06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Grassroots to Mountaintops

Joan Dye Gussow - the matriarch of the modern-day food movement; the educator and activist who transformed the discussion about nutrition and health from a conversation about calories and fat to a confrontation of the very structure of our society's food system; the renegade gardener; and a natural Superwoman of the highest order - was roasted and toasted Sunday evening at Sotheby's on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In a benefit for Just Food, over 300 locavores and members of the food intelligentsia (mind you, NOT foodies) gathered to honor her lifetime of ground-breaking and inspirational work.

If the food movement had an Oscar night, this would be it. At the forefront of the sustainability movement for over 15 years, Just Food, currently under the leadership of Executive Director Jacquie Berger, assumed the mantle of leadership in creating an event that gathered a star-studded great complement of characters and messages.

Leaders included Marion Nestle, Kristin Greer, Amy Chender, Helena Durst, Mary Cleaver, Doreen Wohl, Judith LaBelle, Hilary Baum, Fern Estrow, Scott Chaskey, Robert LaValva, Nazli Parvizi, Lisa Schwartz, Cathy Erway, Jennifer Small, Lisa Goode, Annie Farrell, Jayni Chase, Seth Ungar, Mark Strausman, Alice Varon, Steve Rosenberg, to name a few stars of the food universe.

On a parallel track, the responsibility of feeding this savvy group fell on the shoulders of Great Performances. And, in case you are new to Joan Gussow (though she is legendary), perhaps the names Michael Pollan and Dan Barber will ring a bell. Needless to say, the culinary team was challenged to create an entirely (well, overlook the chocolate and Crop to Cup coffee in the dessert) local meal for the group that practically invented the local food movement. Would that not keep you up at night?

The roast was perfect (if not, according to Joan, too nice). Anna Lappe, Master of Ceremonies, warmly introduced the 4 speakers: Michael Pollan, Brian Halweil, Kathy Lawrence and Peter Hoffman.

Michael Pollan opened by speaking to the most compelling and powerful characteristics that define Joan, starting with her clarity of vision - how "she can always distill an issue to its simplest form, cut through layers of double-talk and hidden agendas, and speak the truth." Michael recalls her speech as "Fresh Air," framing issues, in plainspoken truthfulness, otherwise seen as muddied and complex. And, in practically the same breath, he dubbed her "fearless" and "courageous" - a journalist, unafraid to take on scientists (never mind their degrees in biochemistry). Michael described how, "like a hot knife through butter," she galvanized readers and students to simply "eat food," ignoring the foggy rhetoric about nutrients, simply encouraging a close connection to basic food in its purest and freshest form.

Finally, Joan's generosity - sharing her research, writing, time and attention while Michael was in the early stages of In Defense of Food - is a hallmark of her long career. To those in the audience who believed the food movement spanned a decade, Michael recalled its beginnings, in the 1970's, lead by Joan Gussow, Wendell Berry and Barry Commoner. If for some reason, he explained, Joan does not stand as tall as she once did, "it is because we are all standing on her shoulders."

Brian Halweil, though "not telling us" of her flaws, recounted one of his first public-speaking engagements where Joan, a fellow presenter, commented: "Brian, that talk was bad." Respectful humor aside, Brian captured a startling metamorphasis that he witnessed in Joan. She went from being the "grande dame of doom and gloom" to the "re-envisionary" of the food movement, so to speak, declaring the present moment as "our time to shine" - "to use food to make change in the world around us." It is undeniable that food issues now dominate the political agenda from NYC to Washington - "food is the solution, thanks to Joan."

The vignettes shared by Kathy Lawrence, from Joan's semi-secret loathing of the color yellow in spring (who knew!) to LIE car rides along with Toni Liquori on which the trio sang the American songbook and cursed at the motorists cutting them off, provided a humorous and human glimpse into the woman we all see as a no-nonsense straight-shooter. "Joan," Kathy said, "walks the talk. She grows her own food to teach us to concentrate on the work in the ground and the soil." She is, above all, "a sage."

