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Dec 18, 2008 06:55 AM

sustainable food tourism

so i'm originally from the Bay but now live in Boston, and am getting really involved in my local underground, sustainable food movement. since i know the bay area is sort of the birth of this stuff, when i'm home for the holidays i want to try to fill my brain (and stomach) with as much interesting sustainable food stuff as possible. this means restaurants, community gardens, farms, whatever. we're going to cowgirl creamery and tomales bay one day, and going musseling in the south bay another day, and have plans for 3-4 days in wine country somewhere. so any advice would be super helpful! thanks!

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  1. If you're going musseling in the San Mateo Coast area, you might want to check out Pie Ranch and Harley Farms goat cheese in the Pescadero area. There are a couple of urban/local food organizations in West Oakland/Emeryville: City Slicker Farms and People's Grocery.

    Harley Farms
    205 North St, Pescadero, CA

    City Slicker Farms
    1724 Mandela Parkway Suite 5, Oakland, CA

    Pie Ranch
    2080 Cabrillo Highway, Pescadero, CA

    People's Grocery
    909 7th Street, Oakland, CA 94607

    1. Well, I'm not clear at all what "sustainable" means anymore. But if by that you mean
      producing the most food calories out per kilowatt in, and doing so in a way that
      scales beyond hunter-gatherer, you might consider stopping in Iowa somewhere
      for a couple of corn fritters.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Chuckles the Clone

        Though if you are talking about shopper-gatherer level stuff, City Slicker Farms which Ruth mentioned are three kinds of awesome. There's a long radio interview with the woman who started it here:

      2. Let's forget about loading yourself into a fossil fuel propelled aluminum tube for a minute. I'd say take a look at 50 or so farmer's markets. Look for ones that are accessible by public transportation.

        In all seriousness I'd go to Marin Farmer's Market, Berkeley Downtown, and Ferry Plaza. Farm, Creamery, Winery, Brewery tours are a lot like similar tours in summer months in Massachusetts.

        1 Reply
        1. re: keg

          Two farmers markets I particularly like that are easily accessible by public transit are Old Oakland (Friday mornings) which is only three blocks from the Oakland City Center/12th St. BART station and Mountain View (Sunday mornings) which is in the parking lot for the Mountain View CalTrain station, which is also a hub connecting buses and light rail.

          Passenger airplanes are a form of mass transit. While they aren't as energy efficient as most other forms of mass transit, they aren't that bad in terms of passenger miles per gallon, especially when you consider that they usually operate at or near capacity, while other forms of transportation rarely do, so they're actually not wastefully extravagant. It's hard to find good numbers, but one wikipedia article I read suggested that an airplane flying at average capacity gets slightly more passenger miles per gallon than someone driving alone in a Prius.

        2. thanks all for the thorough, thoughtful comments. it's been amazing to me how different the attitude towards this kind of eating is from how it is in's rare and exciting for us to find restaurants that demonstrate a commitment to local ingredients, whereas here all chefs seem to pride themselves on their sustainable practices. it's inspirational and informative to be here. not to mention delicious!

          18 Replies
          1. re: dianalim


            Where did you end up eating? What did you like?

            In particular, we've had a recent thread comparing boston food with SF - if you can give us any direct comparisons, I'm sure they would be well read and appreciated.

            1. re: dianalim

              Yeah, it's almost a given here. But it's also something that's possible and practical because of the climate and the confluence of one of the world's great agricultural areas (Central Valley) and smaller but very high quality growing regions (Salinas, Napa and Sonoma valleys) with an urban area that has a critical mass to support a foodie culture and cultural diversity in both the people growing and consuming the products that promotes a huge variety of agricultural products.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Of course, New England farming and fishing did manage to sustainably
                feed a fairly large population for three centuries or so.

                1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                  People gotta eat -- that doesn't mean they enjoyed it. And all that imported tea, sugar, molasses and rum sure helped the winters go more easily.

