Folks gathered around at 2013 Harvest Festival Mill City Grows Lowell

Mill City Grows and Grows

One of the best things about working on this blog is the way it encourages Chris and I to get and stay involved in the Lowell community. It’s so easy, too easy, to get bogged down in grumpy facebook threads and the discouraging daily grind of city news. But there’s still so much going on in Lowell that’s exciting, encouraging, and even inspiring. Mill City Grows is a great example of the best of Lowell: diverse community members working together to make the city a better place for everyone.

Children pressing cider at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Prepping apples for cider press at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Why a Mill City Grows post now? I won’t bury the lede too far. It’s because their big, annual celebration of local foods, the Harvest Festival, is this Saturday. As previous years, it’s in their original community garden location, Rotary Club Park in Back Central, just about a ten minute walk south of downtown. It’s the culmination of the growing season and all that Mill City Grows does throughout the year: education, farmers markets, and community gardening. Mill City Grows takes over the park and provides an afternoon of games, demonstrations, and food. They and their partners provide hands-on activities involving cooking, bicycle safety, a “stone soup” table in which every participant contributes an ingredient and gets a sample of soup and a cider press demonstration and sampling.

Chris and I got to sit down and chat with co-founder Francey Slater and learn a little bit more about the Mill City Grows story. She said that she and co-founder Lydia Sisson had the idea for years. They had been working as an educator and as a commercial farmer outside of Lowell, but felt there was a great opportunity and need in Lowell:

There was this amazing opportunity in Lowell, given the cultural richness of the city, and the food culture in the city, and… there was a lack of opportunities for residents to get involved in growing food and in accessing healthy, fresh, and local food.

Lydia Sission and Francey Slater

Lydia and Francey, co-founders of Mill City Grows (Photo: Jen Myers)

She noted that culturally-appropriate food was also difficult to find. However, their opportunity came in 2011, when Back Central was the focus of the City Manager’s neighborhood impact initiative. Among other things, the initiative funded a project that the neighborhood itself identifies. That year, Back Central Neighborhood Association identified a community garden. The neighborhood nor the city knew how to create a community garden, so they brought in Francey and Lydia, who jumped at the opportunity.

They worked with the city and neighborhood group to recruit gardeners throughout the fall, and in the spring, they worked with the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Department of Public Works to build the garden. The first garden snowballed into new gardens and new programs, including school education, urban commercial farming, and a mobile market. Each new program was a response to a community request. The staff at Mill City Grows has many ideas, but rather than imposing those ideas, they have used community feedback to choose their focus areas.

Lowell’s support was critical. We didn’t realize how close the partnership with the city government was: it allows Mill City Grows to use designated city land and have access to water and inclusion in the blanket insurance. This has really helped Mill City Grows get started, as raising money for land leases, insurance, and other necessities is often a roadblock to new organizations.

Mill City Grows West 3rd Garden

West 3rd Garden (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Chris and I nearly lost count of how many different dividends that initial investment paid. The gardens are used by a diverse population of Lowell residents-Francey says that at least eleven languages are spoken by their gardeners. She said, “It’s a fascinating world tour to walk through, to see things I don’t recognize or see gardeners harvest parts of plants I would never think or know were edible.” The education is both cultural and practical, as community gardeners learn from one another and from the organization:

Education has always been something that we weave into every aspect of our programming, whether it’s the very technical “when to plant this seed”… to the more theoretical “how do we build a more just, more sustainable food system?”

The benefits that go beyond the gardeners: the community impact of transforming the physical spaces is difficult to quantify, but it is impossible to deny that changing a vacant lot to a raised-bed garden with folks bustling about improves the vibrancy and confidence of a neighborhood. Francey has said she has seen entire neighborhoods transform after a lot has been turned into a garden.

