As soon as it appeared in my inbox, I knew this adventure would be right up my alley. The folks at Urban Oyster Tours had kindly invited me for lunch and a 3-hour tour of Brooklyn, to explore where its culinary and agricultural worlds collide. Frankly, they had me at hello with talk of ‘experiencing the entire farm-to-table journey of my food’ and seduced with promises of taking me straight to the heart of Brooklyn’s most unique food destinations, to sample and speak with the creative entrepreneurs behind them. Twist my arm? Not likely.
To my surprise, not only was the tour destined to be chock full of local artisanal eats, but we had multiple guides for the day – Bob Lewis (local historian, founder of NYC Greenmarkets, and Special Assistant at NY State Agriculture & Markets), David Naczycz and Cindy VandenBosch (founders of Urban Oyster), and Caylin Sanders (founder of local travel web portal, EscapeMaker.com). Each were a veritable wealth of information about Brooklyn’s myriad riches – its food and architecture; neighborhoods, people, and cultural traditions; agriculture and urban planning initiatives – past and present.
We met up at Skylight One Hanson, one jaw-dropping landmark of art deco magnificence, perhaps better known as the former Williamsburg Savings Bank, and current winter home of the Brooklyn Flea, which now serves as a prime events location for hire year round. As we jitneyed to our first destination via “The Good Bus”, we got the scoop on what Urban Oyster is all about:
“The name comes from the legend that New York Harbor once contained half the world’s oysters. Over time though, most of the beds died off due to pollution and over-consumption”, David explained. “Like oysters, the neighborhoods of New York are treasured resources that require nurturing in order to survive and flourish. We seek to reveal the hidden pearls of this great city – the neighborhoods, people, and businesses that are uniquely New York. We aim to connect people to these special places through their stories and history, in an effort to support and value local production, consumption, cultural diversity, historic preservation, and sustainability for the benefit of generations to come.”
Given my unbridled obsession with NYC local food & drink culture, coupled with my family’s business of historic preservation, such excursions are tailor-made for culinary architecture geeks like me. I ventured repeatedly to Smorgasburg and New Amsterdam Market last summer, both weekend outdoor markets where you can snap up local artisanal goods, fresh produce & ingredients, and literally sample everything under the sun, as you chat directly with the people who make the things you’re eating, in picturesque locales along either side of the East River.
And Urban Oyster Tours are another opportunity to do the exact same thing. They take you straight to the cooks’ kitchen and give you a comprehensive history lesson ‘mise en place’. They offer a variety of expertly crafted outings – “Eat Like a Local” through Boerum Hill; “Mom & Pop Shops” in Cobble Hill; “Food Carts” of Lower Manhattan; “Immigrant Foodways” in Williamsburg; and their most popular “Brewed in Brooklyn” and “Craft Beer Crawl” which combine a lesson in local beer making techniques with the best part – tasting! Sip your IPA, on the site it was made, while you chat up the brewer? That’s refreshingly rare.
You can get on board with regularly scheduled tours or arrange a private tour of your own. Either or, it’s an entertaining way to show your out-of-town guests how the natives do it, and for locals, it’s a delicious opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and learn more about the vast expanse of your own backyard. It’s so easy to become a creature of habit in your own city and re-visit the same old haunts time after time, but these tours can provide a fresh perspective to the same old stomping grounds, pointing out places you might otherwise miss.
If you’ve lived in the NYC during the last 5 years and have even a mild interest in food culture, chances are you’ve participated in the endless debate as to which borough is the true epicenter of culinary arts – Manhattan or Brooklyn? Manhattan certainly makes a compelling case for itself, as farm-to-table restaurants from celebrity chefs like Dan Barber, Dan Kluger, David Bouley, and Mike Price steadily increase in popularity and rooftop farm initiatives gain steam. Brooklyn is a venerable mecca for foodies in its own right though, and many would simply argue it’s the borough that represents the best of NYC food culture, period.
It’s certainly where the small batch, artisanal, locally made, grown, and sourced movement has sunk its deepest roots at present. While Manhattan is the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street, Brooklyn is at the epicenter of another social revolution – locavorism – and is pro-actively re-positioning itself as THE food and agro-tourism destination you must visit. Great strides are being made in just about every neighborhood enclave to return to their roots of food cultivation and production. There’s been a virtual explosion of urban gardening and community revitalization projects, such as The Brooklyn Grange, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, and Added Value, all of whom are committed to getting people re-invested in their communities and the joys of volunteerism. We’re witnessing a revival of the love affair between foodies and farmers, and the people who make speciality foods are being recognized for their important contributions to the social fabric of the city’s culture again. We’re finding ways to revamp cultural traditions of the past, with a fresh twist that suits our modern lifestyles.