Peter Hoffman, evoking the classic roast, gleefully labeled Joan as a "terrorist" who exposes the flaws in our food supply; shares subversive journals; is anti-American, championing our freedom to shop and free choice in the supermarket aisle." Hailing her as "a risk to National Security - a woman who advocates 'Trust cows more than chemists,' she is the defender of all things unprocessed." Peter recounted: Joan "openly pines for a sign that says 'This is a winter tomato-free community.'"

The struggle to keep multi-national food corporations from compromising organic standards; drive to turn lawns into gardens; championing anti-hunger movements; promoting farmers' markets; speaking out against the commercial development of open land; supporting community gardens - all of this is Joan's legacy.

With Joan off the rotisserie, we, like our hungry guests, turned our focus back to the buffets. Chef de Cuisine Marc Spooner was so grateful to be part of this production: "How inspiring it was to spend two hours with that group of people," he shared the morning after. Weeks were spent crafting a purely local menu that would accommodate last-minute adjustments based on what would appear in the Greenmarket up to the day before the event (including a trip to Union Square on Saturday to purchase several cases of unexpected asparagus!). In early April, Katchkie Farm Manager Bob Walker dedicated a greenhouse to growing radishes exclusively for the party (the first harvest of the season). Even the radish tops were used for the tastiest salad of vinegary greens (save that tip in your cooking notes!). Basis Food worked with the culinary team to source local cabbage, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, cippolini onions and kale. Our Hudson Valley farm neighbors - Hawthorne Valley Farm - provided their signature quark cheese. Friends at Hudson Valley Fresh donated milk. Vermont Butter & Cheese, Black Rooster, and Organic Nectars made food contributions to the evening as well.

The menu was an Omnivore's Delight - something for everyone, vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians, and carnivores alike. It was a celebration of Joan Gussow and of this very inspiring moment when the rumblings of change are becoming amplified from grassroots to mountaintops. The flavor of the food was enhanced by the act of sharing it in a room filled with like-minded and passionate individuals. And, while it was not a march on Washington, nor were there placards with political slogans rather petit menu signs highlighting the names of local farms, it was the most peaceful yet powerful demonstration of the collective commitment to changing the status quo.

Dan Barber, who arrived to give the closing toast to Joan, had us all chime in with the refrain: "For this and for many other things, we salute you." Join us:

"A Superwoman who leaps tall buildings in a single bound..." (Refrain)
"A professor who trusts cows more than scientists..." (Refrain)
"A writer - both political and personal..." (Refrain)
"A no-nonsense converted Yankee, declaring it safe and sensible to slather butter on potatoes..." (Refrain)
"A health guru, botantist, mini-farmer [...] with a love of all growing things..." (Refrain)
"A cook and a critic, a matriarch, a hedonist - food is your medium and the message is a philosophy of life..." (Refrain)

For this and for many other things, we salute you, Joan.

The Evening's Menu

Butlered Hors d'Oeuvres

Meiller's Farm Beef Sliders
Katchkie Ketchup

Pigasso Farm's Chicken Liver Toast
Apple Relish

Max Creek Hatchery Smoked Trout Salad
Served on Lightning Tree Farms' Whole Wheat Blini

Old Chatham Ewes Blue Cheese on Crostini
Andrews Local Honey

Katchkie Farm Organic Radishes
Hudson Valley Butter and Sea Salt

Buffet Dinner

Meiller's Farm Lamb Assiette
Braised Lamb Belly, Roasted Leg, Crepinette, Assorted Pickles,
Mustards, Grilled Country Breads

Whole Roasted Striped Bass
Vinegary Radish Tops

Blooming Hills Farm Potato Salad
Cured Olives and Roasted Sweet Peppers

Minted Pea Raviolis
Blue Moon Pea Tendrils, Hawthorne Valley Quark Cheese

Braised Cabbage with Caraway

Mixed Greens
Lemon Parsley Vinaigrette and Sourdough Croutons

Assorted Roasted Vegetables
Roasted Baby Carrots, Cauliflower, Yellow Beets, Asparagus

Hudson Valley Cheese Collection
Dried Figs and Almond Wheels
Bunches of Red and Green Grapes
Assorted Crackers and Flat Breads

Local Bar Offerings










Photos: Johannes Courtens