In the Kitchen with Barbara Turk, New York City’s Director of Food Policy

Talking canned tomatoes, deep fryers and grocery shopping around the city with the Gotham’s top food policy influencer.

Barbara Turk tried to blow us off. We let her know that we’ve done “In the Kitchen With” everyone from Alec Baldwin to Isaac Mizrahi to economist Joseph Stiglitz. Turk was not convinced:

“This request made me smile. I’m a lifelong public servant.

My kitchen is old, small and modest. The tour of my galley kitchen would amount to me standing in the doorway while you pace the six yards or so from the doorway to the wall. You might want to check in with deputy mayor Alicia Glen. She has a great kitchen. Tell her I sent you.”

Naturally, this response made us double-down our efforts. As if Turk weren’t already compelling enough—she is working to ensure everyone in New York City has enough nutritious food to eat, and that it comes from a sustainable, equitable food system—this kind of humility, candor and sharp edge makes for an excellent profile subject.

Over the course of a few e-mails and phone calls, we managed to convince Turk that her modest Brooklyn kitchen was perfect. Food media is lousy with posh, picturesque celebrity kitchens. It’s refreshing to know that the city’s top food policy influencer lives—and eats—like a regular person. Take note, though: Her lifestyle may be modest, but Barbara Turk is one remarkable woman.

Ag in the blood

You don’t have to scratch back far in my family history to find farmers. My mom used to visit her grandfather’s farm—those are some of the happiest memories of her life. She likes to tell the story of asking her mom to bring a piglet home to the city, and her mom saying gently, “Honey, piglets grow up to be pigs.”

Growing up in suburban Cleveland, my family had a big garden. We grew lettuce and corn and tomatoes; my dad drank tomato juice every day that mom canned. It really helped develop my consciousness of our relationship to land and soil.

Politics start at home

I remember my family boycotting lettuce and grapes when I was in sixth grade. My parents admired Cesar Chavez, but I didn’t realize how unique that was. I didn’t know what happened in other kids’ houses, whether it was different from my own.

Picky picky

I’ll admit it, I was a picky eater. Hot dogs and fried bologna were my favorites. And dingers, which is fresh bread dough fried in butter. It’s Ohio, man—you gotta fry your stuff.

Time to make the donuts

(Displaying a deep fryer from her childhood): We made donuts at Halloween, dude! Hot oil, then toss in a bag with cinnamon and sugar. Haven’t used it in years—I should have a donut party.

Inheritance

(Displaying a “cooky” press): I remember asking my mom when I was eight: “ When you die, can I have the cookie press?

The veggie dorm

At college, I lived in a vegetarian dorm; I was vegan for awhile. I used to make bread for the whole dorm, 20 loaves at a time, heavy whole wheat with husks in it, bread that only lasts a day and a half on the counter. We were making our own granola, buying yogurt in bulk—we were latter-day hippies.

First job

My first job in New York was at the city’s only chain health food store at the time. The owners were in it for the money; they could have been running a Cohen’s Optical for all they cared. I remember after my interview the guy said, “Hey, Ralph, this one actually eats the stuff!”

Celebrities used to shop at that store, right at 5th and 57th. I was straight off the truck from the Midwest, and there was Debbie Harry! She was kind of disguised, wearing a turban, but you couldn’t miss those cheekbones. Elliott Gould was told he had to put his cigar out in the store. Greta Garbo bought rice cakes and sustainable tuna. Carly Simon and Janis Ian shopped at the West Side store. Wow!

barbaraturk

Because bagels

God, it was so exciting to discover H&H Bagel! We went there a lot, because bagels.

Dogma’s for the dogs

I wouldn’t call myself a dogmatic eater—I’m no longer a vegetarian, for instance. It takes more time to eat well, I’m afraid. I don’t do red meat, but it’s not like I’m missing out. Maybe I can’t get the veal osso buco, but I never liked veal anyway. I don’t feel deprived.

I’ll sometimes break my own rules when it would be ungracious to do otherwise. Like I visited my father’s cousin after not seeing her for decades. Was I going to refuse her meaty marinara sauce? No, because I would never refuse her hospitality.

The eater’s dilemma

I try to make sustainable shopping choices. But right now I’ve got a big vat of almond butter in my fridge; it would be hard to give that up. And even the foods we think are OK turn out to have some issue.

On kale

I remember when kale used to be cheap, before white people discovered it. White people eat a lot of kale!

Hipster chow

Avocado toast is a wonderful hipster addition. Still, why pay 12 bucks for it when I can make it at home?

Timeline of a thoughtful eater

I read Diet for a Small Planet when I was in high school in the mid-1970s and took it to heart. I’m grateful that I’ve pretty much
always eaten food that’s recognizable as food.

Fake Brooklyn

I’ve been in this apartment for 30 years; the neighborhood used to be called Downtown Brooklyn. Now it’s called Boerum Hill. What’s with these fake neighborhoods? Like “BoCoCa”—totally made-up name.

No labels

Because of my job, I feel like people watch what I eat at all times: “What is Barb going to eat?” I don’t define myself as a foodie; that’s not why I go to work in the morning. I’ve lived in this apartment for 30 years and I’ve never roasted a chicken.

Roving shopper

I try to visit as many different supermarkets and farmers markets as I can. I bike everywhere. It’s really instructive to see the food choices people have—or don’t have—all over the city.

Cupcake police

When I first took this job, everyone was afraid I’d be policing office food. “Now I won’t be able to bring in cupcakes!” I’m a lot more circumspect than that. I don’t like to stigmatize anyone’s choices. Of course I’ll eat the cupcake somebody made.

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Jesse Hirsch

Formerly the print editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Jesse Hirsch now works as the New York editor for GOOD magazine.