December 2015

In the Industry


The Preservationist

Food was always a big deal when Kate Sann ’05 was growing up.

Her mom was a devoted cook, and the parents she calls “pathologically social” threw dinner parties every weekend. Even family bonding time revolved around eating: on weekends, they’d drive to New York’s farthest-flung neighborhoods and explore new cuisines.

Sann is still a serious foodie, but now she works on the other end of the system as a land preservation associate at the Westchester Land Trust.

Through the Farmland Match Program, she pairs aspiring farmers with property owners who have unused land. “The farmers get to test their skills without the financial onus of ownership,” she says, “and the landowners get to see their land used in new and exciting ways.”

She also helps protect and preserve open spaces. “Land trusts haven’t done a great job of explaining what we do,” she says. “We’re not a nature center. We’re like the closed-door real-estate deal that leads to the nature center.”

As an English major at Bryn Mawr, Sann began exploring food’s place in literature and academia during her senior year. She won a national Watson Fellowship and traveled the world researching and sampling French and Francophone-island foods.

She took off for New Zealand a few years later to work as a vineyard assistant, then eventually headed to graduate school at New York University and completed an M.A. in food studies.

Her graduate work led her to the Westchester Land Trust, where Sann has worked since 2012. “At no point in my educational or working life did I plan to work for a regional land trust,’” she says. “But I’m happily ensconced in this industry now, and I really like it.”

CashThe Oyster Farmer

The tide has to be just right if you want to visit Dias Creek oyster farm. Too low and the pontoon boat can’t glide through the water. Too high and the oysters are unreachable, hidden far below the surface.

But when the tide has just started to ebb, Stephanie Tramdack Cash ’72 can make the 20-minute trip from her home in Cape May Court House, throw down an anchor, and start harvesting oysters from her Delaware Bay farm.

That tidal shuffle is one of the many new talents Cash has perfected since she and her husband became oyster farmers three years ago. They tend to some 130,000 of the mollusks on their aquatic lease and sell them, as Venus oysters, to local seafood stores and high-end restaurants. “It’s about as farm-to-table as you can get,” she says.

A former financial strategist turned language teacher, Cash was working as a French-to-English translator in 2012 when a friend offered the couple a 100-acre aquatic lease. She and her husband decided to take the plunge. “We could see that the oyster industry is being encouraged right now—specifically by our county government—and recognized the opportunity,” she says.

Oyster farming isn’t what Cash had planned for age 64, especially not during her days as an English major at Bryn Mawr. But she says it’s satisfying to run a business and relaxing to wade through knee-deep water under a changing sky.

“My husband and I look at each other and wonder if this is crazy,” she adds. “But it’s a great blessing to have your physical health, and you never know what you might find yourself doing unexpectedly at a late age.”

Clara_2The Microfarmer

Clara “Mindy” Martone-Gulling ’98 and her wife, Kristin, were tired of wondering where their food used to live. Eventually they made a pact: either they’d raise and slaughter their own livestock or they would ditch meat entirely.

Three years later, their farm in Silver Spring, Maryland, overflows with chickens and pigs, goats and sheep, ducks and rabbits. They’ve even given it a name—Lucky Clover Microfarm—and launched a small meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) this spring.

They grow some of their own produce, too, and eat their own meats almost every night for dinner. Mindy and Kristin are both still lawyers by day, but with their two-acre property and self-taught techniques, they’ve also become small-scale farmers.

“One thing I like about my law job is that I learn something new every day,” Martone-Gulling says. “Farming is exactly like that, and that’s something I find very rewarding.”

The couple’s five children “work harder than most suburban kids, for sure,” she says. There are goats to milk, animals to feed, eggs to collect. Farm life has taught the kids birds-and-the-bees lessons and about life and death. They’ve even begun calling animal slaughter “the sacred sacrifice.”

“I want them to appreciate those things,” she says. “I want them to know meat doesn’t come from a plastic container in a supermarket.”

“What we’re doing is a very extreme example, but I hope people can learn from our story,” she adds. “You can always do some part of it—whether it’s raising chickens for eggs, growing herbs on your balcony, or just buying meat from a local farmer.”

LasherThe Chef

At just 13 years old, Anne-Marie Lasher ’86 went into business with her father.

He was a banker and Julia Child devotee. She had been eating the results for years—including poached eggs in aspic (a meat gelatin) at age 7—and liked to cook, too.

The father-daughter team began catering events together when Lasher was still in middle school. As their business reached its peak, Lasher arrived at Bryn Mawr to study economics. She drove home almost every weekend to cook for parties with her dad.

“Back in the 1980s, it seemed like an appropriate thing to major in,” she says of her economics degree. But when she graduated and imagined sitting behind a desk all day, “I realized I’d go crazy,” she adds.

Instead she dove into the food world full time, and years later, she’s still there as co-owner of the prepared-foods café Picnic in Philadelphia.

But launching her own business didn’t come easily. Lasher worked her way up through well-known Philadelphia restaurants—Magnolia Café, White Dog Café, and Tria. In 1997, she was the opening chef for Fork, a Zagat-rated restaurant in Old City Philadelphia.

Lasher left that job in 2000 and opened Picnic the following year. She says it’s hard work, especially now that prepared foods are easier to find in supermarkets or through online orders. But, she says, “I still love to come in and cook.”

“I don’t see myself changing the world,” she adds, “but I love what I do, and I make the people around me happy, including my customers.”