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    For most of those three centuries, they presumably ate "heirloom" tomatoes, "heirloom" turkeys, "heirloom" tree fruits, cage-free eggs, pasture-raised meats, etc. only they didn't think of these as anything special. Is the lack of self-consciousness about what they were eating what kept them from enjoying it?

                    1. re: Xiao Yang

                      Yeah, but how many months a year? The growing season in New England is pretty short. Plus, "heirloom variety" doesn't necessarily mean plants as they originally grew -- in many cases it means older hybrids that were developed precisely because the naturally occurring varieties were lacking in some way.

                      1. re: Xiao Yang

                        "Hierloom" is just the modern US word for traditional varieties, those selected and often crossed through normal breeding methods (not hybrids).

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          Apparently I mis-used the word hybrid, but otherwise yeah, if you google "heirloom variety" you'll find it has no official definition. Here's what wikipedia says about what constitutes an heirloom plant: "There is no consensus as to how old a plant variety should be before it can be considered an heirloom. Many gardeners consider 1951 to be the latest year a plant can have originated and still be called an heirloom, since that year marked the widespread introduction of the first hybrid varieties. Some heirloom plants are much older, some being apparently pre-historic. Usually, a plant is not called an heirloom if it is grown widely and commercially, regardless of how old it is. To be an heirloom, a plant must be "open-pollinated", meaning it will grow 'true to type" and produce plants like the parents from seed. This excludes nearly every hybrid. Open pollination allows the same cultivar to be grown simply from seed for many generations."

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            Exactly. And I wasn't picking on you. Open pollinated crops and seed selection has been at the heart of human plant domestication for thousands of years. Some crops resulted from pure line selections in which people saved seed from individuals and sub-populations that exhibited desired characteristics (although some domestication led to a decreased gene pool, however, if people selected seed from, say, a single tree). But people also made many crosses, largely in ways that modern plant breeders do. Hybrids (crossing varieties that are genetically far apart) are good in the sense of vigor and yield and for seed companies that invest in producing hybrid seed. Hybrids are not so good for farmers who cannot afford to buy new seed each season. There are many (most) "heirloom" crops of the US that are open pollinated.

                  2. re: Ruth Lafler

                    With a little help from something innocuously named "The California Water Project" and its not so pretty impacts on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      > that doesn't mean they enjoyed it.

                      That's a pretty narrow view of it, no? The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook
                      contained almost 2000 recipes at the turn of the 19th century. Nearly every
                      one of them consisting of ingredients that would have been produced within
                      a few miles of any New England town.

                      During the winter, it wasn't all frozen caribou and whale blubber either. Fannie
                      Farmer lists twelve separate methods of preserving food. And hothouses,
                      remember, were a Roman invention. Plus, the ocean doesn't freeze.

                      1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                        The ocean doesn't freeze, but the weather can make fishing prohibitive, and not all New Englanders (maybe not even most of them) lived near the ocean. Everything I've ever read about those times suggests that the food most people (not upper-class Bostonians) ate in the winter was pretty monotonous.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          If we're comparing "turn of the 19th century" dining in Boston and San Francisco I would guess it would be a draw. I'd guess the food preservation and food systems were very well adapted in Boston. I'd also guess that tastes were very simple in San Francisco in this time period.

                          Side note: Whole Foods in Boston and San Francisco are virtually identical. The major difference is that in SF you can easily beat Whole Foods quality and price points at countless farmer's markets throughout the year. In Boston you have to wait for summer in order to trump price and quality. If you take the time to learn about food preservation the local food in Boston is delicious and nutritious throughout the year.....

                          1. re: keg

                            I think you might be underestimating the food scene in San Francisco in 1900 -- read about it sometime. San Francisco was a wealthy, sophisticated, international city -- the largest city on the West Coast -- and had been populated by peoples from all over the world, including native Californios of Spanish/Mexican heritage, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

                            But this has drifted far off point. My original point was that it's much, much easier to base a whole cuisine on "LOCAL/sustainable" in the Bay Area, because local (as opposed to trucked in by Whole Foods), sustainable foods are available year-round *and* because food is being produced by and for a diverse population (the historic Japanese and Chinese truck farmers in the Central Valley being augmented more recently by immigrants from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia and by the increase in Mexican-Americans who not only work the farms but own them). Head over to the Old Oakland Farmers Market some Friday morning and see what I mean.

