Liz Neumark realizes that she may not be able to change the world. But she’d like to change the next meal for people who don’t yet understand the links between farm and table, between a carrot that’s just been pulled out of the ground and an unforgettably flavorful dinner. The CEO and founder of Great Performances, one of New York City’s largest off-premises caterers, Neumark has just published her first book, “Sylvia’s Table: Fresh, Seasonal Recipes from Our Farm to Your Family” (Knopf).
Over this summer and through early fall, she will have brought 1,000 kids to the Sylvia Center at Katchkie Farm in upstate Columbia County. Kids who have grown up in city housing projects, some in homeless shelters with no kitchens, and others from New York’s nearby capitol region, spend a day at the Sylvia Center, getting their hands dirty, planting vegetables, nibbling on fresh-picked greens and running in fields that seem to have no end. Later, they don chefs’ aprons and learn to create a delicious meal.
“Are we still in America?” one of the youngsters recently asked, arriving at the farm after a two-hour ride from New York City.
Neumark is an advocate for children’s health and part of the national conversation about food policy and issues of sustainability and hunger. But the Sylvia Center is a very personal project for her.
In 2004, her youngest daughter, Sylvia, died suddenly at age 6. After that, Neumark didn’t think she’d be able to go back to catering again. But one morning it all clicked. She had a vision for the Sylvia Center, a farm-based place to educate children and improve their lives through food. And, the organic farm would grow food for the catering company.
In 2006, she bought 62 acres of land that hadn’t been farmed in the last hundred years, and with farmer Bob Walker, began preparing the land for planting. In 2007, they began welcoming kids.
Neumark grew up on the Upper West Side, attended Jewish day schools and describes herself as “not an observant Jew, but a deeply cultural Jew.” She recognizes that many cultures have values of hospitality, but feels that the Judaism that permeated her life growing up is related to her strong feelings about not wasting food, gleaning from the fields and taking care of the hungry.
After graduating Barnard, where she studied political science and urban studies, Neumark took up photography. Back then too, she seemed to have an entrepreneurial spirit tied to her humanist vision, and in 1979 she started Great Performances, a waitress service for women in the arts. One thing led to another and she transformed the business. Each year, Great Performances awards scholarships to staff members who want to pursue the arts.
The book features more than 200 sophisticated but uncomplicated recipes, illustrated with Neumark’s color photographs. All proceeds benefit the Sylvia Center. While the cookbook emphasizes vegetables, it is not solely vegetarian (nor is it strictly kosher), although the author has become a vegetarian since she began writing. But that didn’t stop her from cooking two briskets over the weekend, for her father and for farmer Bob Walker.