Bon Bon Vivant

By Jay Blotcher | September 01, 2013
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Lagusta Yearwood Umami, the owner of Lagusta's Luscious chocolate shop in New Paltz, is a larger-than-life character who could be cast as the lead in an enchanting and improbable Miranda July indie film. But the director would likely be accused of overwriting. After all, who could believe such an offbeat creation?

She's a vegan feminist anarchist locavore with an adorkably cool musician boyfriend who is also a concert sound engineer. Lagusta rocks vintage '60s dresses, liberally quotes Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, blogs ferociously and meets every contradiction in life with a sense of wonderment – or full-throated protest.

Raised as a secular Jew in Phoenix, she was shaped in her sensibilities by her mother, Pauline Yearwood, a left-wing, anti-war feminist. Lagusta showed an interest in social justice from an early age, embracing Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. "I think it was kind of floating around the house," Pauline says modestly, "but I think she found it herself."

At age 12, Lagusta became a vegetarian and volunteered for an animal welfare group. Three years later, she turned vegan, convincing her mother to do likewise and to start cooking family meals straight from the Moosewood Cookbook. (Her brother resisted the conversion.) Together, Lagusta and Pauline attended animal rights rallies – a welcome distraction from life with Lagusta's father, a drug dealer who chronically abused Pauline before going to jail. "My mom is an artist and she lives 100 percent in her head, so it's just like chaos. But I think I have my grandmother's Germanic sense of everything in its place," notes Lagusta.

Finding her own place happened by high school; Lagusta connected with an older group of vegan activists. Pauline trusted her daughter's instincts.

"I cheered her on with it. I think the world needs more people like her."

Lagusta changed her last name along the way, taking the Japanese name, Umami, meant to represent an earthy and savory quality in taste. This, too, is a personal crusade, she says; most vegan food emphasizes ecology over tastiness. Lagusta pledges to reverse that trend, one recipe at a time.

Sweeter Than a Heartbreak

The storybook-style store on North Front Street (a former laundromat) is "a way to enact my value system in the world, basically," Lagusta says. Lagusta's Luscious offers an array of innovative foods, desserts and handmade candies. Off-hours, its owner embraces numerous political and spiritual causes. Despite frenetic multitasking, an impeccable order guides her life. This sense of organization was evident in childhood, her mother insists. Lagusta would walk around the house with an empty bag. If a book or vase seemed out of place, she would stuff it in the bag. Later, she would shift objects to more suitable locations.

It is a mid-July afternoon in the midst of a heat wave. It is 97 degrees outside. Lagusta is training a new employee named Marena, who brings the shop's part-time staff to six. The 67 degrees inside the store is strictly maintained to preserve the confectionary and all that it has to offer.

The chocolatier's restless creativity is on display everywhere: the display case, the shelves and the counter. Lagusta constantly rotates offerings, enthused by a new flavor combination or an innovative way of marrying her sweets to a neighboring farmer's organic herbs or fruit.

The offerings this month include candied, wild-foraged edible flowers; sea salt almond slate – dark chocolate that's studded with "roasty-toasty" organic almonds and sprinkled with lightly smoked sea salt; a variety of chocolate bars, enhanced with cherry, peach and strawberry with vegan cream; caramels infused with thyme and preserved lemon; white chocolate with Japanese yuzu citrus; a Pig Out Bar that echoes the bacon-in-everything craze with a cruelty-free alternative: smoked potato cracklings and local shiitake in caramel. Lagusta's salute to her feminist mentors is the Furious Vulvas Box, showcasing bittersweet chocolate and pink peppercorns topped with Hawaiian pink sea salt.

Lagusta's company slogan, while audacious, is merited: "Heartbreakingly delicious artisanal chocolates, ethically made."

The "Warm Weather Menu" features organic, fair-trade and vegan variations on perennial summer favorites: milkshakes (with nut milk– based ice cream), a grapefruit-orange blossom slushy, frozen drinking chocolate, iced coffee and lavender Meyer lemonade.

The shop also offers Sweet Maresa's vegan cupcakes and dairy-free, GMO-free, gluten-free macarons, created by Maresa Volante, a local vegan baker. Lagusta recognized a kindred spirit and invited her to join the business.

In a voice alternately lighthearted and serious, Lagusta leads her new employee Marena through everyday duties: Popping chocolates out of their molds, placing items in the display case, packing custom-designed boxes, helping customers and, most important, distinguishing between tempered (good) or crystallized (bad) chocolates.

Chocolate provides the perfect metaphor for life, Lagusta tells Marena. When it becomes untempered, this should not invite an orgy of self-loathing. "Don't be scared," she says. "It's going to happen. You're going to feel bad. You're going to go home and be like, that was a shitty day. But you're going to come back and it'll be another day."

 Shop Lagusta's Luscious

Trading Up

Throughout the tutorial, Lagusta makes pointed asides about the eco-friendly principles that guide her business. Most materials are recyclable and sustainable. Ingredients are all-natural and of the highest quality, in pointed contrast to most marketplace products, tarted up with artificial colors and flavors. Lagusta's Luscious sells only organic and fair-trade chocolate.

The chocolatier is endearingly transparent about the difficulty in maintaining earth-friendly standards. Lagusta eschews artificial food colorings, choosing the "insanely expensive" plant- and herb-based hues. However, she admits, they lack the brightness of their chemical counterparts. An additional vexation: the supplier is a "hippie company" with a slacker work ethic. "Sometimes they don't ship for two months," she laments.

