There’s nothing like riding up in the elevator with Michael Pollan to start a party off right. We arrived at Sotheby’s Sunday for the Just Food benefit feeling a bit like we’d gone to the end of the earth (74th and York).
Upon arriving, Pollan-one of the all-stars there to roast guest of honor Joan Gussow-plunged into the crowd surrounding her, leaving us to scout out the room, which was a wild mix of the moneyed and the manured. (Farms represented included Hawthorne Valley and Flying Pigs.)
The sustainable food world is small enough that we turned out to have friends or interests in common with everyone we met, and it took quite a while to herd the crowd into the auditorium for The Roast.
But a roast it wasn’t–quite.
The speakers – rejoicing that from New York City to the White House, food–not nutrition but food–has become part of the national conversation–couldn’t resist paying tribute to Gussow for her leading part in that revolution. It’s our time in the sun, they seemed to feel, and when Joan did so much to get us there, how can we make more than the mildest fun of her?
Pollan, of course, seems to have a hard time being nasty to anyone. Edible Manhattan publisher and Edible East End editor Brian Halweil brought a round of applause when he reminded us that bees are now legal in NYC and got in some zingers, expanding on what he called Gussow’s “borderline pathological frugality.”
On one visit, he recalled, she showed up in a thunderstorm wrapped in a big black garbage bag and looking “like an extra from Platoon.” When she got inside, he added, she hung the bag to dry, then folded up for the next rainy day.
Just Food founder Kathy Lawrence expanded on the theme. Gussow is so stingy, she said, that when she gives you seeds, they come in old food wrappers, carefully washed, dried, and folded into little packets. But their jibes were gentle speed bumps in the flow of their admiration.
It took Peter Hoffman, generally a pretty serious-seeming guy, to get the biggest laughs of the night when he praised Gussow-Colbert fashion-by launching an attack on her. He arrived at the podium with a thick dossier which he insisted contained proof-proof!-that she was a dangerous character .possibly even a terrorist. He waved in the air what he claimed was the original “organic twinkie” of her famous attack on organic rules that would allow such a monstrosity. Gussow should be “known far and wide for a subversive,” he said. Why? She exposed flaws in our food system that “could be exploited by terrorists.” She believes that we should trust cows more than chemists. She “pines openly” for an America full of winter-tomato free communities. How is this not a dangerous woman?
The dangerous woman, responding, seemed to wish she’d been described as even more dangerous. “Nobody roasted me but Peter,” she complained.
Honoring Gussow took on a particularly poignancy, though, when photos came up on the giant screens of the devastation wreaked on her famous organic garden by the recent heavy flooding in the Hudson Valley: plants and trees destroyed and mud everywhere. The good news is that, with the help of many friends and supporters (including an entire team from Stone Barns), the garden is well on its way to recovery (and two feet higher, to protect against future floods). You can see the damage (and contribute to the recovery) at www.joansgarden.org.
But frivolity returned as we all headed for with the food and drink, cheered on by a group toast led by Blue Hill chef Dan Barber. Particular standouts – in our recollection at least-were the minted pea ravioli ( pea tendrils from Blue Moon, quark cheese from Hawthorne Valley) and the Meiller’s Farm braised lamb belly. In the drink department, Tuthilltown’s white whiskey was winning raves.
And in an unscientific experiment, Just Food demonstrated that New York foodies’ favorite herb-hands down-is basil. Departing guests were invited to take their pick from a table full of seedlings: including thyme, sage, collards, and the ever-popular basil. Which was so popular that by the time we reached the table, while all the other vegetables were well-represented, the only sign of the basil was a big blank space.
So we took thyme.