The Church of the Heavenly Vegetables

by

11/05/2022

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

I could never get over the thrill of walking into the Church of the Heavenly Rest through the side door on East 90th Street. The limestone turrets and stained-glass windows, reminiscent of Notre Dame, inspired a sense of awe

It always took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim light and to get my bearings in the cavernous space. Off to the right were rows and rows of pews with burgundy cushions stretching back toward the Fifth Avenue entrance overlooking Central Park. To the left a carved screen soared over the altar with a massive empty cross and a sculpted figure of the “risen Christ.”

Once my eyes adjusted, I focused on the business at hand: a series of long folding tables piled high with fresh vegetables in the narrow space between the altar and pews. In the spring, radishes, mint, and half a dozen different salad greens. In the summer, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers in every hue. And in the fall, only the heartiest plants and roots—carrots, celeriac, Red Russian kale.

For the past fifteen years, I’ve gone to the church on Tuesday afternoons from June to November to pick up my produce at the Carnegie Hill CSA, one of the oldest community-supported agriculture programs in the city. I loved the colors, the smells, the sheer abundance of it all—and also what wasn’t there. No stickers, cellophane, or plastic twists, trays, or bags. No shopping carts, Muzak, or overhead fluorescent lights. No surveillance cameras, checkout counters, bar codes, scanners, or sullen, resentful, underpaid supermarket staff.

I still believe in the old hippie saying, “Shop local, think global.” I also grew up organic. My parents were health nuts as far back as the fifties, when eating unprocessed food was a weird thing to do. For a time, my dad even collected his pee in a plastic jug by the toilet to use as fertilizer on our garden. Now there are lots of places you can get organic produce, but few that compare to Heavenly Rest.

I found out about the CSA from walking around my neighborhood on the Upper East Side and seeing signs in the shops and at the 92nd Street Y. At first it seemed chaotic, like a souk or bazaar, with kids in strollers, dogs on leashes, and housekeepers in uniform. Every week at closing, a few frazzled members rushed in from work, claiming that once again, the No. 6 train had broken down. Or traffic was gridlocked because the president was in town.

But over time, I began to perceive a kind of order. At the center of the action was a group of volunteers, mostly older women with gray to silver hair. They stood sentinel at the tables, replenishing the piles, culling bruised leaves, discreetly making sure that no one took more than their share. They were the “core group,” the liaison between farm and members, and their operation was more complex than it seemed. The leader at the time probably put in forty hours a week, compiling spreadsheets, arranging deliveries to ailing members, and sending out long emails about every green event in town. These women, I started to realize, in another time and place and gender, could have overseen the landing on the moon. They needed help, so I started to volunteer. Eventually, I was invited to join the group too.

That gave me pause. I don’t necessarily work well with others. I’m like the “Peanuts” character Lucy—a fussbudget, crabby, prone to ordering people around. I’m also a Jew, so it felt a bit alien to spend time in a church, even though it was a liberal Episcopal denomination that did outreach to the homeless and flew the Pride banner in June. But I also remembered a time when I was a lonely and scared freshman at Smith College and would visit an old church across the street from the campus. I had briefly considered suicide and somehow, the stones themselves gave me hope, even though I don’t believe in God. On top of all that, there was the intoxicating abundance of vegetables.

One night, when I was checking people in as they walked through the door, an elegant old man with long graying hair came in to see if we had any surplus produce for sale. He said he was a friend of Bonnie’s, a founding member of the group. When I told him I’d ask, then suggested he look around, he said, “Ah yes, I’ve known this church since I went to my first AA meeting here 50 years ago.”

I didn’t tell him, but I knew those programs too. I’d gone to one of my first Al-Anon meetings at Heavenly Rest years before, when my younger sister got sober. For me, it was also the beginning of the long and tortuous process of coming to terms with my own addiction—not to alcohol but to food. To abundant quantities of food. To abundance itself. The 12-step literature talks about the baffling nature of the disease—“the utter inability to leave it alone.”

Which was why, besides the thrill, it was also dangerous for me to volunteer. If you worked the late shift, you got to take home a few “extras,” and every week, I did. My husband would say, “But why? We can’t even finish what we have.” At which point I’d be embarrassed and scramble to give it away, sending emails late into the night with the subject line, “Could you use some beets?”

Bonnie was there at the very beginning. Back in the nineties, when she was getting her master’s in nutrition, she attended a get-together in the city with local farmers. That was where she met Deb and Donna. Deb and her husband, Pete, ran a farm in the Catskills, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of the city. Donna sold flowers.