                            Sure it's possible to preserve foods, but how many restaurants (which is what we were talking about) have the capacity to preserve food for their clientele for the whole winter? And how successful would they be serving only local/preserved foods in the winter when the restaurants all around them are serving fresh, exotic fare?

                            1. re: keg

                              The big difference I can see is the weather in CA and the produce.

                              Any way, one of the best stories I've ever heard was from my sister's landlord a long time ago. She lived in an old winery in the Bayview. The landlord told a story that the Italian family that owned the place use to press wine (grapes brought in), shoot pheasant and pull crabs from the bay to live off at the turn of the 20th century.

                              It's funny but I think people would pay a lot of money to have that life style now...and it was sustainable. I know there's a big seafood tradition in Boston but you're not going to get citrus to squeeze on that seafood in the dead of winter, like in CA.

                              1. re: ML8000

                                >>> I know there's a big seafood tradition in Boston but you're not going to get citrus to squeeze on that seafood in the dead of winter, like in CA.

                                That's why God created butter ... and Ritz crackers ... and lobsters on that coast more flavorful than crab.

                                1. re: rworange

                                  But can you get Strauss butter, Acme bread and some locally grown and produced wine? I know, I know...

                            2. re: Ruth Lafler

                              I don't know what "times" you are talking about, but people who care about food can be very creative and make delicious meals out of whatever is available, be it preserved, dried, seasonal, or just hard-won (ask me about the rewards of ice-fishing on the st. Lawrence).

                              You seem to have the attitude that we are blessed because good ingredients are tossed in our lap; if anything that serves to stifle creativity. A label like "Niman Ranch" is not a sauce, condiment or cooking technique though it seems to be honored as such.

                      2. this is a FASCINATING conversation and very relevant to what we bostonians often discuss... some friends and i are working on getting together a fermenting/preserving/raw milk collective together, and there's other stuff that's starting to take off in the localvore community, like winter csa's, hothouse growing, etc. i'm still traveling so i'll have to write a more full response later, but i think it's safe to say that both sides of the discussion have some credence. yes it's been exciting to have fresh veggies at our disposal all the time (our new years eve/day meals were all local with produce from my grandmothers backyard and my friend's student farm in davis). but it's also been interesting to learn how to store root vegetables in my cellar in boston, make tomato sauce or minestrone soup all october so that i'll have some to eat in february, and boil stored apples into apple sauce till i'm blue in the face. new englanders have always been prized for their ingenuity and thrift, and it's a skill that i'm learning, and learning to appreciate, as i try to resist industrial agriculture. restaurant reviews later!

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: dianalim

                          Alright, here I go:

                          What I ATE: * tasting menu at MILLENNIUM. what a fascinating menu! and i'm really interested to learn more about CHEFS, the nonprofit they are connected with. i wouldn't suggest the tasting, since it was a bit disjointed and pretty much was just them serving each of us a different item off the a la carte menu. nor would i suggest the cocktails, at least that anyone in our party ordered. but the food was interesting and delicious, complex and thoughtfully prepared. i am always so grateful when restaurants manage to make vegetarian interesting!
                          * ECCOLO. we were a large party for my birthday and this was the place that my family felt best could accommodate my eating-desires and our family size. i was not especially impressed with the more creative dishes, and everything was over salted, but the basic italian staples were out of this world. the bolognese, the lasagna...someone find out what kind of ricotta they use and let me know because it was incredible!!!
                          * UBUNTU. we were not disappointed. although it seems a little gimmicky to put the yoga studio in the restaurant, the food was incredible and, i thought, more enjoyable than millennium. the flavors were simpler and cleaner, with each dish really saying something. the cauliflower of course was a standout, as was the cheesecake in a mason jar, which we loved. we agreed hand down that this was our favorite meal of the trip.
                          * NEW YEARS. food fresh from the farm. i'll post pics and recipes on my blog ( soon, but it was just incredible to have all these fresh vegetables straight from the ground in the middle of winter!

