Monday, May 01, 2006

Gotto Get Ourselves Back To The Garden

The WesFoodie is an ever vigilant crusader for the sophisticated and rightfully demanding palates of devoted readers. So this weekend rather than scrape and paint the back of my garage (sorely in need of a new coat) and clean it out for spring, I packed up the family into the SUV and hightailed it to the Pocantico hills for a pilgrimage to the Stone Barns Center. For those not In The Know, Stone Barns is the brainchild of Dan Barber and the lovechild of David Rockefeller. A 80 acre working farm with a half acre greenhouse, over 50 miles of trails, a café and an elegant restaurant with a seasonal menu. Stone Barns describes its mission as “to demonstrate, teach, and promote sustainable, community-based food production.” Yeah, you got it, it’s a shrine to the Movement. A $30 million Rockefeller financed shrine. And it is very beautiful….

I was very excited to take this trip to the Garden. I had read many amazing things about Stone Barns in the two years since its opening in the spring of 2004. If you peruse the literature on Stone Barns, you would understand that Barber has re-created Eden only with a much better selection of heritage breed pigs and a state-of-the-art kitchen with full staff and a pre fixe tasting menu. According to Westchester Magazine, Stone Barns is the “Best Place to Experience a Culinary Revolution.” The New York Times reported that the Center is the flagship of that Revolution and has many worthwhile educational programs as well. Which it does. So with press like that you can forgive a Sustaindanista like me for being ready for something really great, something maybe just a little life changing.

Well, call me a curmudgeon, but having walked the trails, admired the greenhouse and tasted the food, the WesFoodie finds the whole thing a bit fussy. I’m still trying to figure it out but something is not quiet natural about Stone Barns. There are high concept, masterly designed graphics explaining the benefits of small farming over agri-business. There’s a gift shop with gardening cloths with the Stone Barns’ logo on the lapel. Did Barber invent little biodynamic strap-on buckets for the chickens to collect their waste and wisk it off to the organic herb garden for soil enrichment before it can be seen by any guests? Has he hired an army of Stone Barns’ cool designer t-shirt clad farm hands to steal away each errant weed seed on the heirloom garlic fields just as each is about to sprout? I don’t know. But he has recycled the stone silos on the barn into comfortable wood enscossed reading rooms complete with books for all ages and a large Stone Barns trademark sticker on each cover. Trust me, you won’t get any hay or grain in your hair walking around these barns. Which is good because a sizable portion of Stone Barns’ visitors come prepared for the farm in dark blazers and Italian leather loafers. “Community-based food production?” I guess so. But what community?

Its just not a good sign when you leave a place like this thinking maybe you ought to move to Mexico City after all – that maybe a little smog wouldn’t hurt. There’s a real danger here that people are going to get turned off, give up and start cooking like Rachel Ray or something – “Hey – don’t want to get flour on your silk blouse, why pretend - open a can of ravioli – Yummy!”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Stone Barns isn’t an agent for ecological change, it is, it definitely is. And the food is certainly good. I had a really nice duck Panini with pickled daikon and golden raisons and a fine sampling of salads at the Café. As I was peeking into the secret back door of the restaurant’s kitchen, David Rockefeller and his entourage emerged and that was exciting. It is a gorgeous pastoral setting. But like an Epcot Center for foodies, its fun to check out and walk around but at the end of the day you’re probably not leaving with much more than you came in with – except maybe the mouse ears you bought at the gift shop.

(Left - The Secret Door to the Kitchen from which emerged David Rockefeller)

No comments: