Uncommon Exchange

Doug Reil gives Maria Myers the produce donated to Cafeina.

Uncommon Exchange

Doug Reil serves up a radical idea in food sharing

By Rachel Trachten
Photos by Nicki Rosario

If you’re looking for a tasty meal made from locally sourced produce this season, but are not quite up for Chez Panisse, consider Cafeína Organic Café, Bua Luang Thai, or Tay Tah Café in Albany, or Elevation 66 Brewing Company in El Cerrito. At these humble little eateries, you might enjoy something even “The Chez” can’t serve up: a dish made with hyper-local produce.

Yes, hyper-local. Think: grown within 10 miles.

The produce is being served at these spots thanks to a local activist and book publisher named Doug Reil. His “Garden to Table” initiative, launched last summer, is providing a way for home gardeners in the Albany-Berkeley-El Cerrito corridor to connect with local restaurants that might like to serve their produce.

And while this would seem like an admirable exercise in extreme locavorism, it’s actually more than that. Reil is interested in community-building, and he’s also conducting an experiment in alternative economy.

He got the idea when his company, the nonprofit North Atlantic Books, published Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. Reil was struck by Eisenstein’s notion that our current economy, focused on money and growth, is unsustainable in the long run. An alternative the book outlines is the “principle of the gift transaction.”

“Unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants,” Eisenstein writes. In a gift economy there is no expectation of reciprocity; instead, a mindset develops in which giving freely leads to more giving.

Reil has found that bringing restaurants on board with this idea is not a quick process—it takes multiple conversations as well as visits to the gardens to assure owners and chefs that the produce is not only safe and delicious, but also free of charge. “They default to cost even though I tell them it’s free,” says Reil. Once they join in, he adds, it takes restaurant owners some time to become engaged with the experience he’s offering.                                              

gardentotable-9723_lookMAKING THE ROUNDS
On a chilly June morning, I catch up with Reil as he harvests heirloom carrots, romaine lettuce, and zucchini from his home garden in El Cerrito. He adds them to a box earmarked for Cafeína, then heads to Albany, stopping along the way to pick up herbs from permaculture expert Delia Carroll. Her donation to the café includes bunches of chocolate mint and oregano, plus leaves and roots of lovage, a perennial herb she suggests using as you would celery root. During the visit, Reil and Carroll chat about a proposed orchard on the Ohlone Greenway, a newly approved city food hub in Vancouver, BC, and the classes Carroll teaches on medicinal herbs.Throughout the East Bay’s attenuated summer growing season, Reil makes weekly pickups from between 10 and 30 home gardeners who want to offer their excess fruits and veggies. He then delivers the goods to the four establishments mentioned above.

Grower Delia Carroll indtroduces Reil to the perennial herb lovage.

Twenty minutes later, Reil walks into Cafeína toting his produce. The neighborly feeling is evident at this six-year-old café, where owner Maria Myers is busy chatting with customers waiting for an espresso or a cup of tea.

“Oh, perfect!” says Myers as she greets Reil with a hug. “I love lovage! I’ll use it in a soup.” The chocolate mint, she explains, will go well in a chocolate dessert.

True to her word, Myers later adds the carrots, zucchini, and lovage to a chicken soup she prepares with brown basmati rice and shitake mushrooms. She garnishes her divine chocolate-strawberry shortcake with the mint.

Cafeína was the first restaurant to sign on to Garden to Table when Reil launched it in 2011. To allay any concerns Myers might have had about the produce, Reil took her out on a tour of the gardens. “The food is grown without pesticides; it’s loved and nurtured,” she says. “And it’s nice to have a connection with your growers.”

Myers’ way of thanking the growers has been with café gift certificates and an occasional jar of “worm tea,” a fertilizer her husband makes from worm castings and the restaurant’s composted veggies. Taking part in Garden to Table has also prompted Myers to deepen her ties to the community. During last summer’s Albany Local Week, she offered a daily “grown in Albany” special using produce that Reil delivered.  He recalls that it was a good time for beans and tomatoes and that by putting out a plea to his regular growers and other community members, he was able to ramp up his delivery to Cafeína from weekly to daily during that week. Myers, in turn, could offer a different special each day at a lower cost than her usual fare.

“How can we highlight the gift exchange to better a lot of things and to show a different way?” Reil asks. He notes that in some cultures, the people most highly regarded are those who are most generous.

Giving produce to local restaurants may seem like a surprising choice when so many people don’t have fresh food to eat. But Reil is not just donating food; he’s arguing for a profound shift in our society, from a competitive model to a cooperative one. “This is the heart of sustainability,” he says, adding that it’s also a response to real future challenges. Although his focus is on highlighting a new type of local economy, he also has plans for donating produce to food banks and for building partnerships with school and community gardens.


Reil is a member of the Transition movement, an international group that advocates the creation of self-reliant neighborhoods where people grow their own food, cooperate with neighbors, and decrease their dependence on oil. (See Edible East Bay’s Harvest 2011 issue.) Through Transition Albany, Reil met retired UC Berkeley engineer Ed Fields, who became a regular Garden to Table donor.

“I really believe in this,” says Fields. “People should be sharing what they’re growing, and it shouldn’t go to waste.”

When Fields saw his neighbor’s plum tree overflowing with fruit, he asked if he could pick the extras. Once harvested, the plums got passed along to Reil.

But Reil has also been encouraging people to grow more so there will be more to share. Fields has been swept along with the idea, and his wife Maureen, an avid flower gardener, has obliged, giving up some of her tiny plot to make room for more edibles.