HarrisThe Writer

At Convocation 1964, President Katharine McBride promised the incoming class that, by graduation, they would be able to write about anything. For Jessica Harris ‘68, McBride’s assertion would prove prophetic. Through the course of a wide-ranging career, Harris has compiled a portfolio of book and theater reviews, travel features, and beauty articles and is currently at work on a memoir of her early days in New York rubbing elbows with the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison.

For most of her writing career, food has been the main course—and understandably so. “My mother was a trained dietician,” says Harris, “and an excellent cook with an excellent palate. A lot of what I do is because of her.”

A French major at Bryn Mawr, Harris upped her gastronomic game during a junior year abroad. “In France,” she recalls, “I learned to eat garlic and the amazing cavaillon melons.”

Early on, she worked as the travel editor at Essence. Assignments brought her to West Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil—all key stops in the African Diaspora—and inspired a number of cookbooks that offered up New World recipes with roots in Africa.

Over time, Harris found her recipes getting longer and longer, and she realized it was time to delve into the story behind the food. “Recipe is important,” she says, “but story is more important to me.”

Her latest book, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, puts story front and center. Part memoir, part history, part cookbook, it intersperses vignettes from Harris’s life into a sweeping history of the food of the African Diaspora.

Harris portrays an extraordinary cast of characters: Hercules, who ran Washington’s kitchen until escaping in 1797; Robert Bogle, the Philadelphian who invented catering; Malinda Russell, who wrote the first cookbook by an African-American; and a host of others—cowboy cooks, Pullman porters, and contemporary chefs.

For excerpts from High on the Hog, click here.

TroppThe Advocate

“I was researching local food before local food was cool.”

That’s how Debbie Tropp ’81 sums up her work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she’s spent 23 years, and where she now serves as branch chief of farmers markets and direct farm marketing research.

But she can trace her interest in food policy back even further than that, to her days as a political science major at Bryn Mawr in the late 1970s. Tropp studied developing nations and policy formation in her courses, but “I always had this fascination with food and the role it played in economics,” she says.

She went straight from the College to Columbia University, where she completed a master’s in international affairs. “Then I got released to the world, and people were not exactly screaming from the rooftops to hire me,” she says.

Tropp found work as a commodity research analyst for several years, then arrived at the USDA in 1992. In her government role, she helped develop the Farm to School program as part of a Departmental task force, which got her thinking about other ways the USDA could help small and mid-size farmers sell their food to businesses and institutions.

Six years ago, she was recruited by former Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan to join a new departmental task force called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. Aimed at building connections between farmers and consumers, and strengthening USDA’s support for local food systems, the initiative is still going strong, and Tropp even earned an award from the USDA’s Office of the Secretary for her contributions.

“When I started this work 20 years ago, very few people cared or thought about local and regionally grown food,” she says. Now, it has officially reached cool status.

For more about Tropp’s work, visit

BirchThe Academic

For decades, experts from a range of disciplines have been warning us about the problem of food security in a rapidly urbanizing world: land use and the impact of sprawl on farming, food deserts, and rising obesity rates, the effect of climate change on food production.

The problem, says Eugenie Ladner Birch ‘65, is that they haven’t been talking to one another.

Until two years ago, that is, when Birch organized a major conference—Feeding Cities: Food Security in a Rapidly Urbanizing World—that brought together everyone from agronomists to veterinarians.

Co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, Birch is a city planner by training. A history major and Latin affairs minor, she was encouraged by Dorothy Nepper Marshall, Ph.D. ’44—“a wonderful dean” —to apply for a Fulbright fellowship to Ecuador. There, Birch got a firsthand look at some of the most challenging issues of urban development—extreme poverty, food insecurity, transport, housing, and so on.

Birch was galvanized. As a Ph.D. student at Columbia, she focused on housing. “But it became very apparent,” she says, “that one needed to take a holistic view of how to make cities communities for all people.”

That holistic view was central to Feeding Cities. Birch worked with schools and centers across Penn and brought together more than 400 people from all over the world to talk about food security and urban development, a resilient food system, and the need for coordinated policy and research.

Most significant to Birch, though, was the cross-disciplinary nature of the conversation. “When we talk about food security,” she explains, “we’re talking about production, about bringing food to market, about how to market it and to whom. Across that spectrum, you have everybody—veterinarians, city planners, health professionals, environmentalists, geographers, business types.” At Feeding Cities, they all had a seat at the table: “We brought together people who were specialists in their own siloed area who had never talked to other specialists outside that siloed area.”

Just as Birch had hoped, the conversation is spreading—in journal articles, classrooms, and conferences worldwide. She cites several conferences held just this past year—one focused on waste through the whole system and another that looked at regional food supply systems. On the research side, health professionals are looking into dietary behaviors, and doctoral students in Birch’s field are investigating the impact of supermarkets on the nutritional habits of urban residents.

This just in!

Dina Bikerman Schoonmaker ’56 writes to let us know about the work her daughter, Karen Schoonmaker Freudenberger ’78, has done to create The Vermont Goat Collaborative and Pine Island Farm near Burlington, Vermont. These entities support local immigrant farmers who wish to raise goats, chickens, or garden crops at the farm and sell pasture grown animals to families who wish to slaughter their own goats and chickens for meat.


Comments on “In the Industry”

  1. Bravo! After 25 years as a field archaeologist and museum director, I am now an organic farmer, exploring the extent to which I can feed my local community. I haven’t found the limits yet…