Local Boy Makes Food
Late afternoon on May 5 in a windowless, wood-paneled North Miami office, Stephen Brooks feeds his family and friends. His grandparents sit on a low pleather couch, chewing on pieces of dried mango. His father and business partners look up from a topographical map of a hill in Costa Rica to accept an offer of dried Cape gooseberries. They're planning some houses down there, and pause from deliberation just long enough to pucker severely at the berries' tartness.
"Yeah, it's sharp," Brooks concedes. "But isn't it amazing? You could put it on a salad."
Brooks is a tan, blue-eyed 32-year-old who is wearing corduroy cut-offs, a button-down shirt, and sandals. His frizzy hair is bound in a ponytail. Assorted leather pendants hang around his neck. With evident glee he dips plastic spoons in small pots of banana jelly (from Brazil) and maple sugar spread (from Maine) and delights visibly at the chorus of mmms from his family members. His exuberance would give an aerobics instructor an inferiority complex.
Stephen Brooks knows the power of delicious food. Just a few months ago he walked into the executive offices of the Travel Channel in Silver Spring, Maryland, bearing a box of exotic fruits he had grown. He fed everybody, gushing with the same enthusiasm he displayed for his family. Brooks was trying to land himself a television show. And it worked the pilot for the as-yet-untitled show (Edible Planet? Edible Journeys?) will air Monday, June 26, at 8:00 p.m. "Prime time!" crows a very satisfied Brooks.
The show is about where food comes from. But not in a Fast Food Nation or Omnivore's Dilemma kind of way. Brooks will travel around the world to document the cultivation of food in a style called permaculture. "It's about trying to figure out how we can meet our goals and use less energy our mental energy, our physical energy, and most importantly the planet's," he says.
The television show is only the most recent phase of Brooks's role as a green-food prophet. Last year, to promote Kopali Organics, his farmer-friendly food company, Brooks drove a vegetable-oil-fueled coach bus (with coconut wood floors, natural rubber latex seats, and hemp upholstery) to Whole Foods stores around the nation. In the late Nineties, he founded an ecotourism company and organic farm on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast.
And Brooks is of a rare breed: a second-generation Miami Beach native. "He was always a little crazy, a little adventuresome," says Bonnie Brooks, Stephen's pretty, well-coiffed, decidedly not countercultural mother. She moved to Miami Beach at age eleven. His father, Norman Brooks, a retired dentist, was born here. Both Miami Beach High graduates, his parents have been together since eighth grade. "They're still madly in love," Stephen gushes.
"He was the ringleader that everyone followed," recalls his mother. "It was always something unusual. Like getting everybody to start jumping into my pool from the roof."
Brooks graduated from North Miami Beach Senior High and then attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. At the end of his senior year, he visited a girlfriend who was studying abroad in Costa Rica. Not only did he fall in love with the country, but he also found his calling in a banana field. "We were going to visit a Bribri village," he says, referring to an indigenous Costa Rican culture. "We came around a turn that opened out into a view of endless banana plantations. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an airplane swooping down. It had a white plume of pesticides trailing behind it. Suddenly it flew right over us and my eyes, my nose, everything was burning."
Then Brooks saw the crop duster buzz over a group of children playing. At first he was outraged, but then he had an epiphany. "Who was responsible? I was. Every morning, when I ate my Chiquita banana with my Cinnamon Life growing up," he says.
In 1996 his paternal grandfather passed away. With $38,000 the inheritance left to him he purchased a 30-acre tract of land on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. It had no roads, no electricity, and no running water. He moved there.
The land had once been part of an Afro-Caribbean community. Brooks quickly befriended its only remaining inhabitant, Blas "Padi" Martínez. Like his elderly neighbor, he learned to live off the land. At first he ate only yuca, plantains, and fish. "I came up with some pretty funky recipes," he insists. Within a year, however, his gardening skills improved. Soon he found himself growing a grove of 50 trees, collecting useful plants, and getting "really into" agriculture.
The farm, which he named Punta Mona, grew into a botanical breadbasket, completely self-sustaining. With the help of friends who eventually joined him, he constructed buildings from fallen trees, and roofs from thatched leaves. Solar panels provide the only electricity. Methane gas from the septic system powers the stoves in the kitchen. ("Did you have a brother? Did he light his farts on fire?" asks Brooks.)
The biofuel bus tours began in 2003. "I got into a conversation with a friend in Punta Mona, this crazy hobo anarchist named Spider," Brooks says. Spider asked him how he justified flying back and forth to the United States. "He pointed out that each flight was like 600 car trips' worth of fuel." Spider's indignation planted the seed of an idea in Brooks's mind. In November 2003, after raising $25,000 to outfit the ride, Brooks and others piloted two buses filled with 26 people from San Francisco to Costa Rica. Their fuel? Discarded vegetable oil, picked up from restaurants along their route through Central America.
They would pull into tiny towns and draw crowds. Univision's news show Primer Impacto followed them on a leg of the trip. Newspapers branded them ecological missionaries. The journey was repeated in 2004. Another bus tour will travel through Mexico this year.
Brooks also embarked on epic journeys to the Amazon, to the jungles of Borneo collecting seeds and useful plants. He met farmers, both in Costa Rica and other countries, and wanted to help them achieve financial independence. To do so he founded his company, Kopali Organics, in 2004. Whole Foods agreed to distribute its products, which will be in Florida stores this summer.
Back in the windowless office in North Miami, Stephen's parents explain they try to eat organically now, and their back yard has a new crop of fruit trees. Stephen and Norman are also planting a garden with vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Stephen admits he feels a little culturally isolated from the place where he grew up, although he's been looking to purchase some land in Homestead. "I'm obsessed with the Fruit and Spice Park," he says.
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