Archives for the month of: September, 2013
Randall's Island Urban Farm

Randall’s Island Urban Farm. photo by Sha Huang

Giant bok choy leaves, golden tomatoes, lemony sorrel, and koshihikari rice all flowing over the sides of their raised beds. You are surrounded by an oasis of lush, bountiful diversity that any northeastern gardener or farmer could hope for, and the thing that brings you back to reality is the commuter train passing over the Hell’s Gate Bridge, 300 feet above you, every 20 minutes – “you can set your watch to it” says Nick Storrs.

Mr. Storrs is one of the head farmers at Randall’s Island Urban Farm – a one acre plot on the southern tip of Randall’s Island and managed by the Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The urban farm – whose mission is “to create and sustain an organic farm that involves… students in all aspects of farming the garden, as well as preparing, serving and eating food” – began in 2006 as a small 2,500 sq. ft. garden, and has since grown to over an acre, including dozens of edible plants species, chickens, and an adjoining apple orchard; they even grow rice!

The three (soon to be four) beds of koshihikari rice are what drew our three-person film crew to Randall’s Island on this late summer afternoon. When asked why they were growing such a difficult, water-intensive, crop in New York City – where rice is not native – Nick humbly nodded his head with anticipation, as though he had his answer ready and waiting. He said that growing challenging crops, like rice in NYC, helps them – and farmers all around the world – to better understand what kind of things can be grown and in what kind of places. This sort of thinking may help us to meet food scarcity issues head-on: “increasing the diversity of the foods that we grow increases our food security,” he said. In addition Nick believes that we should literally be closer to our food, and that growing rice here allows the swarms of school children who flock to Randall’s Island to have a better understanding and appreciation of their food. Aside from that, Nick simply likes to farm – “On a personal level I think it’s beautiful… and I enjoy growing challenging crops, and being pushed as an agriculturalist to grow everything that I can as well as I can.”

Randall’s Island Farm has been a great find for our hyperlocal meal, however much of the seed used to grow their crops, including the rice which is purchased from Kitazawa Seed Company in California, is from outside of the city limits. Perhaps only 10 percent of their seed is saved and replanted the following season, disqualifying most of their produce from our meal, given strict regulations. Yet one species stuck out as particularly local: the Newtown Pippen Apple. This light green apple variety is said to have originated in New York City, and was widely grown and praised in colonial America. Nick told us that letters between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington debated the best type of apples, and indeed mention the Newtown Pippen. In the end, the experiences and food that we received on Randall’s Island are not only a source of nourishment, but also a source of pride.

The apples were tart but tasty, the mulberries were out of season, and the epazote was nowhere to be found; in fact, I still don’t even know what epazote is. I am referring to foraging – of the urban variety – to which I had devoted my weekend.

Many New Yorkers know of Central Park to be a natural sanctuary to find rest, relaxation, and leisurely activities, especially on a sunny summer weekend. Few, however, may know of the nourishing elements of the park. Indeed Central Park is not just an 840 acre playground but is host to many, not only edible, but nutritious and delicious, plants. And with the help of a professional forager or a fruit-locating web service, any one of us urbanites can unlock the door to a world of free seasonal food, just across the street.

After having learned of neaighborhoodfruit.com, a website that provides mapped coordinates of fruit trees and bushes in a selected area, I mapped out some nearby fruit trees and took to the streets. Friday was a sort of test run, as it was my first time using the website. The site, which after asking for your zipcode and desired radius, displays a google map along with cartoon-like trees that indicate the type of fruit one can expect to find there. My first stop was a mulberry tree, but since mulberries are out of season it was particularly difficult to spot. The raspberry bush as well, being out of season, was camouflaged among the other shrubs. So far I was at a loss for fruit; though if these plants were indeed of the fruit bearing varieties, regardless of my poor timing, then neighborhoodfruit.com was at least proving to be a trustworthy resource.

I soon arrived at an arborous patch of park, on the east side, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There I found an apple tree, bearing a handful of apples high up and out-of-reach. I tossed up a rock to knock down a couple of specimens, and sure enough the apples were tart and crisp – as apples are. I ate my freshly foraged apple and was filled with an appley satisfaction.

Late summer may not be the best time of year to forage for fruit, at least not for an amature forager, but there are and were still plenty of edible species. The following day I met up with Lars and, traveling by bike, hit up several more neighborhoods in search of fruit trees. We found a tasty and abundant fruit called Hawthorne (similar to crabapple) and filled our bags to the brim. We also found fig and peach trees, though neither had any edible morsels.

On a subsequent trip to Central Park, Lars and I picked up some delicious wood sorrel, as well as some lambsquarters, mugwort, and a couple of pounds of acorns, for which to make acorn flour. Given we are still newbies to the vast world of wild edible plants, I am confident that these expeditions, and the bounty we receive, will enable us to conduct a hyperlocal dinner of the highest caliber and a truly local terroir.