An idealist with a pragmatic streak, Lagusta weighs every moral dilemma that comes with managing the business, eventually opting for the principled stand. When a vendor does not have an organic foodstuff, Lagusta will hunt down another vendor, because, as she states, nonorganic food these days is often GMO-engineered. Ignoring major foodservice distributors who rarely carry organics, she maintains accounts with perhaps 50 small businesses. The upside is a unique product to flavor her chocolates; the downside is prices twice as expensive and a sporadic availability. (A farmer in Maui maintains an organic vanilla bean farm and sends product periodically, packaged in manila envelopes whose fragrance fills the post office. He usually remembers to tuck an invoice into the shipment.)

Becoming a chocolate merchant was not a life passion. At the University of Rochester, Lagusta took women's studies and environmental classes, aspiring to be an eco-feminist. But she soon realized she was "a gentle soul" and hypersensitive to the unsavory truths revealed by that activism. "It depressed the hell out of me," she says, so she decided against seeking "work in the trenches of the horribleness of the world." As graduation approached in 2000, Lagusta sought a new career in line with her values, finally enrolling at the Natural Gourmet culinary school in Manhattan.

After graduating a year later, Lagusta decided to launch a meal delivery service – the first incarnation of the name Lagusta's Luscious. Cooking in her Teaneck home, she would deliver vegan orders to Upper West Side Manhattan addresses.

By 2004, sourcing product from farmers' markets had grown tedious; Lagusta wanted to live closer to farms. In August, she selected New Paltz, impressed by the major liberal cachet of the town. Live-in boyfriend Jacob Feinberg, whom she started dating in 1997, joined her upstate, but skips town periodically to work concert tours. Lagusta began forging relationships with artisanal and heirloom growers. Drawing on newly developed skills as a chocolatier, Lagusta began a combination wholesale food delivery and confectionary business.

"Here's my whole business thing: I never had a plan. I just figured, I'll do this because I like it and we'll see what happens."

Lagusta conducts no focus groups. She creates what intrigues her and hopes for positive customer reactions. Narrowing the margin for gustatorial error is input from Feinberg, whose tastes are more populist. Lagusta recently suggested a lemon and tarragon ice for the summer menu. Feinberg countered with a chocolate ice with chocolate chips.

Feinberg also collaborates with Lagusta on elaborate monthly vegan dinners, held in the back room of the shop. She initiated the dinners to keep her culinary skills honed and attempts ambitious non-meat versions of classic dishes. A recent Asian dinner included soup dumplings, stinky tofu (hyper-fermented bean curd), eggplant with ginger foam, dry-fried green beans with smoked ramps, handpulled street-cart noodles, green tea congee, and corn ice cream.

Lagusta calls the experience "fun," adding, "and by fun I mean extremely stressful, but that you feel good later."

Resistance is Fertile

Connected to several communities concurrently, Lagusta has an eclectic group of friends. Many attended an early June party at her New Paltz home. As Lagusta fussed in the kitchen, adorned in a fluorescent orange and white dress – "faux-vintage," she explains – artists, farmers, activists and fellow culinarians munched on Sweet Maresa's macarons and cupcakes, washing them down with Lagusta's homemade strawberry mint juleps, soda with borage syrup and grapefruit juice, and grapefruit margaritas.

Daniel Torres, a New Paltz politico, has stood with Lagusta at several progressive events. He is also a regular customer.

"It's rare that you see someone who really puts their own philosophical beliefs into their product, too, the way she does."

Gretchen Primack, a poet and vegan activist, offered five words to describe her host: "Snappy dressing, aesthetically attuned, quirky-thinking, gastronomically astute and fun to be around."

Lagusta has learned to temper her activist sensibility on the job. If a customer asks, "Why does this stuff have to be vegan?" she will gently explain how making food involves ethical choices. But she feels no need for proselytizing. At least, not overtly.

"If I'm selling vegan food to non-vegans, then that's more activism. They're not eating non-vegan food and that's my mitzvah for the day."

But her convictions have a showcase. Lagusta maintains two blogs. "Lagusta's Luscious" is upbeat and epicurean; "Resistance Is Fertile" offers another vibe: undistilled (but eloquent) political rage on matters of food, sexism and the environment, among others. Her most incendiary posting attacked vegetarians, whom Lagusta called "evil" and "half-assed losers," explaining that they still eat animal products (cheese, eggs) while subscribing to a vegan piety.

In a way, Lagusta Umami is akin to the mercurial Willy Wonka: The candy maker who radiates sunlight and joy on the outside, yet hides a darker inner core aimed at certain portions of humanity. Yet the fiery activist retains perspective; the biggest scolding is reserved for her own intolerance. She usually follows a blog rant with a profuse apology. Such vitriol has diminished, Lagusta claims. Her May 30 blog, titled "Anatomy of a Rager," reads:

I feel the rage losing its hold on me.

Three and a half decades on this planet, the rage has been with me the whole time. It's strange to see it slowly slipping away. I'm sure it will always be with me to a certain extent, but my rage episodes are spacing themselves out, with weeks of tranquility between them. I get righteously angry, like any thinking American should, but it doesn't often flip over into that dangerous white-hot place.

Daily interaction with customers has brought Lagusta Umami a growing sense of peace, she says. Gone are the days when she vowed her only friends would be vegan feminists.

Yet a tug-of-war between Lagusta's creativity and capitalism continues. Feinberg explores issues of increased productivity, profit margins and automation. But Lagusta is reluctant to grow the business if it means jeopardizing her convictions.

"There's so many more ways in which we could be running this place in a more profitable way. But it would just be a more unpleasant way."


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