As part of an ongoing series, The Rail will be visiting dinner tables throughout the borough to examine how economics, culture and taste influence what for most remains the principal meal of the day. Whether expense or convenience, diet or tradition, access or ideology, What’s For Dinner aims to enrich our understanding of the diverse local factors that inform our decisions about the food we eat. These are the politics of the plate.
Annie Herrick, 29, born in Manhattan
Eric Schiller, 44, born in Manhattan
Margo Schiller, 1 ½, born in Brooklyn
Neighborhood: Red Hook
Weekly Food Cost: Varies
What’s For Dinner: Homemade pea soup, acorn squash baked with butter and brown sugar, green salad and water.
“When Eric makes pea soup, he works on it all day,” says Annie. Eric is the chef of the household, but since the family moved from Fort Greene to Red Hook this fall, there hasn’t been much time for cooking at home. And while the couple says they share the grocery shopping, they’ve had little time to survey their new neighborhood for options.
“We haven’t even gone to the Red Hook Farmer’s Market yet,” says Annie.
The selection in Red Hook is bleak. The neighborhood closed its only major grocery store in May 2001, and while Manhattan’s epicurean market, Fairway, is slated to open a store by the end of the year in the old Red Hook Stores warehouse, for now the Community Farm in Coffey Park provides the neighborhood with its only supply of fresh produce.
The ½-acre of eggplant, peppers, herbs, lettuce and other greens is tended by neighborhood kids under the direction of South Brooklyn’s urban farming enterprise, Added Value. The group recognized the community’s need for fresh produce and now grows vegetables and herbs such as papalo (used for its sharp, spicy leaves) or epazote (an indispensable herb for cooking black beans) to sell at the Red Hook Farmers’ Market and to area chefs.
Dania Cuello and Richard Taurez, Youth Leaders on the farm, conducted a recent neighborhood study visiting grocery stores and bodegas to find out which was more available: candy or vegetables. Candy outnumbered vegetables 20 to nine.
Luckily, Annie loves sweets. “I’m huge on dessert—lately vanilla ice cream with sprinkles. And my husband loves Chinese food, and meats. I am more into carbs. I try not to have red meat. But we pretty much like everything.” And though Eric doesn’t usually eat breakfast on weekdays, “he loves his waffle maker,” she says.
“We’re trying to be all healthy lately”—a challenge in Red Hook—“so I’ve gone a few times to the health food store on Union and Court,” in Carroll Gardens, says Annie. The family has shopped at Sahadis as well, a gourmet food importer on Atlantic Avenue that specializes in Middle Eastern fare and sells bulk goods. “We got some yummy stuff there,” she says. In Red Hook, “the only place I’ve really been is Baked [on Van Brunt Street]. They have the best muffins and biscuits, and the most amazing homemade granola.”
Margot attends day care two days a week in Cobble Hill, and Annie works in Bay Ridge, so dinner plans are often determined en route. The family also spends weekends at their home on Fire Island, so big shopping trips usually take place at the Costco on Long Island.
“We cook on the weekends,” says Annie. “We do know how to bake and broil and all of those things.” But for the family, weekday dinner—“our biggest meal of the day”—is often picked up on-the-go: a slice of pizza or a burrito, and whatever Margot will eat.
For the couple, what’s for dinner is whatever will satiate. “I guess I would say our food choices are dictated almost entirely by taste,” says Annie. “Eric and I both grew up in New York, so we can appreciate a nice bagel, good pizza.”
The baby hasn’t changed the couple’s food consumption, they say. “We just buy extra things for her, like baby food, fish sticks, edamame, whole milk—anything she will like,” says Annie. “Lately she’s been having whatever she’ll stomach. She’ll eat that brown rice cereal—the flakes you add liquid to and it turns into mush—and pureed banana baby food, sometimes Cheerios.”
During one of the few meals so far in the new Red Hook kitchen, or while simmering pea soup on Fire Island, Eric is usually the one behind the stove—not Annie. “I come from long line of bad cooks, just picked up a few things working in restaurants,” she says. “My background is WASP and my husband is half Jewish and half Dutch, his mother was born in Holland. He learned to cook from his father, and so he cooks a lot of traditional Jewish food like cheesecake and matzoh ball soup.”
In the family’s old kitchen, in Fort Greene, the stove was broken for more than a year. The range top worked, but nothing could be baked or broiled. The couple made a lot of pasta and garden burgers. “The other kitchen felt very unhealthy. This one is more inviting. But, ironically, on this stovetop, three out of four ranges were broken, too,” she laughs.
“Now two out of the four are working,” says Annie. “I guess we’re making some improvements.”