Just about everything you can buy at the annual Cauliflower Festival in Margaretville is local, except the cauliflower.
A hundred years ago, cauliflower was known in the Catskills as “white gold,” and local suppliers ruled the wider marketplace. Our cool mountain climate, which is forever breaking the hearts of tomato lovers and laying waste to those exquisite late-season melons, turns out to be perfect for the fickle and finicky cauliflower. Happiest in a cool, moist environment, the cauliflower thrived on Catskills mountaintops for the early half of the 20th century, before the vast farms of California’s coastal valleys came to dominate the vegetable economy.
During the reign of King Cauliflower, the Catskills supported a thriving cottage industry both on and off the farm: cratemakers to box it up, auctioneers to broker sales to large buyers, railway workers and truckers to move it around. Most of all, it took a small army of farm workers to tend to the fussy, labor-intensive plants, coddling them through the tender seedling stage and hand-tying their leaves over the growing heads to shade them from the sun.
Memories of the great cauliflower era are still alive in the region. “My father’s nickname is Topper, to this day,” says local lawyer John Fairbairn. The paterfamilias — also named John — got his nickname as a child, when his farm job was to arrange the best cauliflowers on top of the crates for the benefit of potential buyers in New York City markets.
It’s all gone now. The last large-scale cauliflower operation in the Catskills high peaks, the Ruff farm in New Kingston, shut down in the 1990s. To the extent that it’s grown locally at all, cauliflower is now more of an occasional farmers’ market curiosity than a commodity.
It’s not exactly the scandal of the century, but there’s something a little sad about holding a festival dedicated to a local crop and trucking it in from across the country. Apparently festival organizers felt the same way, because a little over a decade ago, they approached one of the large vegetable farmers in the Schoharie Valley to see if they could get a slightly more local supply.
That didn’t work out too well, said Carol O’Beirne, executive director of the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce and the festival’s main organizer.
“I did get it ordered. But they kept saying to me, ‘We can’t guarantee you anything,’” she said.
The farmers warned her that a spell of bad weather might decimate the harvest. Most of the cauliflower still grown in the Schoharie Valley is destined for freezing, and doesn’t have to be as model-perfect as a typical head in the produce aisle, so they advised her that the cauliflowers might be a little ugly. Right up until a few days before the festival, she was fretting that they might have to hold a festival without any cauliflower.
“It was too iffy. You can’t wait ‘til the week before to know whether you’re going to get it,” O’Beirne said.
To come up with a cauliflower or two for a recipe, all you have to do is stroll to the grocery store. Getting a hold of enough to hold a festival around – about 25 cases, O’Beirne says, with six to eight heads in each case — is a logistical feat. Plus, they have to be coddled and refrigerated right up until showtime.
In the end, festival organizers gave up on the dream of Catskills cauliflower for a Catskills cauliflower festival, and resigned themselves to ordering through the local Freshtown supermarket: a reliable, affordable, doable task. If that means surreptitiously getting rid of a few tell-tale “Dole” or “Foxy” packages before the hordes show up, so be it. O’Beirne is resigned.
“At this point, we want to celebrate the history, and support farmers who are trying to make a living out of growing whatever crops they’re growing,” she said.
There are still farmers in the Catskills, of course. Some of them even make their money from farming. But the farm landscape isn’t what it was, and the commodity crops and products that once formed the basis of the local Catskills economy have long since been swamped by global markets. In particular, the ranks of local dairy farmers, who were once the main suppliers of cauliflower in the Catskills, have dwindled to a handful.
It’s too bad that you can hardly scrape up a few bushels of ‘Snowball’ in a region where cauliflower once paid for Cadillacs and college educations. O’Beirne says that if any farmer in the area is interested in growing for the festival, they would be only too delighted to buy local. But the fact is, no one — certainly not the author of this column — is about to become a cauliflower farmer just for the sake of historical authenticity.
What we are going to have to become, if we’re not experts at it already, is magicians. Our local Catskills economy increasingly depends on our collective skill at conjuring nostalgia out of weathered artifacts and half-remembered stories. What we manufacture, here in the hills, is a bittersweet yearning for things that were maybe never quite as romantic as they were made out to be, in the hearts of people who never fully experienced them in the first place. What we’re shooting for is for a Brooklyn tourist in Margaretville to pick up a creamy white head of cauliflower, grown in Salinas by migrant workers from Mexico, and feel a profound sense of connection to the ground beneath her feet.
That feeling — that’s our principal export.