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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Clear & Present Taco Danger

News from Red Hook, some good some bad.

The good:
  • The DOH arrived on Sunday. They did not issue any summons and, per the vendors, were “nicer overall” than in past weeks. NY1 was also on-hand with a camera crew.
  • Senator Schumer sent a letter to the DOH commissioner on the vendor's behalf, while Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz issued his first public statement of support.
The bad:
  • New clouds on the horizon: FDNY regulations and the Tax Man. Unless, of course, the vendors are forced to close sooner.
  • Close, you ask? That rumor about the Vendors getting shut down after labor day is legit. Turns out the Parks Department is now stating they have not yet decided to extend the Vendors' permit. Which came as a big surprise to Cesar Fuentes, who was led to believe an October extension was already signed and sealed. As it stands, the Vendors have 2 weeks left.
  • Given this twist, the Vendors are now hoping to initiate a hearing with Parks, the DOH, politicians and community representatives before September 8, to reach some sort of definitive resolution for the year: “clear answers, not just considerations,” as Cesar put it.
As for the Vendors? Per Cesar, they are “overwhelmed” and deeply “concerned about all the sudden enforcement, being priced or fined out, and losing what they love permanently. I'm working hard to keep their spirits up and keep them firm and positive about their future.” Things that help? “The community's support, and the growing lines.”

Two more tidbits in closing.

First, I was recently told that the DOH used pictures from this and other websites to 'illustrate' alleged violations and improprieties during the Vendors' food protection training course last week. I spoke to several people at DOH today, and did not receive a definitive answer. I will therefore assume that this rumor is just that–a rumor. And (since City Officials are obviously monitoring this stuff) I heartily invite anyone in the know to shed a little light.

That said, if true this really really irks me. Up until this nonsense, The 'Chop has been all about spreading the delicious: nothing more, nothing less. The very thought that our efforts have been used for the purposes of bullying or reprimanding makes me puke in my mouth. It's about as far from the spirit of The Porkchop Express as you can get. On this point, I think I speak for everyone else in BK and beyond who has taken the time to document what has been, for 30+ years, a scene worthy of celebration.

On a more interesting note, reader Doug C. forwarded us an intriguing email from NYC Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn about a “hearing” on the parks and concessions issue and we decided to investigate. It turns out that the Department of Parks & Recreation will be hosting a hearing on the general issue of concessions (businesses that generate revenue on parkland), to answer some crucial jurisdictional questions: who determines if and when concessions are allowed? Who receives the revenue (“extra money,” from a budgetary standpoint) generated from these deals? And who should make these decisions?

[Note to self: could it be this nonsense is all about concessions money, and not porta-sinks and hairnets?]

Following the initial hearing, a councilperson may introduce new legislation on the matter (if warranted). This must first pass a relevant subcommittee, before going to the entire 51-member council for a full vote. In times of “crisis” laws can push thru in a month. But it could just as easily lumber on for half-a-year: well after taco season, in other words. Worst-case scenario? A woman from Staten Island, who recently complained that her borough has been waiting 109 years and counting for a public transportation upgrade.

But seriously, this hearing is key. Public health and fire notwithstanding, our hunch at The 'Chop is that the Vendors are knee-deep in a concessions struggle. Hearing schedules are posted the last Friday of each month at the NYC Council website, so check in there. And in the meantime, send Councilwoman Gonzalez another note of support; she is a key advocate. And drop Councilwoman Quinn a note about your interest in the upcoming hearing as well. Finally, if you want to check in with the DOH try their Office of Public Affairs at (212) 788-5290.

And that, good reader, is about all I can make sense of this week...


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Official statement from Red Hook Food Vendors concerning DOH inspections


As a new page unfolds in the struggle to preserve our affair, we feel it is important to provide you with an update on the latest developments affecting our normal operation, as well as our perspective on it.

