What’s the definition of insane? According to cookbook author Brian Yarvin, insanity runs rampant in New Jersey. It’s evident in the fact that many New Jersey farmers have to go into New York to sell their produce and cheese. Yarvin finds that most New Jerseyans are not aware of the state’s farmers, don’t frequent farmer’s markets, and don’t buy their products. "These farmers feel they have to go to Manhattan to sell what they have. How insane is that? The solution is to buy here instead."
Yarvin, an Edison resident and author of "Farms and Foods of the Garden State: A New Jersey Cookbook," is one of many authors, farmers, chefs, and other foodies who will be present at the Jersey Fresh Wine & Food Festival at Mercer County Community College, Saturday and Sunday, August 13 and 14. The festival, presented by the Garden State Wine Growers Association in conjunction with the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food and the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, will be one of the largest wine and food festivals the state has ever seen. Summertime dishes prepared with seasonal, locally-raised vegetables, fruits, chickens, meats, and fresh seafood will be available for a nominal fee.
Yarvin will be on hand to discuss his passion for the food that’s grown in New Jersey and what people create with it. "We’re having this festival to celebrate the farms and farmers in New Jersey, the restaurants that cook with local produce, the food writers, and the large contingent of wineries. I’m interested in farms and farmers, and what people are doing with food – that’s my personal passion."
A dozen of the state’s finest restaurants, including Tre Piani, Rat’s, John Henry’s, No. 9, High Street Grill, and the Lawrenceville Inn will be giving tastings. Sixteen wineries are participating including Alba Vineyard, Amalthea Cellars, Amwell Valley Vineyard, Bellview Winery, Cape May Winery, Cream Ridge Winery, DiMatteo Vineyards, Tomasello Winery, and Sylvin Farms. With over a million gallons of wine and more than 40 different varieties produced annually, New Jersey is the fifth largest wine-producing state in the nation.
Visitors to the festival can indulge in cheeses and baked goods; meet cookbook authors and honey producers; stroll among flower, plant, and craft vendors, listen to jazz music; and purchase local produce and seafood to take home from the festival’s farmer’s and seafood markets. There is even a Kids Zone.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens and Long Island, Yarvin’s passion for food began with childhood visits to such places as Pennsylvania Amish Country and New York City’s Chinatown. Raised by a single father, who worked in the garment district, the Yarvins ate out a lot. He remembers going to his grandmother’s house and all they ate was frozen dinners. About three years ago, after a long career as a food photographer, he realized he needed a change. "There are points in a freelance career where you need to change, and recipe development seemed like the right direction. Writing the book allowed me to fuse food, photography, and writing. Photography is about taking the everyday and making it special. Writing about food is about reminding people about how special food can be."
In addition to his work as a professional photographer, Yarvin is a food writer and an instructor of food and commercial photography at the Washington School of Photography in Bethesda, Maryland, which he attended as a student. He lives in Edison with his wife and co-author, Maria Grazia Asselle. Their forthcoming cookbook, "Cucina Piemontese," due out in November, explores the cooking of Italy’s Piedmont region, an area known for beef, cheese and wine. Asselle is a native of this region.
Of the 30 farms five are in Mercer County: Griggstown Quail Farm, Simply Grazin’ Farm in Hopewell, Spring Hill Farm in Hopewell, Terhune Orchards in Princeton, and Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington.
Yarvin says Simply Grazin’ (www.sforganic.com) is an organic meat producer, which is interesting because virtually all the producers in Mercer County are vegetable producers. Owners Mark Faille, his wife, Karen, and his sister, Cindy, formerly repaired air conditioning equipment until seven years ago, when they got the farm bug. They produce free-range chicken, grass-fed beef, and naturally-raised pork for wholesale and retail.They will have a booth at the Jersey Fresh festival.
