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The morning of Tabaski with Haby, Jenabu, Kadiatou, and some random baby

Before coming to Senegal I was Matt or Matthew. Sometimes I would think about my name and how it suited me, but most of the time I just wore it without noticing. And then, a year ago, I arrived in Senegal and was given a new name. As Peace Corps volunteers we receive a local name, in part because it helps us to integrate, but also because our host families would not be able to pronounce our American names. My new name is Amadou Diallo.

Sometimes it’s nice to have a new name, but until recently I haven’t taken it too seriously. Most locals giggle with incredulity that I could have a Fulani name. And for most of my first year here I’ve had too much on my mind to care about what people call me. But I hear this name everyday. I hear it from the people who greet me as I walk down the street; I hear it from my host-mother or host-grandmother when they call me to the dinner bowl. I’ve heard it over and over for a year, and the strange thing is that it doesn’t sound so strange anymore.

“I felt a pride I had never felt before. I’d never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps the name itself has no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over. I knew for the first time who I really was.”

My situation is not as dramatic or as simple as Dances with Wolves. I’ve lived a meaningful life as Matthew Fleischmann and will continue to do so after my service. But after a year here I understand what he means: that your name is only as meaningful as your connection with the people who call you by it. And to make our local names even more meaningful (or perhaps just easier to remember) we are given the name of another member of our host family. This person is our namesake or tokora.

My tokora, Amadou Julde Diallo, is the eldest son of my host mother, Jenabu Diallo. Amadou derives from the West African interpretation of the prophet Mohammed. Julde is the Pulaar word for holiday (he was born on Tabaski, a national holiday commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice to god). And Diallo (pronounced Jallow) is a Pula Futa surname connoting a noble family.

So that’s me now – a noble Pullo, traversing pastoral West Africa through the ages in my transhumance and settling in the Fuladu of southern Senegal. I share this name, not only with my host brother, but with many others here as well. And in this part of the world it’s a big deal to share a name. As if the people here weren’t already overly friendly, there’s an added kinship with your tokora.

Now I have many tokoras. But before coming to Senegal I had never met another Amadou Diallo, although I knew of one. He made headlines in the U.S. eighteen years ago for being an innocent unarmed black man who was shot 42 times by 4 NYPD officers in front of the door to his Bronx apartment. After the shooting, the officers were charged with second-degree murder. The trial was moved from NYC to Albany and all four officers were acquitted. One of the officers, Kenneth Boss, continued to work for the NYPD, and eventually even got a promotion.


Amadou Diallo (1976 – 1999)

Although it wasn’t caught on camera and publicized though social media it still became etched in our American identity. There are dozens of references to the shooting in pop culture. Erykah Badu, Le Tigre, and Ziggy Marley all have songs about Diallo. Even my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, wrote a song about him called “American Skin (41 Shots).”

My intention here is not to discuss police brutality or race relations back home. Those topics are beyond the scope of this post. But I will say that I remember the heartache and disunity resulting from the shooting, and that it’s important to remember these events in order to bring about change, despite what little progress has been made since then. And I believe that positive change can be made in part through integration and open discussion.

Instead, I mean to highlight my newfound connection with a person and a people through a name. I never met that Amadou Diallo, but I bet I could tell you a few things about him: that he was probably a laid back guy, who loved his family, and liked some coffee with his sugar. I can tell this because I’ve lived with his people; I’ve played soccer with his brothers; I’ve pounded okra with his sisters.

When I first arrived here my new name was awkward and precarious, like a nametag on sticky-tape waiting to fall off your shirt. But as the days and months passed and I began to settle into my new life here, so too did I begin to settle into my new name. Perhaps we volunteers should wait until we’ve been here for a full year – until we’ve earned it – before receiving our local names, because what makes me Amadou now is not the word itself, but my friends and community here. And when the dinner bowl is ready and Nene Jenabu calls Amadou, I know it’s me – not because she knows me by that name, but simply because she knows me.


