Thanks to the help of Hanni, a WordPress Happiness Engineer, I’ve been able to add a link on the sidebar to Google Translate that will automatically translate my blogs into Spanish – as well as a computer program is able.
2007 did not start well for Kristen Coyle, Susan Bailey and Karen Dooley. The three sisters faced a bitter-sweet crossroad. Their beloved parents passed away too soon to enjoy retirement and for these three daughters to share those years. Now the nest egg their parents had saved became an unexpected inheritance for the three sisters. It was the decision of the women to use the money in a way that would both benefit all three and, privately, memorialize their parents. They would open a business, a produce business. In my opinion after 30 plus years in the food industry, I’d say opening a small produce shop ranks very high on the risky scale in an industry that already is a big risk. It took brains, passion and a sense of humor to turn sorrow into Peas In A Pod.
The sisters do not come from a food industry background. Kristen and Susan are both nurses and Karen is a teaching assistant. All were ready to try something different – but anyone can run a food business? Susan and Kristen freely admit that after three years they are still learning – a key ingredient for success. Their Dad, according to Kristen, had an adventurous spirit taking the family on roaming summer drives through the farms of south-eastern Pennsylvania – the famed Pennsylvania Dutch and Quaker farm counties: Lancaster, Chester, Berks, Montgomery and Bucks. The object was to find, and eat, the freshest in-season vegetables and fruits at local farms. “Eating a fresh tomato with salt…,” is a strong memory for Kristen. So is growing up in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia surrounded by the kitchen aromas of the many Italian households in the neighborhood and sitting down to a freshly made family dinner every night – a tradition these three busy, multi-career women still uphold.
I entered the small shop at the intersection of Keswick and Glenside Avenues in Glenside, PA – a leafy, older suburb a mere 10 miles from center city Philadelphia – through a plant framed door that sticks and agitates an old-fashioned bell announcing a customer. Peas In A Pod is in a typical nondescript twin house converted into mixed commercial/apartment space. Out in front of the shop is a covered stand with produce available on the honor system. Inside, Kristen was at the counter and Susan, with helper, niece Mary Kate, were in the kitchen. (Karen had the day off). Frequent customers, of which there are many, are greeted by name; perhaps they have a quart of soup reserved. Customers, now friends by association, linger and chat. The interior space of the shop is small, simple and functional.
80 South Keswick Avenue was chosen the end of March 2007, and the doors to the shop opened in June – record time for a food business…until the sisters tell me the space was the very small front room – maybe 8 x 10 – of the three rooms. From day one the object was to sell produce from local farms that used green-earth farming techniques from southeastern Pennsylvania counties.
For small shops, and any small food business to succeed, it’s necessary to build personal relationships with suppliers. Susan spent days driving through the countryside and was attracted to the corn fields ofTruck Patch Farms in Bucks County and developed the trust necessary to ensure high quality fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs. Truck Patch is their largest supplier. Heirloom tomatoes come from Herrcastle Farms and Jesse Hale of Everhart supplies the raw honey. Patterson Farm’s maple syrup is a personal favorite, and Four Seasons Farm in Lancaster County, as well as orchards in Loyola, PA, supply fruit, especially Pennsylvania’s wide variety of apples. What you will not find at Peas In A Pod are strawberries in January.
You also will not find most of their 21 soups during the months of June, July and August, but, fortunately, their incomparable Crab Bisque is available every Friday year round – otherwise there would be serious withdrawal issues. Susan’s responsible for the soup, according to Kristen. (Susan: “What were we going to sell in the winter? Soup!”) Susan wanted to bake breads, make soup and maybe expand into… (the curse of a new business – expand). Expansion is a decision often made too early. Sometimes bureaucracy is beneficial, especially considering the 2008 financial meltdown. Cheltenham Township made it clear that fire codes allowed a maximum of only two hot plates for cooking – no oven without excessive renovations – in the compact kitchen (complete with walk in-refrigerator) that was being constructed in the second room. A third small room became more produce and Cento brand packaged pastas and sauces. Susan had a stint, while being a nurse, at Flying Fish restaurant in Chestnut Hill and still has dreams of adding more in-house made products, but reality dictated that soups and salads were a marketable match. With the exception of crab bisque every Friday (300 quarts), the remaining 20 soups rotate with one or two available daily – lemon chicken, bean and potato leek are all favorites. I was allowed only the briefest glance at one of their proprietary recipes, some from their Mother. Fresh salads with in-house dressings are in a refrigerated section and range from garden to chicken to orzo. The two professional grade hot plates are doing just fine.
Peas In A Pod celebrated a milestone anniversary this past June 2010: they’re still in business three years after opening – nearly 65% of all food businesses are bankrupt within the first three years. Not that mistakes haven’t been made – the worst was an early over reliance on expensive certified organic produce. Customers preferred the chemical-free products from many local farms that result in “same as organic” at less cost. An obvious suggestion that future marketing of their soups, salads and dressings may be a good idea was met with a look in their eyes that it was already on the table.
