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When I was growing up, I was told the same stories over and over. I know these were lessons, meant to give us the meaning of hard times and hard work, heartaches and joys, our parents knowing that we all would experience our own in time. It is the Italian-American way.
Being born in Newark, New Jersey, in a majority Italian neighborhood, was an experience. I only wish I was a little older to better absorb the events that took place in all the stories I was told. But one story in particular strikes a resonance with my own experiences later in life.
My grandfather on my mother’s side went by the name ”Joe Pepper,” though his last name was actually Di Michele. He garnered the nickname because he sold potatoes and peppers from a horse drawn wagon through the streets of Newark. We were also a winemaking family with a cement wine press in the basement where we made the family’s signature wines year by year. My grandfather’s vegetable route was established in such a way as to allow him to swing home at different periods of the day to “test” the wine.
At 4 a.m. most mornings, grandpa Emidio Di Michele and other peddlers would take off to Penn Station in Newark to pick up their wares from the incoming trains. These supplies and goods would be sold on the streets while the locals networked, bartered and sold, offering the best local, seasonal produce available. They had also relationships with the local seasonal gardeners and craft persons.
My wife, Nenita, also grew up in areas where families made trips twice a day to the local open market to obtain foods and supplies. Larger markets were special trips, and she visited them much less frequently. Before we were married, Nenita worked for a rice distributor that had various types of markets set up in multiple locations in Manila. She would have an escort drive her around as she managed and monitored the markets, collected money and bought products.
After we married and moved to New Jersey, we worked in food service together and would drive to the street markets located in Clifton and Newark. Nenita was in her element, haggling over price and quality, and she refused to pay premium dollar for less than premium products. I learned a lot about that type of buying from her.
I hear time and time again in our family how the large supermarkets knocked the street vendors and peddlers out of business. One-stop-shopping (and home refrigeration) made it more attractive to be able to buy for the week at any time of the day and not worry what time “Joe Peppers” was going to be around with his cart. Eventually, the street vendors disappeared.
But farmers markets and fresh, locally grown products can be worked into your lifestyle and still meet both criteria for quality and affordability. People are starting to rediscover and gain an appreciation for the sustainability and quality those artisan agricultural consumables and crafts hold, and we are starting to see growth in the number of people shopping at local farmers markets.
The Story of Nita Crisp
Our own artisanal cracker company, Nita Crisp Crackers, attributes some of its success to the local farmers markets that helped launch its community awareness.
It started with a recipe we found on a piece of folded newspaper from a 1967 Washington Post in a recipe box we purchased. It was called simply “Home Made Cracker.” I took the recipe, modified it some, removing the butter in the recipe, and created the Nita Crisp cracker.
In 1997, I began trading batches of this cracker for some produce from a local gardener named Tom. Tom would get his crackers in a plastic bag tied with a wire twist tie and I would take whatever produce he would give me. I always thought I was getting the better part of the deal, but if you asked him he felt he was taking advantage of us.
During the recession in 2001, we needed a way to supplement our income and so many people told us we should sell those crackers that we decided to give it a go. So, out of our determination to keep the catering company going, we researched the local farmers markets and BABOOM – we were selling the crackers and people loved them.
So many people were asking for Nita Crisps through the farmers market, that we chose our first retail outlet, Bingham Hill Cheese. Thanks to them, we learned the ins and outs of the retails sales. Today we are sold throughout Colorado and many local retailers continue to support our product. The Cupboard on College Avenue is our longest standing customer, and our biggest mover is Whole Foods. But you can also find Nita Crisp at many local restaurants. ( Elliott’s Martini Bar was the first restaurant to use Nita Crisp and still uses them today)
Larimer County Farmers’ Market
A cooperative project between CSU Extension Office and the Larimer County Extension Office led to the Master Gardeners Program and the creation of the Larimer County Farmers’ Market 36 years ago. Alison O’Connor oversees the project for the agencies. She shared with me some interesting information on local farmers markets. (Visit www.larimercountyfarmersmarket.org or larimercountyfarmersmarket.blogspot.com for more information.)
The first local farmers market was located where the Trial Gardens are today across from the old Fort Collins High School. Then it hosted 6 to 7 vendors. Today’s hosts 65 to 75 vendors . Last year’s market was the best ever, according to O’Connor, generating $430,000 in sales. The market services 2,000 to 4,000 consumers each market day. It is truly a special breed of people that attend both as buyers and sellers in rain or shine and even sometimes snow. I’ve seen firsthand how many people actually have standing orders arranged.
The Master Gardeners is a non-profit educational organization. “They have a master food safety advisor on site to advise on consumer safety in food handling,” says O’Connor. They offer a wealth of information, including classes in canning and bottling.
Today’s Larimer County Farmers’ Market is located at the Larimer County Courthouse at 200 West Oak Street. It is held on Saturdays from June 25 to October 15, from 8 a.m. till noon.
When I used to work at the farmers markets, I would set up my demo kitchen, then visit with other vendors and view what they were offering. I would ask questions about how to use their products, purchase several items and then proceed to my demo kitchen cooking and talking till my cheeks were sore. I actually ended up producing some cooking shows that appeared on the local Fort Collins channel for most of a year.