Apples at 2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

The larger community benefits as well. Francey mentioned that during the Market Basket problem, many people had trouble finding fresh vegetables within walking distance or at an affordable price, while local farmers were not able to move their stock and were losing money every day. This brought up questions to Francey on how much the community can rely on its food system when a single entity was so important. She said food banks saw their demand increase during the crisis, and she actually saw a measurable increase at Mill City Grows markets. She suggested one simple thing anyone can do to help food security:

Even if it’s one simple crop, learning how to grow a small patio garden is something we can all do.

The more direct support to farmers and local food grown and shared, the more an impact to the food system can be blunted. Of course, there are many other ways to support Mill City Grows. If you can’t make it to the Harvest Festival event, there are other ways to get involved. They’re one of many vendors selling tasty fruits and veggies at the Lowell Farmer’s Market in City Hall Plaza every Friday afternoon.  After we chatted with Francey we headed over there and stocked up almost everything you’d find in the produce section, but fresher and often tastier. It’s also important to note that many booths can take EBT/SNAP and WIC. The Farmer’s Market goes on through Halloween, so check it out, and follow them on facebook here.

Vendors selling produce at Mill City Grows Lowell

Mobile Market at Lowell Community Health Center (Photo: Mill City Grows)

Mill City Grows also does this really cool thing called the Mobile Market, where their mini Farmer’s Market van sets up around town. This is an excellent resource for those of us that the regular Farmer’s Market time doesn’t suit. The schedule is on their website here, and you can also get updates on what they’re up to by following them on Facebook or Twitter. They are always looking for volunteers, from folks who can help staff the markets to longer-term skill-specific projects such as web design.

Finally, there may be a new garden coming, so stay tuned to Mill City Grows, and maybe you can start your own plot!

Harvest Festival activities include:

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

2013 Harvest Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

  • Rotary Club pumpkin decoration
  • Boys and Girls Club face painting
  • Lowell Community Health Center Teen Block nutrition-themed carnival
  • South Bay Early Childhood Education toddler games
  • MCC and YWCA zero-waste activities and information
  • Murkland School arts and crafts
  • Raising a Reader scavenger hunt
  • Lowell Bike Coalition bike safety and maintenance demonstrations
  • Photo: Jen Myers

    Photo: Jen Myers

  • Next Step Living home energy information
  • Lowell Parks and Recreation kids’ games
  • Lowell National Historical Park pop-up museum about “connecting with your roots”
  • Mill City Grows cider press, stone soup, garden tours, and mobile market and popcorn station
  • Spiceventure, UTEC cafe, Sweet Lydia’s, Brew’d Awakening, and other food vendors
  • Music, live-painting, garden awards, and more!
Cider Press at Mill City Grows

Cider Press at 2013 Festival (Photo: Jen Myers)

Community Gardens

Community Gardens at Rotary Park (Photo: Jen Myers)

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Pizza and Sub and…Chutney?

I’ve lived in Lowell just over half a year now, and some of the newness has worn off. I’ve been to many of the places now that peaked my initial curiosity, and I’m starting to know how to find what I’m looking for without having to explore. It’s so easy to get complacent, to feel like Lowell isn’t going to surprise me in quite the same way.

Fortunately, whenever things start to get too comfortable, there’s a new discovery. For months now I’ve been idly wondering what the chalkboard sign that says “vegetarian” outside of Kearney Square’s Pizza and Sub Stop is referring to. I figured it was probably that they had a veggie pizza option that was popular.
Chandu's spicy and vegetarian menu

Nope! There’s a whole mini menu of unexpected choices. They have unusual pizza options like “Tikka Masala” and “Chutney and Cheese” and other choices that might be best described as Indian/Italian fusion, like garlic bread stuffed with samosas.

We took home masala veggie bread and masala fries, with pretty much no idea what we might end up with.

Masala bread and fries

It was super amazingly delicious. Savory, spicy, and a little sweet. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a little bit of Indian flavor in the downtown area. Here’s a link to their site if you’d like to see the quirky menu.

