The Land of Milk and Honey: A Secret Local Sustainable Food Paradise - (Please Don’t Tell)

I was both pleased and dismayed to find Portland, Maine’s food scene once again highlighted in the New York Times this week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/16/dining/16chefs.html?pagewanted=1&em

Before working with Justmeans, I spent my time as a prep chef, local food distributor and farm hand in the great state of Maine. Portland is an hour and a half up the coast, and somehow (for better or worse), has remained a largely undiscovered gem (thank God for the Vineyard and the Hamptons for deterring the less adventurous from the rocky coasts). A town of 60,000, Portland boasts the second most restaurants per capita (in the United States) after San Francisco.

While the Times’ article will provide you with a smattering of hot spots for those looking to dine out (including my old stomping grounds, Miyake on Spring Street), Maine serves as a larger model for New York’s food production.

Having moved to New York City mid-June, I have spent my spare time exploring the nooks and crannies of the city’s food scene. Beyond restaurants, directly supporting the city and greater surrounding areas’ producers is of personal interest. Two examples of how food production is inhibited within New York City and the surrounding areas (and hugely supported in Maine) stand out in my mind: milk and honey.

Raw milk (unpasteurized) is illegal in New York City and hugely embraced in Maine. To emphasize how seriously this is enforced: a horse and buggy Amish farmer was arrested on his farm in Pennsylvania for his sale of raw milk in Brooklyn in 2008. I’ve made it my mission to track down speakeasies that still exist: from my favorite farmer at “Anonymous” Farmers’ Market who keeps a secret stash in the back of his truck that he serves out in unmarked Ball Jars, to local co-ops who smuggle it over state lines as if dealing crack. Having formerly been a raw milk distributor for Straw’s Farm in Newcastle, Maine, New York City’s laws, which at first were discouraging, have turned the acquisition of unpasteurized milk into a renegade adventure.

A similar frivolous legality exists for apiarists: according to Section 161.01of the New York City Health Code keeping animals that are “wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm” is banned and punishable by a fine of $2,000. This apparently includes honeybees. (In contrast, Maine’s government actively supports and encourages apiaries: http://www.maine.gov/agriculture/pi/apiary/index.htm). Despite these admonishments, over a dozen rooftop apiaries exist within the five boroughs. While he does not keep bees in the city, David Graves of Berkshire Berries will sell you relatively local honey at the Greenmarket in Union Square. If you’re interested in finding the real local honey, follow the growing swarm and start exploring roof decks.

In a city that has it all, some lessons on local food production from our northern neighbors would go a long way for New York City’s 8.3 million residents.