Earlier this year, Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz joined us at Edible Institute to lead a panel discussion on independent food journalism alongside Tom Philpott, Elizabeth Royte, James Marcus and our own Gabrielle Langholtz. On Monday, November 3, Fromartz will return to the stage for FERN Talks & Eats: an evening of interactive storytelling that will include live music, drinks and small plates at The Green Building in Carroll Gardens.
But this isn’t your typical dinner and a show; in addition to FERN writers telling their own stories in front of a live audience, Fromartz will join chef and author Dan Barber on stage for a discussion paired with dishes from Runner & Stone, Pearl & Ash, Tertulia, Franny’s and Almond Restaurant. What’s more, guests who snag an early bird ticket get $10 off full-priced tickets and a complimentary subscription to their local Edible magazine.
We caught up with Fromartz, a Brooklyn native, to learn more about this special evening, as well as his new book In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.
Edible Brooklyn: FERN Talk & Eats was described as an “immersive food-focused event.” What does that mean and what can attendees expect?
Sam Fromartz: We had thought about doing a series of talks with our writers but we thought we could do a lot more than just have a presentation. All of our writers and the focus of FERN is really food, agriculture, environmental health — it was sort of natural to pair with chefs. So actually what we’re having the chefs do is interpret the talks in dishes. So the talks will be on various food-related topics (I don’t want to reveal everything at this point) and the chefs will actually riff on that in the dish they create.
The other thing is there’s going to be live performance which is going to be combined with the talks. As opposed to just a slide show or something like that there’s going to be actors involved and some music as well. There’s a lot of different elements and it’s a very open space. It’s not like a stage it’s more like different areas of the room where people will congregate around one speaker and move to the next when it’s done.
So it’s kind of a free-flowing, open, theatrical experience. We have a really talented director whose working with us from Philadelphia. She comes out of theater so we want it to be entertaining and interesting. We want it to be delicious.
EB: In addition to Blue Hill’s chef Dan Barber, the four FERN panelists have written about quinoa, antibiotics, farmworkers and caviar and you recently published a book about bread and baking. How did you choose these panelists?
SF: We have a pool of writers and we invited them to present some ideas. The ideas are not necessarily from the articles they’ve done with us already. They may be new ideas. We chose people who were comfortable speaking and presenting and then also had some really intriguing ideas.
Just to be clear, Dan is not cooking — he’s in conversation with me. We’d been talking for a year about doing something together. There’s a lot of complementary elements in both books. He takes the chef point of view of eating the whole farm and all the grains that aren’t consumed but are crucial to a healthy farm. Coming from a different point of view, I talk about all the different grains in our diet that have historically been eaten. The book deals with some of my attempts to get them back. In different ways we’re both against the narrowing of the diet and the loss of tastes and implications of that. I read his book and he read mine and it was like we were having this discussion together even though we weren’t. Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist.
EB: Do you feel that the topics the speakers have covered in the past are representative of the topics FERN covers and the interests of the food world in general?
SF: Definitely. I don’t think we’re going to have anything on grains but if you look at Lisa Hamilton’s work she really gets into issues of seeds and that’s really her focus — seeds and biodiversity. Some of the other writers, they write on a wide range of topics. Although the ones you mentioned won’t be the focus of the talks, they would be ones pretty close to those. It’s less the topic and more the story we’re going for. We’re going for really compelling stories. These are not lectures that are being given — they’re really stories that are being told. I think it’s a bit more what This American Life has done.
EB: You’re a Brooklyn native currently based in D.C. Coming back now as a visitor, how do you think the food scene has changed since your childhood and where does FERN fit in?
SF: It’s changed dramatically and I write about this in the book. I grew up going to basically a lot of immigrant bakeries in New York or they were the sons of immigrants — these were like Jewish bakeries. There were places on Church Avenue in Flatbush where I was getting my rye bread and those are all gone. But it wasn’t too long ago that they were there — they lasted until the late ’60s, early ’70s. Then there was this dark period. There were these really rich immigrant traditions and some of them survived — Russ and Daughters, Zabar’s, some really great Asian food — but now it’s a shock when I come back to Brooklyn. When I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Boreum Hill and Smith Street wasn’t what it’s like today.