Super La Suprette

One of the many perks of living in downtown Lowell: there are (at least) two places to get delicious falafel within a block of each other. Extremely tasty Babylon, and our new find La Suprette. Chris and I have been meaning to grab something at this halal corner store for some time, and heading home from Winterfest last Saturday seemed like the perfect moment.

Delicious wraps. Photograph does not properly convey amazingness.

Delicious wraps. Photograph does not properly convey amazingness.

La Suprette is a little like a neighborhood deli, with a couple of shelves of African/Middle Eastern groceries, and a takeout-ready menu. Chris and I are vegetarian, so we were sticking to the falafel, but they have numerous meat options including goat, lamb, and jerk chicken (here’s a couple of yelp reviews). The falafel wraps were super delicious, crammed full of delicious zesty tastes and textures.

As a an added incentive, if you’re thinking about going, if I’m not mistaken I heard the African-Lowellian woman behind the counter speaking French. There’s a certain pleasant historical deja vu there: not so long ago there were entire neighborhoods of very different speakers of that language: French-Canadian Lowellians, concentrated in Centralville, Pawtucketville, and particularly in the neighborhood known as “Little Canada”. Many of Lowell’s historic ethnic neighborhoods have been altered significantly over the years, but perhaps none more so than Little Canada. Urban redevelopment efforts essentially wiped the neighborhood off the map, with the ripple effects of dividing and significantly dissipating the once quite vibrant Franco-American community.

La Suprette is on Bridge street just beyond Kearney Square. Heading a few blocks West, towards the Tsongas Center and LeLacheur Park, would take you into what was once Little Canada. I imagine the ghosts wandering through downtown are happy to still be able to hear their language spoken. And how appropriate that even as one immigrant group mixes into the larger melting pot, a new group joins the city, bringing with them their own traditions and delicious food. A city is always changing, and there is a natural sadness for the things that get lost along the way. But if we are lucky, change can bring with it new opportunities, new things to discover and to love. And more falafel!

Learning Lowell takes on the Hot Chocolate Competition

Aurora and I are dedicated to giving our readers accounts of all the cultural experiences in Lowell! With this in mind, we nobly took part in the 6th Annual Hot Chocolate competition, sampling hot chocolate from all five participating restaurants. We’re recreating and dramatizing our reactions here.

Rosie’s Cafe (10 Hurd Street)
“Mocha Madness” – Chocolate blended with rich coffee.

Rosie's CafeMocha Madness

Chris: This is off the beaten path! I hope people make it this far out to taste this! It’s definitely as advertised–great tasting coffee with great chocolate. And Rosie’s really has a cute setup, with a nice dining area to the side of the cafe.

Aurora: Lots of whipped cream gets extra points from me. I think the mocha flavor is objectively good, but I’m not sure if the bitterness is my personal taste.

Chris: Well, your coffee is usually about half milk! Anyway, if the hot chocolate is this good at the rest of the places, it’ll be a fun afternoon.

Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus (61 Market Street)
“Breakfast Hot Chocolate” – Maple syrup hot chocolate with maple whipped cream

Brew'd AwakeningBreakfast Hot Cocoa

Aurora: Man, it’s crazy busy in here.

Chris: Brew’d Awakening in usually busy. Not a surprise we practically had to wait out the door!

Aurora: Yay, tiny pancakes! This one is very pretty.

Chris: Wow, this is the most unique hot chocolate I’ve ever had. I can’t quite tell what the flavor is. Cinammon? Honey? [It was maple.]

Aurora: Yeah… it’s… interesting. I have to give them extra points for ambition, but I’m not sure it’s a success.

Chris: What? Well, perhaps this isn’t what I expect when I think of hot chocolate. But it’s so great! Sticky-sweet. Whereas Rosie’s was good, but predictable, I’ll remember this stuff forever!

Sweet Lydia’s (160 Merrimack Street)
“Peppermint Hot Chocolate with a Vanilla Marshmallow” – Homemade with both dark and white chocolates

Peppermint Hot ChocolateSweet Lydia's

Chris: Jeez, I thought the line at Brew’d was long! Very clever, she marches us past all the candy for sale.

