The new space allows employees to share the stories behind locally produced items.
If you've visited the Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market, and you’ve found coolers filled with raw milk, pasture-raised eggs and humanely raised meats. You’ll examine organic fruits and vegetables. But what you probably haven't done is ask about the story behind these locally produced items.
That’s not your fault. Nor is it the fault of the folks behind the counter. Instead, blame the cramped space where the stand currently sits. Fortunately, this is about to change.
After over a month of construction, the stand is moving to its new, larger location on the 12th Street side of the market, in the space formerly inhabited by Rick’s Steaks. And according to Seth Kalkstein, just hired for the newly created position of general manager, the benefits of expansion go beyond simply more space for more products.
"If you look at how the stand is set up today, the customers are blocked off from the employees at the register by the refrigerators," says Kalkstein, who until recently, worked as the cheese manager at Di Bruno Bros. "At the new space, we're going to have lines of sight where the customers are. We're going to be able to interact more with them. That's where most of the education comes from."
Kalkstein, tasked with overseeing the growing Farmstand business while executive Director Ann Karlen focuses on the Fair Food organization as a whole, is a bit of an autodidact when it comes to the items sold at the stand. Consider this zeal for learning combined with over 10 years of experience working behind the cheese counters at Di Bruno's and Ardmore Cheese before that, and two things become clear: how he landed at the farmstand, and why he emphasizes the importance of interaction and education for the new space.
"One thing you realize about the world of cheese," says Kalkstein, "is that production methods matter with regard to taste." Sample cheese made with milk from grass-fed cows, and cheese made with milk from cows that have been fed silage (easily preserved fermented plant matter) and there's no comparison. "You just can't make quality food from animals that are stacked together in a factory farm."
What he first experienced with his taste buds he then further explored through avid reading. Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is one obvious line on the reading list which also includes reference materials, "a lot of technical, nerdy stuff," Harold McGee's incomparable On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen and Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin. "The key is to read the guys who crusade on the one end, the guys who crusade on the other end, and see where the truth lies in between."
Still, the truth, as revealed by palate and library, placed Kalkstein in full alignment with the local food movement, ready to extol not just the virtue but also the satisfaction of eating locally. Even after years of pushing old-world cheeses made from techniques perfected over centuries, he shoots down the suggestion that Pennsylvania cheeses can't match up. "Sure, it's almost like we're starting from scratch here and relearning artisanal methods," he says, noting that in the 18th century, before the focus of American cheesemaking moved west, there were a number of producers making handmade English-style cheddar in the state.
Sure enough, cheesemakers like Trent Hendricks of Hendricks Farm, Pete Demchur of Shellbark Hollow and Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm, among others, are making exceptional cheese in Pennsylvania, all of which can be found at the Fair Food Stand. Many of these cheeses showcase what Kalkstein considers the particular terroir of Pennsylvania. "You get a lot of oniony flavors, a lot of mushroomy flavors—whether it's something in the soil, or grass, or air going on."
The catch, one might argue, is that these unique flavors—not just in cheese, but also the fuller taste of pasture-raised eggs or the complexity of grass-fed beef— come with a hearty price tag, especially compared their equivalents in the grocery store. Kalkstein's response is succinct. "They're not the same products. You're not eating the same thing."
The distinction may not be immediately obvious. But this returns us to the educational mission of the Fair Food Farmstand and the new opportunities provided by the larger space. It's one thing to put a carton of pasture-raised eggs in the cooler and stick on a $3.75 price tag. But only if someone like Kalkstein can tell you that the difference between the ones from Acme and these ones is "like a symphony when you cut out 3/4 of the instruments" and explain why, then the cost makes a little more sense.
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