You have the return of bakers even though they’re much younger than they used to be. They’re coming to baking out of this artesian approach. It’s a whole flowering of the food culture.
I think FERN ties into that because our audience is people interested in these issues because they’re interested in food. Once you look into food you start looking into where your food comes from — issues of diversity and taste, manufacturing — it’s kind of a natural progression. We thought we might have a hard time getting chefs for the event but people were so into this idea. The great thing about food is, for example, in my book I’m looking at the most obvious staple: bread. What could be simpler than bread? But you can go off onto so many tangents, how bread describes culture, diet. Bread fed nations; it was the main source of calories. There are so many aspects to it. People are really attracted to that. You can go down from one topic to another to another. It’s like peeling back the onion.
EB: New York City is obviously a big hub for food — what do you think the other top four cities are for people interested in food?
SF: Oh god, there’s more than four. I was in Portland, OR obviously that has a huge food culture. The Bay Area, I was just there as well — San Francisco, Sonoma. Even places like Asheville, NC which I mention in my book. I think there are more bakers per capita there than any other town in the United States. Places like Portland, Maine, Boston, obviously Chicago. Denver, I was just there there’s a great food culture. I could just go on and on. The Twin Cities. All of these ideas we’re talking about of knowing where your food comes from, having a connection with the farmer, exploring the wide range of possibilities of food and fermentation and all of that is really alive and well and growing. It’s kind of exciting. You know, I sort of saw that researching the book and seeing as I was writing it over a few years this whole local grain culture was exploding. In the course of the book there were two mills started that I was following in Maine and Northern Carolina specifically designed to mill local grain. There was this flowering happening in front of my eyes.
For us, there’s potential to do this in a lot of other cities but New York was an obvious place to kick it off because the critical mass of people and chefs and writers interested in these ideas.
EB: What do you think aspiring food activists and journalists need to do today to succeed in the food world?
SF: It depends on how you define success. I think there’s clearly an audience if you’re a journalist. There’s a lot of interest in these issues. If you’re an activist the issues really resonate with people as well. It’s not a particularly hard sell. I think what still needs to happen is the ideas need to spread out. I think in some ways the food is kind of the leading edge of it — people get interested in or exposed to these issue at the farmers market or at a food truck and that’s their entry point or at the food coop. Whether they go further is a question but I think it’s those points of exposure that are really important. Or they pick up an Edible Brooklyn and happen to read something. There are all different ways to get into it. As I said I think there’s a really strong and large core audience there. Then it’s a question of just spreading out.
I think it’s really encouraging in the more recent wave which is the way ethnic foods have come into this. It isn’t just farm-fresh kind of American food or even European style food that’s been championed by a lot of great chefs. It’s all of these ethnic cuisines that are using these great ingredients whether it’s the kimchi makers or whoever. There’s a lot of fervent activity going on. I think that’s great because it really widens the movement.
EB: The way people think about food has shifted wildly in the last decade. What do you predict the food world will look like another ten years from now, what will people be talking about?
SF: I think the implications of climate change are going to be increasing and I don’t think people are particularly prepared for that. I think that will start to dominate at least part of the discussion. I was seeing that in California in particular with the drought there. That’s really at the top. There may be other implications in other regions as well. In what ways is that going to impact us in the Northeast? I think that discussion is a bit abstract now but once we begin to see really concrete effects in California — people can’t get water, that kind of thing — is there going to be some sort of equivalent in the East? I hear it anecdotally from farmers that crops they used to grow won’t grow anymore and crops they could never grow before in their region are growing just fine. I think that’s going to be more at the center of the discussion because the impacts will be greater. That’s one thing.
I think there’s going to be this continued flowering of regional and local food systems. Urban food production which has already made its mark is going to become more robust. All of these local, much more intentional and strong regional distribution networks. I think that’s going to continue to really grow.
Featured photo credit: Susan Biddle