Sotheby’s, that venerable institution trading in fine art and fine things, will be hosting a special heirloom auction on Thursday evening—with a theme close to the heart of many New Yorkers: food.
Yes, that’s right, the art auction house will put up heirloom vegetables for sale—those funky looking tomatoes, beans, eggplants and squash you’ve been seeing piled up in the city’s greenmarkets.
“We traffic in ‘one of a kind’ objects and we're selling ‘one of a kind’ edible heirlooms,” says Amy Todd Middleton, Sotheby’s worldwide marketing director, who came up with the idea for this auction, along with Brent Ridge, a city-kid-come-farmer, and star of “The Fabulous Beekman Boys," a reality TV show on the Discovery Channel.
The philanthropic event called “The Art of Farming” isn’t meant to be an eccentric gimmick for exclusive Sotheby’s clientele. Its mission is to raise awareness about heirloom vegetables and to be a fundraiser for two charitable organizations: GrowNYC’s New Farmer Development Project, which trains immigrants who have agricultural backgrounds to establish farms in the northeast and provides them with space to sell their produce in the city’s greenmarkets, and The Sylvia Center, which teaches New York children healthy eating, cooking and where their food comes from through hands-on experience. Middleton says she hopes this auction will become an annual event.
Brent Ridge, former vice president for healthy living at Martha Stewart Living, who ate a life-changing Purple Cherokee tomato two years ago at the Union Square farmers market, says these veggies are natural works of art.
"Every heirloom vegetable that's grown has its own provenance," says Ridge. "Just like every piece of art that Sotheby’s sells.”
The fact that New Yorkers put value on food is nothing new. But this auction puts an official stamp on the movement towards all things local. "It's become a cause celèbre but for good reason," says Middleton.
For many people, the trend towards buying locally produced food, and heirloom vegetables in particular, is couched within the environmental movement, and fears that agribusiness is decimating the genetic diversity of the food supply. "If you become too reliant on one particular strain of vegetable, something like the potato blight can happen," says Ridge.
But to be frank, perhaps the number one reason New Yorkers are excited about heirloom vegetables comes down to hedonism: heirlooms taste so darn good. “You might taste an heirloom pea that looks and tastes completely different from anything you've ever known about peas. From a foodie perspective it's a new adventure,” said Ridge.
Anne Hammond, executive director of The Sylvia Center, says she’s hoping the event will raise around $150,000, to be split between the two organizations. Indeed, Sotheby’s says it’s already raised $100,000 from ticket sales to the gallery talks, cocktail reception, and a four-course gala dinner. The menu features heirloom veggies on the menu, of course. The live auction, led by Jamie Niven, chairman of Sotheby’s North America, will feature not only crates of vegetables donated by local farmers—bidding for those starts at $1,000—but also celebrity chef dinners, a barrel of locally produced whiskey, local wine-country getaways, and the like.
The Sylvia Center intends to use the proceeds from the auction to expand its programming.
“Our funding dream is to have this program in every public housing site and community center in the city,” says Hammond. “So, over the course of one year, 10,000 children would learn how to cook.”
Marcel Van Ooyen, executive director of GrowNYC, is equally excited.
“The average age of farmers in the northeast is 60 plus and many will retire soon, so there's [a] real need to train new farmers,” Van Ooyen says. Many of the immigrants GrowNYC works with are originally from Central and South America, and have not only brought new items to the market, like tomatillos, but have established their stalls in immigrant neighborhoods, many of which had a dearth of fresh vegetables.
Van Ooyen says the farmers in the New Farmer Development Project will grow just about anything that sells—and heirlooms are definitely selling. “It's hard to find anything on a menu around Union Square that doesn't have at least one heirloom on it at this point,” he says.
Ken Greene, one of the founders of the Hudson Valley Seed Library, an organization that is dedicated to preserving and distributing regional seed varieties, says the term "heirloom" was originally used to signify a different way to think about seeds.
“When you think of heirloom you think of something passed down from generation to generation within a family or community that has some kind of cultural significance,” Greene says. Similarly, “if it wasn't for families passing these seeds down from generation to generation, we wouldn't have these varieties any more.”
The Seed Library donated a baking bean called “Hank’s Bean” which will be cooked for the gala dinner. True to form, these beans have unique provenance. Hank's beans had been grown by Hank Lotvin in Ghent New York for about 50 years, but have never been sold in a commercial seed catalog. When Hank died, his daughter Peg found a seed in a tin can in his basement. She took it home and planted the seed in her own garden. "If she hadn't done that, they would have been gone forever, that variety wouldn't exist," said Greene.
Now that’s a true heirloom.
Here's a short list of what will be auctioned off tonight at Sotheby's:
- Sugar Baby Melon
- Jumbo peanuts
- Ozette potatoes
- Isis Candy Cherry Tomato
- Turkish Organe Eggplant
- Lady Godiva Squash
- Christmas Lima Beans
- Joe’s Round Pepper
- Yugoslavian Finger Fruit Squash
- Winningstadt Cabbage
- Pink banana pumpkin
- Yugo Red Lettuce
- Purple Dark Oval Basil
- Black Sea Man Tomato
- Sunberry Squash