The New York culinary scene is a tough ocean to navigate. Filled with almost every cuisine at nearly every price point, it's almost impossible to taste everything. Luckily, New Yorkers now have NYC Food Crawls, with Mara Sorkin at the helm. She hosted her first Food Crawl in October, handing out maps of cheap dumpling spots and asking crawlers to taste test. The crawls have soared in popularity since then, with April's Taco Crawl taking place next Thursday. Mara talked to us a little about her love for food, hatred of public speaking, and why New York is the best place to hold these things.
What first brought you to New York? I'm originally from Los Angeles. I came out to the East Coast for college, then gravitated down to New York for a job in publishing and never left the city.
What first gave you the idea for the Food Crawls? NYC Food Crawl grew out of my love of dumplings. I wanted to do a dumpling crawl for more than a year, but my friends kept bailing and I couldn't get a group together to join me on a dumpling adventure. Finally, I decided to just do it no matter who would come with me and posted the first crawl, the October Dumpling Crawl, on the Nonsense List. Thinking 10 people might show up, I printed out a few maps and hoped the weather would hold. It was one of the first chilly fall nights, and more than 60 people showed up, nearly all of them strangers. I realized there might be more of an interest in food crawling than I'd initially thought and decided to start NYC Food Crawl with a goal of providing one food crawl per month, focusing on foods that are cheap, precious, and portable.
It seems like some neighborhoods lend themselves easily to certain foods, like Chinatown for pork buns or Chelsea for brownies. What do you do when you have a food that's hard to centralize? The biggest challenge for NYC Food Crawl is geographic density. With ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Murray Hill, it is very simple to determine locations because there are many within a 10-block walking radius. The East Village is also a great mecca for food because its restaurants tend to fall into NYC Food Crawl's demographic of cheap, tasty, quick, and portable. I do extended research every month for locations and neighborhoods that would represent an interesting and well-rounded crawl, but find that many of my ideas—and the ideas offered by members of NYC Food Crawl—are difficult to execute in reality. A french fry crawl comes to mind. I guess I'd say that geography often determines the food theme rather than the other way around.
How do you choose what to crawl? I take a lot of suggestions from NYC Food Crawl members through the voting that is done after every crawl, then I select foods I think will be seasonally appropriate, cheap, and portable after I've done my research. Once I've determined possible locations, I reach out to the owners, request discounts, inform them about the crawl, and finally announce the food theme for the month. Other factors that go into deciding which food include a delicate balancing act that I hope fill appeal to a wide group of people: sweet vs. savory, meat vs. vegetarian, and which day of the week are all factors for consideration.
What do you like best about running these? I'm a foodie; I like eating! But seriously, it's fun to be able to share my passion for food with a large group of people, and I like exposing people to restaurants and bakeries they might not ever try on their own. In the case of this last food crawl, the March Brownie Crawl, I had never been to any of the bakeries myself, so it was as much an exploration and adventure for me as it was for the rest of the people on the crawl.
What's most challenging or frustrating about organizing the event? You can never please everyone. If you pick pork buns, the vegetarians will hate you. If you pick brownies, the diabetics complain. If you find six locations in a 4-block radius, they wonder why you didn't seek out variety across a wider area, and if you find six locations in a 10-block radius, they complain that they have to walk too far. Everyone has suggestions for foods they want on the crawl, but almost nobody understands how difficult it is to meet the needs of our rapidly growing group. I suppose the other challenge is that some locations are really rude when I contact them about participating in the crawl. When I explain that I am bringing more than 150 participants to their location in a 2-hour period, they tell me I am crazy to ask for a discount for the group.
What do you do besides the crawls? My New Year's Resolution for 2010 was to learn how to cook by making one homecooked meal every week. I've organized a bunch of dinner parties with friends and neighbors, and thankfully have a very patient boyfriend who is teaching me how to cook one (vegetarian) dish at a time. I've been documenting my culinary progress on Facebook and four months into the year, my resolution is still going strong! Outside of my food passions, I enjoy going to see classical music at Lincoln Center, taking my puppy to the dog park, and fleeing town for romantic weekends in the mountains.
Any plans to expand on the crawls, or will they just keep being awesome as usual? Well, from a numbers perspective we're already too big, so I'm actually hoping to take future crawls out to the boroughs which I suspect will lower attendance slightly. This month, I'm having a friend help plan the crawl, so my goal will be to emancipate NYC Food Crawl from my clutches and encourage more people in the group to step up and plan crawls. It would be great it if it could be a more participatory process with a larger group of people offering leadership and planning people to be involved in the group's leadership and planning process so I can attend the crawls as a participant rather than an organizer.
Tell us the best story from one of the crawls! I'll tell you a secret. I'm a terrible public speaker. My stage fright is immense and crippling. I get tongue-tied and flustered and blush down to my toes when I have to talk to a group of strangers. One of the hardest things about executing the crawls is standing up on a bench or a lamppost to give the introductory "Welcome to NYC Food Crawl speech" before organizing teams and passing out the maps. But each time I do it, I'm growing a little more confident. I get a lot of warmth and support from everyone, and seeing familiar faces in the crowd from crawl to crawl makes me think that maybe this accidental food crawl idea is turning out to be a good one after all. And I'm definitely looking forward to the summer crawls when we'll get to enjoy some seasonal foods like ice cream and lemonade and gelato!