“Why not the Bronx?!”
When nationally renowned food activist Karen Washington met Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, at a conference last spring, Dorry explained that NAMA often distributed its message through something called Seafood Throwdowns. Seafood Throwdowns are cooking competitions held in public spaces to promote under-utilized species and to teach people about sourcing local fish.
“Yeah,” Dorry said, “We’re having one in Brooklyn this year – “
“Brooklyn?!” Washington called out, “why does everything happen in Brooklyn?! Why not the Bronx?!”
Inside that question lies almost the entire issue of food justice. Why not the Bronx? Why does society – even the most conscientious among us – systemically omit neighborhoods of color from the good food conversation?
Dorry immediately understood the obviousness of her own omission, and right there began planning with Washington the “Garden of Happiness” First Annual Seafood Throwdown in the Bronx! – between 181st and 182nd.
As Washington declared many times last Sunday afternoon, in between the smiling young DJ’s pulsing Rhianna and Michael Jackson spins, “we’re not in Brooklyn! We’re not in Queens! We’re not in Manhattan; we’re in THE BRONX! – this is the ‘First Annual Seafood Throwdown in THE BRONX! – the Boogie-down BRONX!”
The secret fish was bluefish. Michaela Hayes from Rise and Root Farm and Crock and Jar teamed up with Suzanne Cupps from the restaurant Untitled at the new Whitney Museum.
They competed against Aneesha Hargrave from the fresh salad franchise Chopt. This Seafood Throwdown attracted social brass.
A very tall New York State Senator Gustavo Riveira, looking like a basketball center at a church supper, joked for a couple of hours with his District 33 constituents, even after admitting that fish creeped him out. But, he added, “anytime Karen Washington says show up, I show up.”
Aside, he confided that he had five more events to attend that day, and meals to eat at each of them, but he pointed to the opulent display of Rise and Root Farm heirloom tomatoes:
“See those tomatoes over there? I have a nice loaf of whole grain bread at home. I’m going to buy the ugliest tomatoes – the ugliest ones always taste the best – and I’m going to go home tonight and slice some of that bread. I’m going to lay some thick slices of those tomatoes on top, and lay slices of fresh mozzarella over them, and that’s going to be my dinner tonight!”
I saw him leaving 45 minutes later, happily swinging a plastic bag heaving with Rise and Root tomatoes.
Joe Heller, Resource Conservationist for the USDA and his wife helped to judge the Throwdown. Heller declared his earnest professional interest in seafood issues, saying he hoped the USDA could partner better in the future with fishermen.
Deborah Lomax from the Bronx Health Department and the Center for Health Equity, “responsible for lowering the health inequalities in this borough,” seated herself at the judge’s table, declaring before she tasted her first bluefish dish, “I can’t wait to have the taste of equity in my mouth!”
The New York Botanical Gardens nurtures its 250 acres, 50 gardens and hundreds of millions of plant species just around the corner from this Bronx block party. Built in 1891 upon the estate of Pierre Lorillard, who amassed a fortune with the world’s most popular plant, tobacco, the NYBG has a pedigree peppered with names like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Morgan and Rockefeller. It’s treasures include 50 acres of Old Growth forest – the original un-cut, un-logged trees that once covered the island of Manhattan. It includes the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden designed by landscape designer Beatrix Jones Farrand. Its library holds the writings of Charles Darwin and Carl Von Linne (Linnaeus), who created our latin system for naming plants. Karen Washington is a New York Botanical Garden board member.
Here is a short history: Karen Washington, single mother of two and a physical therapist, purchased her brick row house between 181 and 182nd in the Bronx in the early 1980’s. One day she saw a man with a shovel in the vacant lot across the street from her new house. She asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I”m going to build a garden here.”
“Well, let me help!” Washington replied. Today that garden, named “Garden of Happiness,” is an extravagant plot of land filled with mature trees, a chicken coop, and garden plots heaving with tomatillas and papalo, Porophyllum ruderale, a tender spicy green similar to cilantro used in Mexican cuisine. To step into the Garden of Happiness on an August morning is to be struck hard by the simple lesson that gardens and trees are easy bandaids to the harsh concrete heat of the city. Temperatures drop and mood lifts when one steps off the street and into this bountiful half-acre of chlorophyll and leafy shade.
Here’s a glimpse of Karen Washington’s biography now:
Since 1985 Karen Washington has been a community activist, striving to make the New York City a better place to live. As a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, she worked with Bronx neighborhoods to turn empty lots into community gardens. As an advocate, and former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, she stood up and spoke out for garden protection and preservation. As a member of the La Familia Verde Garden Coalition, she helped launched a City Farms Market, bringing fresh vegetables to the community. Karen is a Just Food board member and Just Food Trainer, leading workshops on growing food and food justice across the country. In 2010, she co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an organization supporting growers in both urban and rural settings. In 2012, Ebonymagazine voted her one of their 100 most influential African Americans in the country, and in 2014 she was the recipient of the James Beard Leadership Award. Since retiring from Physical Therapy in 2014, Karen is Co-owner/Farmer at Rise & Root Farm.
