When you become the caretakers of a 400-year-old farm in New York City, your friends have a lot of questions, the first of which is: when can I come over? And when you live in a city for more than a decade, accumulating acquaintances from jobs, bars, sports, and grad school, you end up with lot of friends. So, why not invite them over all at once? My boyfriend Keith and I have two green acres, eight picnic tables, six grills, and a fire pit. Why let these rare urban amenities go to waste?
The invitation read: “Come celebrate Independence Day at the Onderdonk House, a home that predates the Revolution.” How perfect! Even more befitting of the national holiday: one of the farm’s previous owners, Moses Beadel, fought in the American War of Independence. The farmer joined up with the First New York Regiment in November of 1776—even though the colonists had just suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn, and Moses had already passed his 50th birthday. Shortly after he enlisted, he was taken prisoner. Moses spent the next few years, historians think, imprisoned on a British warship off New Jersey. He never came back. Clearly, my friends should get three kegs and raise our red recyclable cups to Private Moses Beadel. If the fallen patriot’s specter were to drift over our present-day festivities on his farm, maybe he’d be honored to see his countrymen reveling in the freedom he helped win. Or maybe not.
It was 273 years ago that Moses packed up his things and headed to the front, leaving his farm in the hands of his wife and four children. That winter, Hessian soldiers—German mercenaries hired by the British—moved into Bushwick, commandeering farmhouses throughout the area, including the Onderdonk. The British occupied Brooklyn for the rest of the Revolution. As often happens in wartime, the visiting soldiers had little attachment to the land and, to put it mildly, didn’t always treat the communities they occupied as they would their own. I can’t help but wonder if Moses might mistake my troop of merry-makers for just another foreign battalion, invading his home and making a mess. The last thing I want to do, mind you, is rile up a resident ghost while living in a house that may, or may not, be haunted. And yes, we come from different worlds—modern/colonial, living/dead—but I believe I have taken a shining to Moses.
Here was a man who spent his days prodding horses to pull his plow over 100-plus acres of hill. The most physically taxing part of my day is dragging a tangled hose about 200 feet up that same hill. I then shower the plants with fresh, clean water piped in from as far as 125 miles away. I garden with a spade in one hand and my iPhone in the other. I have a world of farming advice at my fingertips and you know what? I still suck. My anticipated harvest wouldn’t get me through a week, let alone the winter. A family of six? Ha! And yet I never go hungry.
In the spirit of celebrating our country and all its glorious edible diversity, the email invite encouraged our guests to bring a dish that represented their home state. Friends came with pimento cheese from Texas, pork roll from New Jersey, pretzels from Pennsylvania, little neck clams from New England, and a big cooler of Pimm’s cup from Olde England (yes, these provisions were supplied by a Brit but we let her through the iron gates anyway. Why hold a grudge?). I didn’t count, but I’d guess somewhere near 80 people showed up—almost one-third of the population of Bushwick during revolutionary times. It was a feast that lasted hours. And hours. And much of the food was still there as guests began making their way to the subway. I looked around: the Boston Tea Party had nothing on this mess.
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Walking through the dark to a picnic table, I found a well-meaning, albeit stubborn friend pulling the ends of a blue and white tablecloth together. He was enveloping the spread’s remaining food, utensils, plates, cups, and plastic containers into a makeshift sack in order to dump its contents into the trash all at once. “What are you doing?” I asked, horrified. “We can save that!”
“Oh, whatever,” he replied, “I’m helping clean up,” as he continued pitching items into a black trash bag, failing to separate glass whiskey bottles from cardboard six-pack containers or Bud cans from sliced limes. We exchanged some heated words (it was late), most of which I can’t print here, but I sensed I was fighting a losing battle. There was just too much stuff. For every guest, it seemed there was a bag of chips. As I walked through the old stone house carrying what I could salvage, I couldn’t help ponder what its previous tenants might think of our wasted, wasteful ways.
Somehow in an effort to simplify my life, this vegetarian wound up with 36 hot dogs in her fridge.
I don’t mean to imply that Moses and his family didn’t know how to party (though the word was not, at that time, used as a verb). I doubt the human urge to over-indulge once in a while has changed much since Revolutionary times. We've all heard the rumors about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin ... wallflowers, they were not. But after Moses' friends threw down on St. Nicholas Day, I bet they packed up their salted mutton and took it home with them, or fed those leftover barley bites to the pigs and chickens. Our hens, on the other hand, weren’t about to peck through tubes of Flavor-Ice.
In the early morning light of the 5th, the place didn’t look too bad. Someone had dumped an entire salad onto the grass—did they think it would biodegrade there?—but most of the abandoned bounty was sitting in neat piles on a picnic table or by the trash. Keith went through the garbage to make sure the city wouldn’t fine our employers for not recycling properly. (He’s kind of great like that.)
Next I hit the fridge and some camping coolers where I stashed many of the perishables saved from the night before. Inside were two watermelons, several bottles of salsa, two boxes of hamburgers, buns of every shape and size, a pound of American cheese slices that had melded in the sun, and a cupcake the size of my head. Somehow in an effort to simplify my life—to step back from the city and chill out on a colonial farm, to grow more of my own food and to happy-hour a little less—this vegetarian wound up with 36 hot dogs in her fridge. Who was going to eat all this?
I was off the hook regarding the dogs, but I didn’t want Keith to take that kind of nitrate hit in the name of saving food, though he’d have happily tried. He ended up donating most of the meat and one of the watermelons to the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society, which hosts events at the Onderdonk House almost every weekend. (This Saturday, for the Battle of Brooklyn anniversary, you can even learn to cook like a soldier.) For my part, I fed the giant cupcake to two OnEarth interns and have resorted to making s’mores at night in our toaster oven. For seven weeks now, I’ve been on a steady tortilla chip diet and have been slowly whittling away at a barrel of powdery, day-glo-orange party mix. Each day the vegetables in my garden get a smidgen plumper, and the leftovers in my tiny, cupboard-less kitchen get a little staler—but I’ve made it my mission to finish them.
I probably should do my body a favor and throw this crap out, but each time I get the urge, I ask myself, what would Moses do? Maybe by Independence Day, 2014, I’ll have a better idea. Revolutions take time.
Our senior editor will continue to share her adventures residing in a 17th-century farmhouse in the heart of New York City—and the lessons it teachers her about sustainable living—in this ongoing column. Follow her story here and on Twitter: @mahony128
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