Filmmaker, author, conservationist and jewelry designer Susan Rockefeller says she tries to make everyday decisions that protect the Earth. On the eve of the release of her newest documentary short, Food for Thought, Food for Life, we tag along with Rockefeller at her Bridgehampton home as she prepares a healthy and wholesome harvest for friends.
“This is the garden of Eden right here!” says Susan Rockefeller, clutching a fresh bouquet of parsley, basil and red leaf lettuce for the impromptu dinner party she’s about to host at her 1870s Bridgehampton farmhouse. As she hunches over to pick some beet greens and pea flowers, the filmmaker and committed environmentalist quotes a line from her upcoming documentary short, Food for Thought, Food for Life: “We can be ‘ecolutionaries,’ as Ron Finley [a “guerilla gardener” working to turn South Central L.A.’s vacant lots into public gardens] says in my film. When people are involved in the act of creation and engaged with food, they make choices that are simply and profoundly good for themselves and the planet.”
And, as her guests tonight will soon discover, delicious. “I love making colorful, beautiful salads and playing with flavors and sharing with friends,” she says. “It’s an art that anyone can participate in and brings so much joy.”
Currently making the festival circuit rounds (including a showing at the Southampton Arts Center last month), Food for Thought, Food for Life will be available for everybody to see, free of charge online, starting Oct. 24—which happens to be Food Day, a grass-roots movement hoping to inspire Americans to change their diets and food policies.
But every day is food day in Rockefeller’s world. She is mindful of what goes in her body, and her family’s, at every meal, as well as the impact those selections have on the health of the planet. “I have a long history of loving the Earth,” says Rockefeller, who has degrees in ecological horticulture and environmental studies (among her numerous accomplishments, she spent three years in the Arctic, working with the Inuit on sustainable agriculture, when she was just out of school). “With global climate change, I thought, what’s the best way I can make people feel they can make a difference?” After two films about the need to preserve our oceans (she was co-producer of 2009’s A Sea Change; and producer, director and writer of Mission of Mermaids, the 2012 short doc which inspired an obsession with mermaid art that can be seen throughout her house), she’s come onto dry land, focusing on healthy soil and the effect agriculture has on climate change. “The idea is that people can make a difference three times a day; they can vote with their forks, as [author and activist] Michael Pollan says. They can choose healthy.”
A self-described “flexetarian” (meaning she eats a mostly plant-based diet, with occasional meat) who buys local produce and goods whenever possible, Rockefeller knows not all great things are produced or grown locally—the cheeses she’s put out for appetizers come from France, and the mango and papaya in one of the dinner salads are not native to the area but are purchased in local shops. The coffee currently brewing, though, is from Sagtown in Sag Harbor, and tonight’s dessert, a strawberry rhubarb pie, comes from Sagaponack’s Loaves & Fishes. “I love the artistry with the little heart in the center, and how they’ve used the crust,” she says of the pie. The tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and juicy cherries come from the farm stand next door to Loaves & Fishes.
In her coveted time out East, away from the hustle of Manhattan or the family time up in Maine, Rockefeller is a regular at the Halsey farm stand and other local stands dotted around Sagaponack. “Part of what’s so beautiful about the Hamptons is the open farmlands, so I like to support the local farms that create the open space,” she says.
From the time she was 4 years old, Rockefeller’s family (née Cohn; she married David Rockefeller Jr., the eldest son of David Sr. and Peggy McGrath, in 2008) rented a farmhouse overlooking potato fields, an experience that “left an indelible imprint,” she says. “It’s amazing that I’m now in my own farmhouse. It’s like it’s ingrained, a part of your DNA. The beauty of the landscape, the quality of the light, the scent of the privet out here—all of it is very elemental to me.” As is being by the ocean: “That just makes people feel good. I am really happy when I’m here.”
She’s also noticed a dramatic change over recent years in the ways Hamptons residents think about their relationship to food and the environment. “This place is like the Aspen Institute of the East Coast. There are lots of ideas, lots of people thinking deeply about sustainability and mindfulness, and how to make a difference in our day-to-day lives.”
That includes the friends who have gathered tonight on her back patio, overlooking flower beds of fragrant catmint with its delicate lavender buds, to enjoy an array of fresh vegetarian summer salads. (Her husband is away, or else he would have fired up the outdoor grill too.) Just in from a day of surf and sand in Montauk, noted fashion consultant Julie Gilhart breaks bread with Jane Iselin, who sits on the board of the Peconic Land Trust, while Bridgehampton-based psychotherapist Aniik Libby chats with massage therapist Paul McGregor, who has worked with the Rockefeller family for decades.
Digging into bowls rich with vibrant colors and textures, such as local watermelon, onion and mint tossed with feta, they all marvel at the natural bounty to be found out East, and the commitment to sustainable and creative farming. There are now snails being raised on the East End, and a wonderful local mushroomery—“They’re so beautiful, I use them as my centerpieces” raves Libby, whose father, she says, “was the first person to have a biodynamic organic garden out here, just down the road.”
When talk turns to massage as a form of mothering—holding, touching, giving in a way that one may not have received as a child—the parallels with the great Mother Earth and the acts of growing and cooking for one another are not lost on the host or her guests. “As I wash and tear each leaf of lettuce, it’s a form of giving,” agrees Rockefeller. “Preparing this food is an act of love.”