It all started with a garden, the garden which offered a cool bench at the First Annual Seafood Throwdown in the Bronx. Today Carmen Pepe and his wife maintain The Garden of Happiness, which is also part of the NYBG Bronx Green-up initiative.
Wearing an untucked button-down shirt and rumpled khakis, Todd Forrest, the Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections at the New York Botanical Garden, mingled with the crowd and followed the chef’s work throughout the cooking process. Washington introduced him as “a dear friend, and the heart and soul of the New York Botanical Gardens.”
Forrest, in turn, had nothing but deference and praise for Washington. “who has just made the Bronx a more wonderful place.”
The Seafood Throwdown was part of the 181 – 182nd Block Party, a precious time for an urban kid, Washington describes, when New York City actually stops traffic on their street for a day. Washington says, “We try to live in this community, to celebrate a day kids can run around in the streets with no cares, to be free.
At one point, a parked car needed to exit the street, and a pack of adults sprang forward to protect a few young kids still wobbly on their small bicycles. The DJ called into his microphone, “Hey, watch those kids! They’re our future!”
A day to practice bike riding on a wide open street. Gardens. Fresh farm-raised vegetables. Each of these components were treasured this day in the boogie-down Bronx. Each seemed to be valued far higher than communities I see with less concrete and more trees. Karen Washington acknowledged as much, describing the one farmers market in the Bronx, La Famiglia Verde, as an extremely important event for this particular community, important in ways one doesn’t associate with local melons and fresh cut flowers. Washington said this about working at La Famiglia Verde:
“If I see someone who just got out of prison, and they have nothing to eat, I hand them some food. Or if I see someone walking by, and I know they have no money to feed their family, I hand them some vegetables. They might say to me, ‘but I don’t have a check,’ and I say to them, ‘did I say anything about a check? – just get over here!’”
“I grew up in the projects where people took care of each other. Today, with materiality, the explosion of the media, emphasis has been on things, not basic human compassion. The rise of the individual has taken over, and we have lost community. We lost how to lean on each other, to share things. People don’t want to borrow because they’re afraid they will be thought of as ‘poor.’ It’s become shameful to be poor.”
Washington’s words ring true in communities far beyond the Bronx.
Here is Aneesha’s winning bluefish recipe.
Chopt’s Aneesha’s WINNING Bluefish “Mejor” – “Better Bluefish”
For the Tomato Sauce:
1/2 cup good quality olive oil + 2 tablespoons (divided)
8 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons “Mama Lil’s Goathorn Peppers” or jarred roasted peppers
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
6 medium – large tomatoes, blanched, peeled, and crushed
salt and pepper to taste
1 diced green pepper
1 cup diced raw bluefish (skin removed)
For the bluefish:
2 pounds bluefish fillets
about 4 lemons, sliced into rounds
salt and pepper
For the salad:
2 bulbs fennel, stalks and tough end removed
4 leeks, cleaned, halved lengthwise, then cut into 6” lengths
8 Hungarian wax peppers or your choice of peppers
olive oil for tossing vegetables
1/2 cup diced red onion
kernels from 2 ears of corn
handful of chopped celery leaves
1 teaspoon capers
salt for finishing
Spanish olive oil to taste
chopped parsley leaves
For the sauce:
Heat olive oil in a medium sauce pan to medium heat. Add the garlic cloves, and lower temperature. Cook until garlic just begins to soften but becomes sweet. Add the peppers, and cook to blend flavors for 2 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan, and stir to blend in the warm pan. Remove from heat.
Pulse very lightly in a food processor, just to mix well and blend in the garlic, not to puree.
Add sherry vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Heat a 10” saute pan to medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, and saute the green pepper until softened, and just beginning to brown. Add the tomato sauce, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the diced bluefish, and simmer until the fish is cooked, another 5-7 minutes. Set sauce aside.
For the bluefish fillets:
Heat a grill to medium-high heat. Brush the lemons lightly with olive oil, both sides, and lay on the grill closely together, making a surface upon which to lay the fillets. Rub fillets lightly with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Lay the fillets on top of the lemon slices, and cover grill. Roast for 10 – 12 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through, and flakes easily when pushed with a fork. (Alternately, lay the lemon slices on a foil-covered baking sheet. Lay the fillets on top of the lemons. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees F. until the fish flakes easily, about 8-10 minutes to the inch.)
For the salad:
Chop fennel bulbs into 1” wedges. Toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper. Heat a grill or grill pan to high heat, and lay fennel slices on top. Cover grill or pan, and cook for 20 minutes, turning occasionally, until fennel is cooked through but not mushy. Halfway through, toss leeks and pepper in olive oil and salt, and add to the pan, cooking them similarly.
Allow vegetables to cool slightly before tossing. Then put all in a large bowl, adding the onion, corn, and parsley leaves. Toss in the capers. Taste for salt and pepper, and drizzle good quality Spanish olive oil over all to taste.
To assemble dish:
1. On four dinner plates, spoon out approximately 3/4 cup of the chunky sauce. Lay a serving of grilled bluefish on top. Spoon the vegetables over all. Finish with salt, more chopped parsley leaves, and capers.