09/12/2010 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Art of Farming: Veggies on Sotheby's Auction Block

To kick off the 2010 Eat Drink Local week in New York City, Sotheby's New York is hosting the inaugural Tri-State Heirloom Vegetable auction, The Art of Farming, on September 23, 2010. The day, which begins with an afternoon of gallery talks on food issues, is followed by a reception and the auction itself--heirloom vegetables grown by more than forty local farmers, as well as food and drink events will be up for sale--and ends with a gala dinner. Recently I spoke with Brent Ridge, of Beekman Boys fame, and Sotheby's Amy Todd Middleton about the event. Following our conversation is a piece written by James Frey; a signed copy of the manuscript will be included in the auction.

Louise McCready: How did this event come about?

Brent Ridge: Amy and I were at our friend, James Frey's, birthday party and we started talking about our mutual interest in gardening. Before Josh (Kilmer-Purcell) and I bought our farm, we had only known heirloom tomatoes, but we were excited to discover that there are heirloom everything--heirloom cucumbers, heirloom carrots, heirloom peas--and so we planted our entire garden using heirloom varieties. When Amy told me she worked at Sotheby's, I said, "Wouldn't it be great to do an auction of heirloom vegetables to educate people about them?" Fortunately, Amy said, "Yes, that would be fun." Then she pulled together the team that could make it happen.

LM: The auction's proceeds benefit GrowNYC New Farmers Development Project, an initiative helping immigrants become farmers, and the Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farm, a program that teaches children to eat well. Why did you choose those non-profits in particular?

Amy Todd Middleton: Both of them were chosen because the focal point of the event is to both educate consumers and generate more awareness about heirlooms as a higher margin variety for the local farmers and the importance of maintaining diversity in our food supply. Great Performances is the exclusive caterer at Sotheby's Auction House and its owner, Liz Neumark, has worked with us for a very long time. I believe it is also the only catering company in North America that has a farm, Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY, associated with it and from which they source a lot of what they serve. In honor of her daughter, who passed away about six years ago, Liz founded the Sylvia center at Katchkie which not only educates children on the importance of eating a healthy and balanced diet, but also teaches them not to take food for granted and how food is produced and supplied.

BR: I also want to point out that Katchie Farm is one of the farms that are growing vegetables for the heirloom auction. GrowNYC New Farmers Development Project seemed like a natural partner for the general auction because of their mission to help any disadvantaged individual, not just immigrants, begin small farms. GrownNYC teaches them how to start crops, how to find land for their farm, and whether to lease or buy. It's a great program that speaks to what we wanted to accomplish with the auction, which was to establish heirloom vegetables as varieties that could help small farms produce something that can't be grown on a large scale through agribusiness.

LM: What do you have to say to people who accuse this auction of being more about celebrity chefs than local farmers and that it plays into stereotypes that locavorism is a form of elitism?

ATM: I think it's very hard for anyone to find fault with the philanthropic beneficiaries of this event and the fact that this event's focal point is to raise awareness of and help support the local farming community, sustainability, and maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. Often the way to accomplish missions like this is to educate an influential and social group of individuals who can help get the word out. From a Sotheby's perspective, we have a long and very rich tradition of supporting local philanthropic organizations in the arts community, and beyond that, organizations that resonate with our client base--this is a cause that definitely does that.

BR: From my perspective, we bought our farm three years ago and have gotten to know a lot of other small farmers. Farming is a real struggle and the more we can encourage all aspects of all income levels to participate in the local farm movement, the better. I see the auction as an opportunity to get people in the community who maybe weren't thinking about local farmers or heirlooms to support these small local farms.

ATM: From a personal perspective, I'm a weekend farmer with 50- square-foot garden, so it's sort of ridiculous to say this, but even to maintain what I'm doing is unbelievably hard work. Gardening give me a new respect for people who are trying to do this as a living--it's hard for me to fathom how exhausting that that must be and what a constant struggle.



Canker sores.
My family has canker sores again.
My wife.
Our two kids.
Canker sores.
They hurt.
And bleed a little.
And they're terrible looking, like mean little cauliflowers growing in your mouth.
There is nothing you can do to make them go away.
You just wait, and if you're lucky, it's a week, if you're not, it's two.
Not fun.
Not fun at all.

Last month it was beriberi.
The month before it was scurvy.
We've had rickets.
We're almost always tired, and we almost always have diarrhea.
There's cramps.
Occasionally our hair falls out.
Lower leg swelling.
And bloating.
The one I like the least is the seborrheic dermatitis, better known as face dandruff.
If you think hair dandruff sucks, try face dandruff.
It's like it's always snowing, but the snow is coming right from your face, and you can't go sledding or make a snowman. You just blink and hope nothing gets caught in your eye.
Not fun.
Not fun at all.