Michel, Joseph, and Ibrahim showing off our newly transplanted nightshades

Last month Celine posted some photos of us volunteers, and a family friend from home commented – “Looks like a great time. Does anybody work?” A look back through the photos and I could see what he meant by his snarky commentary. The album was all play and no work – shot after shot of exotic places and smiling faces. I looked back through my own posted photos and saw the same thing – a visual travelogue comprising snapshots of my happiest moments here. I was reminded of how we like to edit our own lives. We skip over the slow parts (work), we cut out the sad parts (loneliness), and we look deeper into the good parts (time spent with friends on the westernmost shores of a whole continent). It’s not like we’d be posting photos of our work if we were back in the States anyway. But lately I have been spending more time with my hands in the dirt, and it warrants a report. So Alan, this one is for you.

I’m an urban agriculture volunteer in the south of Senegal. I chose this work and I chose this country, and luckily I got both. Some volunteers agree to be sent anywhere and do anything but I knew right away that this was the field for me. I believe in growing food where it will be eaten and finding more sustainable ways of producing food if we are to continue to exist on this planet. I chose urban because I’ve grown fond of electricity and running water and I just wasn’t ready to give them up for two years.

We arrive in Senegal and get a quick and tumultuous 2 months of training before they ship us off to the far corners of the country and tell us to be farmers. They also say: your service is what you make of it, and you’re only volunteers so don’t worry about it, whatever it may be. But I worry about everything. And I’m no good with mixed messages, so I do the only thing that makes sense, which is what my APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director), Massaly, told me to do in the first place: 1) turn my demonstration garden into a self-sustaining garden space for community education and local food production; 2) work with local farmers to grow field crops by distributing seeds and monitoring their progress; and 3) work with a master farmer to develop and maintain a progressive master farm where we can train other farmers.

So I go to my garden, every morning and every evening, and it’s hard. Literally, the ground is hard. It’s compacted and eroded and dry. For my first 6 months at site it was the dry season and almost everything I planted died. But I didn’t give up. I continued to go out there every day and work the hardened soil, double-digging each garden bed with a narrow pickaxe and taking extra time to remove the garbage – one day I dug up 27 batteries. I kept trying to plant cucumbers while the locals shook their heads, because I knew that when my cucumbers finally did grow they would have the least amount of battery acid of any urban cucumbers this side of the Gambia.

Eventually I found some things that didn’t die, like horseradish tree, and I planted so much of it that my work partner, Fatou, told me to stop. And then the rains came and everything started to grow, even things I didn’t plant. I remembered that Mother Nature provides what we need at the time that we need it. That, and because of the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, the tropics get extra radiation that warms the earth and cools at higher altitudes giving us our rainy seasons. So I learned that you just have to wait until June to plant your cucumbers. I also learned that in this part of the world it either rains to so hard that you’re surprised your roof is still there in the morning, or it doesn’t rain at all. Some mornings I know that I don’t need to go water my garden, because it surely has washed away.


Nene Fatou Mori stealing the moringa that she told me not to plant (like a true Baldé)

But it’s figuratively hard too, for someone who just wants to be left alone at work, when your work is an open garden in the middle of a city. Every day passersby yell out to me as I’m working. They want to know what I’m growing, where I’m from, or what’s playing on my iPod, and they each want to be greeted extensively. I get frustrated. How can I get my work done with these constant distractions and unwanted attention? I become a grumpy old man and ignore people and wave them off and yell at kids who lean on my fence. NE TOUCHE PAS LE GRILLAGE!

