side dish - what's stirring in indie kitchens
greensgrow co-founder: mary seton corboy
location: greensgrow, philadelphia, pa
recipe: mary's homemade summer dried tomatoes
what is the most important ingredient in running a farm
You once worked as a chef; tell us about that experience. What are your culinary influences?
It seems like a lifetime ago. I started cooking seriously when I was in graduate school. I thought getting a job as a cook would kill two birds with one stone I'd get paid and fed. So I went to the only place around that wasn't a chain. They did classical continental cuisine. It was love at first smell.
I opened the kitchen every day and we would have put stock pots of veal and lamb on [the stove] the night before. The aroma was comforting, the bread was still warm at the front door, the coffee freshly roasted. We all had degrees in politics and anthropology and art so the conversation was stimulating. Truly fresh ingredients were hard to come by in 1982; when the herb man showed up (rarely) it was like the Wells Fargo wagon. We weren't hysterical about food; we just got a lot of satisfaction out of working from scratch, butchering our own meats and filleting fish, beating the water out of the butter with a bat so it made a better puff pastry, cracking marrow bones. I have very fond memories. We worked like slaves and ate like kings.
Growing up, my father took us to Eastern Market in DC for fresh fruit and veggies all summer long. We bought food by the bushel and sat around eating tomatoes and peaches in the backyard with the neighbors. I think that was the seminal influence in my feelings about food. It was basic, fresh and it was communal.
Where did you get your green thumb? --did it come naturally or did you cultivate the skills?
Actually I've never had a green thumb myself, just the good sense to find people to work with who possess them. I am a notoriously bad water-er.
What's the one farming/gardening tool you could not live without?
I have a small hand pick axe. I've had it for 25 years. The top needs to be hammered back into place all the time but it does everything. I think I found it or maybe it found me, so I'm sentimentally attached to it.
What is your favorite season?
Summer. I love the sun, I love heat. Bring it on.
I go back to bistro/trattoria cookbooks like Patricia Wells'. I like stews and soups and ragus, simple food that doesn't involve architecture, geometry or traveling to another city for an ingredient. I like magazines more than cookbooks these days. There's so much range available in food magazines like porno for foodies. I like to look at the pictures and guess the recipes. I'm not sure how that relates to porno.
Favorite Microbrew beer or wine?
Being a local girl I drink Philadelphia Brewing Company's Kenzinger, but being from DC I drink National Bohemian out of a can. There's a place in this world for cold, cheap, knock-off-a-whole-sixpack beer.
Favorite music to listen to while working?
Country and Western. One of the people I work with turned me onto a web station out of Tennessee. Old school. In general though, I listen the radio station in my head.
Most memorable character you've ever met in all your travels?
When I was a kid living with my family overseas, my mother met a man on the street and she invited him to tea. Our yard man wouldn't let him in when he arrived because the guy was trying to grow a tree on his head. My mom thought he just had a very big hat on.
What advice do you have to others who wish to start their own local food/agriculture movement?
What is the future of urban agriculture? The future of Greensgrow?
Urban ag will find its footings. I don't think it's the panacea some people tout it as. It can go a long way to bridging the divide between rural producers and urban consumers. It can't supplant the former, however. We took a wrong turn in the road thirty [to] forty years ago when we began to think of food as just a commodity. It'll take another generation to get it back on track and I think Greensgrow will be part of that. We've made a lot of inroads in a decade but we have to work to insure that buying local and interest in small, diverse farms and sustainable growing practices aren't allowed to lapse into trend status. It sounds trite, but places like Greensgrow have roots, not just branches.
Why buy local food?
I think the experience of eating local food, fresh food, isn't part of mainstream American life. Just because of the way I grew up, I don't think I have ever not eaten local food, so I don't have that experience I see [with people at Greensgrow] where they eat a tomato from the ground here and it's like they've never tasted a tomato before.
Greensgrow creates a way for urban people to eat food. When I say urban I don't just mean a poor kid from West Philly, I'm talking about the kid on the Main Line who ate all sorts of great food growing up his parents shopped at Whole Foods, bought only organic, etc. but conceptually doesn't know where his food comes from. The burden is really on the farming community, mostly smaller farms, to market themselves and explain why farming is important to America. Greensgrow plops it down right in the middle of their lives. Every time some people from the neighborhood wearing pajamas or big earrings passes by the farm on their way to get a good deal on Coke at the Thriftway, even if they don't turn the corner and come in, I'd like to think they get some understanding of seasonality.
Rebecca Troutman, Associate Editor, [email protected]
Do you know a chef who would be great for Side Dish, contact:
Robyn Jasko, Editor, [email protected]