Union Square has become a real dining destination in recent years, but it wasn’t always that way. As artists and immigrants have moved into the neighborhood, each putting a unique stamp on it, the Square has been transformed into a cultural and culinary hot spot. From international food markets and the weekly farmers market to upscale restaurants and eateries that serve food from around the world, Union Square is blossoming. And now you can bring a piece of the Square home with the Somerville Arts Council’s new cookbook, Nibble.
“We chose Union Square because while it’s hopping now, it wasn’t always,” said Rachel Strutt, program manager at the Somerville Arts Council. “We looked at the assets of Union and one of the assets we saw was cultural diversity and food. It’s still got some grit, which I think keeps things interesting. And it’s also like taking a vicarious trip around the globe.”
It was that gritty, global spirit that Strutt wanted to capture when the Arts Council first conceived of Nibble, which started as a blog and turned into a book. The Council received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2007 that was to be used to stimulate the local cultural economy. The Arts Council used the grant, which has been matched by the city, to do international market tours in Union Square.
“As far as the markets go, so many people walk by them and don’t think to go in,” Strutt said. “We seek to demystify stores like that. A world of gastronomy awaits.”
So the Arts Council decided to start the Nibble blog with the idea of publishing a book of recipes, interesting tidbits and photos from Union Square that would showcase the creative, cultural and culinary aspects of the area.
“So often what happens in a city is that artists and immigrants move into cheap rent districts and give it a lot of cultural flavor. Other people start to notice and want to jump on that,” Strutt said. “I think the combination of a vibrant underground artist population coupled with the global flavor is what makes it an interesting space.”
Producing Nibble was a true team effort. The Arts Council worked with Somerville artists, like photographer Dustin Kerstein, who was dispatched all over town to photograph people in their homes preparing traditional recipes from their cultures.
“It was really a wonderful experience in an area that I had personally never been to,” Kerstein said. “I really got to start exploring Union and see a little bit of local flavor.”
Ana Flores, whose loroco pupusas and scrambled eggs with flor de izote recipes, appear in Nibble.
Kerstein met Strutt at the Hungry Tigert Street Festival, held in Union each year, when the Nibble book was a mere idea. He had been a passionate photographer before college and was just getting back into the hobby. Strutt liked his photos and signed him on to the project.
“It really was an awesome experience,” Kerstein said. “It’s a whole different thing when you see your work getting printed. Today you just don’t get to see that. Very few people are actually printing their stuff these days.”
Kerstein particularly enjoyed shooting the culinary wizards at Journeyman, an innovative restaurant in Union. The natural light in the restaurant’s space, the friendly staff and the delicious food all came together to produce some beautiful photographs.
But it was one of the simplest recipes that Kerstein loved tasting the best.
“The food that I probably enjoyed the most was some soup that we made at Rachel’s place that was just really delicious,” Kerstein said. “It was nice to see how easy that was to pull together from a recipe standpoint. Easy enough that I would personally feel comfortable making it.”
Nibble has connected people from all over Somerville, like Kerstein and Strutt, and the many people they and others interviewed and photographed.
“I love the fact that the book brought people together that might not have had the opportunity to hang out together if it weren’t for cooking and the book,” Strutt said.
A “spice portrait” of Mario Borges of the Neighborhood Restaurant by Francisco de la Barra.
Take Brother Cleve, legendary cocktail creator, musician and world traveler, who lent his magic touch to the Nibble book, crafting four drinks that reflect the different immigration patterns in the area.
“I have spent my entire adult life traveling around the world and drinking,” said Cleve, a former Union Square resident. He took his lifetime of experiences with unique cocktails, world travel and Somerville and combined them to create four very special beverages.
To represent the Italian, Irish and Portuguese immigrants who first settled in the Square, Cleve crafted the Union (which you can order at The Independent).
“This was the most fun,” Cleve said. “It’s old school.” To craft the cocktail, Cleve said he thought, “What can I do to mix all three of those groups in one glass?”
The end result, a riff on Cleve’s favorite drink, the Manhattan, combines Irish whiskey, dry Madeira wine and Meletti Amaro with bitters to perfectly represent Union Square’s earliest immigrant populations.
Strutt said that once Cleve had the cocktails ready, she enlisted the help of Julie Betters, who Strutt calls “the best cook I know,” to create some nibbles to go with the drinks. The three of them met several times to taste the cocktails with the recipes Betters created, which Strutt described as “very grueling and difficult work.” Actually, she says, “that was a lot of fun!”
For some, working on Nibble was truly been a life-changing experience. Kerstein, who works in IT, said that being a part of Nibble changed his whole perspective on his career. After leaving his job at a financial software company, he took a transition position in Maine that allowed him to combine his love of photography and technical skills that led to a job at a friend’s start-up in Brooklyn.
“It definitely sort of changed my whole perspective on my career at the time,” Kerstein said. “It was a wonderful experience and I really do owe a lot to working on Nibble. I learned the importance of having a creative outlet.”
The evolution of Nibble, from the market tours to the blog to the book, has been quite a journey. One that Strutt hopes will continue with even more events that bring together the creative, culinary and cultural sides of Union Square.
P.S. My conversation with Brother Cleve was so interesting that it merited its own story, in which I trace the history of Boston’s craft cocktail scene with one of its founding members. Read it here.
All photos courtesy of the Somerville Arts Council.