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Rootstock Radio Interview with Mary Cleaver

Air Date: April 22, 2019

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today is a very special day because we’re celebrating Earth Day today. And it’s kind of pretty exciting—this is the 49th year of Earth Day. And for those of you who just need a little refresher, how did Earth Day get started, it’s pretty much of an honor for me to say that Earth Day started in Wisconsin with Gaylord Nelson, April 22, 1970. And you know, I was reviewing a lot of the history of Earth Day, and it was the year that there was a terrible oil spill. And Gaylord Nelson, who was a senator then from Wisconsin, actually did something that we haven’t really seen in the last two decades. He reached out across the aisle—he was a Democrat—to Republicans, and together they actually formed a partnership and an alignment together to support Earth Day.

And so a lot of really cool things happened that year. We had the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency; we had the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. And so it was a really great year in 1970 where 20 million Americans hit the street to celebrate the Earth and all the things that we could be doing better to protect it.

So now we’re fast-forwarding here to 2019, the 49th year celebration of Earth Day. And it is such an honor and a privilege to be introducing Mary Cleaver, who is both a chef and founder of Cleaver Company. And we’re going to be talking with Mary today because Mary, in the 1980s, was one of the pioneers of the locavore movement and is someone who, I know, every day is Earth Day for her. So I would like you all to join me in welcoming Mary Cleaver to Rootstock Radio.

MARY CLEAVER: Well, thank you, Theresa.

TM: Mary, it’s just so fun to be talking. And I just do want our listeners to know that Mary, besides being a chef and also in New York City, she’s the founder and owner of Cleaver Company, Cleaver Counter, Table Green, Table Green Café. Mary has been devoted to helping New Yorkers eat better and eat locally. Tell us a little how you got into saying, gee, this is something I want to do.

MC: Well, cooking, I have always loved to do; loved to do it as a kid, and it was the contribution I could make to my family. It kind of became my job to be the cook when I was a teenager. And then, when I moved to New York, looking for a job, I found it to be my passion and also my most marketable skill. So I became… I started out washing pots in a fancy food shop, and then I, on the way, was allowed to cook at the fancy food shop, and it just kind of started all there. And catering became the sort of route that I took after working in restaurants as a pastry chef and a sous chef and doing food styling. So cooking just, I just got to the stove and stuck there for a while.

And as I went along with my career, the food supply in this country was becoming more and more…trending more towards the industrial and poison, poisonous type of food than the kind of food that I grew up with and wanted my clients and my children and family to be eating. So I began reaching out to producers that I met at Greenmarkets, which started in 1976 in New York City here, and that was the first local food that we really had in New York City, which was crazy. So when I moved here in the late ’70s you couldn’t find local food in the marketplace of New York City. It was all, the garden of our country had moved to California and it was still being shipped in even in August and July and September, when it was growing with abundance in our area. So I found that mysterious and terrible, and so began to work hard to support the producers that were getting into the city with Greenmarkets, as I said, which had just begun in 1976 at Union Square with 13 farmers. And now there are, thank goodness, in the past 49 years—or not 49 since then, but what is it, 43—we have over 55 Greenmarkets in the GrowNYC system and others as well in the city.

TM: Wow!

MC: So there’s a lot of progress been made there.

TM: So it must have been pretty hard then. Here you were, trying to use local food—I mean, New York is a great farm state. I know a lot of people think New York City is all of New York, but in fact it’s actually a beautiful farm state.

MC: It’s a beautiful farm state. It was once upon a time the Grain Belt, right, of the country, before the Midwest was discovered and settled. And we are having a great revival of grains through the Regional Grains Project, which is also sponsored by GrowNYC. So that’s the organization in New York City that oversees their Greenmarket system, which is where I met producers. And it was really through Greenmarkets that we started getting the local produce into the marketplace of New York City.

And later on, it was just work that I got very involved in: How do we get more? How do we keep the regional farm and food economy thriving? How do we get it to thrive again? And many things stand in the way, because a lot of the infrastructure for food processing, even for slaughter and cut-and-wrap and added-value products, we’re trying to rebuild that infrastructure now in the Hudson Valley. And there’s been some progress made, but we’re still working on it.


TM: Yeah. What does it entail, that infrastructure? Is it warehousing, coolers, commissaries? You know, what does that infrastructure look like, to support the local movement?

MC: Good question. It’s really all of the above. Also, Theresa, I’m not sure if you know this, but my husband and I bought some land in Washington County, which is the northernmost county in Hudson Valley, in 2012 and we began building a farm there. So my husband decided at age 60 he wanted to become a farmer, and on we’re going! So we’re raising pastured poultry there and heritage-breed turkeys, and raising vegetables, certified organic vegetables and flowers as well. Yeah.

