Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Today we were wandering around the historic Seaport area near New York’s financial district when we came across the Stonehouse Olive Oil shop at 223 Front Street. I find it hard to ever go past an olive oil shop. Stonehouse is a Californian olive oil and they have four retails outlets, three in California and this one here in NYC.
Very nice olive oil too but what really caught my attention was a particular book among a small selection of books, perhaps a dozen titles.
It’s a long road to a tomato by Keith Stewart (Marlowe & Co. $16.95) is an elegant, appealing looking book and I knew before I even opened it I was going to have to buy it. It has one of the longer sub-titles I have seen in a while, Tales of an organic farmer who quit the big city for the (not so) simple life.

The first chapter is called A Change of Life: On Becoming a Farmer, and this is how the first three paragraphs reads:

Twenty years ago, a little past the age of forty, I was living in a small
apartment in New York City, working as a project manager for a consulting
firm, wearing a jacket and tie to the office every day. It didn't feel good.
I had never aspired to be a member of the corporate world, but somehow that's where I had ended up. I had little affection for the work I was doing and seldom experienced any feelings of pride or fulfillment. Rather, I felt like an impostor, obliged to feign interest and enthusiasm much of the time.

I also felt that time was running out, that I was moving rapidly into middle age, that my life was getting used up with not much to show for it. Both my body and my disposition suffered from chronic low back pain, and the fitness of my youth seemed long gone. Colds and flu and other ailments were common occurrences in my life. Most mornings, as I got nearer to the office, a heaviness would settle into the pit of my stomach. Finally, there I was. I'd be going up in the elevator, but my spirits were coming down as I readied myself for the hours that lay ahead. There was nothing wrong with the work I was doing. But it wasn't right for me.

Today I am a farmer, a grower of organic vegetables and herbs,
and I can honestly say that I am a happier man. True, I work more hours,
have no company retirement plan or paid vacation, and have more things to
worry about. But I have less back trouble than I used to; I rarely catch a
cold; and I have almost forgotten what it's like to be down with the flu. I enjoy good food and a midday nap and I sleep soundly at night. I've lost
weight and put on some muscle around the shoulders. The shirts and jackets
of my earlier life soon became too small for me and have long since gone to the Salvation Army. My life now is more full, more varied, and more
interesting. Often it is more demanding and exhausting, but it is always
more real. I've never for one moment thought of going back to the old days.

This is a fascinating, inspiring story of Keith who grows under certified organic conditions over a hundred varieties of vegetables and herbs and maintains a small grove of fruit trees. He is one of the longest-standing purveyors of New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket and he has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and is a regular contributor to The Valley Table, the Hudson Valley’s only magazine devoted to regional farms, food and cuisine.

His book is beautifully illustrated by his artist wife Flavia Bacarella who teaches painting and drawing at the City University of New York.

Stewart writes that of the hundred plus varieties of vegetables & herbs he grows “garlic reigns as the sovereign queen”. It is their biggest crop and the one that has brought them major press coverage in NYC and across the States. In my research I came across references to his garlic as being “the most soulful on earth” and “incomparable”. I’ll be off to the Union Square Market next week time we are in NYC to check it out. Sadly at the moment it is closed for the cold winter months.

This is a deeply personal, beautifully written book by a widely admired organic farmer who knows the hows and whys of small scale organic farming. It is refreshing and honest and is also a beautiful physical object with deckle-edged pages and the huge bonus of Bacarella’s appealing woodcut illustrations.

When I got to the chapter headed “In Praise of Herbs” on page 76 I was stopped in my tracks by the opening paragraph:
“Growing up in New Zealand in the years after World War Two life was relatively easy”. Yes this man is a native New Zealander, long since transported to the U.S., but still has two sisters living in New Zealand so we’ll claim his as our own.


Fergus said...

I came across this when it was first published, and tried to get a couple of prominent NZ publications interested in the NZ connection. No dice!

Anonymous said...

olive oil, tomatoes, fresh herbs, soulful garlic plus deckled pages, foodie images, good writing. What a satisfying mix, just like your blog..