2000s Archive

Grown in the USA

Originally Published September 2000
Cooking can be seen as the end of a process that begins in a field’s rich soil—almost everything that goes on the table reflects a farmer’s work and care. And so we decided to go back to the source, searching out producers who would inspire and energize us. We discovered that this is still a country full of great farms, both large and small. What drew us to the six showcased here was their commitment to growing food prized not for its ability to withstand a cross-country truck journey, but simply for its flavor.

New York

Breezy Hill Orchard

Early on October mornings at New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket, as workers for Breezy Hill Orchard unload crates from a truck, there are always a few apple fanatics hovering about, waiting for first crack at Elizabeth Ryan’s Golden Russets. These small, dense fruits with sandpapery skin may not look impressive, but they’re packed with intense, complex flavors. There’s practically a cult around Ryan and her more than 50 varieties of apples and pears, grown at her picturesque 19th-century Hudson Valley farm. There are other farmers who grow classic northeastern apples like Baldwin, Winesap, and Northern Spy, but few are as passionate as Ryan about waiting until the fruit is perfectly ripe for harvest. And virtually no one else has spicy Magness pears, from a cross of Comice and Seckle. Famed for her apple, peach, and pumpkin pies, Ryan is particularly fond of baking with tart Rhode Island Greenings. Her hard cider, fermented under the Hudson Valley Cider Company label, is served at top New York restaurants, including Jean-Georges and Gramercy Tavern, but she’s most proud of her perry, the venerable, long-neglected cider equivalent made from pears. “I’m amazed by the alchemy of fruit,” says the petite, bespectacled Ryan. “Making cider, you really get down to the bones of apples and pears.” —David Karp

Breezy Hill Orchard’s market (828 Centre Road, Staatsburg; 914-266-3979) is open every day from Memorial Day through Christmas Eve, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. The stand at the Union Square Greenmarket is open Wednesday and Saturday, 8 P.M.

Sang Lee Farms

These days, Fred Lee finds himself handling more than the sandy loam of his Sang Lee Farms, in Peconic, Long Island, where he grows Asian greens. He’s also handling a wok at food-and-wine events and at his retail shop, demonstrating the use of those greens in Cantonese stir-fried dishes. “At first I thought, What am I doing here? I’m a farmer,” says Lee with a laugh. “And an amazing cook,” adds his wife, Karen, who, with Fred and their children, is reinvigorating the family farm. Lee’s greens are an anomaly on the North Fork—former potato country where vineyards now abound. More than 50 years ago, Fred’s father and uncles started growing a variety of cabbages and greens—strictly Chinese, strictly wholesale—and made a name for themselves in East Coast markets. But in the early 1990s, after his father’s death, and with competition fierce, says Lee, “We had to diversify.” Asparagus, baby arugula, snow-pea shoots, and herbs now also fill his fields and greenhouses. A retail shop offers “Fresh-Lee-Cut” greens (including a 14-ingredient petal mesclun, bright with calendula and Johnny-jump-up blossoms), and rose- and chive-blossom butters. And Sang Lee’s Mesclun by Mail program delivers greens nationwide. “Even when we’ve had difficult years, we choose to stay with it. It’s all a part of farming,” says Lee, who smiles as his wife tells him of yet another cooking demonstration. “Now cooking’s a part of farming, too.” —Nanette Maxim

Sang Lee Farms (25180 County Road 48, Peconic; 631-734-7001) is open every day, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. The company’s Mesclun by Mail service offers eight varieties; three half-pound bags cost $14.95 plus shipping and handling.


LNB Groves

Marc Ellenby grows about a dozen kinds of exotic fruits on the 175 acres of his LNB Groves in Homestead, Florida, but he’s really selling something more intangible: the flavors and aromas that immigrants remember longingly from home. Take his lychees, available for a few weeks in June. Peel off the thin, pink skin, savor the luscious, fragrant white pulp, and you’re magically transported to southern China, where lychees have been prized for millennia. Even more evocative for many Asians are longans, smaller and tan-colored, with an intriguing honeydew-gardenia flavor. Both of these fruits can be imported at lower cost, but Ellenby has the advantage in freshness and quality: Lychees imported from Asia, for example, must undergo about two weeks of cold treatment to kill insects, leaving the shells brown and brittle, and sometimes causing the flavor to be off. In theory, domestic production is a lucrative business, since lychees and longans fetch $5 to $7 a pound at Asian markets around the country. Farming in southern Florida is always a gamble, however—in 1992 Hurricane Andrew destroyed 60 percent of Ellenby’s trees. Ellenby’s customers are as diverse as his fruits. Cubans make shakes of his mamey sapotes; Indians cook green jackfruits in curries; both Asians and Hispanics go wild for sapodillas. “Our customers are so passionate about their fruits,” says Ellenby. “If you get them the fruits they crave, fresh and ripe, they’ll love you forever.” —David Karp

Norman Brothers Produce (7621 Southwest 87th Avenue, Miami; 305-274-9363) carries many of Marc Ellenby’s exotic fruits. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 P.M.; Sunday, 9 A.M. to 6 P.M.