About 3 weeks ago -1st week of Aug.-, I was told by NYC Parks Dept.(Parks) about the NYC Health Dept.'s(DOH) interest in inspecting our operation that weekend. An impromptu meeting was held on Saturday Aug. 8/4 in Red Hook Park's Recreation center between officials from Parks, DOH, and NYC District 38th Councilmember Sara Gonzalez and myself in representation of the food vendors. An inspection of the food stands followed by DOH Asst. comm. Robert Edmond, who made recommendations onsite and stated a full list of health-related concerns found in our operation would follow. I was called to a meeting on 8/8/07 that was held at DOH offices, where I met with DOH Assoc. Comm. Elliot Marcus and other DOH and Parks representatives to discuss such list. Some the outsdanding and\or critical issues found were the following:
-There is no hot and cold running water.
-There is not enough ice to keep foods cold.
-No food preparation at home.
-Vendors are operating in the park illegally(lack of proper mobile vendors' licenses, food protection course, etc.).
Some of the remedies to these issues as suggested by DOH include:
-Provide portable running water and grey water containment system(s).
-Acquire a freezer truck or at the very least, maintain enough ice in coolers.
-Acquire a mobile kitchen truck, individual food service pushcarts or at the very least, prep. foods in a DOH approved establishment (restaurant, community kitchen, etc.)
-Vendors(and their assistants) should acquire all licenses and trainings required by DOH and any other city agencies with jurisdiction over our affair, if they are to continue operating the market.
DOH inspectors have been assigned to come down and observe our operation every weekend since these meetings took place. They have done so religiously, inspecting every stand and making on-the-spot corrections (about food prep. & handling) to each vendor as needed. A temptative agreement was reached between DOH and our committee, by which DOH would allow our operation to continue until the end of the season, provided all vendors(and their assistants) take a 2-day, 8 hour food protection course and be in compliance of the critical issues mentioned above. All vendors & assistants committed their time and effort to attending this course, which was set for 8/20 & 8/21. I am proud to report 60+ people attended & passed the required test.

While we are fully commited to meet and\or comply with any rules or regulations that may govern our affair in order to preserve & continue this most beloved tradition, we feel it is very important to portray our perspective on this situation. For most of its 33 years of existence, the Red Hook food vendors have -and continue to- operate from small, modest, and traditional food stands that reflect traditional Mercados (food markets or Bazaars) found in small towns across Latin America. Very little has changed in its appeareance throughout the years. Although to some it may seem unappealing, or even unsanitary to eat from these food stalls, some of the most authentic, delicious, and traditional Latin American dishes that are now becoming part of the American culinary mainstream, such as the taco, pupusa, and huarache, hail their origins -and earned their fame- from such establishments. Much of the methods involved in the preparation of this ethnic dishes are still faithful to their origins.

In complying with DOH regulations, these artisan vendors are now faced with the difficult task of adapting tradition in order to meet these standards. While some of these regulations are common sense and easy to comply, such as licenses & permits, some others -such as a possible requirement of heavy mobile equipment or push-carts for each vendor, or the provision of permanent running water- will be more difficult as it may require major capital investment that the vendors or our committe cannot afford. In addition, and provided we are successful in winning the Parks permit which would grant us right to operate our affair for seasons to come, DOH won't allow our affair in its current form and without every vendor and their assistants being fully licensed.

It is important for us at this moment to assure all our patrons that the quality of the foods served by the food vendors is still held at the same standards- as it has been for over 30 years- our patrons have come to exect. There is love, care, and tradition behind every plate served by the artisan vendors.

It is also very important to understand DOH's enforcement was not caused by a food-related complaint. Their explanation of this sudden enforcement is based on the fact that our humble affair went under their radar until we became prominent. We understand that their intention is to protect the consumer & we agree with that. In addition, we must thank their decision not to strictly enforce and close our affair at once. Instead, their decision to train the vendors, accomodating to their schedules & waiving a fee shows good will towards the vendors. Parks Dept. has also been increasingly helpful and sensitized to our needs, assuring our group assistance and support to help comply with DOH's demands and\or requirements.