The bell at the front door gently clanged as another customer entered the shop. Kristen said that sometimes the bell rings but no one enters. After a brief pause she adds, shyly, “We know its our parents. They would want to be here. I think they’d be proud.”
They certainly would.
Peas In A Pod
80 South Keswick Avenue
Glenside, PA 19038-4607
Leaving the beautiful Basque seaside town of San Sebastian on an early morning train for the 60-minute trip south to Ordizia, the countryside speaks its beauty. Vistas of lush green hillsides are dotted with cattle and centuries old white-washed red-roofed farm houses. Yet there’s resilience as over the years it was at the center of wars and atrocities. The past four decades has witnessed resurgence and affluence.
Like all towns in the Basque country, Ordizia is built on a hill close to water, in this case the Rio Oria. Easier to fortify, this topography also makes these century old villages picturesque and a decent aerobic workout. With perfect early October weather – high 70’s, sun, deep blue sky – I walked hilly, cobblestone streets lined by old narrow, townhouses whose window boxes were bursting with a profusion of flowers. Ordizia’s Wednesday Farmers Market, in continuous operation since 1512, occupies the plaza in the heart of the old town, but, unlike most plazas, it’s covered by an open-air Romanesque-Renaissance structure befitting an important 500-year-old institution.
This is not just another farmers market. Along with the variety of customers who come to purchase goods for their homes and socialize, there are serious negotiations going on among commercial buyers, restaurants and farmers. These negotiations usually result in setting the prices for many products throughout Spain – until the next Wednesday market. Food here is serious business.
The food stalls glisten with vibrant colors: peppers, squashes, fruits – fresh and dried – pickles, olives and preserved foods. Bushels of freshly picked mushrooms, varieties I’ve never seen, vie for my attention with dozens of Euskadi’s famous sheep and goat’s milk cheeses. Baskets of breads studded with herbs, grains and seeds are close enough to local sausages and hams to make me desire a sandwich.
Fish, especially fresh sardines, anchovies and salt cod (bacalao), are well represented, as well as services – like knife grinding. Serious cooks can purchase freshly executed pigeons, feathers and all, a Basque delicacy – of course most households know how to dress and prepare them.
A milk dispensing machine is a standard farmers market service. Sterilized quart glass bottles are removed from a refrigerated compartment and placed under the dispenser. Empty bottles are returned to the attendant. A local dairy co-op operates the kiosk. It was very popular.
Cafes, butchers and cloth shops line the edge of the market plaza. Sitting at an outdoor table listening to a musician playing Basque accordion compositions, sipping espresso, watching the bustle of a serious farmers market, I was struck by the permanence markets give to life. For the past turbulent 500 years the same hustle and bustle has occupied the Ordizia Farmers Market sustaining and celebrating every day life.
For an interesting “birds-eye” view, follow this link for Ordizia. Move the map a bit east (to the left) and the white covered structure of the market will come into view.
…and your heirloom tomatoes? In Jenkintown, of course. Now Jenkintown, (Montgomery County, PA) hasn’t been home to a farm in a century, and when I moved here in 1984, a rather small Acme pretty much was it for food supplies. The world for foodies has changed considerably starting in the mid-1990’s. Zagara (short-lived but exciting while it lasted), Whole Foods, Produce Junction, Trader Joes, Peas in a Pod, and the Acme, are all within walking distance or short drives from anywhere in Jenkintown.
The farms of Philadelphia’s surrounding counties – Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster and Berks – are historically famous for their products. Yet in this age of diet-by-frozen-foods, we forget that there are places within less than an hour’s drive where leg of goat (grass-fed) is available, as well as drop cherries, raw honey and Thai eggplant.
This June, Jenkintown inaugurated a weekly Wednesday Farmers Market in the Town Square from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. For a variety of reasons, today was the first time I had a chance to check it out. I walked the less than 10 minutes from my house not necessarily with high expectations that I’d discover anything different from the normal stands of fresh, small-farm produce I’ve come to expect.
It’s nice to be surprised in your own backyard. Three sizable stands of produce were brimming not only with the normal assortment. Herrcastle Farms (Holtwood, PA, Lancaster County) has an impressive display of heirloom tomatoes and the unusual drop cherry – beautiful yellow color and crisp texture. Tall Pine Farms’ (Rushland, PA, Bucks County) table caught my eye with a half-dozen eggplant varieties, including the crisp, tennis ball sized Thai eggplant that’s great in curry and stir-fry. Farmer Thad of Jett’s Produce (Telford, PA, Montgomery/Bucks County) prominently displays a sign “We grow chemical free.” Isn’t that organic? To Farmer Thad, it’s “organic” minus the bureaucracy, paperwork and high fees to be FDA organic certified. Herrcastle and Tall Pines, as well as many small farms I know in Pennsylvania, agree.
Not all is produce. In the center of the square at least six long tables were overflowing with cinnamon rolls, muffins, carrot cake, decorated cookies and at least a dozen savory breads including a still warm loaf of Olive Rosemary bread. This carb heaven is the work of Tabora Farm and Orchard (Hilltown, PA, Bucks County). It seems Tabora’s still a farm and orchard with a bakery that produces 160 different baked items per day!