Aurora: So, I hear Lydia is the reigning champion, so I’m expecting great things.

Chris: I have to admit, I hate peppermint, so she’s got an uphill battle with me.

Aurora: I, on the other hand, love mint with chocolate. I think this one is very tasty! But the marshmallow stuck to the bottom of the cup–I’m being denied the best part!

Chris: You’re right. It is pretty tasty, even for mint. It just goes to show you, amazing chocolate and marshmallow can overcome even horrible mint flavor!

Time Out Cafe (72 Merrimack Street)
“Time Out Hot Chocolate”

Time Out CafeTime Out Hot Chocolate

Aurora: If we’re scoring based on presentation, this would be the lowest score! No whipped cream or marshmallows?

Chris: And I can’t say it has a creative name, either. But you can’t judge a hot chocolate by its cover. I think that’s the saying.

Aurora: Dork. You’re right, though! It’s very tasty. Cinnamon, maybe?

Chris: I think you might be right. This is a nice, rich flavor.

Aurora: One of the best “chocolatey” tastes, I think.

Chris: As a side-note, does it feel as if we’ve drunk a gallon of hot chocolate, even though it’s really just been four tiny cups each?

Aurora: It’s an excellent value for a quarter. I definitely feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. But it’s probably fortunate we’re on our last stop!

Cafe Pastiche (11 Kearney Square)
“Brazilian Gourmet Hot Chocolate” – Made from a traditional Brazilian recipe

Brazilian Gourmet Hot ChocolateCafe Pastiche

Chris: Cafe Pastiche? Where’s that?

Aurora: It’s the restaurant with a poster that advertises “Orange Juice all day!”

Chris: Of course! I’ve been by there a hundred times and always wanted to go in.

Aurora: This place looks like it could be dangerous. Everything looks delicious.

Chris: And the hot cocoa presentation is one of the best. A wafer candy (hazelnut?) in a cloud of whipped cream.

Aurora: I don’t even know how to describe this. It is so good.

Chris: This chocolate is so rich. Deep, dark, but not bitter.

Aurora: Not just rich, but creamy. Wait, are you letting your candy melt in the cocoa?

Chris: Of course! I wouldn’t be sad if this was the only dessert I could have for the rest of my life.

And the winner is…

Aurora: So, what do you think was the winner?

Chris: I don’t know! It’s like picking between one’s own children!

Aurora: Honestly, they were all delicious. But if you force me to choose, hands down, Cafe Pastiche is the winner.

Chris: I agree, definitely. With Brew’d Awakening getting second!

Aurora: No way! It was interesting, but interesting isn’t what I’m looking for. Sweet Lydia’s is second for me.

Chris: I should give her credit for making a good-tasting mint chocolate. Really, the people of Lowell are winners for having such great cafes!

Aurora: You’re still a dork.

But the winner actually is…

First PlaceSweet Lydia’s (160 Merrimack Street)
Second PlaceBrew’d Awakening Coffeehaus (61 Market Street)
Third Place: Rosie’s Cafe (10 Hurd Street)

Aurora: What?! Cafe Pastiche didn’t even place? Clearly the vote was fixed!

Chris: There’s no accounting for taste. Maybe next year!

Dining in The Acre: Olympia Restaurant

Since Chris and I are adding food blogging to our repertoire, I wanted to write up another place we’ve visited. A couple weeks ago we went out on a Saturday night to the Olympia, one of Lowell’s Greek restaurants. According to their website, they’re the oldest, founded by a Greek immigrant in the 1950’s.

Chris and I are vegetarian (I’m sure you’re all shocked) and I have to say this wasn’t the best place for that: everybody in the online reviews talks about lamb. But we found plenty to eat. We split tzatziki (tasty yogurt dip), spanakopita, saganaki (fried cheese), and Zorba fries. All were to our liking, and I especially recommend dipping the zingy Zorba fries in the yogurt dip.

