Edible Nation: Newman’s Own Organics
It’s hard to say what Nell Newman is most famous for. There are her parents, of course. But there’s also Nell’s commitment to organic, sustainable foodways, which led her to convince her father to establish an organic division of his blockbuster pantry brand, Newman’s Own, in 1993, before most of us started thinking so carefully about our food. Legend has it, she won him over in the kitchen, creating a completely organic Thanksgiving dinner. Now 20 years later, Newman’s Own Organics stock shelves in grocery stores across the nation, in forms that everyone recognizes: pretzels and cookies, chocolate and popcorn. Their coffee is served at McDonald’s.
And Nell’s commitment to accessible organic food continues to evolve. She chairs the board for Wholesome Wave, a national non-profit organization started in Westport, CT by her father’s friend and restaurant partner Michel Nischan. In partnership with the USDA, Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program allows SNAP benefit users to get twice as much with their food stamps at participating farmers markets, now active in 25 states and growing. The hope is that more people from more socio-economic groups will eat more fresh, clean food.
Nell says her own parents weren’t what you’d call foodies, and mostly self-taught, but cooking was a strong part of the collective Newman household. “In Westport, all summer long, Dad would coach me on the seasonal produce.” She and her mother often baked together, even when they couldn’t tell a pound cake from angel food; in retrospect, it seems the time and process was what was important. “We had rituals for making burgers, rituals for making steaks, rituals for making hollandaise.”
Nell says, “I remember one time when my mom was out of town and Dad had all the kids (six in total, from his first and second marriages). He decided we would make something in the kitchen. I love marshmallows—we got the recipe out of the Joy of Cooking.” She laughs here, a beautiful, throaty bar-room laugh. “Dad didn’t know what a measuring cup looked like—I think he used a beer mug to measure with. It was a disaster.”
“I was raised that you had to try it once,” she says, of making or eating, of everything. “Now, the only thing I can’t stand to eat is cream cheese. We never ate it growing up, so I never had to try it.” But then, Nell recalls a short time living in Paris when her parents were filming there, and how she loved petit-suisse, these little pats of fresh cheese wrapped in paper that you would dust with white sugar and smash at to eat. “ Those were probably cream cheese,” she says—yet somehow, not at all. We talk about the power of where you are, and what you’re told when it comes to eating. And so food and conversation have always gone hand in hand. “I find farmers markets to be inspiring places,” she says. “But if I’m in a hurry, I wear my sweatshirt with my hood up.”
Still, at nellnewman.com, she’s adding her voice to the chorus on a regular basis with her new blog, which she says she started “so I wasn’t a complete dinosaur.” Here, you can find her travelogues in coffee country, her dad’s favorite cake recipe, her own thoughts on the recent debate in California over GMO labeling. “We all took that class in school,” she says. “Genetically modified means different.” It’s clear to her; if you can’t tell what’s different by looking, somebody’s got to have the responsibility to say so.
Public responsibility is something else she carries from her family’s example; Newman’s Own has given more than 330 million dollars to charity since it began. Nell’s commitment continues with Wholesome Wave. She says the organization started with little things, like how to get a farmers market into Westport, CT. “It quickly became a matter of food access. I mean, now we’ve got this farmers market for really rich people. What about Bridgeport?” Wholesome Wave started their farmers market in this economically challenged community in a hospital parking lot. It was sold out in a matter of hours. “When that got going,” Nell says, “it took off so much, the farmer had to plant land he hadn’t planted, and hire more people to help him do it.” Wholesome Wave is now in 25 states plus DC, with 60 non-profit partners, 300 farm-to-retail establishments, affecting 2500 farmers.
Nell Newman will be the keynote speaker at the Upstate Forever 2013 Forever Green Annual Awards Luncheon, which celebrates individuals and organizations for significant contributions in the fields of land conservation, water quality, air quality, sustainable development, public service and volunteer work. As an ardent supporter of sustainable agriculture, Nell will share her perspective on organic foodways, and her advice on why living a more environmentally conscious life helps us all.
The good stuff gets passed down.
Thursday, February 21
670 Verdae Boulevard
Tickets can be purchased online at www.upstateforever.org/ForeverGreenLuncheon.html
RECIPE: HOMEMADE MARSHMALLOWS, FROM THE JOY OF COOKING
When you make these, it’s important to imagine a kitchen with Paul Newman, six children, and powdered sugar everywhere.
3 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons vanilla cornstarch powdered sugar
Put the gelatin and water in the bowl of a stand mixer and let stand for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, place the sugar, corn syrup, water and salt in a heavy pan over low heat and stir until dissolved. When the mixture starts to boil, cover it for about 3 minutes to allow any crystals which have formed to be washed down from the sides of the pan. Continue to cook uncovered and unstirred over high heat to the firm-ball stage, 244°. Overcooking will make marshmallows tough.
Remove the mixture from heat and pour slowly over the gelatin, beating constantly. Continue to beat about 15 minutes after all the syrup has been added. When the mixture is thick but still warm add the vanilla.
Put the mixture into a 9 by 9 inch pan that has been lightly dusted with cornstarch. Let dry for 12 hours.
Remove from the pan, cut it into squares with scissors dusted with cornstarch. Roll squares in powdered sugar, and store the fully dusted pieces in a closed tin.