Then one day I had enough. Class let out and a gaggle of schoolboys felt that they had nothing better to do than to pester me and lean on my fence. It was time to put them to work. If you want to be here then dig this garden bed. Here’s the pickaxe. And they did. They double dug the entire 3-meter bed, displacing each layer of topsoil and amending each bottom layer with wood ash and manure – just like I showed them. Afterwards, the boy who did the most work asked for money, with a sly look as though aware of his own audacity. Even though I tell most people who come around looking for work that I can’t pay them, I knew he had earned it. So I gave him 100 francs – a nominal amount for hard work, albeit an amount I knew would be agreeable, if not the going rate. But before the boy could even imagine the taste of the cookies he would buy, his friends were vociferously admonishing him for taking it. They shamed him into giving it back to me, and the look on his face said that he knew he couldn’t keep it.

They rambunctiously ran off in the same manner they had come, and left me standing there puzzled. I felt I had learned something but I wasn’t sure what. Was he not allowed to take the money because one person should not have more than anyone else? Or was it because help should be given free of charge? I assumed the latter. Couldn’t they have all just asked for money, knowing that I was willing to pay it? I was surprised by their benevolence, and yet this wasn’t the only time here that I was caught off guard by kindness.


Filling tree sacks with my first trainees

Assignment #2: Extend field crop seeds to local farmers. Ok, but how? I don’t know any people here, let alone farmers, let alone 16 of them, which are how many Massaly wants me to give seeds to. And I barely speak Pulaar. Am I supposed to just walk up to random people on the street and say Good day sir, peace be unto you, I have some millet seeds here, would you like them? Incidentally, if you do that in Velingara people will say yes. Not only do they like free things as much as Americans, but everyone here is involved in some level of farming. But it turned out to be easier than that.

My demo garden is next to the Velingara Office of Agriculture. So one day as I saw some folks coming around to get equipment and amendment I approached one of them. Lama Diallo, a round-faced young man, wore a polo shirt, pressed slacks, and a plaid flat cap – well dressed for a farmer here or anywhere. He speaks a little English, so I mixed that with my little French and little Pulaar to explain my predicament. He said that he would find the farmers and gather them at the garden so that I could distribute my seeds. And he did. All the farmers showed up at the agreed upon date and time, and he even helped to explain to them how I wanted to visit their farms and monitor their crops. Afterwards, I thanked him zealously. He smiled (though he’s always smiling) and said that he was only doing his job. I nodded and smiled back. But what I was really thinking was: No, this is definitely not your job. I know that you didn’t interview for this and your résumé doesn’t say – “Help random Americans with volunteer assignments”.

Lama continues to be an indispensible work partner and simply a good person to be around, and I continue to be amazed by the people I meet and the situations I find myself in. But it’s not always pleasant; in fact it’s often unpleasant. The work is hard and it’s slow and our service is riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings and failures that we would be happy to forget, not photographed and posted on Facebook. Like many people, I want to produce work that I can be proud of, and I get frustrated when I can’t. But my region-mate, Jason, reminded me the other day that we are Peace Corps volunteers and our primary purpose here is cultural exchange. It’s connecting with people on a deep level; it’s fostering peace. The people who we meet here may not remember the work that we did, but they will remember how we made them feel. And if we happen to get some sector work done along the way then that’s an added bonus. And if it’s photogenic then it might wind up on Facebook.

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My 8-year old host aunt, Jenabu, whipping up a mean peanut maafe for lunch

Day 23 of Ramadan with one week left to go – coming down the homestretch, and not a moment too soon. During the month-long holiday, here in Sub-Saharan Africa where it’s 100 degrees on a cool day, people don’t eat or drink anything between 5:30am and 7:30pm; not a drop of water, not a lick of frozen hibiscus juice. Though everything else is business as usual. Women still go to the market to buy and sell the food that will feed the families of this country; kids go to school to learn any language but their own; and young men, wearing down jackets, taxi wealthy women around on the backs of their motorcycles.

