Archive for March, 2012

Foodstock at Wesleyan

Yesterday I was very excited to receive an invitation from my alma mater to attend “a day-long extravaganza related to cook and books.”  First of all,  I should clarify that Wesleyan was in no way singling me out as a devoted food-person; I am sure any and every alumni under the sun was invited to attend.  That said, I was one of the 75 eager beavers who registered early enough to be considered a VIP guest.  I have no idea what VIP treatment at a Wesleyan food conference might entail, but I certainly hope it involves freebies from some of Middletown’s top food vendors.

Food justice was a hot topic on the Wesleyan campus back in the early 2000s, and I am sure today’s crop of undergrads is even more committed to working with socially responsible vendors.  During my time at Wes, we not had only several vegan and vegetarian dining facilities, but also a kosher cafeteria, and a campus grocery store where it was possible to buy any organic product you could possible desire (Organic toilet paper? Check).  Not surprisingly, Wesleyan’s lefty ethos strongly influenced the culture of its home town of Middletown, and there were quite a few restaurants and coffee shops catering to vegetarian, vegan, organic and macrobiotic diets.  I was a vegetarian back in my college days, and I enhanced my foodie street cred by working at It’s Only Natural, a fantastic restaurant that enjoyed immense popularity among Wesleyan students and Middletown’s own hippies alike.

I’m really looking forward to a chance to visit the Wesleyan campus, and to see what kind of traction the food justice movement has gained among today’s crop of college students.  I am also, of course, eagerly anticipating a meal at O’Rourke’s diner and maybe a beer at Middletown’s most popular bar, Eli Cannon’s.  A chance to escape the city on a spring day and have a culinary adventure sounds good to me!

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Yesterday Jeff and I attended Making Brooklyn Bloom, a conference exploring the themes of sustainability and urban agriculture, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.  There’s a lot to be said about some of the characters that turned out for the event, not all of it good, but for today I just wanted to focus on a workshop we attended on aquaponics.  If you are wondering what exactly I mean by aquaponics, let me confess that I only vaguely grasped the concept before yesterday morning.  I knew it involved a tank of fish, some plants and a water pump, but beyond that the details were murky.  Had I attended the conference on my own, I probably would have opted for the workshop on rooftop gardening, but Jeff has been consumed with a passion for the idea of aquaponics lately, so off we went to learn more about this mysterious growing practice.

The presenter was Dr. Martin Schreibman from Brooklyn College, who is also known widely within his field as Brooklyn’s own Aquaman.  I’m just reporting the facts, people.  Over the course of an hour, Dr. Schreibman managed to explain in surprisingly simple terms the mechanics through which water containing waste from a tank of fish can be circulated into a vessel in which plants are growing, and then recirculated back into the fish tank after the plants have absorbed nitrates from the tank water.  It’s a little more complicated than that, but not too much.  The examples Dr. Schreibman described seemed to be almost entirely “closed loop systems,” except for the fact that the fish need to be fed, and the water pH sometimes needs to be manipulated.  Otherwise, there is minimal water loss throughout the recirculation process, the plants receive all the nutrients they need, and there is no messy waste removal from the fish tank.  All in all, it’s a brilliant system, particularly for urban areas where it can be difficult to find the land to use traditional growing methods, much less the water for large-scale fish farms.

Dr. Schreibman seemed to believe that aquaponics systems are scalable to almost any size, but he hinted that this growing model is not necessarily financially sustainable (at least not in his own experience – a farm he started in New York state did not succeed).  The environmental implications of aquaponics would be substantial, should it ever be adopted on a large-scale.  Imagine a world in which we could raise vast quantities of healthy, hormone-free fish and plants with minimal waste of resources and environmental impact.  Now think about doing that in major urban centers, where the resulting products would only need to travel a matter of a few miles, or maybe even a few blocks, to reach consumers.  It didn’t take much to convince me this is a possible path to a healthier future for people and the planet.

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Seeing the abundance of rosemary and basil in my mom’s back yard last week inspired me to finally prepare my own little windowsill herb garden.  Jeff and I had been discussing this notion for quite a while, particularly since many of our recent beer brewing adventures have required us to buy fresh herbs for up to $2.99 at bunch.  At times, the addition of herbs increased the cost of our beer by 30% . Yikes!  I had intended to take a total DIY approach, and perhaps even build my own planter, but when I saw a handy starter kit for would-be apartment gardeners at Home Depot, I decided to take the easy route.  At least for now.

We ended up buying two kits, with a total of eight planters.  Somehow one pack of seeds seems to have  been lost in transit, so we found ourselves with sweet basil, lemon basil, dill, parsley, chives, oregano and thyme.  I suspect rosemary might have been the missing piece, but for now we decided to grow two parsley plants.  There will be time for rosemary later.

I prepared my soil yesterday, planted my first batch of seeds, and left the rest to soak overnight, if necessary.  If all goes according to plan, I should start to see some sprouts in about a week, and from there I could be creating pasta with fresh basil in a little over a month.  I have to say, there is something so deeply satisfying about playing with seeds and soil, even in such tiny quantities.  It gives me a taste of how much fun it would be to have a whole garden to play with.  Until that day comes, I am excited to post updates about the progress of my herbs.

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