La Vida Locavore

Food revolutionary Joan Dye Gussow

By Matthew Benson

Photography by Matthew Benson


La Vida Locavore: Food revolutionary Joan Dye GussowAlthough she has been described as a "sustainable hedonist," Gussow is by no means a food martyr. True, she doesn't suffer the proliferation of "food-like substances" that clog the world's aisles and arteries, and can rail against industrial food production, synthetic additives, genetic engineering, and artificial price supports with the best of them. "The food supply is full of thousands of food-like objects which several generations have been taught are what food is," she says. "We know absolutely nothing about their healthfulness since we pay attention only to the nutrients we know and to known toxins. We have no history with this food supply. Is a Twinkie life-giving? Is an energy bar?" But she's far from cynical: "I used to feel guilty about being happy when I had such a gloomy view of the world. The truth is, I'm basically a very optimistic person."

Her own life-sustaining Piermont, New York, property is a place of magical, improbable beauty. Though the Hudson has tried on occasion to reclaim her land, the banks of this formidible river have yet to foreclose on her. Her 22 neatly ordered beds of organic root and leaf vegetables and fruit trees— including apple, peach, Asian pear, and a glorious 'Brown Turkey' fig that grows like an imposing sentinel along the river's edge—are a testament to dogged persistence and grit. "Challenge is very exciting to me. Some people skydive and bungee-jump. I grow my own food."

At 81, wearing a woven poncho and a pair of Crocs, she moves like an animated curator through her raised and abundant beds, marveling at the size and color of a Russian kale, or the year's remarkable potato crop, realized at a time when the whole Northeast had suffered one of the coolest, wettest summers ever. Out of a narrow one-sixth acre, she manages to fill her larder for the year. "I eat Brussels sprouts in the dead of winter; I have a fantastic crop of winter carrots, and a great sweet potato crop. I love fresh kale cut up and massaged with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt." She grows all the home garden staples, plus lemons and limes that over-winter inside. You can't help but marvel at the almost transcendental joy Gussow experiences in her garden.

How, then, do the rest of us rally? Gussow's advice is to keep the food politics local. "We need to eat meals together. Concentrate on the kids. Make lunch hours in schools longer. Get kids involved with school gardens and cooking. Perhaps," she says, with the insight of a well-lived organic life, "they can reform their elders."