An Essay from Powell’ about writing “My Empire of Dirt”

When I talk to people about My Empire of Dirt, I tell some outrageous stories from the year I spent turning my back yard in Flatbush, Brooklyn, into a farm that would, with the exception of salt, pepper, and coffee beans, sustain me for at least a month. Some of the tales are — or at least are intended to be — funny, some provocative, some poignant, and some heartbreaking. And when I finally finish talking, the first question is always, “Do you still have the farm?

Hell yes, I reply, and then immediately I equivocate, call it a marriage-preserving compromise.

The Jumper

Once upon a time spring was “jumping season” in NYC. My office window offers a panoramic view of the Brooklyn Bridge. For better or worse, before September 11, 2001, you could count on at least two people making a high-profile dive off one of the two stone towers of the historic bridge. That was then…

NYPD pursues jumper up the cable to the tower

NYPD pursues "jumper" up the cable to the tower

The Jumper

The Brooklyn Bridge

by Manny Howard

I recently spent an afternoon watching a guy

entertaining three of New York’s finest on the

eastern parapet of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was

wearing what looked like a green track suit.

“Jumper!” the call

went up in the office.

The view here is

extraordinary: the

Brooklyn Bridge, the

World Trade Towers,

the financial district,

the Statue of Liberty,

and the harbor

beyond. We had

seats in the sky box

for this one and

watched as the P.D. cleared the roadway of traffic (both to and from Manhattan), set up command posts, moved two pods of Emergency Service Unit officers (the name they give a S.W.A.T. team these days) into position, one on the cables below him and one on the parapet with him. We shared a pair of binoculars, looking through them at the Jumper, who didn’t look like the kind of guy who anybody had paid much attention to before. I don’t know why we all agreed about this, because even with the binoculars it was impossible to tell much of anything. Maybe black, maybe Hispanic. Somebody said he was an Arab. Maybe

Thirty, maybe twenty, he was wearing a baseball cap backward on his head.

Regardless, he had his audience now. There were the three cops in the first ESU unit, two helicopters, two harbor patrol boats, half the tourists in downtown Manhattan, and us. Why hadn’t he jumped already? we asked, handing the binoculars around.

Why don’t the cops just grab him? They were three big guys after all. The one closest was sitting Indian-style right next to Jumper whose feet dangled over the tower. That cop was tethered to the other two guys and the bridge’s super structure. He could just reach out and boom.

Like that.

But Jumper just kept on talking, gesticulating—angry sometimes, sometimes morose.

“He looks a little dingey,” observed someone in the office, handing off the binoculars to pick up a call ringing through on her desk. “We’ll have the meeting in five minutes,’ suggested someone else, wandering towards the water cooler. Soon thecurious crowd at the window thinned to just two of us.

The P.D. had inflated a giant yellow and white mattress thingy on the ground below the parapet. Jumper just talked and talked. “He’s not going anywhere,” said the other guy at the window, walking back to his desk.

“Five bucks says he goes,” I said.

“Dude,” scolded my officemate.

“You can’t bet on that,” said someone else looking up from her computer. I watched for a while longer trying to keep the binoculars in focus. Then I picked up the phone and called a friend in midtown. I explained the situation.

“How long’s he been with the police?” asked the friend.

“Going on twenty minutes.”

“He’s not jumping. No way. These guys jump in the first couple a minutes if they’re gonna go. No way he jumps.”


“Five says he doesn’t jump.”

“I’ll call you.” I said and hung up the phone. The afternoon sun was making it hard to see what was going on but the two cops supporting the negotiator were leaning on the railing on top of the parapet like they were on break now. Bored stiff I figured. Each had one leg up on the railing, the one with the hard hat on had his right arm slung like a wing over the top bar. The cop on point, squatting, stood up now and shook out his legs and Jumper just talked and talked. I took a call and made two. “Is he still up there?” a voice called from the conference room.

“Yep. The cops look pretty bored. I bet this was going to be the highlight of the shift for most of those guys. Now, I don’t know.”

“Yell if something happens.”

“I imagine I will.”

Jumper must have looked down and seen the yellow mattress inflated bellow him. The Eastern parapet, the one in Brooklyn, isn’t in the East River. There’s a cobblestone park below it that’s quite nice to visit just after sunset when the skyline lights start to shine. Anyway, Jumper got pretty agitated and triedto scoot around the other side of the tower, away from the mattress-thingy. He did this on his belly and hung his legs out over the tower to show he meant business.

“He’s moving!” I yelled.

The meeting in the conference room broke up and our windows were full as the three cops dropped to their knees and crawled towards him. He waved his arms wildly.

We all made the same sound when he started to drop. A loud strangled gasp with a curse mixed in there. Jumper spun spread eagle, maybe three revolutions, before he hit an outcropping in the tower half-way down. He only made it half way, though. As he fell he hung pretty close to the granite (quarried in Vineyard Haven, Maine) that the tower’s made of. The ambulance guys are trying to figure a way to get him back onto the roadway right now. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry, though. The three ESU cops are still on the top of the tower. One guy, I’m guessing the lead negotiator, seems pretty broken up.

Traffic out of Manhattan is starting to pick up again, now. It’s just about rush hour. I must say, it tightened me up a bit watching him spin like he did.I sure wish I hadn’t made that bet.