The Chef’s Garden

In 1980, when he was 18 years old, Lee Jones watched a vicious hailstorm destroy his parents’ farm. It was the kind of catastrophe many teenagers would find reason enough to swear off farming. But one year later, Jones found five acres of rich soil—ancient lake bottom—in Huron, Ohio, on the southern edge of Lake Erie, and started over with his family. Nearly 20 years later, they have 75 acres and a thriving business supplying specialty produce to chefs throughout the country. They consider themselves members of an increasing number of chefs’ teams, growing what chefs want and picking everything to order. “We provide the paint for the artists,” says Jones. When Chicago’s Charlie Trotter called late on a Friday afternoon last December in a panic for purple Brussels sprouts he needed the following day, Jones grabbed a flashlight and rode his four-wheeler into the darkened fields. By the time the sprouts had been picked, he’d missed the UPS truck, so he drove the sprouts directly to the plane. “Our goal,” says Jones, “is to have our produce on the plate 18 hours after harvest.” Although he won’t turn down a small-scale request from a local home cook, he doesn’t encourage it. The farm’s phone number isn’t even listed in the Huron directory. “Chefs are demanding,” explains Jones. “If we lose our focus, it’s all over.” —Kemp Minifie


Harmony Valley Farm

With several kinds of baby beets, garlic, melons, currants, snow peas, tomatoes, and beans, it might seem strange that Richard de Wilde is so enthusiastic about his turnips. But winter produce is just as important to him as the abundance of spring and summer. “Seasonality is huge,” says de Wilde. “And we’ve only just realized that in the past few years. Now we have to educate people, teach them to use things in their season.” De Wilde and his wife, Linda Halley, have been growing and selling organic produce in the Madison area since 1985. In addition to local chefs like L’Étoile’s Odessa Piper and farmers market regulars, Harmony Valley now has 380 families who have signed up to receive a box of produce each week during the growing season. Those boxes have become a powerful teaching tool: The accompanying newsletter is full of recipes and tips for using less common ingredients like fennel, celery root, and even burdock—a de Wilde favorite. This year, the farm got a big boost when Jordan Lichman, sous-chef at The Opera House in Madison, asked for a summer job. In May, Lichman started cooking for the farmworkers and acting as a liaison between the farm and local restaurants to encourage the use of seasonal produce. “Seasonality presents more constraints,” Lichman says. “But when you’re under constraints, that’s when you create beauty.” And the beauty of burdock? “That,” Lichman admits, “is one I haven’t quite figured out yet.” —James Rodewald

Harmony Valley Farm has a booth at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison’s Capitol Square every Saturday from late April to early November.


Polito Family Farms

It’s hard to tell good citrus from the outside, but if you taste Bob Polito’s berry-flavored blood oranges, aromatic Meyer lemons, and amazingly sweet Oroblanco grapefruit, there’s no mistaking their quality. Even his Valencia oranges, clementines, and Star Ruby grapefruit are extraordinarily juicy, with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. Chalk it up to the microclimate of his growing area, and to careful cultivation: Located in rolling hill country 50 miles northeast of San Diego, Polito’s 70 acres of lush green groves enjoy warm days and cool nights, ideal conditions for citrus. When Polito started running the family business in 1981, the farm sold standard varieties to wholesalers and couldn’t cover its high costs for water and labor. He’s kept the farm alive by focusing on specialty citrus and cutting out the middlemen, selling at eight farmers markets from Los Angeles to San Diego. At the giant Santa Monica market, chefs like Mark Peel of Campanile and Nicolas Peter of The Little Door make a beeline for Polito’s gorgeous display. Polito’s philosophy is simple. “I only grow what I like to eat myself,” he says. “I love the whole cycle of seeing the trees flower, nurturing the fruits like kids, and finally sending them home with customers who really appreciate their quality.” —David Karp

Bob Polito offers his produce by mail (11920 Betsworth Road, Valley Center, CA 92082; fax: 760-749-3674) and also sells at the Santa Monica Farmers Market (Arizona Avenue at Second Street), Wednesday, 9 A.M. to 2 P.M.

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