Tuesday, 23 April 2013

FCC Field Study Trip: Part I (Cincinnati)

Following the conclusion last Wednesday of the modules and practicums of this year's Food and Culture Colloquium, the much-anticipated field study trip to Southwest Ohio finally arrived this past Saturday. The trip, eight months in the making, served as the capstone event to the Colloquium and brought us to Findlay Market in Cincinnati, Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield and Rue Dumaine in Dayton. Presented in three separate posts, this one shall serve as a brief overview of the first third of our "more than a foodie" experience.

Our day began at 7:15am, with breakfast (can't go too wrong with baguette and Nutella, along with Snowville milk, no?). And after about a two and a half-ish hour drive, we arrived at Findlay Market in Cincinnati. Specifically, Findlay Market is located in the community of Over-the-Rhine which is clearly named after its German heritage and which is especially known for its recent and continued revitalisation efforts. Noted on OTR's blog, by the Urban Land Institute, OTR was claimed in 2012 to be the "best development in the country right now."

At the tail end of August, I had earlier made the trip down to the market and met Barb of Daisy Mae's Market and Cincinnati Food Tours, who later put me in touch with Rebecca, the Outdoor and Farmers Market Manager for the Corporation for Findlay Market. When we arrived at the market, we met up with Rebecca and Mike, the urban farm manager, who set the stage for the tours we had scheduled with them. Constructed in 1852, Findlay Market is currently open 6 days a week and the affiliated vendors serve as the collective source for fresh, local food in a beyond-qualified food dessert.

Mike kicked off our visit to Cincinnati with a tour of the urban farm, discussing the challenges that folks are currently facing with growing in the city. Among these challenges are the buildings themselves; added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, OTR's 943 registered building cover 3625 acres and represent the largest single collection of Italianate architecture, and as such cannot be torn down no matter how dilapidated or shadow-inducing (a terrible thing for plants that need sunlight) they may be. And any buildings that do get knocked down pose environmental problems à la lead emissions from old paint. In addition, fluctuating numbers of volunteers and the fact that the plots are leased rather than owned prove to be additional challenges to urban farm development and success.

"Forget the plants. The dog's more important."
Despite its challenges, there are many successes to highlight, especially when put within the context that urban farming efforts have been introduced very recently and continue to develop in the area, and Mike was hired just last year to take over. Whereas one's concern may be aimed at efficiency, the focus in urban farming tends to lean toward making the most of all available land and structure. The first two plots we came across en route to the main farm accentuated this focus, as these were small plots wedged between two historic buildings (both of which face overshadowing issues). Luckily for the farmers, leafy greens can easily exist with chilly weather conditions, and so the first plot was home to arugula, lettuce, collards and spinach. As for the second plot, they're currently looking into the possibilities for it to be used in raising chickens.

To counteract many of its challenges, an emphasis has been placed on out-of-season growing, to create a market where little (if any) competition exists. Currently using 12" of compost as a base (because the former gas station terrain was compacted post-demolition), Mike and company are providing meaningful evidence that their processes and attempts are indeed working. Particularly thriving is locanto (aka, dinosaur) kale which is great for making kale chips and tasted great freshly plucked, nutrient-rich without being overtly grassy or leafy in taste.

An aside: speaking of using existing structures as mentioned above, take a look at the above photo. What do you see? OTR used to be a brewery district and the trend is back on the upswing in the area. What you may first see as a set of fire escapes, the folks at the farm see it as a natural trellis to grow hops (which grow vertically). In addition to creating market niches, one of the best things the farm has going for it is the ability of open-minded folks to try and build niches that fit the local culture.

Across the pathway, we went to another section of the farm, to a set of high tunnels that were recently built by high school Montessori students, the tunnels of which add +/- 10°F of warmth. With additional rope cover which can provide +/- 5°of warmth, this means that the folks at the garden can grow even more diverse crops out of season.

As far as additional tasting went, we also tried flat leaf parsley, miner's lettuce (which had a subtly sweet taste and smooth finish), and the rarely-friendly-in-my-book arugula.

The introduction of air gives bacteria the oxygen they need to survive and transform "waste" into usable compost.
Following our urban farm tour, which was unexpectedly (albeit thankfully) contextualised within the realities of urban life), Rebecca joined our group and showed us around the market, focusing on the many green initiatives and characteristics of the Findlay Market community. After noting that the only original thing of the entire market is its red, iron structure atop, we headed over to the recycling center where, notably, FCC regular attendee Maureen was the first person among all of Rebecca's tour groups to answer correctly that styrofoam is the only thing that cannot be broken down. All of the market composts and nearly 73000 lbs of material is composted within a 3-4 week window. Findlay Market's compost isn't rated for food growth (and thus it can't be used in the farm), but it can be and is used for non-edible plants and flower pots. Within the same space, they've also got a compactor which compresses cardboard and paper material to reduce costs by half. And back to the iron structural frame, the roof is outfitted with a single row of voltaic panels which only comprise 4-5% energy savings; nearly every vendor has a refrigerator (or two) which use up a lot of energy, but at least they're making the effort to go as green as possible.

