Farmer’s Market Paradise: Food Stories from a Summer in Upstate NY
“Well, we just had our first frost up here last week,” said Bill Parker of RevSpirits during our Zoom conversation on October 7th. This was in response to my highly creative question of “How’s the weather up there [in upstate New York] these days?”
The early, long, and particularly cold winters in upstate NY don’t really appeal to me, but the farmer’s market scene there most certainly does. I met Bill at the Guilderland Farmers Market, one of seven (!) farmer’s markets within easy driving distance for me during my internship this past summer in Albany, NY. Yes, I went to all seven.
RevSpirits makes spirits distilled from honey. Even I—not a particularly avid fan of alcoholic drinks—appreciated the distinct flavor and quality present in each of their three offerings.
If you’ve never heard of spirits made from honey, you’re not alone. The industry is so new, the spirit doesn’t technically have a name yet. According to Bill, “there’s a movement to try and get [the name] ‘somel,’ which means ‘only honey’ in Latin.”
Bill grew up on a farm, and then when he bought his own house in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, he helped remove the rotting beehives that had been built into the side of it long before. “I put on a [bee] suit and thought it was the coolest thing in the world, [so] the next year, I got my own hives and have been doing it for 25 years.”
The honey from Bill’s bees couldn’t sell as fast as it was produced, so to reduce the volume of it, he fermented it into mead, the world’s oldest kind of alcohol. But he still had a bunch of leftover mead, so he decided to try distilling the mead, and it “turned out pretty well.” Agreed.
Bill is retired now, but still operates his own small homestead farm. He was inspired to start farming by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Coincidentally (or maybe intentionally, in the eyes of Pollan), my own interest in food was sparked in large part by another of Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food.
Bill says, “When my daughter was born, we started looking at how food was raised, and realized we could do it better. And so we started raising chickens and pigs and turkeys… we’d have people over for dinner and they’d say ‘Wow, this is the best chicken I’ve ever had. Could you raise me some?’” He spent the past several decades running the farm with his wife while maintaining a full-time job (pre-retirement) as a sixth grade teacher, and it’s what still keeps him busy these days.
Another gem of a human being that I befriended at the Guilderland Farmers Market is Sarita Lama, a Nepalese immigrant who runs a one-woman operation she calls Pretty Bake Shop. She makes the most astoundingly delightful cookies and pastries.
When I spoke with Sarita about how she got into baking, it made sense why she’s so good at it. After majoring in Hospitality Management and Culinary & Pastry Arts at New York City College of Technology, she made the rounds of the New York restaurant scene, holding pastry roles at 6 establishments of varying cuisine types—including a stint at Union Square Hospitality’s Untitled at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
When COVID struck, Sarita was let go from her restaurant job in New York City, and after two months of uncertainty, she and her husband decided to move themselves, along with their young son, to NY’s Capital Region (named for its containment of Albany, the state capital). She says, “I just love the greenery and peace of mind that you have here.”
Peace of mind for Sarita has also come from the validation she’s received from her regular customers at farmers markets. After a summer of selling her pastries at two different markets, she’s confident enough to open her own brick-and-mortar bake shop. From her time in NYC restaurants, she knows both the culinary and managerial sides of the business, and she says that “the only thing holding me [back] for now is the capital… it’s just a matter of finance.” If anyone knows someone with some cash to spare (looking at you, Penn students) and would like to invest in a bakery of epically tasty proportions, you have your candidate.
These days, I’m in the slog of final exams (yuck, I know), but I often find myself daydreaming about those summer days in New York’s beautiful upstate—about Sarita’s s’mores cookies, the views in the Adirondacks, or Bill’s tales of venison Wellington.
Aside from learning how much of my internship pay I am eager to spend at farmer’s markets, I encourage you, the reader, to share in another lesson I took from this past summer: if you’re surrounded by people doing things you find joy in, don’t be a stranger. Everyone has stories to tell and your life will only be richer by hearing them. From bakers to distillers to investment bankers and beyond, stay curious and stay friendly.
And most importantly, eat well. And drink (somel) responsibly.