And then there’s me: the only white person in a town of 30,000, just trying to blend in. Biking to and from my garden each day, pedaling as fast as I can through the deep layer of sand that blankets the streets (in other words, not fast), so as to avoid being noticed by anyone and draw unwanted attention. If there were simply a handful of folks who wanted to greet me, or a harmless few children shouting toubako at me, then I would gladly stop to greet or engage in the tomfoolery, but it’s literally everyone. Every single person who sees me biking or trotting past needs, just needs, to be greeted; or to ask me for money, or my bike; or tell me a story about their interaction with another Peace Corps volunteer six years ago; or shout toubako, repeatedly, until I respond, so that they know that I heard them. But, I digress.

Ramadan is a month long holiday, in which people who observe it deprive themselves of food and drink for the purposes of cleansing their souls and fortifying their will power under the gaze of Allah. Observers wake up at 5:00am each day to cram as much water and coffee and bread into their faces before the first call to prayer, and before going back to bed. But I’m Jewish (or any other excuse to skip this part of integration), thus I still eat and drink. I begin my sacrilege each morning by going to my usual greasy spoon. Blandine, my breakfast lady, is Christian and therefore doesn’t observe Ramadan (or Soumai, as it’s known here), and so she’s open for business. Blandine, known to other volunteers as Blondie (photo here), is a 250 pound Senegalese woman, so only loosely resembles Debbie Harry. She makes a mean “omelet” sandwich, which is my usual. An oily scrambled egg with chopped onions, ketchup and seasoning, on fresh handmade bread, and a small cup of Guinean spiced coffee will run you 0.60¢ at Blondie’s. And for an extra 0.15¢, she’ll throw on some fried bean nuggets (like dense tater tots made with mashed bean). Though lately I’ve been getting just the bean nugget sandwiches without the omelet to save money for lunch.

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Enjoying my “omelet” sandwich and café touba beside Blandine

Normally one of the women in my family (and I include 8 year-old Jenabu here; photo above) will prepare lunch for all of us.  But since they are devout Muslims (my deceased host father was a marabout), they’re fasting, and I’m on my own for lunch as well. At first I was a bit lost, not knowing what to eat or where to eat it. I thought about Abu Dhabi. I didn’t have this problem there because there were plenty of restaurants that catered to expats and heathens. However, I did eat my bags of raisins under the desk in my office with the blinds drawn, lest I offend anyone. But here, I don’t have an office or blinds, and I haven’t seen a raisin in months.  So I bike through the market on the hunt for lunch-esque items.

Even though many people are not preparing food during the day, the market is still bustling with townswomen, buying and selling food for dinner. And I find my lunchables here as well. A large banana (0.15¢), a small baggy of peanut butter (0.15¢), a small loaf of handmade bread (0.15¢), a 250 gram bag of yogurt (0.50¢), and who knows, maybe even an orange (0.40¢) or some packaged dates (0.80¢). Spread it all on the bread, or just mix it in a cup – it’s pretty much what I’d be eating for lunch in the States anyway. I take my bounty back home and hide in my room amongst my blasphemy. And as I eat my peanut-butter-yogurt-banana concoction, I think to myself: am I avoiding integration? Part of being here is understanding the people whom I live with by doing as they do, adopting their culture and behaviors. Maybe I’ll try this fasting thing for a day, and see how it goes… Next year. Insha’Allah.

IMG_0039.JPGDad told me the other day that he was upset that I haven’t posted any updates in a while, so this blog post is in part a response to that. However, because it’s been several months since I’ve written in detail about my life here, and because there is much to tell, I’m not sure where to start. And so I enter this blog post without any specific direction or theme and hope that one or two will find their way in.

Today is day 202. I write the day number in my journal. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up each morning, and that’s how I know which day it is. Another volunteer asked me if I was counting down, but I told her that I’m counting up, otherwise it would be day 586 (or something like that). And this gives me a slight feeling of relief – knowing that I was counting up, and not down. Relief that I’ve subconsciously chosen an optimistic way of looking at my service, because some days the thing I look forward to most is returning home.