Reil leads by example. He moved from Albany to El Cerrito last February, and by June had about 15 crops coming up in his yard, including three kinds of heirloom pickling cucumbers. Reil’s son Cashel, age 4, helped plant watermelon, lettuce, and carrots.

                                                                                                                                  Doug Reil surveys his “farmlet”

“I think of my garden as a ‘farmlet,’” says Reil, whose grandfather was a farmer in Connecticut. “It’s for my family and the community.”                                                   

Reil’s wife, cookbook author Robin Donovan (The Lazy Gourmet) makes expert use of the produce, and during last year’s Albany Local Week the two teamed up to lead a skill-sharing session where he made pickles and she turned green beans into hot dilly beans. They also participated in an applesauce- and jam-making event at the Albany Community Center last September. “We pooled our fruit and all worked together,” Reil says of the jam-boree. “It was in the spirit of an old-fashioned barn-raising.”

Reil’s initiatives are well timed. According to the National Gardening Association (NGA), one-third of American households participated in food gardening in 2011. In addition, sales for food gardening items totaled $2.99 billion in 2010, representing the highest level of spending in that sector in more than a decade.

“If one good thing came out of our recession woes, it’s that many people have reconnected with the land and are growing their own vegetables, fruit, berries, and herbs,” says Mike Metallo, NGA’s president.

Last year’s pickles


For Reil, having too many lemons turns into yet another opportunity for spreading the word on the ideas of sharing and a gift economy. Under the umbrella of a larger initiative he calls Bay Food Shed, Reil engages in a small bit of activism he has dubbed “Local Lemonade.”

When the 2012 bumper crop of local lemons was at its peak in May, he set up a stand at the Albany Arts & Green Festival, bringing a batch of his simple syrup, water, and a hand juicer, along with crates of donated lemons. Throughout the afternoon, thirsty kids and adults lined up for Reil’s sweet-tart beverage, which he handed out for free in small cups along with a big message about growing food in your own backyard. The lemonade got high marks, and people also took time to chat with Reil about growing lemons, baking bread with lemons, pickling, and making kombucha. When one woman wanted to pay for her lemonade, Reil was able to explain his ideas on a gift economy, while also saying that he will accept donations for the paper cups, which he had to purchase. By the time the event ended, he had given away over 6 gallons of lemonade juiced from 55 pounds of donated lemons from eight local households, and had delivered his message to hundreds.

So indeed, when life gives you lemons, do make lemonade. But then consider emulating Doug Reil: share your lemonade, your lemons, and your knowledge about them; plant more lemon trees; and inspire those around you to do the same. 


A cuke headed for this year’s pickling.

Cafeína Organic Café, 1389 Solano Avenue,
Albany; www.cafecafeina.com

Bua Luang Thai, 1166 Solano Avenue,
Albany; www.bualuangalbany.com

Tay Tah Café, 1182 Solano Avenue,
Albany; www.themenupage.com/taytahcafe

Elevation 66 Brewing Company, 10082 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito; www.elevation66.com

Sacred Economics: www.sacred-economics.com

Bay Food Shed: www.facebook.com/bayfoodshed

Transition organizations: www.transitionus.org www.transitionalbany.org www.transitionberkeley.com

Rachel Trachten is a freelance journalist and the managing editor of Conscious Dancer magazine. While working on this story, she donated lemons from her tree to Local Lemonade and got busy planting lettuce and cucumbers.


Doug Reil’s Cornichon Pickles

Cornichons are the small pickles traditionally served with pâté and baguette in French bistros. Make them with heirloom cucumber varieties such as De Bourbonne, Fin de Meaux, and Parisian Pickling. If your cucumbers are small, pickle them whole. Larger cukes can be sliced into spears or chips.

2 pounds of small pickling cukes

½ cup kosher salt , divided into ¼ cups

1 large clove garlic, quartered

½ tablespoon peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 cup white distilled vinegar (5{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} acidity)

1 cup white wine vinegar (usually 7{94d79dd6af1e87a94e700e4c297236468333f22e27ed5757b44711974a9a4b91} acidity)

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

3 or 4 one-pint canning jars

3 or 4 new canning jar lids (New lids are essential for ensuring a proper seal.)

Prepare brine by adding ¼ cup salt to 4 cups of water. Prepare cucumbers by removing stems and blossoms and rubbing off the little spines. Then soak them in the brine for 6 to 8 hours.

When ready to resume, place jars in a large pot of water, making sure they are sitting securely—a canning rack is always helpful. Bring water to boil to sterilize the jars and keep them hot until ready to fill.  Also boil the lids in a small pan of water, letting them sit in the water until ready to use.

In a medium saucepan, combine vinegar, remaining ¼ cup salt, and 2 cups of water and bring to a boil.

Divide garlic, mustard seeds, bay leaves, and peppercorns evenly between jars. Rinse and dry cucumbers and then stuff them into the jars to within ½ inch of the top of the jar.

Pour hot vinegar mixture over the pickles, leaving ¼ inch of headspace. Remove any air bubbles using a nonmetallic utensil, place a lid on each jar, and screw on rings to finger tightness. Process jars for 10 minutes using the hot water canning method (for instructions, see www.freshpreserving.com/guides/IntroToCanning.pdf ).

Remove jars and let cool, checking seals. (You should hear the lids pop as the seal forms, at which point the center of the lid will depress. If jars do not seal, refrigerate and use the pickles soon, or repeat the process with fresh lids to get a good seal.) Do not tighten rings until jars are fully cooled.

Store in a cool, dark place. The cornichons will be best after they have sat in their pickling juice for 3 to 4 weeks. Properly canned, they will keep for up to a year.

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