First Published:

A Tricky Stick

FOOD: ADOLPH LEVIS, B. 1911; A Tricky Stick


The New York Times Magazine

Published: December 30, 2001

The Slim Jim was created by Adolph Levis in Philadelphia in the 1940’s. After an unsuccessful early career as a violinist and a failed effort to operate a string of tobacco shops, Levis and a partner had turned to the pickled-food trade, hawking pig’s feet, cabbage and cucumbers to bars and taverns in and around Philadelphia.

mysterious meat snack

mysterious meat snack

Pepperoni, he noticed, was becoming popular among his clientele, and he made an end run around the fad by creating a preserved meat product that, rather than curing for weeks, could be manufactured in a matter of days by a process of fermentation and hot smoking.

The snack sold well in the bars, first in Philadelphia and then up and down the East Coast. Eventually, a bidding war broke out over Slim Jim’s name and recipe, and in 1967, Levis (pronounced LEV-iss) and his partner sold out to General Mills, for $20 million. The brand would pass through three other companies in the ensuing years, and each time it did, the recipe changed a little, to make production cheaper and more efficient. They even started putting chicken into the original all-beef formula. What at first required just 10 common ingredients now calls for 31. But the taste, everyone agrees, remains true to Levis’s original.

The sale of anything, even a stick of dried meat, to a company like General Mills pretty much assures that the instructions for making it become an industrial secret. So when we decided to make a Levis-era Slim Jim, as a salute to its inventor who died this year, we got no help from its current owner, ConAgra. They wished us luck and sent us on our way.

Undeterred, we went to Harvey Brodsky, Levis’s son-in-law, who told us he didn’t know the original recipe. ”It’s not like we’ve got it written down in family scrapbooks,” he said good-naturedly. He supplied one critical clue, however: the use of lactic acid is crucial in the fermentation process because it lowers the pH and imparts a unique tanginess.

We realized that we would have to go freelance, and so our next stop was Wade Moises, the sous-chef and butcher at Lupa restaurant in New York. He is that rare breed, a sausage geek, and he was certain that he could help us reverse-engineer a Slim Jim.

Though he did have some reservations. Before settling down to work, he snapped off a piece of a Slim Jim, chewed it and winced. ”You sure you want to do this?”

From Bruce Aidells, the man who restored the good name of mass-produced sausage in America, we learned that Levis’s original recipe was probably based on an Eastern European thin rope sausage, usually made with pork and beef, because ”its spices are mild and it takes the smoke well.”

A recipe for rope sausage, provided by Aidells, has 10 ingredients (not counting the meat and the fat), like the original Slim Jim. The heat comes from white and black pepper; Moises suggested using cayenne instead and doubling the salt. ”The meat-to-fat ratio is very important and so is the amount of lactic acid,” he says, dropping pieces of top round chuck and beef fat into a meat grinder. ”After that, it’s a question of adjusting the spices.”

Making sausage is really quite straightforward. The meat is ground, then kneaded together with spices, lactic-acid starter (freeze-dried milk, essentially) and a pink curing salt. The meat-and-spice mixture has to be kneaded until it is doughy and can be squeezed through the sausage press and into the sheathing. Slim Jims are now cased in collagen, but we figure that the originals were natural. So we go with lamb intestines,which are properly narrow.

A sausage maker close to the Slim Jim production process, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed to us that a Slim Jim is smoked at between 110 and 140 degrees for 22 hours and then allowed to cool at 50 degrees with next to no humidity. So that’s what we do.

After tasting the first batch, we decide it needs an additional two tablespoons of salt and eight more ounces of fat to make it into Slim Jim territory. By the third generation, we think we have something close, so we let it dry overnight in a refrigerator and then

smoke it. ”I think we got it,” says Moises, looking up from his prep work on the fifth day of our project. ”It could be a bit greasier, but the spice and the tanginess is there.”

We send a package of our homemade Slim Jims overnight to Brodsky. He is defensive and not at all complimentary. ”The samples are way off,” he says in a voice-mail message. ”The color is wrong, the chop is wrong, the consistency of the casing is wrong. The spicing just doesn’t seem to be there, and the lactic-acid starter culture? Didn’t taste any.”

We decide not to take his word for it, and as his father-in-law might have done, we head out to a local tavern. At Montero’s, hard by the Brooklyn docks, a regular sits at the bar. ”You made your own Slim Jim?” he says, as if he has heard this one already too. When I ask if he’d try one and tell me if it tastes like the Slim Jims of old, he wrinkles up his face and says, ”Why not?”

He chews for a moment, then shrugs. ”Sure,” he says. ”You made a Slim Jim. Good for you.”

Wade Moises’s Take on

The Original Slim Jim

(Adapted ffom Bruce Aidells)

1 lamb intestine casing (4 feet long)

2 1/2 pounds top round chuck, cubed

1 pound beef fat, cubed

3 tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

1 teaspoon No. 1 curing salt

4 tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

1/3 cup lactic-acid starter culture.

1. Rinse salt off the sausage casing. Soak in ice water for at least 1 hour.

2. Combine meat and fat. Run the mixture through a meat grinder into a large bowl, using the finest setting. Add all ingredients, along with one cup of ice water. Knead vigorously until mixture is the consistency of bread dough (about 8 minutes).

3. Rinse casing one last time. Choose the narrowest gauge tube of your sausage press. Splash the tube with ice water, then pull the casing over it. Transfer the mixture, about two fistfuls at a time, to the sausage press and then pump the meat into the casing, splashing more water on the tubing as needed to stop the casing from tearing.

4. Preheat an electric smoker to 100 degrees. Hang sausage in the smoker for 22 hours. Temperature should never dip below 90 degrees or go above 110 degrees. After 22 hours, raise the temperature to 150 degrees and cook until the internal temperature reaches 150 to 155 degrees (about 30 minutes).

5. Remove from smoker and let cool at about 50 degrees in a dry place for 4 hours. Cut sausage into 4-inch lengths.

Yield: 16 servings.