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Famed Food Writer Joan Nathan To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, August 30, 2010

We’ve written three pieces related to The New York Produce Show and Conference:

First we announced the event to the trade:

New Event Planned For 2010: Eastern Produce Council And PRODUCE BUSINESS Announce The New York Produce Show And Conference

Then pointed out the significance of the region:

New York Metro’s Economy Is 12th Largest In The World

Most recently, we highlighted the panel of “Thought Leaders” who will take the stage at The New York Produce Show and Conference to discuss the state of our industry. This panel includes:

Jim Bisogno, Director of Produce, Floral, and Bakery, Pathmark Supermarkets

Rich Conger, Director of Produce, King Kullen Supermarkets

Steve Coomes, Manager Division Operations-Produce, Safeway Eastern Division

Dave Corsi, Vice President of Produce and Floral, Wegmans Food Markets

Dean Holmquist, Director of Produce & Floral, Foodtown Supermarkets

Derrick Jenkins, Vice President of Produce/Floral, Wakefern Food Corporation

Paul Kneeland, Vice President of Produce & Floral, Kings Super Markets

Dominick Pelosi, Senior Merchant Produce/Floral, Food Emporium

John Vasapoli, Director of Produce Merchandising, D’Agostino Supermarkets

The piece that introduced the panel was titled, Retail “Thought Leaders” Panel Announced For The New York Produce Show And Conference

Now we are pleased to have an opportunity to introduce to the industry a speaker who we are honored to feature at this first ever event.

Joan Nathan is a distinguished author, lecturer, curator and television host. You may have read some of the almost one hundred articles she has written for The New York Times. Perhaps you saw her PBS Documentary, Passover: Traditions of Freedom, or have watched some of her PBS series, Jewish Cooking in America, or saw her on the Food Network in Hannukah with Joan Nathan. Perhaps you have cooked from one of her numerous cookbooks or attended Food Culture USA, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival of which she was the guest curator.

Perhaps you may know her by reputation… recipient of masters degrees from both the University of Michigan (in French) and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (in Public Administration)… she has gone to win, among many others, The James Beard Award, the Julia Child Cookbook Award, the Golda Award and she was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in American Food and Beverage.

Of course, some of you may just know Joan Nathan because she became a champion of foodservice establishments’ training in the Heimlich Maneuver after chef and restaurateur (and Top Chef judge) Tom Colicchio saved her life by performing it on her. She wrote about the experience in a piece titled A Heimlich in Every Pot.

We turned to Joan Nathan for this year’s conference for a specific reason though. She worked under Mayor Abraham Beame and, way back in 1974, launched the 9th Avenue Food Festival.

It was a celebration of the incredible diversity of New York and the beginning of a broader recognition in American culture that food is more than sustenance.

New York is an ingatherer of people… and produce and Joan Nathan’s life celebrates that ingathering.

As a kind of preview of the role that produce has played in her culinary and professional life, we asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to find out more:

Joan Nathan

Q: We are excited you will be a part of the inaugural edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference, the first such event to be held in New York in over half a century. It seems quite apropos, with your rich ties to New York and its ethnically diverse cultures and cuisines, and your affinity for fresh fruits and vegetables. How have you embraced produce in your innovative work as an author, chef, and food curator?

A: In thinking of what I should speak about, I came to realize that I can trace certain fruits and vegetables through my life and career and note how their discovery, especially early on in my childhood and teenage years, inspired my creativity and enthusiasm for food, and helped me to grow and influenced the direction of my work.

Q: Could you take us on a trip down Joan Nathan’s produce memory lane?

A: Different things I remember are emblematic of the times. Let’s start in France when I was in my teens. That’s where I first learned about food and markets. In those days, one only thought of France for good markets.

Actually, my love for fresh fruits and vegetables started even earlier when I was a kid because my father was from Europe and he liked fresh foods. He brought that mentality into our household. That was in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s when everyone was using cans of food, all those processed canned vegetables. We relished getting great local Rhode Island corn. My mother was always growing herbs in the backyard. I would go out to pick the fresh basil.