With as much positive energy and movement that seem to be happening within and immediately around the market, it is important to take stock of the fact that OTR experienced a sincere case of white flight (only 10-12 people actually live on the buildings of Market Square), a phenomena which isn't new by any means throughout the country with the growth of suburbs. This being said, folks are returning to the area and are finding revitalisation and community building around food. In terms of food access issues, it's also worth noting that nearly every vendor accepts food stamps and for those that don't, folks can exchange their stamps for tokens which can only be used to purchase fresh, local produce. For those who utilise an EBT card, individuals can enroll in a nutritional class to earn a $10 bonus for use on food from the market. And finally, it shouldn't be much of a surprise culturally when you see many more people arriving to the market to shop during the first 14 days of the month, as that's the period when Social Security, WIC, etc. checks come in. Indeed, it's amazing to consider the confluence of identities partnered with a kind of communal care centered around wellness and this ever-important and essential matter of food.

With the high traffic on the weekends, Barb instructs us to follow her hat as we move through the crowd.
Transitioning over to food, we met up with Barb for the third portion of our Cincinnati visit: a food tour of the market. Begun in conjunction with the World Choir Games last year, the Taste of the World Tours that Barb organises and leads seem to have provided a reason for outside folks to return to OTR to enjoy a foodie experience. As she brought us to each of the four vendors, Barb reinforced recurring themes and injected nuanced cultural pieces to add to our experience. Here, I'd like to focus on the four stops along the way.

Fresh Table @ Findlay Market on Urbanspoon

The first stop was to see Chef Meredith of Fresh Table, who introduced me to Barb back in August. Never with a set menu (it rotates daily depending on ingredient availability), but having set up a kitchen behind Fresh Table's display counters, Meredith sees Findlay Market as her walk-in pantry, sourcing not only from the community garden but from her vendor neighbours, as well. In fact, Fresh Table (one of 35 permanent vendors; there's a roster of 50-75 part-time seasonal vendors) is one of the biggest contributors to the microcosm's internal economy. Prepared for us was a blueberry salad of sorts, with feta, fresh mint, salt, pepper and a touch of olive oil to bring it all together. I thoroughly enjoyed the bursts of sweetness concurrently contrasted to the saltiness from the feta, leaving a pleasant whole mouth feel ready for the next course.

Eckerlin's Meats on Urbanspoon

Next up was the oldest business of the market (since 1855), Eckerlin Meats. A true "legacy merchant," owner Bob represents the fourth generation to run Eckerlin's with a fifth generation currently growing into the business. And what a business it is! Of special note, the folks at Eckerlin's are especially known for their award-winning goetta. Invented in the tri-state area by Americans of German heritage (if not German immigrants themselves), goetta (apparently pronounced closer to geh-da, rather than what I envision to be a closer German goh-da) is made of principally ground meat and steel cut oats. Cincinnati Magazine has ranked Eckerlin's the best at least three different times. [Before heading out, I purchased some to try and will hopefully get to trying it soon.] In the meantime, though, they had prepared for us special recipe versions of their brats and metts (a touch spicier) for us to sample along with some kraut, which I found to perfectly cut through the sausage which itself had a great, grilled casing.

Bean Haus on Urbanspoon

Working from 11pm to 7 or 8am, the steam-ejected oven of Bean Haus (the site of our third stop) produces about 1500 loaves of bread daily, the dough of which is mixed with a 60+ year old mixer. Having transferred from Covington about 7.5 years ago, a new glass front was just installed about three weeks ago and allows passersby to check out the great items for sale to go with their coffee or tea. Moreover, the folks at Bean House source local Cincinnati flour, and aim to get other ingredients such as cheese and butter from the market vendors. The indoor part of Findlay Market, especially at lunch time, gets easily packed and the central intersection of the market where Bean Haus is located is no exception. Thankfully, we found a nice area (in sight of of the oven) to learn about Bean Haus as we were tasted mini cheese/pepperoni focaccias, which had a great undercrunch, and soft, doughy bite, along with a nice balance of toppings.

S & J Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon

For our final stop, we headed down Essen Strasse (literally, "Eating Street") to meet general manager Justin and head pastry chef Chris of S & J Bakery. Enter the doorway and your eyes are drawn to exquisitely made pastries and racks of freshly baked bread, in a space that reads as modern yet minimalistic. Celebrating its three year anniversary in May, S & J Bakery ingredients are all sourced locally and offers a full menu alongside its pastries and breads. For the dessert course of this tour, we had were presented with a cranberry oatmeal bar. Incredibly moist and nothing like what I expect when I think "oatmeal," I found this to have a very clean taste to it, a great way to end the experience.

During the quick break, I headed over to Dojo Gelato for an Affogato. Above, a scoop of Dutch Chocolate and a scoop of Nocciola--roasted hazelnuts from Piemonte--topped with espresso.
Bidding farewell to our new friends in Cincinnati, the group had a bit of time to explore solo or in pairs before getting back into our van to head northward to Fairfield, OH, and the site of part two of our field study trip. For this post's photos, as well as all of the photos taken throughout the trip, click here.

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