In all truth, it is because of your staunch support, advocacy, and requests to local elected officials on our behalf that we still have a fighting chance to preserve our affair. Special thanks to Sen. Schumer's office (Sam Schaeffer), as well as the offices of councilmember DiBlasio, congresswoman Velasquez, and congressman Nader for their offering of support. Above all, our staunchest advocate and official 'spokesblog' the Porkchop Express, and councilwoman Sara Gonzalez, who went above and beyond to make time of her busy schedule and come on last moment's notice to personally represent us and her constituents before Parks and DOH officials. Her presence certaintly sent a message of solidarity and strenght from all parties interested in preserving our affair.

Our deepest thanks to all.

Cesar Fuentes
Executive Director
Food Vendors Committee of Red Hook Park Inc.
PO box 48
New York, NY 10159


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Taco E-Day

The “E” stands for Enforcement: as in, the day the DOH will Enforce compliance with whatever standards they want met at the Red Hook Food Stands; as in, this weekend.

Still awaiting word from the Vendors on today's Food Prep crash courses up in Harlem, and the immediate future of the fields. I'll pass on info when it arrives.

Until then, some observations from the weekend:
  • It was packed, and folks were working – and eating – overtime.
  • The City has stated that vendors will be allowed to keep up the Food Stalls at Red Hook this season, so long as they meet “minimal compliance.” What said minimum is, specifically, remains unclear.
  • DOH Inspectors were – and, I believe will – hang around as “advisors.” As far as I can tell, this involves lurking and stressing people out.
  • Look for the DOH to tighten their grip further, and come down even harder next weekend: possibilities include summonses, fines, dismissal (of assistants), and shutdowns.
  • And finally (to avoid unnecessary emails), there will be food this weekend.
More news pending...


Friday, August 17, 2007

Red Hook Friday: The Final Countdown?

Word to Bel Biv DeVoe, those DOH reps were tougher than they looked.

City officials are tightening the reigns, and have scheduled food preparation courses for Tuesday up in Harlem, to train every vendor and vendor assistant in food protection. In addition, and per an email yesterday evening, the vendors will be required to provide letters (on corporate letterhead) declaring that all food has been prepared at a professional kitchen of some sort. DOH is also requiring additional portable sanitation units, and regularly scheduled visits from the bald guy who plays “Mr. Clean” on those commercials. If compliance is not met this week? Fines levied, and who knows what else...

But for this weekend at least, business as usual: no tickets issued, no tents closed. And next week? As Cesar Fuentes put, “enjoy those tacos while you can!”

So... head out and show some Taco Love. And check back here later today, Cesar and the Vendors will be releasing an Official Statement which I'll post ASAP. In the meanwhile, click here to send them a note of support. And while you're at it, click here to vote in AM New York's 'should the city save the stands' poll.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Boston Jerk City Restaurant

Boston Jerk City – or as I like to call it, BJ City – seems an odd name. The words make sense individually, but less so when paired before “Restaurant.” Does Jamaica have a Boston? Or are the owners Yankees fans? Either way, BJ's was rumored to serve some of Brooklyn's Finest Jerk. So in pursuit of truth, justice and wondrous Grilled Meat, The Porkchop Express headed down Utica to do a little firsthand Q&Eat of our own.
I half-hoped to find some guy named “Sully” with a Sox hat slinging wicked assome chicken. No such luck. Or rather, luckily no: BJ City is all Jamaican. The name refers to a Beach/Bay in the island's northeastern Portland Parish, an old launching point for New England banana runners (19th cent. forebears of Del Monte). More to the point, many consider this area the birthplace and capital of Jerk. Boston holds an annual Jerk Festival, and they make the world's tastiest Jerk Pork. Calling yourself Boston Jerk is therefore no laughing matter. Like Louisiana Po' Boy or Verra Pizza Napolitano, the name implies only the highest standards of flavor and authenticity.
Marvin Hitchman ...
... with the Correct Technique