The first stop on our BK Foodways tour was Moore Street Market, one of the few remaining public markets designed during the LaGuardia era as a sanitary alternative to the pushcart vending culture prevalent during the early turn of the century. Our guides provided us with a comprehensive history of the market, complete with historic photographs and fascinating anecdotes, painting a picture of then and now, as well as briefing us on the upcoming urban planning improvements, including a landscaped outdoor public plaza on Humboldt Street, scheduled for completion in Summer 2013. We walked around the market’s interior, meeting several of the long time vendors who treated us to homemade horchata, corn pupusas, and a special tea remedy, made from ingredients native to her family’s homeland in Pueblo, Mexico.
Then, it was off to Roberta’s Pizza for lunch. Housed in an unassuming cinder block structure, with zero curb appeal in an industrial section of East Williamburg, we entered to discover an enormous wood-burning oven as the centerpiece of their open kitchen, which we later learned literally took the slow boat from Italy to Brooklyn. The place is super rustic, with long picnic tables and benches; a small wood bar with a bevy of local beers and a clever cocktail menu scrawled on the chalkboard overhead; and an enclosed outdoor patio heated by a wood-burning furnace, that stares directly into the Heritage Radio Network station which broadcasts 24/7. The crowd is very, well, Brooklyn – local locals, each with their own signature mustache or coiffed beard, complimenting their casual vintage wear and quirky-rimmed glasses. I watched the process as they hand fired our pizzas to bubbly perfection, then topped with veg grown in their roof top garden (or at the nearby BK Grange) and meats sourced at the local butcher shop. We sat down to the communal table, first devouring the fresh margherita, then several more mouthwatering kale and homemade Berkshire sausage pies. A heaven you’d never know existed…
Then, we traveled to over to Brooklyn Winery, a beautiful space in the heart of Williamsburg, utilizing re-purposed wood, recycled furniture, found objects and memorabilia to create one warm, inviting place to imbibe away the hours and socialize with other connoisseurs. We were privileged to receive a glimpse behind the scenes, touring the space where they age their varietals in barrels stacked ceiling high. Their one-and-only winemaker, Conor McCormack, happened to be on site bottling and corking a few cases of a new Cab Sav, so we got to watch and then taste it, as we chatted with him in the intimate event space upstairs. The duo owners, Brian Leventhal and John Stires, who left unfulfilling, but lucrative positions in finance to follow their passion for wine and create a space that they themselves would want to hang out in with their friends, also mingled with us. We asked all kinds of questions, and they answered every single one, from where they got the furniture, to the grapes; how they design their labels and acquired such a desirable location; to the types of events they have on offer and their vision for the future. Ridiculously centrally located near Bedford Avenue on N 8th Street, with a spectacularly unique wine menu and lots of comfortably designed nooks to chill in, this is the place you want to spend a mellow Friday night, come for a workshop or a tasting, or host an intimate shindig of your own.
Finally, it was over to Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens, a lovingly restored, 1920’s era soda fountain. Brought back to life by brother and sister team, Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo, for a Discovery Channel reality TV renovation series, it’s a quintessential old gem that makes you think you’ve stepped back in time. Children came in with their parents to have a scoop of ice cream at the counter after school, grandparents read books to grandkids off the shelves of their library, and a group played board games on the big table in the back room. We were treated to traditional chocolate and vanilla egg creams, as the owners shared priceless stories about the history of the space, the condition they found it in, and how they went to great lengths to make it their own while attempting to remain true to the neighborhood. This joint manages to strike the perfect balance between family-friendly cute and edgy Brooklyn “Jerk”. You can buy more than 2 dozen locally made products from different BK artisans, proudly displayed in the Farmacy’s original wooden built ins. Lucky for you out-of-towners, these delicacies can be purchased online at With Love, From Brooklyn and NY Mouth.
As the tour came to a close, I had a very heartwarming feeling that history has not been lost, but in fact, there are many people committed to preserving the stories and places that make these diverse neighborhoods truly one-of-a-kind. The culinary traditions of the past are alive and well for the current generations to appreciate, if you put yourself in capable hands and know where to look. As the afternoon sun began to dip behind the trees, I sat outside on the Farmacy’s bench chatting with a few old men from the ‘hood about how life used to be and how things haved changed. I commiserated, with an understanding nod and an appreciation for their perspective, but also with joy in my heart that pearls like these still exist for me and hopefully, my children to experience. It may not be like it used to, but perhaps there’s still hope, that eventually we can make city living even better for the future.
Want to learn more about Urban Oyster Tours straight from the founders?
Sample goodies from these very same artisans yourself?
Get ideas for local culinary tours and travel destinations?
Head to: Escapemaker.com’s Local Food & Travel Expo
Saturday, April 14 from 12 – 5 pm
@ Skylight One Hanson
And be sure to check out all these places and more on my “Best of Culinary Brooklyn” Eye For Style map!