TM: Wow, that’s fantastic!

MC: That’s yet another project!

TM: Wow! And this, listeners, is to a whole list of things that Mary’s already involved in. She’s on all kinds of boards—the Hawthorne Valley Farm, Slow Food New York City Advisory Council, Glynwood Advisory Council… You know, she’s got her little fingers in just so many different things in New York, Mary, while also, didn’t you just move your catering and restaurant?

MC: That’s right, yes. We, at the end of the year, the end of 2018, we left our 22-year home of Chelsea Market and moved to Brooklyn, where we are establishing a commissary kitchen for the catering and events business and for Table Green and Table Green Café, which are the two kiosks we operate in Battery Park during the six warm months of the year. And we’ll also be opening a small, sort of bar/tavern also, on Columbia Street—the Columbia Waterfront in Brooklyn, where we will be where we are next.

TM: Yeah, well, it’s so great to see this movement so alive and well in New York City, because so much of the world looks at New York City as a model for sustainability, for great food, for flavor, and so on. And so it’s just like, isn’t there a group of chefs, not just yourself, who are really deeply committed to this locavore, good food movement in New York City?

MC: Yes. I would say that that community has grown, and hopefully it will continue to do so. When I started an organization called Farm to Chef, I was part of a group of people who did. We were a distribution service that brought local farm product into the marketplace of New York City to market directly to chefs, because that was, as we were talking about infrastructure, we didn’t have a distribution system that could get farm product into the marketplace. And of course, that’s what the farmers need, because here we have all the mouths to feed but not the—we need their food, and they need our business. So that’s the infrastructure that I focused on first, was to try and create systems for that.

And Farm to Chef was just that. We took farmers and connected them directly with chefs. So I gathered a group of chefs together, and I think in those days, that was 2000, that was the beginning of this century, so 2002–03 we had about 15 chefs who were interested in joining that. And in those days, the farmers would fax their product list, and then the chefs would fax back their purchasing, and congregated at a central location in Washington County. It was actually three counties in upstate New York involved—Saratoga, Rensselaer, and Washington County. And then it would be driven down to New York City and distributed to the restaurants.

Now, I am happy to say, in New York City we have about 15 distribution companies who are thriving and distributing local product to chefs and retail stores and grocery stores. And so that’s big progress.

TM: That’s huge, actually, because you know, I’ve interviewed people in other cities and they’re just wrapping their heads around how to develop this infrastructure for supporting local food. It seems hilarious, but we have a better infrastructure for bringing California produce to the East Coast, I think, sometimes.

MC: Yeah, it’s crazy, it’s so crazy. There are other wonderful organizations working on institutional buying, which I think is really the key for farmers, because that’s steady, large-volume business and also can reach many more people, you know? Imagine if hospitals served healthy local product. Imagine!

TM: (Laughing) Gee, wouldn’t that be novel?

MC: Yeah.

TM: But the hospitals are actually making some big strides. There’s a group, I think, now called Health Care Without Harm, which is actually a whole group of hospitals getting together and saying, okay, we’re going to make hospitals a better place. Are you seeing that? Fifteen distribution companies supporting local product—are you seeing that that is helping institutions buy more local product?

MC: Yes. And as we know, the critical issue here is economics and what people will pay. And it is the American philosophy in general to pay as little for food as possible, which of course we all know is registered elsewhere in the environment with chemicals going into our water system and soil being depleted and all of the environmental terrible effects that we want to mitigate by farming with better practices, by considering the health of the land and the soil and the air and the water as we go. That’s what we’re working on. That’s what Earth Day is about.

TM: Yeah, and you really started out loving food; cooking, you said, as a teenager; and then you founded the Cleaver Company. And yet here, you probably thought you were going to just be someone who was going to be cooking food. And now, here you are, worrying about the soil, worrying about distribution, starting a Farm to Chef organization so that you can get the product you want, and so on. I mean, all of those things, just to be a successful chef?

MC: Well, actually, my day job is running a catering and events business and being very hands-on with clients and planning events. So I think my goal, as we were discussing, is the third trimester of life, sort of the later years, and I now am a very proud carrier of my Senior MetroCard in New York City here. So I’m thinking about how I can sort of get off the frontlines a little bit of the catering world and get more involved in building infrastructure in Hudson Valley and working on projects that will help boroughs and regional farms [unclear 14:16] the economy and keep the topsoil on [unclear]. Yeah.


TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez, and here today, talking to Mary Cleaver. And it’s Earth Day, and today we’re talking about what being in the food industry has to do with Earth Day and being a great Earth steward. And what a great person to be talking with—that is, Mary Cleaver.

