ALMOST 60 YEARS AGO IN Orange County, my family was in a unique position among our urban-dwelling relatives: We lived in “the country,” which meant that our house often became the location of July 4th gatherings. Ironically, though, the occasion often was marked by the arrival of sweet “Jersey corn,” picked up by my favorite aunt on her way up from the north Jersey suburbs. Not so many years later, Orange County was no longer considered “the country” and my aunt retired to a New Jersey lakeside home, but our visits to her on that first summer holiday always were punctuated by a big pot of boiling water used to prepare—you guessed it—Jersey corn.
Food becomes, more often than not, the measure of an occasion. It starts with the pleasure of sharing a meal; it extends to the businesses supported by the products purchased; and it continues to the awareness, appreciation and memory of the food served.
And oh, what a time it is for food in the Hudson Valley. It’s safe to say that entrepreneurs, farmers and chefs have done more for branding the region than any other entities have. It’s no longer Jersey corn we covet, it is Hudson Valley corn, onions, apples, foie gras and now cheese and beef. Wholesalers, who until just a few years ago found few local markets for Hudson Valley products and rarely stopped for a delivery north of Brooklyn, have expanded to meet local demand. It has been no secret to chefs here that “locally grown” carries as much cachet as “Kobe.” Private organizations like the Hudson Valley Agri-Business Development Corporation have been successful in helping develop agriculture-related enterprises, including Hudson Valley Bounty, which touts the value of agricultural products from the region to the rest of the state, if not the country. Dutchess County Tourism, practically alone among the public tourism agencies, has brought new and intensive focus to the value of culinary- and agri-tourism in the region. And then there’s Glynwood’s “Keep Farming” effort and Stone Barns’ education programs.
This growing energy (read: economy) finally has captured the attention of economic development leaders—the same public officials who historically have downplayed the contribution and importance of our food economy and until very recently (count months, not years) valued parking lots more than farmland; the same bankers who essentially declared agriculture dead in the Hudson Valley by making agricultural loans difficult for working farmers to get; the same think tanks and developers that downplayed the economic value of the hospitality economy while hyping high tech. At a recent roundtable attended by an overflow crowd at the Culinary Institute of America, the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation called for the creation of a Food and Beverage Alliance “to enhance the growth of the food and beverage sector” of the Hudson Valley economy. Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress (not historically a supporter of agricultural interests) is embarking on its own well-funded study of the Hudson Valley as a food hub.
Ideally, what this increased attention will lead to is targeted state and federal support for promoting the Hudson Valley to an even wider audience, a true infrastructure (and funding) for agri-tourism, along with incentives to help make our regional farms more profitable and sustainable and to help them capitalize on the attention.
Then, the Hudson Valley, which fed the revolution that created this country, could say once again, just as loudly and with just as much pride, “Welcome to the table.”