My friend Robin Mather was hit with a double-whammy: Her husband of 12 years announced he wanted a divorce. Less than a week later, she was laid off from her job as a staff writer for The Chicago Tribune’s food section. This veteran food journalist, who had once been served lunch by Julia Child, found herself, in 2009, alone, with no source of income.
Robin packed up her car with her belongings, her dog, Boon, and her parrot, Pippin, and retreated to her tiny lakeside cottage in western Michigan. What she did not do was wallow in her misfortune. Instead, she embraced her new life, with its many challenges and surprising rewards. She learned to live extremely frugally—on $40 a week—and redefined for herself what it meant to “live well.”
Robin recounts her journey in The Feast Nearby (Ten Speed Press), a book of essays and recipes that chronicles a year in her pared-down life. The book is gentle and funny and filled with insights on what it really means to eat locally. Robin shares her days with her animal companions and forges friendships with neighbors and local farmers. She gives instructions for canning and dehydrating fruits and vegetables, tips for ‘penniless entertaining’, and even instructions for knitting a warm cap. The recipes, like the book, follow the seasons and vary deliciously from asparagus bread pudding to lamb and apricot tagine to orange-cinnimon-clove mead.
“Finding and shopping with local growers has deepened my sense of place in my small corner of the world,” she writes in the introduction. “Committing to eat as much locally grown food as possible helped me bring my life closer to the principles that are important to me. That, in my eyes, is the most profound definition of living well.”
That she embraced her circumstances comes as no surprise to me. Robin and I have been friends for a long time, since the days when we both worked at The Detroit News in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Robin was the food columnist and I was the health and fitness reporter (though I secretly coveted her job). As she puts it, she has always been one to see the glass as “not only half-full, but half-full and getting fuller.”
The Feast Nearby is not Robin’s first book. Her first book, A Garden of Unearthly Delight: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, was published in 1995. Among other things, it delved into the then-new phenomenon of genetically engineered crops (remember the Flavr Savr tomato?), and mapped out two very different future scenarios for farming, one industrial and one sustainable. She profiled farmers on both sides, and asked readers to decide for themselves which future they would prefer to see.
The book caused barely a ripple, despite being deeply reported and engagingly written. Certainly it received none of the attention that was, more than a decade later, to be heaped on The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Fast Food Nation, and now, Tomatoland. It seems hard to believe, but back then, concepts such as sustainability and eating locally had very few adherents; most people just didn’t think about those issues. The book, to put it simply, was ahead of its time.
Robin was profoundly discouraged. I remember her telling me back then that she didn’t think she’d ever want to write another book. I’m glad she changed her mind. The Feast Nearby is a completely different book, and yet, a fitting follow-up to A Garden of Unearthly Delight.
I recently caught up with Robin by phone and interviewed her about The Feast Nearby:
Q: What made you change your mind about writing another book?
A: As a longtime advocate for local eating and sustainability, it was bugging me on a really deep level that I was starting to see locavore eating described as a pursuit of the foodie elite. I didn’t think that was true but if nobody did anything to combat that perception people would believe it was true. When I was working at The Tribune, I didn’t have a platform or a venue to write about my style of cooking. I was doing straight reported stories, and I really missed being able to share my cooking style with readers. So this book was an opportunity to do that. And, at the risk of sounding really snotty, living well is the best revenge, and I’m talking about my personal situation here. I decided that not only was I going to survive this difficult period, I was going to pull a triumph out of it.
Q: One of the things I love about The Feast Nearby is that, other than the gorgeous cover photo, it has no photographs; just four folksy illustrations of your cottage at the beginning of each section, denoting the seasons. That’s kind of a bold move, when so many cookbooks rely on photos to grab readers.
A: This isn’t really a cookbook, per se, but a book of gastronomic writing. It’s a very meditative book, and sort of solitary, and I wanted the book’s appearance to reflect that. The illustrations are by Barry Fitzgerald, who teaches graphic illustration at Kansas University, and who used to illustrate most of my columns at The Detroit News.
Q: When you left Chicago and headed to your cottage, what was going through your mind? What was your biggest concern?
A: I had no money and, suddenly, no income. I had none of that, and I couldn’t find a job. I was really, really frightened. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for firewood. I didn’t know how I was going to manage to keep my Internet turned on to do the small amount of freelance work that I could find. I was competing with thousands of other journalists who had lost their jobs at a time when venue after venue is failing. It was a constant scramble.”
Q: How did this personal journey change you?
A: I don’t think I’ll go back to the way I was before. Someone asked me if I’m still living on $40 a week, and I said, “No, I’ve given myself a raise to $45, to give myself a little wiggle room.” Fancy cheese is my weakness, so the other day I bought some bleu d’Auvergne. But it makes me happy to live this way, and that’s the biggest change. What that year did is it gave me such a firm foundation. For me to walk down into the basement and see all the food that I put away, it was like, ‘Man I know what I’m doing.’ And I learned to stand in the window and watch the doe and fawn, and to make sure hummingbird feeders are full because that pleases me.
Q: It’s been 16 years since A Garden of Unearthly Delights was published. What are your thoughts on how our food system and Americans’ eating habits have changed since then?
A: When I wrote Garden, fewer than 1 percent of Americans were thinking about genetically modified food, or sustainable agriculture versus industrial agriculture. It just wasn’t on anybody’s radar. It’s been very gratifying to me over the last 16 years to see those issues become mainstream and pretty commonplace conversation. Everybody eats and so everybody needs to be concerned about these issues. I think that point is nearing. I think it’s a seismic shift. I don’t think local eating is going to go anywhere.
Q: Your life has changed since you wrote this book. What are you up to these days?
A: I am now senior associate editor of DIY articles at Mother Earth News, and secondary editor on food copy. The editors here got advance copies of the book and had a job opening and invited me to come and talk to them about working here. So this wonderful job is a direct result of the book. I’m in Topeka, Kansas, which is not dissimilar to the part of Michigan where I was living. I live out in the country and I don’t have a beautiful little lake to look out on. Instead I have hayfields and woods and meadows of tall grass.
Q: What’s your latest food find?
A: Locally grown grains. Wheat and corn in particular. I am especially interested in a hard witner wheat called turkey red, and in Floriani corn. The corn originated in the Italian Alps and it is so high in nutirion that when you look at the numbers you can see how Italian peasants survived on a diet of polenta. I have a grain mill at home, and I buy wheatberries by the 50 pound bucket and I grind a lot of my own flour. I’m really enjoying that.
Q: Tell us about the recipes in the book.
A: The recipes are not gourmet or high-end, but rather the kind of food that satisfies the spirit and nurtures the soul.”
from The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011)
(Robin uses her own home-dried cherries for this recipe, but you can purchase dried cherries at most supermarkets or online from The Cherry Republic.)
Half souffle, half easy casserole, spoon bread is a longtime Southern favorite. This lively version makes no claim to authenticity, but it's very good as a side dish with grill or roasted chicken, pork, or fish. Try using other cheeses in this as well---grated Fontina, while completely different, gives an excellent result.
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2/3 cup cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
- 3/4 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
- 1/2 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
- 1/3 cup finely chopped dried cherries
- 4 large eggs, separated
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish.
Combine the milk, cornmeal, butter, sherry, salt, red pepper, and oregano in a saucepan and mix well. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to medium0low and simmer for 2 minutes, or until slightly thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheese and cherries. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly cooled.
Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir them into the cornmeal mixture. Beat the egg whites is a bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the cornmeal mixture until well mixed. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a few quick strokes; some white streaks will remain. Pour into the prepared baking dish.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is browned and the center is slightly loose (a knife inserted into the center should come out clean). Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.