As soon as Bonnie saw them, she knew they were the ones. But before she could pitch the idea to her little group of women friends, she had to find a place in the neighborhood to host the site. As luck would have it, a new minister was coming to Heavenly Rest who was interested in farming. Bonnie approached him, and he agreed to let them use the church. And so, in 1996, the Carnegie Hill CSA was born.

Every week, Deb and Donna would drive down from the farm with a load of vegetables and flowers. They never missed a Tuesday until 9/11. After that, the cops and federal agents assigned to checkpoints into the city would hit on them so frequently that they went to a biker bar upstate and hired two rough-looking guys for the job. “Debbie looks good now, but you should have seen her then,” Bonnie said wistfully. “She was a knockout.”

Bonnie grew up poor in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but somehow, she ended up in a sprawling apartment overlooking Park Avenue. Every year before the pandemic, she threw a big pot luck at the end of the season and invited all the members.

She’d braise a haunch of meat from an organic farm upstate—something exotic like bison or goat—and everyone would bring sides, which she’d supplement with food that she “rescued” from dumpsters outside Eli Zabar’s bakery. She did this not because she was down and out, but because she hated waste. It was always an amazing spread to behold, but I barely ate a thing because I never knew what came out of the garbage.

One year, I asked her if I could contribute paper plates and napkins instead of a side dish so there’d be less cleaning up to do. She looked at me with disdain and said, “I don’t use them.” Our members could be that way—a little holier than thou. They wouldn’t hesitate to shame you for creating unnecessary waste.

We were an eclectic and eccentric assortment of environmentalists, cheapskates, old hippies, romantics, foodies, and wannabe farmers. Some were rich enough to afford second homes in the country. Others lived in worn-out walkups in the blocks near the East River and struggled to get by. There were doctors, lawyers, office workers, acupuncturists, analysts, dancers, booksellers, shopkeepers, teachers, musicians, even a few high-flying financiers. For a while we had a mother/daughter team of powerhouse real estate brokers who sold apartments to the likes of Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton and showed up at the site in Manolos and gold chains.

And this being New York, we had a lot of mavens. Like Judi and her husband, Artie, a walking compendium of the best eats in the five boroughs. One year, they organized a caravan to Brooklyn to buy smoked fish at a wholesaler that was only open to the public on Friday mornings. I said I’d go, then I discovered that they wanted to be there before the doors opened to avoid the lines. At which point I backed out. I didn’t care how good the lox was, there was no way I was getting up at dawn.

Rich or poor, young or old, novice cooks or pros, everyone wanted to schmooze about recipes and gossip about the ’hood. I was checking people in the night Kate Spade committed suicide and naturally, it was all anyone talked about. She lived at Park and 77th, which made her practically a neighbor. When it happened a few days later with Anthony Bourdain, it hit even closer to home. At one time he’d lived in the same building as a member.

Some nights, coming home from the CSA, I was practically euphoric. It was the stimulation of talking to people who cared so passionately about, well, everything. At the same time, the effect of their enthusiasms often made me depressed. In comparison, I felt like a slacker.

One night, when we were deep into the lettuce harvest but weeks away from getting a decent tomato or cucumber, Mary Ann announced her intention to “embrace salads.” She had tried a new vinaigrette, she told us. “But no one knows how to work with frisée. It’s like eating a hedge.”

Sylvie, who was from France and therefore one of the few people in the group who knew what to do with celeriac—you make celeri rémoulade—suggested she try the frisée salad at Café d’Alsace. Unable to control my inner Lucy, I said that I had, and that I’d gotten food poisoning from the undercooked egg.

Another night, Sharon showed us the works of literary fiction that she’d plucked from a pile of trash on the curb. She’d taken me to see “Waiting for Godot” twice, once in English, once in Yiddish, and her cellphone had a screensaver of Samuel Beckett.

I talked to women who raised bees, foraged for wild edibles in the park, and canned and dried their food as though they lived in a little house on the prairie, not in one of the most densely populated cities on earth.

Week to week, the rhythms and routines consoled me, and I remembered a friend once saying that whenever he felt his life was spiraling out of control, he did the laundry. He took great comfort from the warmth of clothes just removed from the dryer and discovered that folding and discreetly sniffing them was even more sublime. I felt the same way about working at the site. Being a writer was misery. Checking people’s names off spreadsheets, packing up our supplies at the end of a hectic evening, sweeping up wet lettuce leaves from the church’s beautiful polished flagstone floor—that was the opposite of misery. It was bliss.