I did not consider myself a public speaker – my voice breaks up and my knees shake – but once I start talking about food and food related issues, watch out. I will talk till I turn blue in the face.
Don’t Miss These Local Artisanal Products
In my past 15 years as a resident of Fort Collins, I have seen some excellent locally produced products come on the market. Here are a few of my favorites.
Well I have to end this now because I’m going to start building my world around these products this year.
Tastefully Yours Always,
rec·i·pe, n.: 1. A set of directions with a list of ingredients for making or preparing something, especially food. 2. A formula for or means to a desired end: a recipe for success.
If you can stimulate any three of the five senses, you have a successful recipe. If you can add a fourth sense, you add value. This theory has worked well for me in business and life. In your business and life recipe book, which recipes are your staples? What ingredients are essential to you?
What I hope you come away with in this month’s column is a reflection on your own life’s recipes. We build these recipes slowly, hoping for success and trusting our instincts along the way. Some recipes are meant to be shared, for all to benefit from. Sharing our recipes with others can help them to improve their own or even develop new recipes. The best recipes are certainly passed onto the next generation.
One key ingredient to my recipe success is passion – it provides the thrill to meeting and exceeding expectations. Another ingredient is intuition – to be able to feel and understand the customer or guest enough to assist in their bon appare (good looks) and bon appétit (good appetite) expectations, making my recipes pleasant to the eye and pleasant to taste.
Success takes a while to figure out. In the beginning, I felt insecure – it was like being invited to someone’s house to a dinner that I would be cooking. I did not know what ingredients they stocked. I had to open all the cabinets, then the refrigerator and the freezer to come up with something I hoped they would like. Sometimes I was lucky and things went well, but I learned to take control – invite guests to my place, plan better menus and gather the ingredients in their proper order. I took control, trusted my intuition and found recipes I enjoyed producing more.
In 1996, I moved to Fort Collins for the final time. I worked at a restaurant called Pour la France, where Austin’s now stands on Mountain and College Avenues. The job did not pay enough to survive as the head of a household, so I continued my job search and relocated to the Fort Collins Country Club. There I met all the “Fort Collins foodies” and began to learn the recipes Fort Collins had to offer. I made valuable relationships that I treasure to this day and that helped me to learn and develop my own recipes for success.
After several months, I decided to leave the Country Club, with good wishes by all, and I became the new owner of Northern Colorado Catering, starting a new recipe for success.
My wife Nenita was a little concerned at first about going into our own business, but she supported my decision. She obtained a position in the cold kitchen of the CSU Lory Student Center as a temporary hire. My brother, Steve Pellegrino, also worked there for many years and was instrumental in getting Nenita hired. Her job was to feed the football team, and she would come home asking, “How much food can these guys eat?!”
Meanwhile, I started operating the business out of cars – first an old Volvo coupe, then a Chevy Blazer. However, I took my business to the next level when I found a newspaper classified for a refrigerated van for sale. It was a van that was used by Steele’s Market. I bought it on a credit card, standing in line at the grocery store to swipe my card. It was a first for me – buying a van at the grocery store. Some of you probably remember Steele’s Market on Mountain Ave and the van sitting outside with the big circular Steele’s logo. I had it repainted and named the van Ol’ Betsy. We still use her today.
Our original location was a kitchen on Oak Street. Nenita soon had to leave CSU to assist me in the growing company. I had few competitors in the early years – the Moot House, Catering Plus and Toast of the Town by Sunie Liley, Cottonwood Club, Michael’s Plum, Lopiano’s – but just a handful compared to the companies existing in Fort Collins today.
Most events took place at the Lincoln Center, the Senior Center or outdoors. But, I remember the many city and county buildings that were difficult locations for the catering business. Deliveries were physically challenging. They kept me fit, up and down stairs. Gradually the locations became more familiar, and at one point I knew every building and every janitor’s closest in town – either because I was frequently locating left behind catering supplies or because I needed an extra spoon or a spatula and I knew where I could find one.
I remember thinking as we hired our first employee, “We are hitting the big time now.” I hired a bookkeeper and accountant, and began to worry about taxes and all those things a business recipe requires. We grew to new levels each year, but the thing I have learned through all these years is that you must always work on new recipes for business and life.
There have been ups and downs through the years as we have refined our business recipe:
• 1998 – We built out our garage at our home and relocated the business there so we could work longer hours and raise children from the same location.
• 1999 – We operated food services at Anheuser-Busch cafeteria, Telydyne in Loveland and Fort Collins, Advanced Energy, Rivendell School, and were instrumental in starting food service at Liberty Common School.
• 2002 – We opened and closed a restaurant, Villa Caribe.
• 2006 – We moved our kitchen to our present location and found out Nenita was expecting another child.
There is no one recipe to success. Sometimes it takes a little trial and error to get things just right. But once you do, the results can be oh, so good. I also always try to keep my recipe box organized, so I know which ones to share or to pass on to friends, and which to keep to treasure for me alone.
This salad is the base for you to make your own creation. There are endless options to suit to your individual tastes. Trust your intuition and be passionate about creating your own version to share.
Add a few ingredients of your own and toss together. For dressing: try a Vidalia onion vinaigrette or your favorite.