I know that’s not the cheeriest way to start out – by telling everyone that I can’t wait to leave. But like I said, it’s only some days. And when one of us volunteers feels a certain way, you can be sure that others feel it too, or some variation of it. In fact, we’ve had several volunteers from our group leave already (also known as “early termination” or ET), and more have expressed interest in doing so. Volunteers ET for all sorts of reasons: maybe they’re from Small Town, USA, and have never been outside the country before; maybe they’re discouraged by administrative policies or non-policies; maybe it’s just too damn hot. One guy who ET’ed said that he literally could not stand the heat.

It’s so hot. It’s one million degrees, though I’m not sure what that is in Fahrenheit. And if the heat doesn’t get you maybe the bugs will. They’re everywhere. In the rainy months it’s like Jurassic Park. Yesterday, while I was washing my bed sheets, I noticed how unusually brown the water was, and then I noticed a cockroach leg floating in it. I deduced that there must be other cockroach parts, or even a full cockroach still in the sheets. And sure enough I found both – a sparkling clean cockroach body, with leg and wing pieces to match. I then wondered if the water in the bucket was brown because of cockroach fluids or because of the many layers of dust that accumulate in my hut each day. I figured it was some combination of the two.

I can just hear my mom saying now, 4,000 miles away, “Matthew, why do you want to sleep with cockroaches?” and then me actually wondering: do I want to sleep with cockroaches? And finally I answer: “Mom, I didn’t come here to sleep with cockroaches. Yes, life here is difficult – I can’t understand anyone in my village; my supervisors have unrealistic expectations of me; often my lunch has fish bones, but no fish; and every day as I walk down the street people yell “whitey” at me.” (Surely, if you’re looking for a reason to ET, you don’t have to look far.) But none of these things have anything to do with why I came here in the first place. And then I start wondering: why did I come here in the first place?

It’s at this point when I think some volunteers make the decision to go home early. Being confronted with all of these new challenges, and all at once, it’s easy to loose sight of what we had in mind when we signed up for this gig. What did we want? Who did we think we were? The challenges are so great that we get distracted from our work and even forget to re-ask ourselves these questions. But then dusk roles around. The sun is going down over my village, and the sunlight changes to a hazy orange. I’m finishing up my bucket shower and the first cool breeze of the evening washes over me, and that’s when I remember these questions.

To paraphrase “Fight Club”: how much can we really know about ourselves unless faced with adversity? Who am I? Am I the kind of person who complains about sweating when I wasn’t doing anything but just sitting there? (Yes) Am I the type of person who will give up trying to grow anything in my garden because nothing has survived longer than 2 weeks in that barren wasteland? (No) If millions of people can live in this country, with all the challenges I’ve faced – and many more difficult ones – and still greet each other every day with a smile, then why can’t I do it too?

Peace Corps has three primary goals, and personal development isn’t one of them. However, this selfish goal is one of the reasons people join. I didn’t just come here to learn about a new culture and grant writing, but about myself as well. And I believe that I’m getting that in a big way. But what’s special about this experience is that I did also come to learn about grant writing, and Pulaars, and food security, to work with people to grow food, and to pass on some of what I’ve learned to others. I came to exchange cultures in person, in a world where we export it through media. One criticism that I’ve heard about Peace Corps is that we go around the world imposing our American culture on people who may not want or need it. To this I say: we already export our culture through fast food and television and cheap plastic goods. But it’s the Peace Corps volunteer who delivers culture with a face and a voice and a physical handshake, and then perhaps gets the chance to import a new culture upon their return home.

So what is this culture? Who are these Pulaars? What’s the difference between life in Velingara and Upstate New York? On the surface, my town doesn’t look like much. Filthy pigs roam around unpaved streets that are covered in garbage; we eat out of a large bowl on the ground; and people greet each other at excessive lengths, repeating the same trivial jokes over and over. But after six months in this country you attend a master farmers’ workshop and you notice something. The master farmer is greeting two little old ladies in the traditional way, by calling them both thieves. And then you realize that what you saw as a boring formality, to them is something more. Through that simple banal joke that must have been repeated for centuries you notice a spark of recognition, followed by a deep mutual respect and admiration, and in that moment three people who had just met are at once old friends. But to be able to witness culture at this level takes some time, and even more time to truly become a part of it. You can’t expect to understand people by viewing them through a tour bus window. You have to live in their home and learn their language and eat with your right hand, because you wiped your butt with your left.