A small stand displayed raw honey, including my favorite, Buckwheat Honey. The product of Everich Honey Farm (Cedars, PA, Montgomery County), I had an informative conversation on the still real threat of Colony Collapse Disorder and the possible ties to the over use of chemicals in American farming. Coffee is in the mix as well with One Village Coffee (Souderton, PA, Bucks County) a company that takes corporate “fairshare” seriously, funding farming projects in third world coffee growing areas. A Little Taste of Tennessee (Jenkintown, PA, Montgomery County) started in April by Pat Walton, a Tennessee native is a new catering business and weekend restaurant in Jenkintown featuring the country foods of that state. At the market, they were offering Ms Ethel’s and Aunt Weeze’s nut brittle and a variety of fresh, crisp pickles – the Bread and Butter nicely under sweetened. Varieties with jalapeño peppers would probably burn my tongue off.
Two craft stands are in the mix – one selling hand bags made with recycled material, and another table of handmade “Jewelry From a Writer, for Word Lovers” from Words at Play (Elkins Park, PA, Montgomery County). Janet Falon, a writer, creates necklaces and bracelets built with word blocks so the wearer can create a message.
What really caught my eye, shortly after I arrived at the Market, was a mobile kitchen parked at the edge of the Square. Thinking it was a misplaced Philly Steak and hotdog stand, I finally walked up to the M & B Farview Farm (Hamburg, PA, Berks County) mobile unit to discover a refrigerated/freezer trailer selling grass-fed beef, veal, lamb, goat and pork. With a 142 acre farm (soon to grow to over 200 acres) M & B, from looking at their order form, utilizes every part of an animal offering kidneys, hotdogs, sausages as well as a full line of cheeses from both cow and goat milk. M & B’s ranching techniques would make both an American Indian and an Argentine Gaucho proud!
Prices at the market are comparable to Whole Foods or anyplace selling premium products, but now you know where they’re coming from – your own backyard.
Tall Pine Farms, 1046 Swamp Road, Rushland, PA 18956
Everich Honey Farm, Cedars, PA 19446, (215-565-6422)
One Village Coffee,18 Cassel Road. Souderton PA 18964
A Little Taste of Tennessee, 307 Old York Road, Jenkintown, PA 19046 (215-432-8028 or 215-906-3903)
Words at Play, Elkins Park, PA, 19027 (215-635-1698)
M & B Farview Farm, 229 Farview Road, Hamburg, PA
For a tourist, the Pampas present an endless flat grassland punctuated by small, nondescript towns and immense fenced estancias, many still owned by families that are a “who’s who” of Argentine society. Traveling through the Pampas is akin to driving through Nebraska. As often as possible during my many trips across the Pampas, I traveled on comfortable overnight buses knowing that I was not missing any “sites” during the 1,000 mile journeys.
Yet at day break, even bleary-eyed and looking out a bus window, I cannot deny the beauty of these grasslands bathed in the pink light of dawn, gossamer layers of mist hovering over the ground and the black cattle – herds of them – dotting the fields.
As befitting an immigrant nation, the Pampas attracted its own unique settlers. Like the United States, Argentina actively recruited immigrants to fill the vast and empty country. Eight hundred eighty-four Jews arrived in 1889, escaping persecution in Russia, without tools or provisions in a geography far different than Eastern Europe.
Months later, William Lowenthal, a Romanian Jew, surveying the countryside for the Argentine railroads, discovered a ragged band of settlers living, literally, at the end of the line. Having been transported to the sparsely populated northern Pampas, they were stranded and their meager savings were soon exhausted. Lowenthal found them subsisting on hand-outs from workers extending the line.
Appalled, he urgently appealed to the Baron Mauricio de Hirsch, banker to the Hapsburg dynasty, philanthropist and builder of the Orient Express, the legendary rail link between Paris and Istanbul. De Hirsch immediately came to the aid of the impoverished settlers. This was the beginning of the first Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina: Moises Ville (the Village of Moses).
Despite an element of antisemitism, which seems to be fading since the terrible events of the early 1990’s, Jewish-Argentine society has prospered, but most of the Jewish towns in the Pampas either no longer exist or have lost their Jewish populations. In the post World War II years, the younger generations migrated to Buenos Aires for educational and professional opportunities.
Thirty-five years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality world, and as a Chef/Educator, coupled with a diverse educational background, helps me focus on the kaleidoscope of images a traveler experiences every day.
As a chef, the question’s not only “what’s to eat?,” but rather “is the food grown/raised local?,” “who makes the best comfort food,?” and “most adventurous dishes?”
What makes the local area unique – what culture/diverse backgrounds did the residents come from? What traditions did they bring to a new land?” The more I travel the longer the list of questions, which makes the journey more exciting.
Travel with Pen and Palate will apply the same sense of wonder whether writing on a great craft market in New Jersey or catering a Good Friday meatless buffet in Tierra del Fuego.
Travel with Pen and Palate is a magazine without borders.
Chef Marc d’Entremont
Member: American Culinary Federation
Header photo by Marc d’Entremont : Alaska dawn, September 2010