Thursday, November 11, 2004

Beelicious Hell's Kitchen Honey

What does autumn remind you of? For many people, autumn signals a year of hard work, ended. Autumn is a season punctuated with bright warm days filled with the rich scent of freshly turned soil followed with cold clear nights full of honking geese hurrying south under watchful, winking stars. Jumping into leaf piles. Sweet-smelling alfalfa and hay curing in rows in the fields, waiting to be bailed into tidy rectangles and gathered into warm dark barns before snow arrives. Tipis of corn drying in the sun. Unearthing the last potatoes and yams. Delightful explosions of flavor in one's mouth from previously overlooked cherry tomatoes, sunkissed and still clinging to the vine. Preparing long artistic braids of garlic, onions and shallots. Migrating birds. Echoing courtship whistles from love-struck Elk. College football games. Thanksgiving. Eating gifts from the earth; sumptuous mouthwatering feasts prepared from meats, berries, fruits, roots, nuts, grains and honey. Honey?

When a friend, AH*, invited me to a honey harvest a month ago, I was intrigued. Even though I grew up in an agricultural area and therefore am familiar with the practice of beekeeping, I've never witnessed a honey harvest. But when I learned that this particular honey harvest was taking place in Manhattan, that this harvest was collecting honey produced by bees that live and work in Hell's Kitchen, I was fascinated. Like most people, I had no clue that in fact, beekeeping is fairly popular in NYC, so this honey harvest was something that I had to see.

It was early on a sunny but windy Saturday morning when I arrived at the Clinton Community Garden. Today, the garden is a small barely-contained square of grass, flowers, vegetables and trees reaching over broad paved sidewalks and climbing towering apartment buildings. But this plot of land looked very different in 1977, when a mysterious and lonely tomato plant bravely poked its head out of the rubble covering this abandoned lot, and in doing so, inspired an entire neighborhood to plant a garden around it.

Because the Department of Housing for NYC owned this land, the budding gardeners leased it from the city until it was announced in 1981 that this property would be auctioned off. This announcement set off a firestorm of protests and fund-raising activity, even receiving national news media attention. Finally, in 1984, this small community garden was granted permanent parkland status when then-Mayor Ed Koch transferred ownership to the NYC Parks and Recreation Department, an act that was expedited with seed money raised by the Clinton Fund and the Square-inch Sales Campaign.

When I walked through the gates to the Garden, I was momentarily disappointed to learn that their single beehive, a white wooden box that faced east with its back against a vine-covered building, had been disassembled the day before so the honey-filled upper division, called the "super", could be removed. I had wanted to watch the process and of course, I wanted to peek into the lower areas of hive where the queen lives. But I settled for watching the worker bees as they flew into and out of the beehive while the morning sun warmed my back. It was with some amusement when I realized that, with six or seven arrivals and departures every minute, this hive was busier than JFK International Airport. I slowly inhaled the scent of blooming flowers. The combination of the warm sun, the buzzing bees, and the moist, green freshness were hypnotizing.

"Shall we go to see how it's done, then?" Asked AH, awakening me from my reverie.

"Okay, let's go!" I followed my friend on a short walk to a local establishment where a room in the basement had been "honey-proofed" with long sheets of butcher paper covering every visible flat surface. As we entered the room, we saw a man working with his back to us, using a knife to pick dead bees from the rectangular wooden frames that surrounded the sticky honeycombs.

After the bees were removed, he handed the heavy frame to the woman standing next to him, who carefully laid it flat over a large steel pan. She ran an electric uncapper tool over the surface to melt the waxy covering from the tops of the honeycomb compartments. The wax fragments were captured by the steel pan under the frame. Unexpectedly, the light and delicious scent of cotton candy filled the room.

Because honeycombs have two sides just as coins do, this uncapping process was repeated for the other side. After both sides of the frame had been uncapped with the electric uncapper, it was handed to the next person in the production line, who used a manual uncapper that resembled a steel comb to gently scrape the waxy coverings from all honeycomb cells that were missed by the electric uncapper.

After both sides of the honeycombs had been completely uncapped, the frames were placed end-up into the honey extractor that was standing on a nearby table. The honey extractor is a tall round steel drum with an electric rotor inside that spins like a centrifuge. This rotor securely holds up to eight individual frames while using gentle centrifugal force to pull the honey from the honeycombs. Halfway through the extraction process, the frames are turned around and the process is repeated on the "flip side" honeycombs, thereby emptying them completely. The honeycombed frames -- now very lightweight -- were returned to the beekeeper, who replaced them in the super.

Meanwhile, the valve at the bottom of the honey extractor was opened and the viscous golden honey streamed into a five gallon plastic bucket below. This bucket was then placed onto another table where the bottling and labelling crew took over. The freshly harvested honey was subdivided into individual glass jars through an opened valve at the bottom of the plastic bucket. A lid was placed onto each jar, containing one pound of raw golden honey, and then it was wiped clean and a label saying, Hell's Kitchen Honey with a cute little bee in the middle, was adhered to its face before it was placed into a box. These jars of honey are then sold at local street fairs to raise money to support the garden.

After we finished and the empty frames were restored to the super, we stood, exhausted, around the boxes and counting the honey jars while licking our fingers or chewing on bits of honeycomb still filled with honey. All morning long, we had been placing bets with each other as to how much honey this hive had produced. Because honey production depends upon many factors, it can vary tremendously between different hives and years. Generally, a productive beehive produces 100-125 pounds of honey per year, on average. However, some years are bad years; for example, the Clinton hive barely produced 75 pounds of honey in 2002. On this particular afternoon, we were delighted and surprised to discover that one summer of work by 40,000 or so worker bees followed by several more hours of work by two dozen or so humans, was well-rewarded. The 2004 honey harvest yielded 205.5 pounds of Hell's Kitchen Honey, the most ever produced by the Clinton hive.

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* Hedwig the Owl thanks her friend, AH and the members of the Clinton Community Garden for patiently answering her many questions and for generously allowing her to observe and participate in this wonderful experience.

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