Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Special Guest Post: Revisiting John McPhee on NYC's Greenmarkets

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , , ,

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.)

Taken together, today’s markets probably offer up a similarly kaleidoscopic vision, although with 45 locations now, the stratification that McPhee observed between the Brooklyn “nexus of the race” and the 59th Street market (“Mucho white people,” another seller said) is even more advanced. For many customers’ dollars, markets compete not so much with the brown lettuce of bodegas, but with Whole Foods and pricey specialty stores. Much as I think market produce is worth every penny, I doubt I’ll ever hear, “How can you charge so little?” as McPhee did. That dialogue between growers and customers is the meat, so to speak, of McPhee’s piece:
Woman says, “What is this stuff on these peaches?”
“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.”
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.

(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.


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.

“When you buy peaches in the store, the fuzz has been rubbed off.”

Um, maybe the guy had been buying nectarines in the belief they were peaches? All the peaches I’ve ever bought has had fuzz on them, even the ones I’ve bought in the nastiest supermarkets!

Which wouldn’t make the exchange any less funny, except that it would incorporate a small tall tale into the vendor’s half of the dialogue, and bland credulity in the buyer’s half.

Man, this is a great post. Fantastic work!

I love the bits about the turf pride that arose from the (perhaps overweening) praise of Otto. When I saw David Chang at the New Yorker Conference, he dissed California chefs. There’s a humorous comparison to the NYC-LA rap “wars” to be made here, but then again, most cuisines are regional, after all! French, Italian, Chinese—somehow it lends itself to this sort of territorial sniping.

Nice essay—“otto” stuck in my mind so much that years later when I heard of Blue Hill I thought “oh, that must be Otto.”

It’s a fundamental mistake to read McPhee solely for his message. Recently, I reread the “Encircled River” section of his great Alaska book “Coming Into The Country.” What a wonderful piece of writing purely as writing! “Giving Good Weight” is one of my all-time favorite McPhee pieces. I love its structure and I love its descriptions. Jonathan Taylor’s post is interesting, but it fails to appreciate McPhee’s stories for what they really are - great works of art.

The thing of it is…Alan (a.k.a.) Otto was that good! At the time the New Yorker article came out, I was a young chef in New York, working my way around various boutique nouvelle cuisine restaurants. I had not, and have not, ever tasted anything as wonderful as Alan’s food. He could make black-bean soup taste sublime! And he worked incredibly hard. I know. I remember how hard restaurant cooking was when there was an entire crew of cooks. He did it all alone. And he really did change the menu every night. And the food was always fresh and made to order when that was still a novel idea. Over the course of the next two years I ate there at least once a month and learned more about cooking from eating his food than with any of the chefs I worked with in NY.

Hello Jamal - Great to get some testimony about “Otto” from outside the media circus around it, from an appreciative eater and fellow culinary professional.

Had you been to the restaurant before it was publicized after the article, and if so, how had you found out about it?

I was one of the handful of Alan and Ronnie Lieb’s local “appreciants” as a high school boy living in rural New Jersey. My parents adored The Red Fox Inn and we made the 2o mile drive to Milford from Branchville quite regularly, loving every exquisite meal we ever had there. Ronnie would receive us with her stammering, but warm Lithuanian-accented welcome and Alan would usually come out to chat and describe the extraordinary ingredients he had managed to acquire from the local folk who always offered him their fresh killed fish and game, snails and mushrooms from the woods, shad roe from the Delaware or watercress from their secret streams. Before Alan was “discovered,” the experience was quite like being entertained in a lovely private home adorned with the heavy dark wood antiques they had brought with them from Spain including a majestic Bull’s Head mounted on the wall. Not being a food writer, I know I can’t do justice to the magnificence of those meals, but I recall that even as a novice foodie I recognized that every bite of every dish was arresting in a manner unlike any other meal. We usually enjoyed the recommended wines along with the several courses and I learned about the complimentary nature of well chosen pairings. Whether it was the amuse-bouches, appetizers, entrees, or desserts that claimed the most credit, I can’t really say. They were perfect meals, elegant in all respects and experiences I only now encounter in portions of meals elsewhere. We were lucky people to have known the Liebs and miss them to this day. I remember an evening when my father was telling Ronnie about encountering a Lithuanian cargo ship he had once impounded during a brief assignment as harbor master of Halifax Harbor during WWII. The astonishment she registered at this news was complete. The ship my father had prevented from returning to Europe had been owned by Ronnie’s family and would have been immediately lost to the war effort the moment it docked on a return voyage. My father was credited with the salvation of the family’s fortune and we felt like a genuine part of the family ever after. Alas, there was that man from the NY Times who began writing those laudatory, but cursed, articles about this extraordinary chef whose name he could not reveal. It was not terribly long before the strangers began to appear, those determined to locate the mythical Otto for themselves. We could spot them on sight, self-importantly dining alone and rhapsodizing noisily over every exquisite morsel. For a brief time these interlopers could not be certain they had identified THE Otto, but the food was SO exceptional, the uncertainty didn’t last for very long. The Liebs were distressed and apologetic to their regulars and seemed to me to feel like hunted animals trying to make the most of their few remaining days of normal life before their celebrity status ruined them forever. They tried to refuse invitations from strangers for a time, but the demand was overwhelming and the shy couple ultimately lost the life they had cherished of privacy and friendships with local families. They knew that their geography doomed them, being too close to New York and Philadelphia to escape the gastronomes making their pilgrimages to the best food in the U.S. Though they lived in Milford, PA, a remote place, it wasn’t remote enough to hide them from the fame they richly deserved. The phone rang off the hook all day and there was no normalcy left for their regular clientele. They attempted to make a run for it, to Shaola, PA, a small town even more remote than Milford and further from the large cities. They opened The Bull’s Head Inn in what must have been an old bar with cheap wood grained paneling and downscale table settings. I believe the strategy was to discourage the rich and famous by depriving them of any trace of comfort or ambiance, but the whole effort just seemed unfortunate. We made the very long drive to The Bull’s Head a couple of times, but the experience was so different and Alan and Ronnie seemed depressed by the loss of the former life they had so artfully constructed in their lovely house in Milford. After our couple of visits to The Bull’s Head, we found ourselves depressed by the way success had harmed a wonderful couple who had achieved a perfection of living so rarely seen in the world. To this day, I feel John McPhee should be utterly ashamed of what he did to those people. Of course he flattered them, but he also hurt them very deeply. I miss them and wish them well wherever they may now be.

Alan called me today to let me know that Ronnie has died of cancer 10 days ago. Ronnie was an old ceramic friend of mine from when we both lived on Bainbridge Island, WA. in the 90’s. She was truly a “one of a kind”. Unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy Alan’s culinary talents…….but got to taste Ronnie’s delicious pastries…….she was the baker in the family as I recall…….may she rest in peace.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree