Eat Drink Local Profile #24: Sotheby’s Heirloom Veggie Auction & Farmers Market

Black Sea Man tomatoes like these will go to the highest bidder on Sept. 23 at Sotheby's. Photograph courtesy of Seed Savers.

The Auction:

Art of Farming at Sotheby’s

What it Is:

It’s a little known fact that we here at Edible Manhattan have an Art section that celebrates food-centric Gotham works like Andy Warhol’s soup cans, a rendering of McSorley’s bar,  and Hopper’s Nighthawks, the iconic image of a lonesome Manhattan soda shop in 1942.

So we are particularly delighted that on Thursday (Sept. 23rd) some 30 some-odd farmers from the greater New York foodshed will bring their art — meaning heirloom veggies from cranberry beans to Newtown Pippin apples — to Sotheby’s to be offered up on the auction block to chefs, grocers and other bidders.

The auction is a passion project for some Sotheby’s staff and farmer friends, who declare there’s as much valuable works being created on nearby farms as in SoHo studios.  The cases of auctioned produce will get eaten throughout the city in the days that follow, becoming part of the ingredients and dishes celebrated during Eat Drink Local. (Decide where you are going to dine now.)

Why We Love It:

“The auction is a coming-of-age sign for heirloom vegetables,” we wrote in HuffPo Green last week, “those old-fashioned symbols of food diversity that are just the sort of innovation our dysfunctional food system needs.” A post-auction cocktail party and dinner will raise money for GrowNYC and the Sylvia Center, who both work to encourage much needed diversity throughout the food chain, among farmers, in our fields, in our own diets. Guests attending the $1000-per-seat dinner will also receive a box of veg culled from the auction items–hand’s down the city’s most expensive CSA share. And for the rest of us, Basis Foods, which is playing the role of middleman and food-mover and is responsible for getting much of the produce to the city, is organizing a pop-up market outside Sotheby’s at 1334 York Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets. It runs from from 8 am to 4pm  and features milk from the award-winning creamery, Battenkill, free range eggs from Shady Maple farm, produce from Katchkie Farm and Beekman 1802’s goat cheese, as well as goods from about 20 other farmers and food makers.

Beyond this auction — and the city’s Greenmarkets and CSAs — heirlooms still occupy a pretty small portion on our collective table. In most realms of the food chain, a few major players — Holstein cows, Red Delicious apples, Roundup Ready soy beans — have squeezed others, literally, out of the field. By United Nations estimates, nearly 40 percent of the world’s collective livestock breeds are on the verge of extinction; 80-90 percent of grain and vegetable varieties are similarly doomed. Yes, heirloom tomatoes — those sometimes-odd and always flavorful love apples — have gone from rarity to nearly ubiquitous darling of farm stands, large supermarket chains and even city Green Carts. There’s a similar success story for heritage meats, of course, with certain breeds of turkey, pigs and other animals being taken off the endangered breed list. But you still won’t find many heirloom veggies in the seed rack of your local hardware store. For these more special accessions, farmers and gardeners mostly rely on specialty sellers like Landreth and networks like Seed Savers Exchange, which donated seeds to the farmers growing for the Sotheby’s event.

The good thing about seeds is once farmers — and the rest of us — are committed to saving them, things can change relatively fast. When McDonald’s started using Cameo and Pink Lady apples for its apple slices, it created a massive market for these varieties. This isn’t just good news for those who like the gastronomic options offered by Black Krims or Red Wattles. Scientists like Cary Fowler, who heads the Global Seed Trust, the massive seed storage bank burrowed into a Norwegian glacier, argues that one of the main benefits of such diversity is it serves as a hedge against whatever slings and arrows befall the global food system. He says farmers will need “climate-ready” crops that can cope with erratic rainfall, occasional droughts and the ultra-warm nighttime temperatures caused by climate change. These traits exist in the fields and pastures of the people who raise our food, which makes preserving them all the more valuable a proposition.

How to Go:

Tickets are still available to the cocktail party ($250), which will be crammed with chefs, farmer and other food community movers and shakers (not to mention some arty types). That includes admission to the experiential auction of Edible-friendly items, like a private tasting with the owners of Tuthilltown Spirits,  a tour and tasting at Red Hook Winery, four potted Newtown Pippin seedlings (delivered to anywhere in the five boros),  a B&B getaway to Long Island wine country, and a signed copy of a cryptic, comestible tale, “Celebration!!!,” commissioned from James Frey for the auction.  The gala dinner (sold out at $1000 per seat) follows with courses prepared by Jeff Gimmel of Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, New York, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Chef of ABC Kitchen, Roberto Alicea, Executive Chef of Andaz 5th Avenue and Myriam Eberhardt, Pastry Chef of DBGB Kitchen and Bar.

And, if you won’t be attending, you can most definitely follow along at home. Because whether at the Greenmarket or the supermarket or your neighborhood restaurant, this is all about what being willing to pay more for food that’s worth it, including particular crops and livestock breeds that we need more of. (The “we,” in this case, includes the chef who features heirloom cauliflower, neatly cut and perfectly cooked; the Hudson Valley pie maker who has to have Long Island cheese pumpkin; those of us who hanker for heirloom potatoes; the mayoral candidate who wants to use food to fix her city.)  When we do so, in some joyous symbiosis of supply and demand we get to eat from the landscape around us, keep our rural neighbors employed, and thank the farmers who keep and steward the seed.

From September 26th to October 6th Edible Manhattan, Edible East End and Edible  Brooklyn — in conjunction with Edibles statewide and GrowNYC — present Eat Drink Local week, our celebration of the local food chain through heirloom vegetable auctions, wine tastings, DIY challenges, lectures, garden tours, farm to table dinners and countless other events. Over the next few weeks we’re highlighting a few of the restaurants, wine shops and wineries, breweries and beer bars, farms and food artisans and cultural institutions that the week is meant to celebrate.

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.