Saturday night they seemed relatively busy but not jammed full. I was interested to notice, looking around, how many of the other diners seemed to be Greek, especially big family groups. It always seems like a good sign when an ethnic restaurant is popular within its own community. Lowell has a lot of strong ethnic neighborhoods and communities, and the Greek community is an especially active group.

The Olympia’s website says they’re in an “historic location”, and they’re right. Lowell’s Greek neighborhood had historically been in this area of town, known as the Acre. The Acre is west of downtown, and you can figure out a lot about its history in a stroll around the neighborhood. A couple things that should clue you in to it’s ethnic history: the stunningly beautiful St. Patrick’s, pointing to the Acre’s original population of Irish immigrants, and the gold topped Holy Trinity Orthodox church, with the distinctive domes that are often a clue to a Greek neighborhood.

Photo by Chris

St. Patrick’s Church

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Another thing you’ll probably notice are housing projects, which were very controversial when they were first built in 1939. Like a lot of Urban Development up through the 1970’s, the project didn’t see a problem with displacing vibrant ethnic neighborhoods in exchange for “modern” redevelopment. In the name of progress, many traditional neighborhoods and historic buildings were knocked down for housing projects and highways. Some cities accidentally dealt themselves mortal wounds in this process, and are still struggling to recover from the choices they’ve made.

North Common Village going up in 1940. Read more about the project and the Greek community’s history here.

Lowell has made mistakes, but it’s been really lucky in a lot of ways.  Lowell still has really strong ethnic communities and strong neighborhood pride, and lots of people working to keep both around. Despite being displaced by the Acre’s changes, the Greek Community is still a proud force in Lowell. Meanwhile, the Acre’s a much broader mix of people than it used to be, but it still has a sense of identity. The Coalition For a Better Acre and the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION) are actively working to make the neighborhood a better place.

Stick around as Chris and I continue to explore Lowell’s diversity in the tastiest ways possible. Let us know if you have any recommendations!  The blog’s a great excuse to eat out.

Journey to Babylon (Restaurant)

Occasionally, we’d like to talk about the restaurants we visit in Lowell. Find the archive here.

Babylon on Merrimack Street

Babylon on Merrimack Street

Babylon Restaurant is rare gem in downtown Lowell. The restaurant is owned by Leyla Al-Zubaydi, a political refugee from Iraq. It received national attention last year, when Veterans for Peace organized a solidarity “eat-in” after the restaurant was vandalized. Although it was later determined the vandalism wasn’t racially motivated, the support shown by more than a hundred people, including veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, is inspiring.

I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was that Babylon served beautiful and delicious dishes. My party had vegetable Beriyani, a chicken schawarma wrap, and a Falafel wrap. I actually had never had this cuisine, and it’s unique even compared to the Mediterranean, Indian, and Turkish dishes I’m more familiar with. Spices unfamiliar to many Americans create surprising harmonies to even familiar foods like Falafel and (so I’ve heard) Hummus.

The service was, in a word, relaxed. Things are carefully prepared and you’re left to leisurely enjoy your food. I imagine this may be interpreted as inattentive or slow to some American audiences, but I don’t believe this is the case. Rather, there is no rush and diners have time to savor the tastes and conversation and music. From the complementary cup of tea to the friendly tone, hospitality is the only way I can think to describe it. The restaurant also seemed to be a center for the middle-eastern community: during lunch, many folks dropped in to casually chat with the owner in Arabic.

It was a shame that we were the only folks in for lunch. I do see dinner guests in Babylon as I walk by, but it always looks like there’s a few tables available. I’ve heard that downtown restaurants have seen a decline in business as employment has moved toward the periphery of downtown to areas like Wannalancit Mills. It may be a delicate balance to encourage growth in these areas while maintaining a healthy streetlife downtown to support restaurants we all can enjoy.