During the first two years of the pandemic, the CSA moved its operations outdoors. The farm switched from sending down bulk produce in crates to packing members’ shares in individual waxed cartons, which could be flattened out, sent back, sanitized, and reused. We set up the site across the street from the Cooper Hewitt garden, where for many weeks an old man loitered by the wrought iron fence, smoking a cigar, seemingly wondering whether it was worth it to harass us.

Right around noon, a delivery truck from the farm pulled up in front of the church. The burly guys so beloved by Bonnie jumped out and started unloading the boxes. Then the volunteers stacked them up against the north side of the church, covering them with tarps on days when it rained. In stormy weather, the church let us stand inside the vestibule of the entrance just off Fifth Avenue.

Although we posted signs in the tree beds to let people know who we were, most passersby barely gave us a second glance. When it wasn’t busy, we sprawled out in camping chairs along the curb and observed the sidewalk choreography of a single block in New York. It was nicer than many, a stone’s throw from the Jackie Onassis running track at the reservoir and half a dozen private schools, but it was still New York, so there were homeless men, bike guys whizzing by while smoking blunts, women pushing cats in strollers, and the last few Rollerbladers left over from the eighties.

As with all of life in New York, you had to follow the rules or it didn’t work. I never felt safer than I did when I was out there on the sidewalk, with whatever germs we were breathing dispersed into the open air. And everyone in the CSA had their pandemic stories and opinions to share—on masking, quarantines, and everything else. I spent an afternoon in the vestibule during a freak summer hurricane passing out boxes with a 73-year-old woman who told me that her husband didn’t want her to keep her regular appointments with her ophthalmologist even though she had high ocular pressures and “freckles” on her retina. She went anyway. “I told him, if I live a long life, I don’t want to be blind.”

That year, at the end of the season, John, another longtime member whose brother-in-law was a famous chocolatier, brought the volunteers tiny squares of dark chocolate and champagne. I remember cracking that bottle open under the scaffolding that the church had erected for restoration work on its façade and sipping it from plastic cups. It was November, getting colder, and we huddled together in our woolen hats and gloves, a bunch of peri- and post-menopausal women with our masks pulled down to drink, watching rivers of red and white headlights and tail lights stream down Fifth Avenue.

The last time we had lunch, Bonnie told me she didn’t think the CSA would survive much longer because nowadays you can get organic produce anywhere. I hated to hear that. I wanted to believe there would always be people who, given a choice, would rather pick up their veggies in a landmarked church than at Whole Foods. Who didn’t mind a little dirt clinging to the roots. Who enjoyed earnest updates about flea beetles munching out on the bok choy and Chinese cabbage, causing cosmetic damage only that “will not in any way affect the flavor of the greens.”

A few days after that, as I was leaving Heavenly Rest, a bike guy was barreling down the sidewalk with a boom box on his handlebars. Lamont Dozier had just died, and he was blasting out “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” into the warm muggy air.

“Now if you feel that you can’t go on
Because all of your hope is gone
And your life is filled with much confusion
Until happiness is just an illusion
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’
Come on girl reach on out for me …”

And there, underneath the scaffolding on East 90th Street, I sang along softly as if I were in church.

***

Ann Levin is a writer and former journalist who worked for 20 years at the Associated Press, where she continues to contribute book reviews. Her memoir writing and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. You can read her work at annlevinwriter.com

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§ 6 Responses to “The Church of the Heavenly Vegetables”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    i totally loved this story. so wonderfully specific to place and time that it could function as a mini-history of the Upper East Side. it resonaated with me on several levels, even though i was a loyal denizen of the Lower East Side. every detail of the church and the desire for community spirit and the nutritional yearning for organic vegetables and the setting for AA/Alanon meetings — you did a beautiful rendering of so much with such well-focused and sharp snapshots. thank you!

  • Another beautifully crafted essay and colorful story. Loved the details. Thank you Ann!

  • Judith Katz-Schwartz says:

    Brilliant!

  • C.S. Hanson says:

    What a beautiful story. It’s filled with the moments, details, and nuances that make New York City so special. Thank you, Ann, for writing from the heart and writing so well!

  • Myra Posner says:

    Delightful So funny. Laughed and laughed.
    Such a droll delivery.
    💕 LOVE your work.
    Wonderful pictures you paint with words.

  • Mary Catherine Bolster says:

    Ann,
    Loved this story— every word. Funny, poignant and real life all in one. After I finished reading it, went straight to iTunes to listen to “Reach Out” and started dancing around my living room!
    Brava.

§ Leave a Reply

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