Mary, you’ve spent, it seems to me, your whole life trying to promote citizen eaters. What do you think—how are we doing? Are we making people more and more, and especially as we celebrate Earth Day, more aware of how their eating choices impact the Earth?

MC: I think we’ve made a lot of progress with that, Theresa, but we still have a long way to go, actually. And it’s a very complicated subject, because most people think that food is healthy—that’s what food is. It gives you health, it gives you energy, it gives you life, it’s life-giving. And the American industrial complex has done a good job of painting pretty pictures and ads and marketing and whatever that appeal to an instant gratification kind of eating, I think, that’s less focused on what you actually feel like when you finish eating. And that’s the kind of difference—it’s a big difference between what hits your tongue and then what flows through your body and what energy is created as a result of eating that food.

So that’s my long way of saying that all food is not health and it actually does make a difference how it’s raised, and that it’s raised with natural energy rather than synthetic, I guess, is one way of putting it. We need the goodness of the Earth as it’s created. And to help the Earth through fertilization after fertilization, the [unclear—solar system? 16:36] of agriculture, as Michael Pollan described it in his New York Times article years ago, before The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the sun grows the grass, the animals eat the grass, the animals fertilize the grass with their manure, and the soil, fertilize the soil, and then it all goes back in because they walk on it, and that’s how the prairie became so vital, right, or kept vital I guess.

I do see a lot of trends in the catering world, and one of the most common these days is gluten-free. It’s kind of in my 40 years of the catering business gluten-freeism, and gluten-freedom—I don’t know what you want to call ’em—gluten-free eating is very, very pervasive these days. And I personally think that has a lot to do with overly processed wheat and not necessarily wheat that’s grown with good conditions. I think many people who will not eat gluten in this country and actually find themselves in France or Italy don’t have a problem with the gluten there. So I think we really have to look at how we’re producing.

TM: Yeah, and I think that gluten is just the tip of the iceberg as to the amount of different health issues we have. An article this morning that popped up, that one out of every five people in the world, deaths are related to food-related illnesses.

MC: Yeah!

TM: That might be low.

MC: It’s so depressing. Why are we bent on poisoning our population?

TM: Yeah. I think it might have something to do with profit.

MC: I think it does—I think you’re right about that.

TM: You know what they say: follow the money.

MC: Well, it’s like the Dorito effect, right? You eat something that hits your tongue with all those sensations of fat, sugar, and salt, and you feel happy, but then you don’t feel happy after you eat a bag of Doritos, right? So…

TM: Yeah. Okay, we now have 49 years of celebrating Earth Day. I kind of had this desire to try and help Americans say, wait a minute—let’s not give up Earth Day as a national holiday. Let’s celebrate it more. And I racked my brain and I kept thinking to myself, how can I get people to celebrate Earth Day every year, but at least once a year say this is a special day? Like Thanksgiving, like Easter, like Christmas, like all of the other holidays they have. How can we really make it? And it occurred to me that our problem is that we don’t have a dinner associated with it. Is there a special meal that we can have and celebrate Earth Day with an Earth Dinner? I’m wanting to ask you as a chef: If you were to invent the best Earth Day dinner, what would it look like for you?

MC: Well, in the Northeast, I hope it would include asparagus and rhubarb and ramps, because those are things that we are likely to have available, just newly coming from the Earth, springing in the spring. And probably some morels, maybe, also, if they’re happening yet. Of course, it depends on the weather. But those are things that I would love to see celebrated. I also would include some ruminants in that meal, because I think that we need them on the Earth. I do see also a kind of trend these days toward veganism, because I think that there’s a belief—which I believe is erroneous—that animals are responsible for so much of the climate change that we have going on now. And I don’t believe that—I think it’s how the animals are raised that’s causing it.

TM: Ah, good point.

MC: So I think we need to celebrate the ruminants that roam the Earth as well, and that we raise, if we raise them in a natural way, the way they want to live. So I would herald that as well in the meal.

TM: Yes. Yes, and maybe some roots that were probably carried over from late fall?

MC: Roots would be great—some parsnips coming up from wintered over, over-wintered, yeah.

TM: And then how about at the dinner—what kind of conversation do you think would be appropriate for your Earth Day dinner?

MC: Okay, well, I would encourage everyone to plant something—to plant something and to watch it grow. If it’s an herb on your windowsill or in your backyard, and just be able to see the joy in that happening. Because I think part of it is, a lot of us, especially urban dwellers, don’t connect enough with the Earth. We don’t have the opportunity to do that every day, or there’s a lot of pavement and not much soil. So it’s a great way to actually put your hands in the soil and grow something. Might be a good thing to do on Earth Day.


