The Growers, Bakers and Beekeepers Embracing the Terroir of American Cities

THE GRAPEVINES RISE at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue in Cleveland, 14 trim green rows claiming over half a city block — a little less than an acre — beside an abandoned building with boarded-up windows, whose rolling lawn on a summer morning is as lush as Versailles’s. The sky is brilliant and wide above stoplights and swoops of telephone wire. Across the tar-patched street stand storefronts behind scissor gates and a former grocery whose facade half collapsed last May, raining brick on the sidewalk. Down the avenue, the walls of another boarded-up building have been commandeered as an outdoor art gallery, papered over in posters with messages: “I survived the Hough riots”; “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

For centuries, the French have used the word “terroir” to describe the environment in which a wine is produced. Going back to the Latin “terra,” “earth,” it’s rooted in a traditional vision of the countryside and has become more fervently embraced as our agrarian past recedes. Today, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and an estimated 800 million of us take part in some form of urban farming, producing as much as one-fifth of the food we eat — recalibrating both our idea of agriculture and the mystique of origins. When Mansfield Frazier planted his Cleveland vineyard in 2010, which he christened Château Hough, he became part of an unofficial movement of urban dwellers across America transforming vacant lots, rooftops and their own backyards into farms, vineyards and apiaries, encouraged in part by government grants aimed at revitalizing cities.

Frazier was warned about the potentially stunting effects of exhaust from passing cars, and was told he’d be lucky if the plants grew shoulder high. Instead, “they jumped out of the ground,” he says, reaching 12 feet the first year. The soil turned out to be good for grapes: Sandy and loose, it harbors heat, drains well, resists pests and allows the vines’ roots to go deep. Frazier added a little phosphorous at the beginning, but has otherwise left it pretty much alone. Although he’d dreamed of making chardonnay, he was advised that European viniferas might be too delicate for Ohio, where temperatures can drop below zero. So he chose cold-hardy hybrids, Traminette and Frontenac, which have survived winters when larger rural vineyards in the state lost whole crops.

Proximity to water is key, and Lake Erie, two miles to the north, keeps the air cold in spring, protecting the vines from early budding, and warm as summer leaks into fall, so the grapes cling and ripen longer, building up their sugars before harvest. To give the vines unfettered sun, Frazier took a chain saw to the shady scrub trees that had sprung up along the plot; to nourish them, he considered, then rejected, the idea of sprinklers. The grapes were patient and there was rain enough.

“God is on our side,” he says.

IN THE 13TH CENTURY, terroir was simply a practical way to delineate the right soils for growing grapes, as the American historian Kolleen M. Guy writes in “When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity” (2003). Only toward the end of the 16th century did the word take on a sensory dimension, eventually yielding the phrase “goût du terroir” — today popularly subsumed in and implied by “terroir” alone — to explain how the profile of a wine reflects its origins; to identify a taste of place.

Still, to this day, no one can agree on what, precisely, terroir is, or if it even exists. Some limit it to the gifts of nature, those ecological conditions — the chemistry of the soil (which the British wine writer Hugh Johnson described as “the unseen dankness where the vine roots suck”), levels of water and sunlight, climate, elevation and altitude, topographical contours, surrounding biodiversity — that predate the arrival of the vintner, whose interventions may enhance but not fundamentally change the ahistoric essence of the wine. Others point out that there is no scientific basis for a physical transmission of minerals from the ground to the final press of grapes. Instead, they argue, nature is but one factor, and terroir is best understood as a dialogue between land and vintner, who is no mere steward but a necessary partner, devoting labor and knowledge, and perhaps imparting something of the human soul.

In either case, terroir must be earned: coaxed out over decades, even generations. (In France, winemaking goes back to the sixth century B.C.) But Frazier does not hail from a long line of vintners. Now 77, he grew up a couple of miles away in Central, a Black neighborhood where Langston Hughes wrote his first poems. The son of a church deacon and saloonkeeper who ran a thriving gambling operation on the side, Frazier became first a pipe welder and then, as he describes it, a “career counterfeiter,” with a specialty in credit-card fraud, before landing in prison. There he turned to the written word and, in 1995, his essay collection “From Behind the Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate” was published by the Minnesota-based Paragon House, which cast the author as “a latter-day Virgil, inviting us to descend with him into the modern American inferno.”

