At the beginning of the ’80s, food people exulted in the possibilities that California cuisine represented. If that state could produce its own cuisine, why couldn’t all the other regions in the United States? Larry Forgione, the chef at the River Café in Brooklyn from 1979 to 1983, considered this question more carefully than most. Soon, the duck à l’orange and chauteaubriand were consigned to the dustbin, replaced, Gael Green later recalled in New York magazine, with “a menu that mimicked a Rand McNally road map: Peconic bay scallops, Smithfield ham, morel mushrooms, wild huckleberries and farmed buffalo from Michigan, fresh shrimp from Key West, Belon oysters and periwinkles from Maine.” Gentle, bearded, and soft-spoken, Forgione seemed more like a scholar than a chef, and his scholarly bent compelled him to start studying old cookbooks and foodways to learn about the American culinary past.
“I had worked at Connaught in London,” he says, “[where] the chef got a shipment of poulets de Bresse, the famous chickens. I remember tasting one of the chickens and thinking, ‘Geez, this tastes just like chickens from my grandmother’s farm!’ All of a sudden it clicked: that America has the great resources to produce quality ingredients. In Europe I saw the difference: farmers grew for chefs, and the everyday shoppers got to use the same products. Whereas in America it was reversed: everybody was growing for the consumer, and the chef was stuck using the same products. I realized that that had to change. We had to go back to dealing with farmers.”
Forgione began building up a network of small-time farmers that he worked with himself, with no middlemen involved. The flavor of that poulet de Bresse he’d eaten in London stayed with him, reminding him of the flavorful, undeniable chickeny-tasting chickens he’d eaten on his Italian grandmother’s farm on the north shore of Long Island. Foremost in Forgione’s memory, after the way his grandmother’s chickens tasted, was how they left the coop each morning to roam a yard “where they could go out and scratch and peck for different insects and so on,” he says.”I just wanted chickens raised that way.” Finding such chickens proved a challenge, though, in the age of Tyson and Perdue, massive high-volume operations whose penraised chickens, like San Fernando Valley porn, offered consistency and enormous breasts but little in the way of lasting satisfaction.
But one day in 1980 the piano player at the River Café brought in a basket of multicolored Easter-hued eggs that piqued Forgione’s interest. The piano player explained that the eggs came from a neighbor of his in Warwick, New York, a town just above the north Jersey border, who was raising Araucana chickens, an uncommon breed known for laying eggs with blue and green shells. “I figured if this guy’s crazy enough to raise Araucana chickens for Easter eggs, he might be willing to do this chicken project for me,” Forgione says.
The Araucana-chicken man turned out to be microbiologist and hobby farmer Paul Kaiser. Kaiser gamely agreed to take on the project, working with Forgione on trying out different mixes of breed until they came up with the perfect roasting chicken. “In the beginning they were terrible—tough with concave breasts, and the meat not distributed properly. But if they were no good, we’d use them to make soup, or staff meals, or make a terrine out of ’em. The thing that made it successful for us was that there was a great deal of trust between the person buying the ingredients and the person that was taking the chance on the ingredient.”
After nearly a year of experimentation, Forgione and Kaiser found poultry nirvana in a large bird that was a cross between the Rhode Island Red and Plymouth Rock breeds, with ample breasts and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat that gushed flavor when melted by heat.Kaiser, true to Forgione’s memory of his grandmother’s little farm, allowed the chickens to wander his property, scratching and pecking for whatever they might find.
Forgione puzzled over what to call his special chickens on his menu, because, he says, “Back then, ‘natural’ didn’t really mean anything, ‘farm-fresh’ didn’t mean anything, and ‘farm-raised’ didn’t mean anything, because all of the big producers were using that terminology as well.” In his historical research of chickens, though, he’d become enchanted with a description of a wild native American breed known as the prairie chicken. “It was in, like, The History of Chicken, or some ridiculous book like that,” he says. “It said in the description that the prairie chicken always stayed around the edges of a forest, for the protection and for the grasslands. It said that the chicken ‘freely ranged’ from this section to that section. So I just said, ‘Okay, well, how about “free-range”?'”
The Kasier-Forgione chickens were received so orgiastically by the River Café’s customers and the New York food press that “free-range chicken” entered the gourmet lexicon—though, contrary to popular belief, it is not an official designation of the United Stated Department of Agriculture. When Murray’s Chickens, an all-natural poultry company, inquired as to what the protocol was for using the term “free-range” in its labeling, their head of sales, Steve Gold, reported to Forgione, “The government told us it’s whatever Larry Forgione says it is.”
This article is excerpted from The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:
WHOLE FOODS MARKET LENDS TO LOCAL FOOD BUSINESSES
Whole Foods Market has set up an annual budget of $10 million to promote local agriculture and artisans through long-term loans at low rates of interest. Whole Foods Market, Northeast Region is excited to announce that we have secured our first three loan recipients. These recipients are Wine Cellar Sorbets, Red Jacket Orchards, and Upper Meadow Farm.
Wine Cellar Sorbet in Brooklyn, NY is using the loan for all things packaging, starting with ordering larger lots of materials. Next they plan to change the labeling on their containers to include the vintage and origin of the wines they use in their sorbets.
Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, NY is going to use their loan for constructing a High Tunnel. This structure works as a screen of sorts assisting the growers in dealing with the elements and allowing them to grow tender heirloom varieties of orchard fruits.
Upper Meadows Farm in Montague New Jersey will be using their loan to complete a packing and storage shed. The shed will serve many purposes for the growth of the farm, including allowing them to store root vegetables throughout the winter and supply our markets with local vegetables for months after the growing season has ended.
If you are a local grower or artisan who would like to apply for a business loan from Whole Foods Market, you can e-mail us at Local.Farmers@WholeFoods.com or call us at 201-969-0444 x. 331.