And since we’re talking about Pulaars, here’s a bit of Pulaar in nutshell: They insist on being greeted, or greeting you, even though you’re clearly in the middle of a phone call. They will always invite you to eat, and just like Americans sometimes they mean it (though probably more often than Americans). They speak 3 languages, love sugar and loud music, and don’t hold grudges. But most of all, they’re just like us and everyone else. They value their families, traditions, and good health, and have the same fears and desires that we do. They are our people and we are theirs, and it’s sad that we live in a world in which that isn’t obvious.

I could go on about the things that make my service difficult, like the inevitable sickness – among volunteers, having uncontrollable diarrhea while vomiting is such a frequent occurrence that we have a name for it – “gargoyling.” Or for that matter, I could continue to talk about the things that I appreciate about Senegal and the reasons that keep me here, like having all the bananas and mangos you can eat, fresh off the tree (there’s no other way). But suffice it to say, that for me, the reasons for serving and continuing to serve outweigh the reasons to go home early. To be honest, since training I have not seriously considered Et-ing. Though most days all I want is some Ben and Jerry’s, or a craft beer, or just a cold glass of water.

IMG_0030.JPGWhen I arrived at my new home in Velingara two months ago, there were 10 of us living in the house – not many by local standards. But recently my host family has had some visitors. Five of their relatives from The Gambia have been staying with us for the past month, bringing our total up to 15. At first I thought they were just here to spend some quality time with their Senegalese cousins. But once I noticed my neighbors had their Gambian family staying with them as well I realized this wasn’t a simple holiday.

For the first half of January there was a bit of an international crisis in the region. The former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, had refused to give up his seat after losing in the recent election, and in doing so had caused a tense international standoff sending waves throughout West Africa. Nigeria, a country 3,000 kilometers away, sent in troops, as did ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States), and Senegal had its soldiers poised on the border ready for conflict.

However if it wasn’t for our Gambian relatives staying with us, I might never have known there was a problem. Here in Velingara it was business as usual. Offices and schools were functioning on schedule, and the locals went about town in their usual easygoing ways. I still went to my garden each morning, had breakfast at Assouma’s, and greeted Ibrahim as I passed his shop. People here might talk about the problem, but not with me. Even if they did, I still don’t understand Pulaar.

Regardless of what I knew was going on 200 miles away in Banjul, the Gambian Capital, I have gotten to witness first hand how this political crisis has affected ordinary people. It hasn’t been difficult for me to adapt, since I don’t have to share my room. But like most families here, we don’t have extra rooms or extra beds to accommodate a 50 percent increase in residents. So my host parents and siblings have had to share theirs.

This isn’t just in my house. 45,000 Gambians have fled across the border during this crisis and many are staying with their families here in Senegal. This is particularly prevalent in my town, which is less than 10 miles from the Gambian border.

Even though it’s a little tighter around the bowl during lunch, and there are more mouths to feed, I can’t help but feel that the people here don’t think of this extended stay as a burden the way I imagine most Americans would. This crisis has allowed many people here to showcase the hospitality that they’re famously known for, and is proof that people here share everything including their hardships. After all, Senegal is Wolof for “our boat” – a symbol that we’re all in it together.

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, 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 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.

Lacto-fermented pickles

Lacto-fermented pickles

Lacto-fermented Garlic Pickles

Day 1 – July 22, 2013 – 9:00PM, 77 degrees

Ingredients and supplies

– 2 and a half small boothby cukes
– 3 large cloves garlic
– 1 tbs salt
– 1 pint mason jar
– enough water to fill jar

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