Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wintermarket

It’s not every slushy day in late December that five thousand New Yorkers delay their last-minute Christmas shopping to brave outdoor crowds in ice-cold rain. But on December sixteenth, droves of be-wellingtoned foodies enthusiastically slogged down to Manhattan’s southmost point, their three-dollar umbrellas glistening like black bubbles, in search of culinary New York’s premiere attraction: Wintermarket.

Hosted by the non-profit group New Amsterdam Public, Wintermarket is an off-season attention-grabber – for, to shoppers who frequent NYC Greenmarkets, burgeoning business in December seems like an oxymoron. Not so for the purveyors occupying South Street’s historic stalls this day! As Greenmarket booths thin down to jam, onions, and particularly durable apples, Wintermarket shines like a Blue Pointe pearl: between gray heaps of old snow, pots of seaweed stew billow fragrant steam, nutty artisanal breads drip with cheese, and potential buyers warily sniff local truffles. Local truffles?!

One vendor with an Irish brogue deftly handles a shucking knife as he details the Long Island location of his oyster beds, doling out halfshells for a dollar apiece. Visitors slurp the briny delight straight from the shell. A few tables down the row, Mario Batali mugs behind his whole porchetta, dramatically brandishing a carving knife. Customers bump and jostle, competing for samples and exclaiming in perplexed glee at these fanciful gastronomic pleasures so frequently absent from their usual local markets.

For Wintermarket is a local market as well. Though its definition of “local” is less strict than NYC Greenmarkets’ 200-mile rule, every item, from red-shelled Nantucket scallops to upstate New York cheddar from Saxelby Cheesemongers, comes from the northeast region.

New York’s oldest marketplace, the South Street Seaport has been a site of gastronomic trade since 1624, when oyster boats and European traders unloaded their bounty there. This legacy came to an end in 2005, when the Fulton Fish Market, once the largest wholesale seafood purveyor in the hemisphere, officially moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx, leaving the New York Maritime Museum as the seaport’s only historical relic among a throng of clothing stores and chintzy tourist attractions. The cobbles gradually gave up their fishy scent, and the ancient, empty market buildings – now publicly owned – languished. Their fate is uncertain; some developers propose condominiums; others, a mall.

New Amsterdam Public has a better idea. Its founders, Robert La Valva and Jill Slater, propose that the halls be converted into a permanent, year-round public market featuring regionally-sourced, sustainable food. “This civic institution will be a permanent venue to promote sustainable agriculture, strengthen our regional food system, drive rural and urban economic development, incubate small businesses, and teach all New Yorkers how to buy, cook and eat healthy food,” claims their mission statement – a laudable mission indeed! They conceived Wintermarket as an awareness-raising event, designed to give attendees a taste of what the New Amsterdam Public Market might be like – literally. And New Yorkers took the bait: in spite of proximity to the holidays, miserable weather and no convenient subway stop, attendance exceeded their most optimistic expectations.

That same week, Lower East Side and Chinatown residents – theoretical neighbors to the New Amsterdam Public Market – protested the closing of a local Pathmark; the property could be sold to a luxury-condo developer for $250 million, depriving yet another low-income neighborhood of healthy, affordable food choices. The proximity of these two events demands comparison and consideration. Will New Amsterdam be a new and improved food resource for low-wage downtown residents – teaching, as they state, all New Yorkers about healthy food? Or will it be another gentrified, high-end, specialty market (the downtown area has a surprising variety of them, including nearby Zeytuna and Jubilee), this time with a trendy sustainable twist?

Founder Jill Slater claims the former, insisting that New Amsterdam Public Market will offer community support in the form of everything from acceptance of food stamps to youth apprenticeship programs. In addition, the market will host a daily “market meal,” made from fresh, seasonal produce and designed to be “affordable to all.”

In the meantime, the New Amsterdam Public Market needs New York’s support in order to become a reality. To donate, volunteer, join the mailing list, or find out how to make a request to the mayor or your local city council member, visit http://www.newamsterdampublic.org/.

1 comment:

Merry said...

Very interesting and it is good to see you writing again.