04/07/2014 01:17 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2014

Searching for Spring

Is there anyone in the Northeast who feels like winter hasn't been long enough, cold enough or sufficiently snowy? In the past 3 weeks I finally escaped NYC twice to warm climates only to discover that what I was really needing could only be found right here.

I had been invited to join the Tucson Festival of Books in March to present recipes from Sylvia's Table as an author and celebrity guest chef -- and I was thrilled to accept. It was my first trip to Tucson and my first time out of NYC since the fall. As is my travel tradition, the first stop Saturday morning was at the local farmers market with Manish Shah, the man behind Southern Arizona's Heirloom Farmers Market as well as a successful tea entrepreneur.

Tucson Festival of Books

The range of fruits and vegetables was a delightful surprise to this snowbird; the prospect of indulging in local tomatoes, greens and citrus made me giddy. All I could think about was how much I could bring back home and NOT have to worry about crossing a border.

Tucson Farmers Market

My hotel had a little vegetable patch and I spent a long, slow morning walking its rows and savoring the beauty of the desert sun through the greens. It was a 48-hour visit punctuated by food conversations, cooking demos, book talk and my inner marveling at how a desert state yields such abundance. It was beautiful, even breathtaking, with the majestic mountains and exotic desert fauna - but it wasn't home for me.

Tucson Farmers Market

Six days later and 24 hours after the official start of spring, I was on a flight from chilly NYC heading to Miami to join our Great Performances team catering the Sony Open Tennis. Again, the wonderment of how a three-hour trip would deposit me in such a warm climate was astounding. Even more mind-boggling were the amazing tomatoes from our local farmer friend at Teena's Pride in Homestead, an hour away -- and a cooler filled with everything from tender greens to squash to carrots to fennel that she had grown for us.

Sony Open Tennis

A few days later, I was back home again to a stubbornly unthawed NYC. It was inconceivable that the Greenmarket did not show some sign of spring on March 29! Hadn't we been through enough? There were the tiniest signs -- from a resurgence of eggs to some floral precursor of the new season -- but essentially, root veggies still ruled. I began my boycott of what I had so lovingly shopped and cooked all winter, opting for hydroponic tomatoes and meager greens instead of carrots, parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and the wintertime stalwarts.


This weekend, hope is truly in the air. I journeyed north this time to Katchkie Farm, a sight for sore eyes. My disorientation with the seasons and envy of warm climate markets had to end. I needed to connect to MY soil and feel the pulse of the new season -- feast on the promise of sprouting seeds, crop plans and hear about all the marvelous new contraptions Farmer Bob had built over the winter.

They were there -- rows of tiny tomato seedlings and more. The greenhouses were filled with spinach, chard and lettuce with rogue cilantro and spicy greens popping up along the edges. I harvested and it was good. Bob and I dug up a giant horseradish root I had planted long ago and was saving for the upcoming Passover Seder. I will grate it and combine with my preserved pickled beets for a spicy condiment with Gefilte Fish.

Katchkie Farm

But the real message of a growing season and renewal came on Sunday -- the second day of the Just Food Annual Conference. Gathered at Teachers College for a day of seminars and panels were over 1,000 women and men dedicated to the food movement -- its celebration and the proposition of improving our food system. They represented academic institutions, community organizations, farms, markets, CSAs, educational programs, teachers, builders, non-profits, farmers, chefs, food pantries, activists, students, politicians -- all hungry for change.

These are but a few of dozens of workshops presented by Just Food.

"Change the World with Your CSA"
"Nutrition Education Beyond the Classroom Walls"
"Advocacy Skillshare"
"Putting up in Style: Canning Basics"
"The Past and Present of Composting and How it Will Define Our Future"
"Food and Climate movements Unite"
"Creating Good Food Jobs"
"Community Organizing - Lessons from the Pros"
"From Idea to Market"
"Farm school NYC: Growing Food, Farmers and Community"

At last, it all came together. The journey of the previous weeks and the search for bounty and richness ended right here.

My spring fever came with the realization that the food movement has the most inspiring legions of dedicated individuals who are working so hard and with such creativity to bring a year-round springtime of food to communities throughout our city. That is what makes sitting at the table so enthralling - the hundreds of minds, hands and hearts that are initiating concrete and tangible changes.

So as the new season starts -- albeit slowly -- rush to join a CSA, plant a seed, volunteer at a pantry, support advocacy efforts, donate a meal, cook with a child, shop in a local farmers market, eat local - engage in change, one meal at a time.

Happy Spring!