Nobody knows exactly what happened, though there are plenty of theories.
The earth became toxic after a hundred years of car fumes, airplane fumes, oil spills and manufacturing dumps.
The abundance of pesticides used by industrial farming operations caused some sort massive biological reaction.
The holes in the ozone allowed for ultrapowerful uv-rays to penetrate the atmosphere and kill most of the plant life.
Genetic engineering made species weaker, instead of stronger, and they could no longer flourish in the harsher conditions.
My favorite is that the planet just got pissed, and got sick of the abuse we heaped upon it, and decided to punish us.
Whichever was correct, if any of them, the result is the same. There are almost no fruits left in the world, and very few vegetables.
They literally do not grow anymore.
Or if they do, it's in little gardens made in boxes kept in people's closets.
Try sticking them in the ground, and nothing will happen.
Add water and sun and wait and all you will get are sore eyes from staring at dirt, and dirt is not fun to stare at for very long.
And nothing else.
Fruits and vegetables.
See you later, bye bye.
Good knowing you.
We miss you alot.

Once a week I go to see a man called Mr. V.
He has a big closet.
And a fancy lamp
And some dirt he dug up in Northern Canada and brought back on a dogsled.
He saved thousands seeds, back from the time when seeds were available.
He said he knew what was coming.
That any fool could have seen it.
But that most people are to busy being fools to know they're fools.
He grows things now.
And then he sells them.
In that past, we bought drugs from dudes like Mr. V.
Know we pray he has a tomato.
It takes a lot to get to him.
He's nine blocks away, which, in my state, might as well be nine miles.
Once I get to his buildings, it's four flights up.
Might as well be four miles.
Mr. V. is very popular.
Everyone who knows about him makes regular visits.
If he has anything to sell, he'll buzz you in.
If not, he'll yell at you and tell you to go eat some paper.
Eating paper is a pretty common thing these days.
It's better than eating cotton, or plastic, or wood, which are also common things, and which we also do sometimes.
Today is my wife's birthday.
And although she, like all of us, has a mouth littered with canker sores, I know that what she would like more than anything is piece of fruit, or maybe a vegetable.
On my son's birthday we had a zucchini.
For my daughter we got a carrot.
On my birthday we each got three pees.
Might not sound like much but it was totally awesome.
I'm hoping for something wonderful today.
Maybe a cucumber.
Or a piece of celery.
If I'm lucky, a some spinach, just a few leaves and I'd smile like a monkey.
If there's nothing, we'll eat the wrapping paper I would have used.
If I could have gotten a fruit.
Or a delightful vegetable.

Mr. V. buzzes me in.
I enter the foyer and look at stairs.
They go straight up.
I'm tired.
But I know.
That something is up there.
Something yummy.
That my wife will love.
So I walk, up, up, up.
It takes about twenty minutes.
And more than once I think I'm going vomit bile.
When I reach the fourth floor, Mr. Z is waiting for me.
He's smiling.
He waves.
My heart starts racing and my hands start shaking.
Hi, he says.
Hi, Mr. V., I respond.
I have something amazing today, he says.
Thank you in advance, I say back.
Don't thank me, all I want is money, he says.
I'll give you all I have, I reply.
And I mean it, I'll give him everything.
He steps aside and we walk into his apartment. Though I know he's rich, he doesn't make a show of it. The apartment is spare and clean. The furniture is nice, but not fancy. And it's not the type he could eat if he got really hungry, which is incredibly impressive to me.
Everything else we know has furniture they could eat.
He leads me into the back bedroom.
There is a table in the middle of the room.
A chair on either side of it.
I can hear the hum of the lights coming from the closet.
I can a few specks of dirt on the floor near the door, oh that magnificent dirt.
Sitting in the middle of the table is an onion.
White and round.
It almost looks like it's made of silver.
Or like a little version of the moon.
An onion.
Like the kind I used to chop up and put in my spaghetti sauce.
Or had stuffed into the side of a hot dog bun.
I haven't seen an onion in years.
It's so beautiful it makes me want to cry.
Or go to church to thank the Heavenly Father for its' existence.
Fuck the cancer sores.
Fuck the expense of it, because I know I'm going to have go into debt to buy it (Mr. V also runs something of a loansharking business so that people can buy his wares. He's a very smart man).
Fuck that fact that when my friends find out they're all going to hate me.
It's my wife's birthday.
And she used to love French Onion soup.
And sour cream and onion potato chips.
I'm going to do whatever it takes, and I'm going to pay whatever it costs.
It's an onion.
I sit down.
And Mr. V sits across from me.
It's sitting right there.
And I can smell it and feel it in my nose and feel it in my eyes.
And it makes me hungry like a wolf.
Mr. V. smiles.
And looks me in the dead in the eye.
You ready to make a deal, he says?
I nod.
And say yes.
I want it.
I want it.