A Healthy Obsession: Homegrown Food Makes a House a Home

As a girl, she learned to love fresh, simple food. Now this South Brunswick homeowner grows her own, cooks for friends (and the needy) and teaches healthy eating to others.

Abby Hoffman
Abby Hoffman believes in eating fresh and local, and practices what she preaches by growing fruits and vegetables on her property. The raised garden beds are surrounded by old tiles she and friends salvaged from the defunct South Amboy Terra Cotta Company.
Photo by Jeff McNamara

Abby Hoffman’s mother just might have been a bit ahead of her time. “Mom was fascinated with food,” Hoffman recalls. “She didn’t believe in canned or packaged food. We grew up eating fresh fruits and vegetables in season.” In 1976, when Hoffman left her Maryland hometown for college, the phrase “farm to table” was not yet coin of the realm, but she had already embraced the agricultural and culinary values it suggests. “Healthy food has always been an obsession,” she says. “It’s a commitment; a way of life.”

GOING HER OWN WAY

After earning a master’s degree in human services and social work, Hoffman spent 13 years in the public health field, working on issues related to curbing tobacco, alcohol and drug abuse. “Then managed care came in, and it got miserable,” she says. Hoffman left the field in 1995. That same year, Hoffman began taking classes at Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where she and her partner, Robin, had often visited. “I was already very interested in pottery,” she says. “Then I went there and got hooked.”

A second career began to take shape. A year later, Hoffman visited Greece and, working with a group of artists from the Art School of the Aegean, helped produce two 8-foot-long tile murals. “I came back from that trip and said, ‘This is what I do now.’” Classes at Parsons and the New School, both in New York City, helped Hoffman perfect her craft. In 1998, she launched Sacred Tile, offering hand-crafted custom tiles for large and small installations.

Meanwhile, in an informal sense, Hoffman’s second career has always been in the kitchen. In 1993, she and Robin settled in South Brunswick, where they kept an organic garden, growing fruits and vegetables. (Both are vegetarians.) With Hoffman working at home, they started thinking about getting a larger place.

In fact, they had their eyes on a 3 ½-acre property just half a mile from their home. When it became available in 2005, they bought it.

The spread had once housed a grist mill. The main house, circa 1735, was originally known as the Davidson Mill House. With the exception of a Greek Revival addition in the 1810s, the original farmhouse was largely intact. Though well taken care of, it needed renovation. The pair had the old floors and joists replaced and reclaimed barn-wood floors installed, all while preserving the integrity of the historic structure.

The grounds had been perfectly groomed and maintained by the previous owners, avid gardeners who primarily planted flowers. Hoffman’s first priority was to begin converting the garden from flowers to food.

“The first thing we did was add the vegetable garden,” she says. “Then we added fruits. Now we’re adding nuts, like hazelnuts.” Two acres are now cultivated, yielding such crops as raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, rhubarb, asparagus, onions, a variety of lettuces and herbs, and much more. Hoffman puts in countless hours each season wielding spade and hoe.

“First it’s for food, then it’s native ornamental, then it’s ornamental non-native such as perennials, then it’s annuals. This garden is not just for show.”

SPREADING THE WORD
Hoffman doesn’t obsess about food just for her own benefit. One or two days a week, she volunteers as a chef at Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based soup kitchen and culinary school that endeavors to serve only healthy, unprocessed, freshly prepared meals. “There are a bunch of us who changed the culture there, from saying poor people will eat anything to saying we all should eat healthy food,” she says. “I’m absolutely passionate about it.” Hoffman also teaches classes through the organization. “My specialty is whole foods and vegetarian cooking,” she says. “I believe in farm-to-table eating.” (New Jersey Monthly honored Hoffman for her volunteerism at Elijah’s Promise with a 2012 Seeds of Hope Award.)

When not gardening, cooking or teaching, Hoffman spends the majority of her time creating custom tiles in her studio, formerly the grist mill’s barn. She named the business Sacred Tile, she says, to evoke the sensibility not just in her tile work but in all her endeavors.

The common qualities, she says, are “care and attentiveness, respect, generosity and love.” She draws a tactile parallel between food baking and creating tiles. “A lot of the functions are similar,” she says, citing, the rolling of dough and clay, the glazing of surfaces, the magical transformation effected by firing in an oven. Hoffman displays some of her favorite tiles around the house, and the two art forms join on the face of the custom-built, wood-fired, outdoor pizza oven.

One of Hoffman’s specialties—she often cooks for friends—is fresh grilled pizza. She makes her own whole-wheat dough, basil pesto and sauce; buys fresh mozzarella in Hoboken and mushrooms from a local farm stand; pulls chard and herbs from her own garden. “Good food is about good product,” she says proudly. “I do good product.”

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