We all know about Lowell from elementary school history – a cog of 19th century industrialization in the U.S., it has served as backdrop for many a historical drama. But what about Lowell now? While it gained a reputation as one of Massachusetts’ multiple depressed post-industrial cities post World War II (which, rude, Harper’s), that couldn’t be any further from the truth today. A swiftly growing city, Lowell is alive with independent restaurants, locally-owned stores, and, as it has encouraged since its early days, a diverse immigrant community.
Nothing better exemplifies this dedication to local diversity and independence than the Farm Market at Mill No. 5. Tucked neatly away in a refurbished factory space, Mill No. 5 is a small, enchanted village of funky indie stores and unique, delicious restaurants and markets. And once a week they hold their bustling market, which draws vendors from across New England, who offer everything from seasonal eggs to mead, pickled veggies to pasta.
“It's a confluence of many different ideas and goals are coming together,” Jim Lichoulas, Developer of Mill No. 5 tells me. “I grew up around these buildings and with the pieces of the industrial revolution around us… We want to create something that is very special that people could relate to.”
And it’s all about the people at Mill No. 5, and Lowell. Not only is the town home to a diverse community, but they encourage their art spaces mightily, creating an incubator feel for shops and attractions beyond food: a second-run theatre that shows 80’s movies & anime; a storefront that sells street-art-themes Lowell merch; a genuine record store; and a pocket-sized second hand store, among many others.
“[Our community] is one of transition that is changing very rapidly… There's a large contingent of people whose parents [and] grandparents were here… a lot of people are leaving the Boston area [for here]... there's a huge population of immigrants where we might be their first experience in America. And they bring a great cultural energy and some unique things here that you really can't find in other places.” Lichoulas says. “This is a community for for all people. We operate by basically one overriding rule: be kind and polite and treat others with respect no matter who they are.”
A mission that we soon see extends to their vendors – because as we venture from store to store, we find that we are welcomed with knowledgeable enthusiasm from smiling shop girls and barista-dudes alike. And while the warm welcome was certainly delightful, it’s going to be the quality of their products that keep us coming back. From tea leaves to food carts and even something so simple as fresh eggs, the products we found at Mill No. 5 were each distinctive and delicious.
While we could go on all day about the individual vendors at the space, here is a (small!) selection of our favorites:
Our cheese cases are packed full of good things! We’ve got plans for Saturday Snacks, a Great Cheeses of Massachusetts promotion, more beautiful domestic cheeses for #AmericanCheeseMonth, and new chocolates and jams. Someone had better come help us before the Dairy Queens eat it ourselves! #itcouldhappen #cheeseshop #millcitycheese #foodinlowell #bostonfood #bostonfoodies #eatnewengland #millno5 #cheesepairi gs #foodandwine
Mill City Cheesemongers
From the cozy warmth of the hallway, it’s a pleasant surprise to wander into the bright and airy space that is Mill City Cheesemongers, my first stop on the Mill No. 5 trail. While not the biggest cheese shop I’ve been into, it’s certainly one of the most delicately curated, the wares sitting in a pleasantly lit case, like so many jewels. But the careful selection - and presentation - shouldn’t be a surprise when the proprietor is the (ahem) big cheese of cheese in Massachusetts: Beth Falk, who is also the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cheese Guild. But it’s not all about sharp cheddar and creamy brie with Falk, who’s conceived the shop for a larger focus.
“Our goal here is to introduce people to locally produced dairy products – cheeses primarily, some meats and other things…” she says. “All of it comes either from farmers that we know and have met, or from distributors and importers who can vouch for animal welfare on the farm. Good sustainable agriculture is really our focus.”
As much as that might have been a difficulty in the past with the rise in corporate farming and decrease in small farms, Falk says she’s starting to see a turn, with the new generation of family farms looking for new venues to boost their bottom line.
“Right now we're sort of in a crisis moment with dairy farmers.” Falk tells me. “Commodity milk is just not priced at a point that can sustain them. And so some of them have turned to making cheese which is a value added product keeps their farms going up.”
But this isn’t any New-England-dirt-road cheddar. The cheeses that Falk serves up at her little tasting counter are decadent, amazing, and diverse. From the rich & creamy Rollright, to the light and lemony Ellie’s Cloudy Down, to the nutty, earthy Manchester. And while the majority of the cheeses are locally made, Falk does import a few selections to expand their dairy offerings. And alongside their dairy counter are walls and walls of crackers and crisps, bespoke jams and chocolates, compote and pickles, and even some hand embroidered aprons and towels. It’s a fun, eclectic mix that very much reflects the town itself, Falk noting the same time of transition that Lichoulas mentioned in my chat with him.
“People [are] moving in – younger people, empty nesters – it's kind of an interesting confluence of different types of communities who are interested in food.”
Mill City Grows
But as quickly as the Lowell community may be growing and changing – and as interested as they may be in food – that doesn’t necessarily signify an overabundance in the area. In fact, as I meet with Gallagher Hannan, the Director of Operations for Urban Farming and Markets at Mill City Grows, I come to find that it’s in fact often a result of the area lacking what the community needs.
“A lot of Lowell is considered to be a food desert,” Hannan starts. “[It’s] a designation that has to do with having a large low-income population and then not a lot of access to ready access to markets... And there's no other organizations that are really doing what we're doing [in the area].”
But despite being a relatively small local organization, Mill City Grows is making a big impact, in many ways. They have seven community gardens with close to 200 plots; school gardens across Lowell that have been folded into curricula with the support of administrations; and around 7 acres of urban farming sites. Between all of those sites, Mill City Grows gets about 30,000 pounds of food that is distributed through their mobile market program. It’s impressive to be sure, but Mill City Grows isn’t stopping there, as Hannan tells me.
