saw this news of a vendor ejected from New York City’s Greenmarket farmers markets, for offering products not raised on his own farm, just after I read John McPhee’s “Giving Good Weight,” an article on the markets from the July 3, 1978, New Yorker. (Not online; link is to abstract.) The Greenmarket program had only begun in 1976. McPhee worked for several months for Hodgson Farm of Newburgh, N.Y., manning stands (in “black Harlem,” Union Square, the Upper East Side and Brooklyn) and observing the initial interactions between farmers—who were new to selling on the streets of the city—and urbanites, who were often clueless about agriculture but, of course, were also finicky know-it-alls.
“Giving Good Weight” was reprinted in a 1979 book of the same title. Also in that volume is “Brigade de Cuisine,” a lengthy portrait (from the Feb. 19, 1979, issue) of a Tri-State-area country farmhouse restaurant so superb, and so happily off the Manhattanite radar, that McPhee insisted on concealing the real identities of the establishment and its chef, “Otto.” Farmers markets, and a restaurant said to be secretly the best table within 100 miles of Manhattan: both of these could be topics of articles you’d read in The New Yorker (or New York) today—but together, they suggest how the business of informed eating has changed over the past 30 years.
As described by McPhee, the early markets are recognizable, but differ from the epicenters of that brand of local and sustainable consumption that now defines the city’s aspirational food culture. McPhee glancingly notes just one “organic” producer, in quotation marks. Many of those first vendors came to the market as last-ditch effort to save a generations-old farm from ruin. The “grow-your-own” rule was in effect from the beginning, although then, at least, there was a provision for supplementing with small amounts of a “neighbor’s” crops.
McPhee saw the farmers—“friendly from the skin out, they are deep competitors”—accuse each other, sometimes even justly, of offenses that today would be more scandalous than Dines’s: acquiring produce trucked in to the Hunts Point Terminal in the Bronx, and passing it off as their own. But the growers and the Greenmarket organizers were still taking risks on each other in pursuing their common goal, the markets’ success; in this freewheeling atmosphere, a crate of California peaches earns only the stern, readily obeyed order from a Greenmarket official: “They must go back on the truck.”The Greenmarket program was established in response to a situation in which “New Yorkers complained of brown lettuce and hard tomatoes while local farms went bankrupt,” in the program’s own words. In McPhee’s words, it provided “tumbling horns of fresh plenty at the people’s feet,” in something like an Old World market day, where the full spectrum of New Yorkers descended to drive a hard bargain. McPhee calls the Brooklyn market “the most cornucopian of all” and “a nexus of the race”:
Greeks. Italians. Russians. Finns. Haitians. Puerto Ricans. Nubians. Muslim women in veils of shocking pink. Sunnis in total black. Women in hiking shorts, with babies in their backpacks. Young Connecticut-looking pants-suit women…country Jamaicans, in loose dresses…white-bearded, black-bearded, split-bearded Jews. Down off Park Slope and Cobble Hill come the neo-bohemians, out of the money and into the arts.When McPhee would arrive in the early morning hours at the lot, the Brooklyn market then occupied, at Atlantic and Fourth Avenues, “a miscellany of whores is calling it a day.” (The site, I believe, is now a P.C. Richard.)
Woman says, “What is this stuff on these peaches?”Today, the repartee between the metropolitans and those who sustain them (and whom they sustain in turn) goes on; it’s more elaborate, now that the regulars are more preoccupied with the food they eat and how it came to be. Management consultant-turned-hot pepper and tomato grower Tim Stark describes, in the August issue of Gourmet (not online), the conversational duels he has to engage in with capsicum freaks and deeply skeptical West Indian women just to make a couple bucks’ sale. McPhee’s Hodgson Farm, by the way, is still at the Union Square market.
“It’s called fuzz.”
“It was on your peaches last week, too.”
“We don’t take it off. When you buy peaches in the store, the fuzz has been rubbed off.”
“Well, I never.”