A few years after his release, Frazier headed home to Cleveland and settled in Hough, once among the city’s poorest neighborhoods, whose population as of the last census, in 2010, was 94 percent Black. The streets still bear the scars of the historic riots — “I prefer to call it the uprising,” he says — of July 1966, which were set off in the middle of a heat wave when a Black man was refused a glass of water at a white-owned cafe. (A grand jury report, released a month later, floated the false theory that “trained and disciplined professionals,” abetted by members of the Communist Party, had incited the violence, not unlike the accusations against “outside instigators” after last spring’s protests over the police killing of George Floyd.) With his wife, Brenda, Frazier built a home and a nonprofit organization to help prisoners re-enter society. He kept an eye on an apartment building across the street that he suspected had become a hub of drug activity, and when it was eventually torn down, he got a federal grant to convert the lot into an urban vineyard, and brought in formerly incarcerated people from a nearby halfway house to help build trellises and plant the vines.

Do the wines of Château Hough — Frazier’s favorite is a crisp, sweet white named Sassy — owe their character to soil enriched by the glacial lakes that covered Ohio thousands of years ago, or to the fires that ravaged these streets in 1966, or to the men who, working the vines, began a new life? “The grapes don’t know there was a riot here,” Frazier says. But he does.

WE INVOKE TERROIR today in all manner of food and drink, to praise the velvety finish of chocolate from the coast of Venezuela, say, or the icy clarity of uni from Hokkaido, Japan. But terroir wasn’t always desirable. When taken strictly as a matter of geology, it could yield flaws as well as virtues. In “Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea” (2015), Thomas Parker, an American scholar of French literature, points to a 16th-century French treatise that snubbed wines in which the taste of soil was too dominant, a sign of coarseness. This sentiment persisted through the 1964 publication of the revered American wine importer and advocate Frank Schoonmaker’s “Encyclopedia of Wine,” in which he defines goût du terroir as an “earthy flavor, somewhat unpleasant,” adding, “superior wines rarely if ever have much of this.”

Nevertheless, terroir — in the broader sense, place of origin — is now law in France, codified in a system designed to protect certain regional products from the diminishment of false rivals. Since 1927 no sparkling wine may be called Champagne unless its grapes are grown in the Champagne wine region in northeastern France; only Roquefort cheese made in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon may bear that name, as first decreed in 1411. This is at once a marketing tool and a cultural statement (with nationalistic undertones), championing literal roots in the land.

The United States is a young nation by comparison, and beholden instead to the formative myth that whatever your birth — your origin — you can be anything (even if that isn’t true). When it comes to character, terroir isn’t fixed; it can even be defeated, and certainly reinvented. And so the term is applied more loosely and freely here, not to recall some lost pastoral idyll but to conjure a more metaphorical state of rootedness, as an antidote to the industrialization in the wake of World War II that flooded American homes with processed and unnervingly uniform foods — “placeless and faceless” commodities, as the cultural anthropologist Amy B. Trubek writes in “The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir” (2008). This cheap bounty promised an end to hunger, but at the expense of part of what makes us human: a connection to our surroundings and the labor with which we make them our own. In this context, terroir offers a way to distinguish the particular from the generic, the personal from the corporate, what is local and what could come from anywhere.

But what does place taste like? Two years ago, Nora Lidgus, a 39-year-old baker and artist then working at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Manhattan, was asked by her boss to make a single loaf of bread — but it had to be, he told her, “the best bread in the world.” Instead, she set out to make bread that could exist only in New York. She filled sterilized jars with sourdough starters — a combination of flour from wheat grown in New York State and tap water — then planted them around the city to suck in wild yeasts from the air, along with microbes from passers-by, souvenirs from the crush of urban life. (This was long before the coronavirus, back when we shared microbes without thinking.) One jar went in the southern end of Central Park, where it was watched over by a guard at a kiosk; another stood outside a private dining room on the fourth floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side; and the third and riskiest was tied to a rope and slung over a beam off the Brooklyn Bridge.

Every day for two weeks she visited each site, lifted the cheesecloth covers and fed the starters flour and tap water, careful to check the jar on the bridge only when nobody was looking. (She’d petitioned the city for a permit but never heard back.) When it came time to bake the loaves, the Met’s turned out smooth and congenial, born of comfort, “the bread version of table wine,” she says, while Central Park’s was floral and crustier, a little rugged at the edges. The starter from the Brooklyn Bridge produced the most alcohol, which made the bread sweeter, so she added seeds and rye to balance it out. Still, not every locale yielded an intriguing result: When she attempted another starter near the Gowanus Canal, it never took on identity; instead, the resultant bread reminded her of the King Arthur starter kit. (She blamed this, symbiotically, on her lack of a personal connection to the neighborhood.)

