In recent years, food has become a social and political issue. Amidst the larger movement of go-green eco-consciousness, American consumers are increasingly thinking about the impact of what we eat and where it comes from. A movement towards a diet based on local, organic, or sustainable foodstuffs has swept the country and the message can be found everywhere from restaurants to pop culture.
As with any sweeping movement or trend, there are early adopters of sustainable agriculture who have been carrying the mantle for decades, and who are now celebrated as stalwarts of the campaign towards greener consumption. One of those outstanding people is Mary Cleaver, a caterer based in New York City. Cleaver has been catering for over thirty years, and her company, The Cleaver Co., serves some of the most delicious food I have ever had the pleasure of eating. Cleaver handles private, corporate, and public events, as well as — perhaps her favorite — weddings.
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Mary Cleaver, and she told me quite a bit about her unique story and impressive work over the years.
Cleaver has always loved food, and seasonal freshness was fundamental to her family's cooking. As a youth, she traveled in France and learned the importance and value of regionality. As she herself began working in the kitchen, her mantra was always "flavor first." Since foods taste their best when grown naturally and in season, her route to sustainable agriculture was a natural progression.
In the 1970s, Cleaver recalls, it was impossible to find a locally-grown tomato in New York City. In those pre-Greenmarket days, (New York City now has very popular open-air 'Greenmarkets" in city parks where organic and locally-grown produce, meat, and cheese are sold) what she found was pink, shrink-wrapped, and shipped from New England. At that time, she said, cooking with organic ingredients was considered "crunchy" in a bad way; something she was advised to hide from clients who came to her for delicious food. As she said, "the word 'organic' means something different in our food lexicon now than it did even five years ago."
Eight years ago, Cleaver had a watershed moment. At an elite dinner and fund-raiser for a conservation organization, Cleaver realized that participants were discussing plans and raising money for environmental conservation, all while unknowingly or un-thoughtfully eating factory-raised beef and farmed salmon. It was anathema to her belief system and it codified her goals for her own business.
With the pink tomato in the back of her mind, Cleaver embarked on a mission to get fresh food from the farms to the table. After the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, Cleaver was part of a group that capitalized on grants to the City Harvest organization from the National Pork and Beef Boards, and additional monies from the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. Together they explored impoverished family farms in rural and upstate New York to figure out ways to bring their product to the city's food supply. Cleaver still sits on the board of the resulting Farm-to-Chef Inc.; it is just one of the important sustainable food and agriculture organizations with which she is intimately involved.
Today Cleaver's catering company is going strong as clients increasingly demand regional, sustainable, and organic food. For brides and grooms, her ideas for serving and plating follow suit to the ingredients in an effort to increase quality while decreasing waste. Long, communal tables, family-style service, and a smaller variety of menu options are all part of the ethos of a Cleaver meal. Extra portions are donated to a local mission and food scraps —incredibly — in Cleaver's Manhattan kitchen.
In the phone, over email, or in person, Mary Cleaver is a passionate tour de force who can speak as eloquently about over-nitrogenated and eroded top soils, industrial beef, and the dearth of values in modern capitalism as she can about the joy of gathering family, friends, and loved ones together to celebrate a wedding. More importantly, she is an innovator in an industry that is not always known for innovation, and is inspiring caterers and chefs to move forward with her.
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