So how does BJ City measure up? From the outside everything looked spot-on. And by “everything” I mean one thing: a large, smoldering, swine-fish-and-fowl-Jerking, battle-worn iron drum manned by Marvin Hitchman. Owner Hubert Lawton's nephew, Marvin teaches food and nutrition to middle schoolers in-between cooking some serious jerk. On vacation from Jamaica for the summer, his skills were on full display: tossing in lumps of Royal Oak wood charcoal, splashing water to regulate heat and smoke, waiting for that distinctive whiff of charred pimento to pull meat from the grill... Yes good reader, Cool Marv had Jerk Wisdom beyond his years. As for the finished product...
Jerk Chicken
Jerk Pork
... and Jerk Salmon, with Mac & Cheese

Of the trio we tried, Jerk Chicken was the consensus favorite: uniformly moist and tender, it took best to the thin, peppery homemade sauce. The Jerk Pork (sadly rare in these parts) was, alas, slightly uneven. Don't get me wrong, the combo itself has epic flavor potential. But BJ's finished product was inconsistent: at best, wonderfully soft, fatty chunks of smoky, spicy shoulder; at worst, dry salty cubes that left us lamenting what could have been. The Jerk Salmon was also mixed: exceptionally well-cooked (not at all dry, despite those deep char marks) yet overwhelmed by the marinade.
Bammy goes better with fish!

Don't let the uneven salting scare you off tho. Just head for the counter and order a few more fried half-moons of ground casava a/k/a Bammy. Consensus holds that nothing goes better with fish, and (without going so far) I can see the logic. BJ's Bammy has a nice, neutral flavor and fresh, chewy texture. It's light enough to pair with seafood, and great for soaking up any accompanying sauces. (Plus, it's really fun to say out loud. Bammy Bammy Bammy.)
everyone loves Festival!

Another don't-miss whammy: Jamaica's golden-fried cornmeal-and-flour donut, the festival. I'll go out on a limb and guess the name is descriptive (as in party... in the mouth). But fear not, these long Island dumplings aren't just a pretty face... they also go something lovely with the Jerk Pork. Festival's chewy sweetness really brings out the meat's spicing. Plus, it reminded me of a great churro I had down in Mexico (both had a healthy dose of cinnamon). All said, it was a match made in fried dough & pork heaven.One last treat: an unusually creamy Carrot Juice. Come to think of it, Carrot Shake is more accurate. This thick, aromatic elixir is blended with milk, and spiked with vanilla and nutmeg. And, considering BJ City doesn't serve desert, it's also the perfect way to end a meal.
Claudette Lawton, talking Bammy in the dining room

Afterwards I talked a little island history with co-owner Claudette Lawton. She described growing up in Clarendon, watching her grandparents cook. When they made Jerk the smoking grill sent out fair warning to the neighbors that something delicious was afoot. As Claudette put it, it wasn't long before “the whole neighborhood came by.” So how did her grandparents react? “Share, share share 'til you have no more!” This was the generous spirit (along with the authentic recipe) the Lawtons exported to Brooklyn back in 1986, and the formula paid off. They've been a neighborhood fixture ever since.
Neighbors with Flavor: jerking around at the hair salon next door

Which is a good thing. BJ City may not have blown us away, but it's a welcomed (and welcoming) addition to the local Caribbean landscape. So trek on down to Utica and see for yourself, good reader. Break Bammy! Mouth Festival! Jerk the Meat! One sight of that smoking grill, and you'll know all this and more lies in store.

Boston Jerk City Restaurant
1344 Utica Ave, East Flatbush, Brooklyn
(718) 629-3002

Note: I've given up trying to figure out what time Brooklyn Caribbean restaurants open and close; just call ahead.

