You know the line, you are what you eat? Well, call me crazy, but the more foodie books I read, the more my taste in food changes. I’m not just talking about my taste buds here, although they are definitely influenced by the messages my ever-informed brain is sending them. I’m talking about food’s BIG PICTURE. The cultural, economic, emotional, ethical, nutritional impact. So with Hanukkah and Christmas gift-giving in mind, I thought I’d share three noteworthy, foodie-related books I devoured in 2014 that made a lasting impression, two of which have New Hampshire connections.
On first glance, Rosaly Bass’ “ORGANIC! A Gardener’s Handbook” ($16.81, Available on Amazon), is a “two-fer,” an easy-to-read guide chock full of wisdom for upping your organic acumen in gardens large or small and there’s a smattering of Rosaly’s favorite recipes and cooking tips using – what else? – the abundance of her own garden in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The widow of the late Granite State Congressman Perkins Bass, and the step-mother of Congressman Charlie Bass, what really struck me about the book was what I read between the lines. Rosaly, of Rosaly’s Farm Stand fame, a fixture in the Monadnock Valley for the last 20-something years, is one of the most down to earth, hard-working farmers you’ll ever meet. She’s a woman who literally pioneered the organic movement on her small tract in New Hampshire in the early 1970s to become the state’s first certified organic farm. Today it remains the largest at 25 acres.
From starting your own seeds indoors and using row covers to get a jumpstart on our short New England growing season, using effective fertilizers and pesticides in the organic arsenal to sharing her many battles in the war against weeds, Rosaly’s dedication to the principles of sustainable agriculture is such that she never takes the easy way out:
“Flamers are wonderful garden tools. You can flame out weeds before you plant . . .Be careful. Flamers are dangerous if improperly used or not assembled correctly. . . I’m giving you this warning because you almost lost me one day many years ago. I was out flaming my carrot bed at 6 a.m. I lit my old flamer without first checking for leaky connections. I ignored the fact that I was smelling propane gas. . . The next thing I knew I had propane all over my gloves and jeans. Fortunately, I got the tank valve turned off before I went up in flames.”
Thank God we didn’t lose her! Far from a coiffed, tea-sipping socialite with pinkie extended, Rosaly would rather converse about the benefits of Cheep Cheep chicken manure pellets than those pricey Chanel Boucles on the runway this season. The more I read about her tenacious spirit and the absolute beauty of her love for the land and the care she invests in raising food for families and restaurants in her community, the more I appreciate stewards of the earth like her. Simultaneously, my mouth began to water imagining the Farm Stand in full glory in late July with dozens – if not hundreds – of varieties of vegetables to sink my teeth into. Could I taste the love, I wondered?
Yes, according to chef/owner Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barn, one of many contributors to “Best Food Writing 2014″ ($15.99 Life Long). Celebrating its 15th year as one of the most popular perennial favorites on the foodie book shelf, mine included, long-time editor Holly Hughes and colleagues sample writings from a veritable smorgasbord of the year’s top epicurean publications – both hard copy and online – as well as newspapers and books before compiling the crème de la crème in a handy paperback.
The 2014 edition has 50 engaging articles from across the food spectrum under such headings as The Way We Eat Now, highlighting current food trends like whether last year’s spicy profile is killing this year’s more sedate offerings in an article by Food & Wine’s Kate Krader. A Table for Everyone, offers an interesting if not provocative look at food from the perspective of social minorities including a humorous, yet poignant piece by John Birdsall, “America, Your Food is So Gay.” I fully expected Andrew Zimmern-like tales of eating insects and gnarly invasive crabs in Extreme Eating but I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for the emotional, ethical, or nutritional questions that lingered in my gut after reading Kevin Pang’s, “Fixed Menu,” about the atrocities of prison food completely void of taste and texture in the New York penal system.
Which made Dan Barber’s entry, “The 16.9 Carrot,” part of the Stocking the Pantry section, all the more flavorful and irresistible. A mere seven pages, Barber’s farm to table philosophy, like his writing, is simple: Treat Mother Earth well and she will reward you. Jack, the resident gardener extraordinaire at Barber’s restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barn, 30 miles north of New York City, is a maestro of compost. Proof positive, his crop of mokum carrots caused quite a stir in the kitchen one day.
‘Sixteen-point-nine?’ I repeated, not understanding. “Brix,” Jack said, removing a small handheld refractometer from his pocket as evidence. Refractometers, which look like high-tech spyglasses, are popular tools for measuring the Brix, or amount of sugar present, in a fruit or vegetable. They’ve been used for years to verify levels of sweetness in grapes [. . .]
A 16.9 reading means the carrots were 16.9 percent sugar – and bursting with minerals. It’s an extraordinarily high number, which Jack made sure I understood, even as the cooks, being cooks, drifted away to get back to work.”
Barber goes on to describe how Jack leads him on a tour of a 3-foot-deep cross section of the restaurant garden – it reminds him of the ant farm sandwiched in glass that he got as a kid – complete with rich black soil, tunnels and air pockets where microbes, worms, and all manner of healthy organisms ideally contribute to the underground health and flavor of the vegetables we eat including those tasty carrots. Interestingly, Jack tests the sugar levels of “industrial” large scale organically grown carrots. A whopping “0” on the Brix scale.
Best Food Writing 2014 is nurturing and informative on so many levels but I want to conclude with a gem of foodie memoir, “Blue Plate Special” by Kate Christensen, ($15.95, Double Day). Released in July, 2013, it has since been added to the list of 25 of the best food-related memoirs of all time by Grub Street, a foodie/restaurant scene blog by New York Magazine. An award-winning novelist of The Great Man and several other critically acclaimed works that I confess I haven’t read, Christensen traces the ebbs and flows of her life through food – from a dysfunctional childhood in a well-educated family in which her father physically abused her mother, through troubled adolescent and teen years in search of identity and connectivity in far flung corners of the country and Europe, to Iowa’s Writers Workshop, arguably the most prestigious writing program in the United States, and several long-term and deeply involved relationships. Through it all she masterfully weaves both the emotional ties of food – or lack thereof – to her state of mind as well as the physical hardships of loneliness and isolation.
“While my passion for food in literature ran wild, I believed back then that if I allowed myself to indulge it in real life at all, even a little, it would quickly balloon out of control. I had not forgotten being “husky,” which I associated with depression, homesickness, drudgery, loneliness, adolescence, and lack of control over my life. If I could feel at ease in my own surroundings, if I couldn’t leapfrog myself into my compelling fantasy of my future life as a successful writer living in New York, at least I could eat stringently.
So I lived like a mouse hiding from a stalking cat.”
Of interest to those in New Hampshire, perhaps, and familiar with High Mowing School, Christensen’s maternal grandmother had close ties to the Rudolph Steiner movement and was the librarian at the Waldorf School, Green Meadow, in Spring Valley, New York. After working as a teen at the nearby Threefold Community, Christensen was awarded a scholarship to Green Meadow. The 52-year-old author currently lives in Portland, Maine, but splits her time between there and the White Mountains. Not surprising – and a nice touch for readers – she includes those recipes that symbolize water mark moments in her tumultuous life. Christensen is assisting renowned Boston-based chef, Barbara Lynch, with her memoir, “Where Did you Come From?” for release in 2016.
It’s 9 p.m. and cold outside. I think I’ll sign off now and make myself a tasty soft-boiled egg with buttered toast and French sea salt.