When Lynn Prior, founder and director of Buy Fresh Buy Local Greater Lehigh Valley, asked me whether I wanted to do a talk and cooking demo at Taste of the Lehigh Valley: A Celebration of Local Farms and Food on July 24, I knew instantly what I wanted to talk about: cooking from global cuisines with local ingredients.
Living in Germany, ethnic cooking meant almost always that the ingredients had to come from far away. Except for southern Germany and a few warm pockets, summers in Germany can be so cold and rainy that tomatoes and peppers don’t turn fully red and flavorful so you have to resort to imported produce.
In the late 1990s I immigrated to the United States. I first landed in New York City and was surprised to find, at Union Square Market, farmers from New Jersey selling fabulous sun-kissed tomatoes, and delicious juicy sweet peaches from the Hudson Valley. Glancing at the map (a paper map, Google Maps hadn’t been launched yet) I learned that New York City is at the latitude of Naples, Italy. No wonder melons grow here!
After meeting my husband, I moved to the northeast Pennsylvania countryside. Here I was surrounded by beautiful farm country yet there was almost no locally produced food. The farm stands were far and few and only open during the summer. I had to make a trip to the supermarket for almost everything.
Because I found the idea so odd to live in the countryside on a large plot of land and not have access to fresh produce, I started gardening. Initially I thought I would mainly grow the ingredients that I needed to test the recipes for my cookbook Spoonfuls of Germany, such as red currants, but once our family had gotten the taste of fresh homegrown produce, there was no turning back to supermarket fare that had probably traveled hundred of miles and been stored in cold rooms for days on end.
Only later did I learn that the area where we live qualifies as a food desert and that the Lehigh Valley is in the midst of a farming crisis. The 2013 Assessment Report of the Lehigh Valley Local Food Economy states that since 1930 the Lehigh Valley has lost 80 percent of its farms and 53 percent of its farmland.
But fortunately things have changed for the better in the past decade. Today there are more than a dozen producer-only farmers’ markets in the Lehigh Valley, including America’s oldest continuous operating farmers’ market in Easton. There are CSA’s and new farms, vineyards, breweries and beekeepers, and there is The Seed Farm, an incubator that trains new farmers.
Whether it is Mediterranean, German, East European, or Indian food, today I can find a lot of the produce I need from local sources. When I first worked on my German cookbook in 2003, I had a hard time finding rutabagas and kale; they were almost exotic specialty produce back then, now they are sold, alongside a wide range of other fruits and vegetables, at several farmers’ markets.
Since early 2014 I have written a guest blog column for Fig Bethlehem, an innovative online and print magazine for local communities. It is a great way to stay in the loop about what’s happening and meeting new players in the local food scene. Like Stefanie Angstadt from Valley Milkhouse, a talented young cheesemaker whose cheese and real European butter I have to label with a skull-and-bones sign when I put them in the fridge otherwise they will vanish in no time. Or Florence Rodale from The Lavender Farmette, who sustainably grows lavender, including culinary lavender for cooking, on a historic farm that she and her husband saved from urban sprawl.
Being a committed locavore does more for me than putting tasty fresh food on the table. I found new friends this way, too. Like Phoebe Canakis, who blogs under Phoebe’s Pure Food and produces the podcast Two Weird Hungry Girls. Phoebe accompanied me to the newly opened Easton Public Market last April and interviewed Market District Manager Brittany Vokoun for her podcast. There are two more installments about our market visit to come so stay tuned.
It is truly an exciting time to be in the Lehigh Valley and I don’t think I would appreciate the emergence of the local food economy as much if I had to not been here before.
Photos by Ted Rosen