TM: What is your earliest memory of food?

MC: Well, I remember, as a small child—I must have been four or five, because I think I could still crawl on the counters—we were making fudge out of the Betty Crocker cookbook.

TM: (Laughing) Oh boy!

MC: So I think that’s one of my first food memories, yeah. A big pot of melting chocolate was quite a, still an eidetic memory, yeah.

TM: Well, you know, as we look at being a citizen eater, being a co-producer, we—all of us here, and all of us listening here—we are going to have to change the way we eat, all of us, in order to actually try and reverse global warming. I know that the UN this year gave us a 12-year warning, whether we want to believe it or not. But if we were to start saying, what are some of the rules that we might change? Certainly seeing ourselves not as consumers but as participants would be one. Mary, what other things come to mind? What kind of rules of eating do you think that would be great for our listeners to take away today as we contemplate our connection with the Earth?

MC: Yeah, I think that, well, speaking of the UN, the Lancet “EAT Now” report also came out this year, and I think it was a long, 12-year study or something. And their conclusion was pretty much what Frances Moore Lappé concluded when she wrote Diet for a Small Planet, which is that we need to eat more vegetables and less meat. And I think their end result was 80 percent of our diet should be vegetable based. And I think that one thing, so we might not make 80 percent because we are a very meat-focused country largely, but I think it really is a trend that we want to develop is to eat more and more vegetable matter.

TM: Excellent. And then the meat, of course, that we want to eat, we probably want to know where that meat came from.

MC: Oh, we so do! We so do, and how it was raised, and that it was not subjected to poisons or large cramped feedlots and antibiotics and all kinds of bad things like that.

TM: Yeah, and also maybe we want to know where all our food comes from whenever we can.

MC: It’s such a good thing to know. And that is work that I have been focused on, as you know, and as you described earlier. But we just try to really understand where everything comes from that we purchase and work with, and the growing principles and standards of the producers, and that they are contributing to a positive food supply, and that the animals were well raised and well slaughtered. We like to think that our chickens and turkeys only have one bad day in their life—the end of it. So…

TM: (Laughing) Well said!

MC: We raised some pigs this year too, so that was fun.

TM: Yeah, I bet. I see that you and your husband are raising pastured pigs.

MC: Yeah, we did. Well, we started with eight last season. It wasn’t a big run, but that was a lot of fun.

TM: How about this one, Mary: I know that this, for many people, is like “Oh no, I can’t do that,” but cooking from scratch?

MC: Oh, cooking from scratch—yes! I mean, it is difficult for families, and families and even any working person. It’s hard to have time to both purvey(? 26:05) and cook. But I strongly recommend structuring your week so that you can get both done. Purvey on the weekends or purvey little by little during the week, and stock your pantry so that you have things available to cook with at all times, and then just need to pick up the fresher things on a daily basis. Or cook in bulk and freeze and then reheat. Cooking is such a good idea, Theresa, and I do urge everybody to enjoy it. It’s so fun—it’s so fun! Just try it!

TM: It can be so fun.

MC: Yeah, it’s not one of those things that we need to sub out to restaurants, although it’s great to support your local restaurant as well. But it’s really wonderful to have people to your house. Cook dinner at home, invite your friends over, enjoy gathering around a table in your own environment. And cook together—cook together.

TM: Oh, cooking together—there’s another one. Do things together, celebrate together.

MC: Maybe that’s a good Earth Day question: When was the last time you cooked together with your…with anyone?

TM: Yeah, and then what did you cook, and how did it come out? Group living.

MC: Right. Let’s just talk about cooking—we could do that all day.

TM: Yeah. And this, listeners, from a person who makes her living feeding other people and catering, and she’s saying, “No, stay home and cook!”

MC: That’s right—that’s right. Well, you know, cook for one, cook for two, cook for four, cook for five—you know. We’re happy to cook for your larger group when you don’t want to do all that.

TM: And you know, mamas out there, teach your kids how to cook.

MC: That’s right, mamas, teach your—and dads, every parent.

TM: Let your little one crawl on the table and watch you make fudge.

MC: Right. Every parent, godparent, uncle, aunt, cousin—yeah, everybody needs to learn to cook. It’s a life-giving skill.

TM: Mary, so wonderful to talk with you today. Happy Earth Day!

MC: Oh, happy Earth Day, Theresa.

TM: And I know for you every day is Earth Day, but I just am honored to be talking with you today. And good luck with all the hundred different things you’re doing. And I just want to thank you for just being a great food person, an activist, and really helping change food in a meaningful way. Thank you so much.

MC: Well, thank you so much, Theresa, for all that you do.

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