Jerks will run you between $5-$10. Don't forget bammy and festival on the side. At $3, the mac and cheese is a great investment; ditto for their fresh juices.


Hair Plugs

Caribbean update later tonight... Until then, plugs and ephemera...

Red Hook: still standing. Hand sanitation units abound, as do plastic gloves. And the DOH inspectors seemed real nice. Aside from that, bidness as usual. The Vendors have until Sunday to be “in compliance,” but we're optimistic.

Other Stuff: courtesy of Fellow 'Chop Enthusiasts, for you to peruse...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Red Hook: The Drama Continues

The Red Hook Ball Fields Update: some good, some bad.

Due to forces of nature (rains, floods, transit delays) Cesar Fuentes was on his own meeting with big guns from both the Department of Health and the Parks Department. Long story short, the Food Vendors of Red Hook Park have about 10 days to “be compliant” with the DOH's “major concerns.” By Sunday August 19th they must:
  • store more ice in coolers
  • acquire portable hand washers/sanitation units
  • wear sterile gloves and change said gloves regularly
  • have a source of running water to wash hands, tacos, etc.
  • rent commercial grade kitchens to prep food, or prepare everything on-site
Most significantly, The Powers That Be want everyone who works at a stand to be licensed. Anyone associated with a tent – from corn shuckers to pupusa stuffers – must undergo a training session to obtain a mobile food vending license. At present, only 12 tent operators are licensed; this number will (must) more than quadruple.

I can't honestly say this all makes sense. And as Carolina Salguero, Director of PortSide NewYork put it: “makes me wonder how RH ballfields food differs from all the Halal/hot dog street carts [which] have no plumbing. Something odd here...”

While the DOH has taken a strong enforcement policy the Parks Department was relatively supportive, even offering to send License Trainers ASAP (and waive the fee). Clearly, both branches are cognizant of media attention and want to tread somewhat lightly. Which is to say, the groundswell of popular and political support has, at the very least, forced City Officials to operate with a modicum of circumspection. The bottom line is nonetheless severe: the hammer could drop on the food vendors in 10 days.

The silver lining? It might not. And the more hurdles jumped now, the more the Red Hook Food Vendor affairs will be in order come permit renewal time. Facing obstacles in increments might actually help them in the long run, assuming said hurdles are overcome.

Until then, support goes to the folks on the frontline: Cesar Fuentes, and the Carcamo, Carrello, Ceron, Hernandez, Lainez, Martinez, Ochoa, Perez, Rojas, Soler, Sosa, and Vaquero families. Ditto for those working hard behind the scenes: Councilwoman Gonzalez, and the Schumer camp – particularly Director of Economic Development Sam Schaeffer – all of whom have been keeping very close tabs.

Show & prove, tacos for all, a luta continua.

–J. Slab


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Breaking Red Hook News

A new “situation” is brewing at the Red Hook Soccer Fields.

Last Friday at approximately 4:30 pm, Food Committee Executive Director Cesar Fuentes discovered that the Department of Health was going to institute a flash, somewhat surreptitious inspection of the Soccer Field Food Stands at noon on Saturday. The implication: if things were not up to snuff, the fields would be shut down.

Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez was alerted. She immediately called the Mayor's office, and arrived to monitor the inspection in-person. In so doing, she defused a potentially big bomb. Rather than threatening closure, the DOH simply offered a list of “suggestions.”

Foremost amongst these: no running water at the fields. So today (Tuesday) at 5:15 pm, Cesar was contacted about a “big” meeting Wednesday with the Deputy Commissioner of Health. Pressure has intensified, City Officials are again flexing muscle, and the implied bottom-line is rough. Worst-case scenario, the Vendors will have to shut down operations stat to comply with DOH mandates. But we wont know anything until tomorrow afternoon.

I'll post developments as they arrive. But if you feel like doing something in the meantime, send Councilwoman Gonzalez a note of support.

Back next week on the search for delicious, regardless.