Of the 30 farms that Yarvin visited and interviewed for "Farms and Food of the Garden State," some are run by fourth generation farmers. Yarvin wanted to find a correlation between what they grew and what their age is. What he discovered is that this is not our father’s generation of farmers. Many of them grow what they like to eat. "Not many grew things for other people," says Yarvin. "They were very serious cooks or associated with serious cooks. Many of them drive 60 to 80 miles for a meal in a favorite restaurant. Some travel to Provence or Singapore in the off season." After interviewing the farmers, Yarvin developed recipes around their favorite dishes, which are included in the book.
"In Queens, the information about food was incessant. When I got here, I intensely disliked everything about the place – except the food. Everything that’s good about food in New York is better in Edison. What we have in Jersey is quality that is equal to what they have anywhere. But what we lack is the information about what is available and the commitment to support it locally. It’s as though, because we’re in New Jersey, it’s not worth looking. The farmers I interviewed are growing produce that is the finest available. Tree fruits, cheese, organic lamb, all are being produced by New Jersey farmers. People who never associated cheese with this state can find better cheese at Bubbling Spring or Valley Shepherd than they make in Italy or France. A farmer in Pittstown, Chia-Cheng Huang, grows varieties of Chinese produce that don’t even have English names."
The creation of the green markets in New York City in the 1970s really changed the future of farmers in New Jersey. At that time, factory farming, or agri-business, had became impractical. There seemed to be a lot of land but nowhere to sell anything. With the opening of the green markets came a meeting of minds between the youngest members of the farm families and the top chefs in the city.
Yarvin says: "The youngest took their goods to the green markets in New York City where they met chefs on their way to work who asked them, ‘Can you grow this, this, and this?’ Farm families like the Binaghis of Stokes Farm in Old Tappen now harvest 11 acres of herbs for some of those restaurants. The Binaghis are the largest supplier of herbs in New Jersey. Their grandparents would have thought they were out of their mind to plant 11 acres of basil. But those are very profitable acres, and that’s why they haven’t been turned into office space."
According to Yarvin, the synergy between the immigrant community and the farmers is very powerful and unsung. "Within 15 miles of my home, I can eat Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, and authentic Italian food from five or six different regions of Italy. I even found an authentic Scottish restaurant. They were actually embarrassed to be discovered!"
The book took eight months to produce. Over Labor Day weekend in 2003, Yarvin drove from farm to farm, typed up all of his notes, and took digital pictures. He travelled from Sussex to Cape May Counties, interviewing two farmers at both extremes of the state on two consecutive days. "While researching this book, I walked through a field in January with farmer Len Polara in Montague while it was snowing. The next day, I went to Cape May where it was 40 degrees warmer. While I was sitting in the rest area writing up my notes, I thought to myself – my God, this state is big," Yarvin says.
"New Jersey has the greatest matrix of farms, stores, markets, and restaurants," adds Yarvin, "and, as food lovers, we should be immersed in them. People here just don’t know; they have an attitude that if it’s in New Jersey, it can’t be good. But the fact is, the Middle Eastern immigrants in Paterson and the fourth-generation produce farmers in Cape May County don’t know that. They just try to be the best they can be. And, they’re being outstanding."
Yarvin believes New Jersey residents should celebrate New Jersey farms, the various New Jersey ethnic food communities, and the brewers and the wine makers. "We should support them all by visiting the local tailgate market, patronizing our local farmer, and eating at an immigrant ethnic restaurant, preferably where nobody speaks English."
Then he wants you to go home and cook all those foods.
Jersey Fresh Wine and Food Festival, Saturday and Sunday, August 13 and 14, noon to 5 p.m, Mercer College, West Windsor, "A Taste of New Jersey" is co-hosted by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and Slow Food USA. Samples and sales from more than 10 New Jersey wineries. Food available from more than 12 restaurants. Farmer’s and seafood markets, cooking demonstrations, seminars, cookbook authors, kids activities, music, and crafters. Rain or shine.
$20 for adults; children free. Tickets are available at the door or can be purchased in advance at www.newjerseywines.com and include wine tastings, a souvenir wine glass, and entrance into the cooking demonstrations and wine seminars. 609-588-0085.