(Another fine account by a writer working a spell for a New York Greenmarket vendor—although on the farm rather than at the markets—is the one by poet and novelist James Lasdun’s in the London Review of Books.)
“Brigade de Cuisine” is even more of a blast from the past, and I found it a bit embarrassing to read even before I found out what happened when the piece was published. The accolades that David Chang gets are nothing to McPhee’s opening pronunciation that meals at “Otto’s” resaurant would occupy the first “twenty or thirty” spots on his all-time list of best repasts—eventually followed, “perhaps,” by “the fields of Les Baux or the streets of Lyons.” (McPhee probably does have such a list; in 2007 he wrote in The New Yorker about his “life list” of the unusual foods he’s eaten.) This was taken as a brazen insult to the city’s restauranteurs, compounded by Otto’s dismissal of New York’s ranking French restaurants as “frog ponds.” (The magazine subsequently ran a note saying that Otto had “guessed wrong” when he suggested to McPhee that Lutece’s turbot was frozen.)
This Time article nicely describes the ensuing caper: New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton identified, and panned, Otto’s table within days. (Otto, a.k.a. Alan Lieb, had, by the time McPhee’s article came out, moved on to a new restaurant, the Bullhead Inn in Shohola, in northeastern Pennsylvania.) More details of the aftermath are in Sheraton’s memoir Eating My Words. She wrote that “many years later,” she “unwittingly” dined at Lieb’s subsequent restaurant in the Poconos, but gives no further details “because it is no longer of public interest.”
Reading “Brigade de Cuisine” today, it’s not hard to conclude that McPhee was too easily impressed, as he worshipfully recounts Otto’s every move: “His way of making coffee is to line a colander with a linen napkin and drip the coffee through the napkin.” McPhee invites the reader (in vain, in my case) to fantasize about being able to follow Otto around New York and imitate him: “With luck, you will be seated at a table near him. Listen. Watch. He orders spiedino. You order spiedino…. He orders a bottle of Verdicchio. You order a bottle of Verdicchio.”
Most of Otto’s actual cuisine sounds stuffy and old-fashioned (veal cordon bleu), standard (osso buco) or sometimes just unappetizing (“sauteed chicken breasts with apple-cider sauce”), rather than visionary. It conjures the obsolete mode of food appreciation that went by the name “gourmet,” a word that now sounds quaint in the “foodie” world that encompasses Thomas Keller and the Red Hook ballfields, Chowhound and Top Chef.
McPhee contrasts Otto’s restaurant with the industrialization of even somewhat upscale restaurants, visiting Idle Wild Farm Inc., a provider of frozen “instant entrees” to “kitchenless kitchens.” He implies that his desire to keep Otto’s identity secret is intended to protect the last of a dying breed: the restaurant where fresh, seasonal food is cooked carefully by a perfectionist chef for an intimate group of regular appreciants. But apart from the merits of his dishes, in this respect Otto’s enterprise seems a precursor to modern priorities rather than “the wave of the past,” as McPhee wrote. There are certainly as many factory-made entrees by the likes of Idle Wild being served, in casual-dining and hotel restaurants, as McPhee might have feared. But his description of Otto—whom another acolyte calls “the last great individualist”—reads in many ways like almost a parody of the archetypical hot New York chef of today.
It’s easy to say that with hindsight, but this points to what strikes me as a shortcoming in both pieces: a certain lack of perspective, a tunnel vision. Though McPhee is recording change—a new way of buying food in New York, a seeming decline in culinary craftsmanship—his writing here lacks, for me, enough of a sense of the specificity, the contingency of the moment: a sensibility found (if sometimes to a portentous fault) in the work of other great chroniclers like Joan Didion, George Trow, Renata Adler. McPhee’s especial drive to get into the thick of things, materially, might serve his writings on nature better than it does social subjects like this one. But it does preserve invaluable raw material for food anthropologists of New York, professional and amateur, and that’s satisfying nourishment.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and pre-web internet nut. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
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