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Home Sweet (Urban) Homestead

By Christine Muhlke

Article from The New York Times

Renato Sardo and Anya Fernald prepare a fraction of the menu. Aya Brackett for The New York Times

On a gritty block in Oakland, Calif. — the kind of neighborhood that quickens your step even on a bright Sunday afternoon — a whiff of Italy filled the air while skateboarders ollied in the empty street. If you followed the source, a steel pipe sticking out of a ground-floor window, to Anya Fernald and Renato Sardo’s plumbing-supply-store-turned-loft, you would glimpse a spread that was impressive even by California’s bounteous standards: lemon pies and kale tortas cooling on the counter; homemade sausages awaiting grilling in the fireplace; fava beans and peas simmering on the stove; tape-labeled jars of goose fat and tomato sauce standing at the ready. Fernald was eyeballing whether the leg of goat wrapped with homemade pancetta would fit in the new wood-burning pizza oven. (Not quite.) “Do you want some rabbit sugo?” she asked me before I had the chance to set down my bag. “I got 10 rabbits from my client in Shasta yesterday. I was going to make some chicken-fried rabbit for tonight.”

With its high crime and poverty rates, Oakland doesn’t have nearly the same precious food culture — or produce — that defines nearby Berkeley and San Francisco. But Fernald and Sardo’s home is a modern homestead, preserving the larder for leaner (and busier) times. Every summer they host tomato-canning and jam-making parties; fall is for pumpkin-processing events and butchering pigs with 10 guests invited to make sausage, which Fernald cures in a modified wine fridge in a closet. Splitting a steer with friends? Their chest freezer contains a beefy ode to their vacuum sealer.

Fernald, 34, a former family-farm advocate, was the executive director of last year’s Slow Food Nation event. Now she combines her activism and her acumen with Live Culture, a consultancy that helps companies create sustainable food practices and products. Projects range from developing a line of artisanal cured meats in Shasta and an agritourism in Belize to helping an Alabama barbecue chain source better pork; from working with nonprofits to develop value-added food businesses to organizing the Eat Real Festival, an August fund-raising event that involves 20 taco trucks serving sustainable street food to an estimated 20,000 (plus a butchering contest and home-canned and foraged-food exchange). Fernald is also intent on spreading the urban homesteading bug throughout the Bay Area, having organized the recent Yes, We Can (Food) event, which taught 80 people to make jam.

In Oakland, where backyard menageries and D.I.Y. charcuterie are the new garage band, the term “urban homesteading” doesn’t need an explanation. “It fits into the Oakland sort of self-defined vibe or aesthetic of doing things from scratch and being kind of hard-core,” she said, tugging at the false eyelashes she hadn’t had a chance to remove since judging “Iron Chef” in Los Angeles the night before. But to a visiting New Yorker, a definition was in order. “It’s figuring out how to feed yourself with what’s available,” she explained. “I feel like it’s about people transforming food in their home, conserving it, knowing the smart thing to do,” using simple, old-fashioned techniques like curing meats and canning and drying fruits and vegetables.

“There’s a hunger,” she continued, stirring a pot of Sicilian fava-bean soup that started with a few cubes of soffrito that Sardo makes in bulk and freezes in ice-cube trays for quick soups and sauces. “I don’t want to make generalizations about it, but people want to learn these skills so much. It’s from a lot of different ages and communities right now.”

Fernald said she believed that her generation and the one following were interested in food activism and urban homesteading because they felt that it, unlike politics, was one area in which they can effect change. “We’ve become so disconnected from everything,” said Sardo, who is 40 and who has been busy finding tenants for the 70,000 square feet of food retail space in the nearby Jack London Market. “We need to reconnect with something, some material. And food is the thing you do most.”

Especially now as the couple’s Italian-farmhouse spread grew every few minutes to include house-made mortadella di Campotosto — Abruzzan salami embedded with lard — and an experimental salami; some masterful culatello they bought from Massimo Spigaroli in Emilia Romagna; a crisp chickpea-flour cake topped with lardo; chicken-fried rabbit. The fireplace was started in order to cook potatoes in goose fat and grill asparagus and sausages. Cocktails were mixed using syrup made with Buddha’s hand citron from her parents’ backyard in Palo Alto.

The guests arrived. Sam White, a mustachioed server at Chez Panisse who co-organizes the art-meets-food events at OPENrestaurant, wore a T-shirt with “corn syrup” written in the Coca-Cola font. Asiya Wadud set down an olive-oil cake baked with foraged-grapefruit jam, along with jars of lemon curd and Seville-orange marmalade brought from that afternoon’s jam exchange, part of her fruit-bartering project, Forage Oakland. Allison Hopelain and Russ Moore looked a bit dazed: it was the first night they’d taken off together since they opened their popular Oakland restaurant, Camino, a year ago. “It would be an invitation from Anya that gets us out,” Hopelain said.

Conversation centered on restaurant gossip, food politics, Italian cheese makers, Wadud’s grant to create a how-to guide for urban foragers, a neighbor’s pig and how to cook it. White excitedly showed sketches for his contribution to Meatpaper magazine’s party at Camino the following night: a pig’s head stuffed with a terrine of tongues. Fernald wouldn’t divulge who would be the next Iron Chef, despite begging.

“I’m sorry I didn’t have time to make pasta,” she said as she served the third or fourth course. Cakes and tarts were followed by dulce de leche panna cotta. A bottle of Hopelain and Moore's homemade green-walnut liqueur was passed around. Wadud’s brows rose at the bounty. “This is not shocking,” Hopelain reassured her. This is what urban homesteading can do.


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