For Sean-Michael Fleming, the whole urbanites-reconnecting-with-the-Earth thing has long been a way of life, a birthright even.
“Being from New Hampshire automatically makes me the neighborhood naturalist,” he laughs.
Whatever the reason, 17 years ago he decided that the best way to unite his neighbors with the natural world was to throw a party. Specifically a universal, all-are-welcome house party to celebrate the winter solstice.
“It’s the original holiday,” says Fleming, referring to the shortest day of the year, which usually falls on December 21 and has been celebrated since way before Christmas or even Hanukkah, as a time to remember the year’s harvest and look forward to the sun’s return. For Fleming, it meant all that and more: “For me, it was a reaction to the commercialization of holidays; cooking is a much richer gift to give.”
A few dozen people showed up that first year, and he’s put out a Solstice feast every December since, always on the longest night of the year—which, when you think about it, is perfect for a party.
When Fleming moved to an old lingerie factory in Bushwick, the tradition came, too, and three years ago he turned the annual bash into a benefit for a richly deserving neighborhood nonprofit, which he happens to helm. Fleming formed EcoStationNY with friends Travis Trent and Kendall Morrison (deemed the “Mushroom Man” by the New York Times, as he cultivates eight varieties of edible ’shrooms at the Lindell Bushwick Community Garden, which the three now oversee). EcoStation also operates the Bushwick Farmers Market, the Bushwick Campus Farm and something called “Farm-In-The-Sky,” a prototype for modular, expandable, lightweight rooftop gardening at Fireproof East, growing sprouts and microgreens for area eateries including Northeast Kingdom, Tandem and Verde.
Fleming says feeding the masses each year helped him become a better cook, which led to a job at One If By Land, Two If By Sea. He eventually got into catering, which is handy because in recent years the party turnout has mushroomed like one of Morrison’s spores. This year he’s hoping to share the spatula with some of Farm-In-The-Sky’s aforementioned restaurant clients.
The event is free, and last year hundreds of people showed up—though Fleming didn’t necessarily know them all. “It’s hard to keep track of who’s there. I’m just running around, and then there’s a mountain of dishes.” Especially when there are live, local bands, performance artist Reverend Billy and even a flame dancer—indoors. “I saw her getting close to the fire extinguisher. I almost lost my cookies.”
In the beginning the menu was “whatever I knew how to cook,” admits Fleming, but naturally it’s totally locavore—even on the darkest day of the year. Apps include little lamb bites and crostini carrying fennel-crusted venison or seared duck breast, roasted beet and maple gastrique. Entrées might be endless trays of five-mushroom lasagna and root vegetable potpie. For dessert: a six-foot-long Serpentine Spice Cake with gingered pear compote, cranberry sorbet and chocolate-orange ice cream, all homemade.
The solstice celebration goes till midnight, of course, which leaves plenty of time for the auction: Guests can bid on restaurant gift certificates, works by local artists, jars of jam, hand-knit hats, even lessons from a local belly dancer. “Donations came from unexpected places,” he laughs. The raffle raises dough for the group’s projects. Recent funding will go to a solar-power-cooled, vegetable-oil-fueled van to bring market bounty to EcoStation outposts in underserved nooks of the neighborhood.
It would be simpler to keep the market at one location—but, true to form, Fleming wants to feed everyone.