“We are trying to branch out and be able to offer more specialty crops that are specifically geared toward the different ethnic populations... [And] because as a small organic farm, it just makes our farm ecosystem healthier overall.”
This depth of knowledge and dedication to their crops and products shows in the Mill City produce that I picked up from their stand at Mill No. 5: Colorful yams, crisp leeks, stalks of Brussel sprouts – and even some delicious jams. But it’s not just at the mill where you can get your hands on this farm-fresh deliciousness: their lovely little mobile market is at different locations throughout the week.
“One of the things that I think is so cool about urban agriculture is that we're able to grow food, but at the same time we're also really doing community building, too…” Hannan ponders aloud to me. “Community gardens are such a cool example of all these different overlapping uses and values in one space.”
A microcosm, it seems, of Lowell itself.
While we’ve spent our time so far talking about the excellent places to get the elements of a great meal, the Mill’s dedication to excellent and diverse food extends beyond the ingredients to create a great dish. From the rotating food trucks out front, to their new appointment of a head chef at their flagship cafe, Coffee and Cotton, Mill No. 5 makes sure that they also offer plenty of options for their guests who are hungry… like, right now. And one of our personal favorite options is Koshari Mama.
“My daughter Dina and I had the concept to make delicious vegan food that's part of our heritage,” says Sahar Ahmed, the Mama in Koshari Mama. “We're egyptian and... koshari is like the national dish of Egypt.”
If you haven’t had koshari before, don’t worry – neither had we. But two minutes after finding the Koshari Mama cart saw us watching in awe as Dina Fahim (head chef & Sahar’s daughter) whipped up a bowl of one of the most delectable vegan dishes we’d had.
Starting with a base of rice, Dina ladles lentils, chickpeas, some (ridiculously amazing) fried onions and a smattering of elbow macaroni on top, before spooning two sauces – a tomato one that they offer in many varieties of spicy, and a delicious garlic – over the concoction. Alongside came a bowl of baked tomato and eggplant, along with some great pickled/fermented veggies. A perfect flavor combination, with the tang of the tomatoes, garlic and pickled veg bouncing against the richness of the lentils, onions and chickpeas. A high quality dish at a surprisingly low price… but that’s all part of Koshari Mama’s mission.
“Our reason for starting the company is kind of twofold,” Sahar tells me. “It was to bring in a cultural piece… to connect with people through food. And the second part is to make some kind of an impact. And what we're what we're doing is we are partnering with local nonprofits to hire at risk people who haven't really gotten a fair chance for whatever reason.”
That reasoning – hiring at-risk people who haven’t gotten a fair shake, low priced, but highly filling food – comes from Sahar’s long background in health and human services, and Dina’s time working as a cook in high-end kitchens. The crossover between the work of mother and daughter was an inspired fit – and one that synced right up with Lowell’s own spirit.
“It's a great city with a lot to offer,” Dina says with a smile. “And it was truly welcoming... When we went to get help to begin [our business], we really were welcomed [here] – and that was that was a big plus.”
Finally, I head into a bright-but-witchy looking little store just across from the Cheese mongers. Called Crose Nest, it’s got a great vibe, the walls filled with herbs, salts, minerals, and even jewelry and home goods – exactly the type of store the Hermione Granger generation of witches would stock up in.
“Crose Nest was created out of acknowledging the gap in the way that we incorporate herbs and herbal medicine ito our daily lives,” Kinsey Rosene, owner of the shop tells me. “[I felt] the need to create a space for the community where people could be more hands on with herbalism and feel safe in doing so.”
The safety aspect is definitely present here. When you first walk through the door, the walls of mysteriously named ingredients seem intimidating… but the casual, quiet friendliness of the staff immediately puts one at ease. We’re complete tea nerds, so we naturally gravitate to an antique wooden table at the center of the room, covered in measuring implements and books of herbal remedy recipes. Within moments we’ve whipped up a personalized blend – an Earl Grey Base with gingko, skullcap, ginger, and damiana – guaranteed to get us going in the mornings.
In a time where there is an increasing call for organics and better definition of the ingredients in our food and beauty products, a store like Crose Nest is a bit of terrific. And all of it comes from Kinsey’s own experiences with modern medical supplements.
“I started studying herbalism... really out of desperation kind of wanting to find some alternative ways to approach some of my own health issues after not having a lot of success with other modalities of medicine,” she says. “After talking about my education with people in real life I realized that a lot of people are very intimidated by incorporating herbalism into their daily life.”
She’s definitely made headway in reversing that intimidation – and not just when it comes to tea. The tea station, is complemented with a complete herbal mix station, and the store also offers a spa station where you can mix your own bath soaks and face masks. All of it is fascinating, and enables customers to put their own health and beauty care into their own hands.
But of it all, what is Kinsey’s favorite concoction? Believe it or not it’s a mixture of herbs and spices.
“It's so simple because it's just two things... rose petals and black lava sea salt,” Kinsey chuckles. “We sprinkle it on everything. It’s just enough of an aromatic touch from the rose petals, and I really like to tell myself that the charcoal on the black lava salt is doing its magic and cleansing. It’s really good on anything… It's so beautiful [on] sliced cucumbers.”
You can bet we’ll be trying that next…
But what’s next for the hub of food and fun that is Mill No. 5? Well, developer Lichoulas still has a few ideas up his sleeve:
“We're expanding to the fifth floor, we've a couple large spaces up there…” Lichoulas starts, before rolling down a list of ideas. “There’s a need for an event space... I would love to do a bookstore. And there’s an area that would make a great climbing gym.”
We can’t wait to visit them all!