My earliest food memories were of foraging, fishing, and hunting in the woods with my father, as well as farming, preserving, and baking with my mother, grandmother, and great aunts.
I grew up on the Eastern European side of the railroad tracks in a tiny coal mining town called Swoyersville, PA. Picture Greenpoint, Brooklyn, without the city. The street I grew up on was Poland street, which was next to Warsaw street, followed by Kossack street. You get the picture.
Every single property had their own food garden and competed for best vegetables. Everyone hunted, fished, foraged and preserved their foods. Breads were baked, homemade wine was on the table. There was a sauerkraut club, an actual thing, but likely also an excuse for the neighborhood men to get drunk in a garage.
I earned the penny candy wage of 25 cents an hour on my great aunt’s farm to pick vegetables, clean the coops, and harvest wild ingredients to make root beers and jams. Later in the evening my money was gone and back in her change jar after a few rounds of playing cards at the kitchen table. My card playing skills never improved.
My friends from school had a reality much different than mine. There were a lot of Hot Pockets and chicken nuggets. My friends would come over to our house in the winter and see deer hanging in the garage, meats curing in the basement, food from a “can” was in glass Mason jars preserved from the summer. There was always a barrel of sauerkraut. (The sauerkraut club was to a degree, productive...)
I was considered the “weird food house”.
In the summertime I was bewildered by products at the supermarket. I couldn’t understand why all these vegetables were encased in plastic when one could just walk outside and pick what you wanted.
Aside from the child labor at my great aunt’s, my first food job was working in a scratch bakery with a Polish woman who had forearms as big as my calves. She did not use recipes, as everything was in her head. I had to memorize all the recipes for the breads and pastries and I learned a lot.
My next job was in a nursing home kitchen. When I started, the pantry consisted of highly-processed foods either in a can, box, or plastic bag. Most of the aging population was used to eating from scratch and here they were being served hockey pucks called “riblets”. I set about changing that and brought in local purveyors with real food. I also started a cooking club where the residents and I would make classic dishes from their heritage and share stories. I learned so much from them, it was at this point I decided food was going to be my career.
I made the move to New York City to attend culinary school. I graduated and thought I would work in fine dining. It was 2008, molecular gastronomy was trending and I worked in that world. The use of various additives and chemicals was perplexing to me and I saw I was moving away from my ancestors and connection to food.
I started working in a small farm to table shop and catering company in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and it made sense to source from local farms. Everyone, it seemed, was onto the farm to table movement in Brooklyn. Somehow my experience of being the girl with the “weird food house” was now “trendy”. Which was hilarious.
Although I was living in the city, I continually yearned for my childhood connection to the land. Regular visits upstate allowed me to revisit that connection as well as develop friendships with farmers.
I left the position in Brooklyn to work at a large cheese company in Manhattan. I was able to bring in my farmer friend’s meats and vegetables and create “Meet the Maker” dinners with cheese and beverage producers. This was the highlight of my time there. The rest was spent in front of Excel spreadsheets and in meetings. My hands moved further and further from the food.
I moved to the Hudson Valley to open a restaurant where I could be closer to the farm which I had developed a relationship with. The restaurant had a different idea about what is local and an avocado toast battle ensued. I didn’t leave over an avocado, but did find myself creatively stifled and still in a place incongruous to my roots. During this time, a family matriarch also developed an illness so I returned to Pennsylvania to help out and learn recipes before they were lost.
By the time I had returned to New York City, the culinary landscape had completely changed. Farm to table had been corporatized and was now a “brand” in production kitchens for large companies that were paying high salaries. I couldn’t help but think it was analogous to factory farming.
I received a last-minute phone call to come and cook at a summer camp that has a small farm in the Catskills. I was there 2 days later. I had never worked with teenagers before and had no idea what to expect. Waking early, gathering eggs, having the chickens follow me to the kitchen (they obviously did not know my reputation), these were all things that felt immediately natural to me. I was able to grow and harvest vegetables for the meals. I was teaching teenagers about pickling, preserving, smoking, and fishing. It didn’t feel like work at all even though I was preparing 3 meals a day for 50+ people.
I have now found myself coming full circle in my narrative. Neversink Farm’s ethos is completely aligned with my values. The opportunity to work collaboratively with you and be able to say everything is sourced locally feels like honoring my culinary heritage and traditions passed.