“In our society, growing food yourself has become the most radical of acts. It is truly the only effective protest.” — Jules Dervaes.
OK, I can’t help it: Braised lamb shoulder with rosemary and thyme; roasted baby potatoes with lavender; creamed Swiss chard with bacon and onion; English peas sauteed with celery and dill; marinated asparagus with cucumber, radish and smoked almonds; carrot salad with golden raisins with ginger yogurt dressing. All of this from a paper bag left on my front porch on Easter Sunday.
Yes, the Easter Bunny exists in our neighborhood, and his name is Chef Onil Chibas, our generous and talented friend who lives up the block. Now a “series regular” in these pages, you may remember Chef Onil as the owner of Deluxe 1717 on Washington Boulevard (chibasevents.com), where he often staged weekends of elaborate coursed meals, served family style at a single long table in the small dining room.
He also featured occasional guest chefs while managing a busy catering business. These days — like an angel of mercy — he cooks for his home bound, less talented friends in the neighborhood. All of which is to say, these are the only deliveries coming to my door these days. Like many of us, I’m effectively unemployed and am most certainly not ordering delivery from my favorite restaurants, much as I might like to support them (and write about them, for that matter).
Notably, Chef Onil’s stunning Easter feast was composed in part by vegetables grown in handsome raised garden beds in the backyard of his home. Gardening. Everybody’s doing it these days, or dreaming about doing it. There’s nothing like a plague to inspire thoughts of growing your own food. As I stare wistfully into my own overgrown, literally gone-to-seed, scraggly backyard, my girlfriend reminds me, “You grow things!… On your face!”
It’s true, my quarantine beard is the most bountiful crop of my season so far.
Onil recently mentioned that he had joined the board of directors of The Urban Homestead Institute, the newly formed nonprofit, educational initiative of The Urban Homestead. If you live in Pasadena and don’t know about The Urban Homestead, now might be the perfect time to get acquainted. A truly fascinating, impressive and successful experiment in urban self-sufficiency and sustainability, The Urban Homestead is a flourishing and productive urban farm engineered largely from the backyard of a simple bungalow on Cypress Avenue, near the 210 Freeway, in Northwest Pasadena.
Seven-thousand pounds of fresh produce per year.
Yes. Farm. Really.
Did we mention that the operation is entirely solar-powered and they use less water than an average residential household?
Trust me. There’s a story here.
“Backyards are the most underutilized land in America…” I’m chatting on the phone with Anais Dervaes, who with her siblings Justin and Jordanne now operates the farm, in the wake of the untimely passing of their father Jules Dervaes at 69 in 2016. It was Jules whose vision and energy was responsible for what is now a thriving and fully self-sufficient urban farm.
Starting in 1985, with the purchase of the small house on Cypress Avenue, the Dervaes family moved to Pasadena from a 10-acre farm Jules had homesteaded outside Tampa, Florida. Jules was attending Ambassador College to study theology, but his love of agriculture soon took over as he began to plot out and plant the backyard farm. “We started growing the front yard in 1989 and by 1992 we started selling our stuff to caterers and restaurants,” says Anais.
After the GMO food controversy erupted in 2000, “We could protest or we could do a living protest,” Anais says, and they began “homesteading to the community,” opening a productive dialogue with the city government over their practices and techniques and eventually programming tours and public events to introduce the general public to the farm.
The Homestead has regularly programmed everything from back-porch hootenannies to community dinners, as well as seminars on jam-making, fermentation and water conservation, among others. A regular podcast is also produced and available via their website. However, in this odd time when suddenly the mission of The Urban Homestead seems most urgently relevant, their public activity is limited to the Farm Box Program, a weekly subscription of fresh produce. Boxes come in two sizes and can be somewhat tailored to diet and taste and can be supplemented with duck or chicken eggs or organic honey, also produced on the farm. They have partnered with two other small urban farms in the area, Alma Farm and notably Avenue 33 Farm in Highland Park (ave33farm.com), as well as “a bread lady.”
“We’ve created our own micro-economy. We’re a multi-farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). We’re at 150 boxes a week,” says Anais.
Orders are placed online for pick-up at the Homestead each week on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. A large “family size” box is $35 and a Small Box, intended for two people is $25. Although they are nearly subscribed to capacity, there is also a waiting list.
The Urban Homestead Institute was founded last year as a 501c3 nonprofit organization with an explicit educational mission, enabling the Dervaes’ to educate the general public at a wider scope on the principles of self-sufficiency, sustainability and urban agriculture. Good timing and luck for Pasadena! In reflecting on the current blight and the uncertain outcome to follow, Anais suggests, “(Everybody is) taking stock of what is essential now: cooking at home, walking, it’s all a possible reset button. Reset, rethink and reimagine what could come out of this and hopefully it’s positive!”
On that note, as we look to the future, let’s close with a thought from the late great Jules Dervaes.
“By the process of directly working in harmony with nature, we do the one thing most essential to change the world: we change ourselves,” Jules said.
With the Dervaes family and The Urban Homestead in the neighborhood, I’m feeling better about the prospects of my own backyard. But I’m not shaving the beard… yet. –
POST SCRIPT: FOX’S in Altadena, operated by Monique and Paul Rosenbluh of Cindy’s Diner, featured in Part 1 of this series (PW 3/26), has re-opened for take-out orders. YAY!
FOX’S RESTAURANT, 2352 Lake Ave., Altadena; (626) 797-9430/foxsaltadena.com.