                          which leads back to the discussion. i've been thinking about it and have a couple of things to say.
                          1. how familiar are all of you with boston food? i'd have to say it is neither the ingredients nor the chefs that have really shaped the direction of the restaurant mainstream in boston, but rather the patrons. I worked for a year in an upscale, trendy seafood restaurant that catered towards the young foodie scene but also was connected to a boston celebu-chef, so we were known by some as a "fine dining" restaurant. countless times, older bostonians/metro-area residents arrived at the restaurant to be horrified that there was no tablecloth where they were seated. this illustrates, in my mind, what has been the primary obstacle for creative, forward-thinking food in boston. bostonians are only starting to generally accept the idea that *good* food is not always *fancy* food, and without this realization, chefs have been forced to make stuffed lobster and fancy fresh stakes, or perish on the fringes. now, as most places but with a decidedly boston twinge, good food is also linked to status, and most good restaurants are sceney and unadventurous. which is why the majority of places doing work in sustainable farming, vegetarian menus, and similar, are in cambridge and jamaica plain, where the high heel and tablecloth set would never go.
                          2. i agree in principle with the idea that good chefs, not good ingredients, are the most important thing. but i have to say that, fundamentally, a winter dinner in boston is less fun than a summer dinner in boston. at one of our favorite restaurants, tw food, we had the best tasting menu of our lives this past august. a similar, but winter-ingredient, menu in november was only so-so. tim weichmann is a phenomenal chef, but because of his commitment to local, sustainable products, there are only so many ways he can cook stored squash and apples.
                          3. on the idea of "heirloom" or "heritage" being a sort of "sauce". this is a complicated issue, and stems mostly from the constant process of fringe, radical food ideas slowly being absorbed into the mainstream of culture, commodified, and subsequently marketed. when when alice waters first put the source of all her ingredients on the menu at chez panisse, this was a radical idea. it wasn't pretentious, and it wasn't to make you think the food was better. it was a simple way of letting her clients know *where their food came from*. this is something that few people think about. now, i know all you bay-area folks are tired of niman ranch this, heirloom that, but let me tell you, out here where it's often still baked lobsters and dunkin donuts, those labels are a necessary way for me to know that a chef connects with ingredients. though i do understand that some of these labels, as a result of the boom in "conscientious consumption" marketing, are now meaningless. reading on what USDA organic really means, or michael pollan's idea of the supermarket pastoral, make this abundantly clear.
                          4. all of this said, boston and new england are better equipped to handle some of these issues going forward, and it's really exciting. much of the land even 15 miles outside boston is small agricultural land, and the lack of agribusiness up and down new england has made the small farm more able to sustain itself, especially through creativity and good marketing. there was a great article in the times about a community in new hampshire that transformed itself from a blighted post-industrial community into a thriving, niche small-scale agricultural center. farmers markets grow and proliferate every year, and local chefs are slowly getting involved. we have innovative programs like CityFruit/Earthworks, and they are only increasing in their visibility. i could go on and on.

                          whew! hope that contributed to this rich, interesting discussion, and thanks to all for the advice. i didn't make it to the farms because of complications of holidays, family, and hours of operation, but i will make it a point to check them out sometime in the future.

                          1. re: dianalim

                            oh yeah, and we went to Tartine in the mission. my youngest sister wants to run a cafe someday, and it was suggested to me that tartine was a really great model for a local bakery/cafe. line notwithstanding, it was incredible. the croissant was the best any of us had ever had, the croque monsieur was out-of-this-world, my pecorino, almond, and thyme sandwich was really original and delicious. we were glad we made the trip. and yes, by public transportation ;-)