Even though I was Jewish, I was American. Then in college, I went to study in France and discovered market places. Junior year abroad is where I first tasted Swiss chard. It was in Paris that my taste buds were opened.

Then Julia Child came out with “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and Craig Claiborne with his “New York Times Cookbook,” and I became interested in food through them.

Q: Was fresh produce gaining stature in the U.S. during that time?

A: In those days when I was at University of Michigan, there were farmer’s markets, but they were considered leftist; you’d buy brown rice there and alternative foods. Now everyone goes to buy those items, but in those days it was a hippie thing to do.

Q: Continuing on your produce retrospective, where does Israel fit in your journey? I understand you worked for Mayor Teddy Kollek, the first man elected Mayor of Jerusalem after the city was reunited following the Six-Day War. He served six terms.

A: In the early 1970’s, I lived in Israel, and I lived near the markets where I could get fresh everything from everywhere in the world. Discovering food in Jerusalem in my 20’s, I was fascinated at how they were coming out with varieties of kiwis and I couldn’t believe they had so many different avocados there. Israelis would travel around the world and bring seeds back then develop them in Israel. I learned how to make hummus, and back in the States, I gave it to people to taste and they said I should sell it to Zabar’s.

Q: Wasn’t that around the time when you launched the 9th Avenue International Food Festival in New York? In certain respects, isn’t that symbolic of the culinary excitement and diversity in New York?

A: That’s right. I believe the annual event started in May 1974. I was working for Mayor Abraham Beame at the time and I had an idea to do an ethnic food festival on 9th Avenue.

All these food people, like Diana Kennedy, were doing demos with fresh fruits and vegetables at the first festival. Working at the Mayor’s office, we had no budget, but we concocted committees. We recruited James Beard and Craig Claiborne.

I contacted someone I knew at New York magazine, who wanted an exclusive on the first 9th Avenue Festival. Craig Claiborne wouldn’t hear of it and announced, ‘Were doing a whole section on 9th Avenue. We had no idea how the festival would be received, and thousands and thousands of people showed up! There were so many funny stories.

When we had a pre-run, James Beard was supposed to walk down 9th Avenue, but we realized he was too heavy, so we got a golf cart for him. Then Mayor Beame was so little, he wanted a cart so he could be higher up since he was the mayor. We also got a food artist who cooked a thousand pounds of rice and colored it and he made a food float.

It was period in which food was emerging in the American consciousness as something more than sustenance. In 1976, Julia Child was doing her T.V. show. The American Culinary Federation pushed and had changed the category Chef in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles from domestic to professional. Chefs changed from blue collar to white collar, and now chefs were respected in the mainstream and no longer just servants. Food was in a better place. Great chefs were looking for the freshest ingredients.

Q: Was this a transformational time for the fresh produce industry?

A: I would say a hopeful time. In 1975, I interviewed the Chef in the White House. He was French but all he used was dry basil.

Slowly but surely, all these farmers markets started. In those days, there were 300 around the country compared to something like 6,000 today. Conventional supermarkets also began expanding their produce sections both in square footage and in the number of items sold, tremendously expanding sales of winter fruit for example.

 

Now what’s occurring is that people today want fresh taste and flavor. The problem with mass production is we’ve often been focused on shipping quality and appearance; we’ve been losing taste and flavor. The next step, the great challenge, is figuring out ways to bring that back.

There was a lot of hope for organics but what’s happened is that organics grew so quickly, instead of having time to develop new varieties of vegetables; the big farms used the same varieties to achieve mass production. Taste and flavor is still a challenge.

I’m in Martha’s Vineyard during the summer where there are so many farmers, but we have a glut on the market. The next step is finding ways to preserve the abundance of produce so it’s not thrown away. Small farmers are learning to sun-dry tomatoes and preserve produce in other ways, but they are doing all these things themselves and they are not often very good businessmen. And, of course, there is a separate challenge of distributing food where it needs to be.

