Mark Dornstreich, 72, farmer whose produce was cherished by chefs

Posted: January 31, 2014

IMAGINE JUDY Dornstreich's reaction when her husband, a sophisticated urban academic, announced that he didn't want to teach anymore.

She and Mark were ensconced in a Mumbai hotel room, having experienced the meditation techniques of an Indian swami while on sabbatical, and his announcement was, as she describes it, "jaw-dropping."

What came next was even harder on the jaw. He said he wanted to grow vegetables.

This New York-born anthropologist who had spent two years studying the diet of a stone-age tribe in New Guinea, this professor at Rutgers University, wanted to be a farmer.

"I love nature," Judy said. "I wasn't that identified with my own career as a psychologist, and I felt that if the experiment didn't work out, we could always go back to what we were doing."

And so, after apprenticing at an organic farm in York, Pa., and studying agriculture in England, Mark and Judy bought a 21-acre farm that straddles the Perkiomen Creek in Perkasie, Bucks County.

Branch Creek Farm was born in 1978, and proceeded over the years to provide highly praised organic produce to some of the top chefs in the Philadelphia region.

Mark Dornstreich, who earned a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and who once said he was driven to be a farmer by the "magnetic pull of growing things," died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 72.

Judy, who earned a master's from Columbia's Teachers College and was a counseling psychologist, was pregnant at the time of the farm purchase and already the mother of a 3-year-old boy and an infant girl.

"I think I only complained once," Judy said. "I said, 'Here I am barefoot and pregnant and you're out there on a tractor.' "

She gave birth to the last of their four children at age 45.

It's understandable that both of their parents and many acquaintances thought Mark and Judy were nuts. But many important chefs were grateful they persevered.

"I can describe him in two words: legend and pioneer," said Chris Scarduzio, longtime Le Bec-Fin chef and now a co-owner of its successor, Avance. "He was a legend for the product and services he rendered, and a pioneer because he helped to bring the farm-to-table concept to Philadelphia chefs.

"His products were not just ingredients; they were gifts from Mark, and the chefs he served treated them as gifts - produced with love. He was a great man."

In a March 2011 Daily News story, chef Michael Solomonov, owner of Zahav, Xochitl and Percy Street Barbecue, said of Mark and Judy: "You know how powerful a taste memory can be. The memory of the first time you ate something amazing is always the best it's ever tasted. Every single time I eat anything they make, it's like the first time I've had it."

Mark and Judy, who met as seniors at the University of Pennsylvania, had enough adventures in New Guinea to satisfy most people. They were there to study the dietary habits of the aboriginal tribe for Mark's doctorate. They were so isolated that to get to the nearest store was a two-day hike and river journey.

Once, Mark had to travel for three days to get the medicine to treat Judy's malaria. Antibiotics they brought back actually saved the life of a tribesman who was near death from infection.

"Once, we brought back Cadbury chocolate bars," Judy said. "The natives had never tasted chocolate. To see the expressions on their faces as they ate was so cute. The men would go off into the jungle with their bows and arrows and Mark would follow them," Judy said. "We measured everything they ate."

It was the New Guinea experience, she believes, that led Mark to want to be a farmer. She said that being with people "who had a direct connection with the land, who were masters of their environment," led her husband to desire that same link with the earth.

Since Mark's illness, Branch Creek Farm is operating on a lesser scale, and part of it has been taken over by another farmer.

Besides his wife, he is survived by two sons, Elijah and Jesse, and two daughters, Sophie and Eva.

Services: 11 a.m. today at Joseph Levine & Sons, 4737 Street Road, Trevose. Burial will be at Har Nebo Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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