To be a baker, Lidgus explains, is to be half control freak, half submissive to fate; to embrace a life of eternal adjustments. There was an element of uncertainty in hanging a jar off the Brooklyn Bridge, in that she would never know the whole story, what cars, birds and people roared, fluttered and shuffled by, or if someone spied the rope and hauled it up to take a peek. A sourdough starter effectively eats the air around us and takes part of us with it; this one, suspended at the heavily trafficked meeting point of two boroughs, had potentially invited the whole world’s microbes in. What — who — was in there, exactly? This was her ode to New York, and New York was chaos. “I like my city messy,” she says.

It’s a common misbelief that terroir is a concept singular to the French, and that no corresponding word exists in other cultures. But the Chinese “fengtu” and the Japanese “fudo” — literally, “wind and soil” — have long been used to define how geography and climate shape the character of both regions and the people who live in them. More intimately, the Korean “son-mat” translates as “the taste of your hands,” attributing the flavor of food to the touch of the person who makes it: almost a microterroir, distinct to each individual. For Lidgus’s New York project, she borrowed a term from the art world, saying, “All sourdough is site-specific” — work that is created in and for one place and would lose meaning if shifted elsewhere.

CHICORY AND CLOVER, dandelion and milkweed, catmint and hawthorn, mulberry and crab apple: This is the feast that awaits the bees of Detroit, where between 60,000 and 70,000 vacant lots, just under a third of the city’s land, brim with blossoms, and perennials like tiger lilies and asters still find their way out of the ground behind abandoned homes. In 2013, the city went broke, declaring the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, with $18 million in debt. Nicole Lindsey, 37, and Timothy Paule, 36, lived through the gutting of public services in their neighborhoods and witnessed how talk of revitalization never seemed to include the voices of people in working-class communities. In 2017, they took matters into their own hands — “We can be our own heroes,” Paule says — and for $340 bought three partial lots in Detroit, a total of 3,500 square feet, where they set up three hives.

Today, through their nonprofit venture, Detroit Hives, Lindsey and Paule have expanded to 13 locations, partnering with local schools and community gardens, and tend more than three million bees. And while bee populations are declining precipitously across the country — each winter of the past decade, American beekeepers have lost between a quarter and half of their colonies — scientists report the opposite here. Where bees in rural areas must often make do with pesticide-strafed monoculture crops, they find abundance in cities whose empty lots, conventionally considered signs of urban blight, teem with undisturbed and luxuriant life. These conditions affect not just the survival of the bees but the taste of their honey, which is “extremely local,” Paule says, and changes by the season. In spring, Detroit’s terroir has notes of mint; in fall, the hives give off the scent of clover and goldenrod.

To “eat local” is a modern mantra, driven by concern over climate change and the hulking trucks that haul produce and livestock from coast to coast. But it’s also a commitment to the idea of locality — the transformation of the space we move through into a place that is recognizably ours, be it a region, a city or a single block. With honey, to eat local is to go a step further and become local, taking into your body the traces of nectar and pollen from the surrounding flowers and trees, which some believe might help your immune system learn to be in tune with your surroundings and less prone to allergies. (Paule notes that local honey put an end to months of his hacking cough.)

And maybe this is the true purpose of terroir, to anchor us in place, to give us a stake in the world. The French social theorist Henri LeFebvre, writing shortly before the May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, which catalyzed a wave of protests and strikes and brought France to a standstill, famously declared a “right to the city” — a right to have a say in the shaping of the urban environment and to live in a place where use and pleasure are privileged over profit. A few decades later, the British social theorist and geographer David Harvey, amplifying the idea, argued that this right means more than simply access to urban resources: It is “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves.”

Belonging somewhere isn’t as straightforward as having an address, and even more so as the demands of virtual and global citizenship come to take precedence over the physical reality of neighborhoods. In cities like Cleveland, Detroit and New York, a neighborhood is never a constant or a given; it requires conscious engagement with others and daily traversals of space, fending off the intrusions and urgencies of capital, be they in the form of gentrification or real estate development, and wearing down what will become familiar paths, even if there’s no ultimate destination beyond returning home. Trubek writes that “locating food makes it ours,” but it also helps to tell us who we are. Before there can be a taste of place, we first must make a place of our own.

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