Q: What other insights have you garnered regarding the evolution of fresh produce here and abroad?

A: In France, farmer’s markets are not looking as good anymore. Their markets have a lot of imported produce from other countries. We have better and more dynamic markets in the U.S.

We’re also not so constrained as the French in what we cook. There has been an explosion in what Americans cook; we’re just trying everything. Of course, California farmers markets have the most wonderful produce as ingredients. But this year, in many places, I’m seeing all kinds of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and other beautiful varieties. People are learning how to use Swiss chard and kale.

Q: What key factors would you attribute to this explosion in global and exotic cooking?

A: It started with the Peace Corps in the mid-1960’s and 1970’s when young Americans were exposed to new cultures, and the advent of international travel, combined with the influx of immigrants from countries like India, Thailand, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Now there is so much more intermarriage, people are more adventurous, and we see more high-end eating.

My focus is on Jewish cooking but Jewish merchants have always transported goods. From the eighth century on, they would look around the world and come back with seeds for their family, and trade with other people within their communities. That’s the way so many fruits and vegetables traveled through history. It didn’t take a lot of room to carry seeds. Jews have been very much a part of French history for 2000 years. They’re still in that kind of business, just as Italians and Arabs were.

Q: Let’s get back to our timeline of how you’ve incorporated fresh produce into your career…

A: Another poignant moment was in 2005 when I was the curator for Smithsonian’s Food Culture USA, which featured American food and multi-ethnicity. It brought Alice Waters’ Edible Garden on to the mall. It created a platform for people to start thinking about vegetables.

Although Food Culture USA was a special one time event, the cultural influences that gave rise to it have grown only stronger. It now seems as if every school has a vegetable garden, and Michelle Obama is doing her vegetable garden at the White House. Although it seems like a celebration of small scale and local, the reality is that this will make people want fresh produce and will demand more from their supermarkets.

After that time, I went back to France and realized what a long way we’ve come.

Q: This seems like a nice segue to highlight your new book coming out, “Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.” Traditionally, France is viewed as the pinnacle of great cooking. How does that tradition influence the use of fruits and vegetables?

A: As I mentioned there is a 2000-year-old history of the Jews bringing people food. In the way I wrote about those influences in my book “Jewish Cooking in America,” Jews influence French cooking and the French influence Jewish cooking. There are dispersions kicking out of France and going into France. I’ve always believed in the love affair of Jews for France.

While Jews might traditionally follow the dietary laws, the food is still regional within different areas of France.

Since 1789, France was considered a country where people felt free so people flocked there from other countries. Because of its agricultural richness there was work for people. It’s like the U.S., because people came for a better life. America is a melting pot, and we’ve always thought of France as just French, but there are Russians, Romanians… people have migrated there from all over the world. Since the Industrial Revolution people have flocked to Paris.

Paris is a polyglot city just like New York. It’s really exciting to have a produce show in New York. It’s the first one, and it’s about time. New York is the largest ethnically diverse city in the U.S., and its Jewish community is the largest in the world after Tel Aviv.

It’s a food Mecca, with access to countless varieties of the freshest produce. We’re trying to go back to real food from a world where too much is manufactured and processed, and produce is at the heart of what we eat. I’m so thrilled to have an opportunity to celebrate that heart in the City of New York.

And we are thrilled to introduce Joan Nathan to the broader produce industry. We’ve set our minds on using this event to elevate the industry by urging important voices to think hard about fresh produce. That Joan Nathan, the “mother” of New York’s 9th Avenue Food Festival, should be there for the birth of this new industry institution is a terrific opportunity for the industry to rise to a new level.

You can register for the event with this form.

Buyers can use this form

Spouses/Companions here.

Journalists can use this special form.

If you are traveling, we’ve negotiated some discounts for you here.

And hotel rooms — going fast — can be booked on this form.

Also you can attend our bus tours of the Hunts Point market, Philly market, suburban retailers and Manhattan stores, just click here.

You can also see a small brochure we did, right here.

On behalf of the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, we look forward to seeing you in New York, New York!

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