In the spring of 2009, native Michigander Robin Mather had one Very Bad Week. Within seven days, Ms. Mather’s marriage ended (her husband asked for a divorce) and her job—actually, career—was terminated with her layoff from the Chicago Tribune. To deal with this double calamity (and mindful of the necessity of living on a now much tightened budget), she moves to her 650-square-foot vacation cottage in western Michigan’s lake-dappled Barry County.
In The Feast Nearby, Mather recounts a year of becoming part of a community, as well as eating (well!) with largely locally sourced or purchased foods. Indeed, the subtitle of her book, as shown on the cover, states “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week)”.
Robin Mather was a newspaper reporter and journalist. But not just any journalist. You see, Robin Mather was a food writer. She’d dined with Julia Child. She spent time in France. She attended the Slow Food International conference Terra Madre. This is a woman who really knows food, good food. She understands the appeal of exquisite ingredients and sumptuous feasts. She appreciates superior tastes and flavors. So, how does she continue to eat well in light of her new (and economically diminished) circumstances? She cooks with an emphasis on quality, buying the best that she can afford. She avoids the Processed Foods Abyss—no Doritos or Toaster Strudels here. She makes friends with local growers and purveyors. And she raises her own chickens, which provide her with gorgeous, flavorful eggs.
This book is a collection of essays and recipes—the Pickled Beets recipe has become one of my canning standards (though I usually double the amount of brine, as I’d run out the first time I made it). Some of the reviews on Amazon.com expressed disappointment with what I think is actually a strength of the book—she does not spend time wallowing in the morass of the failed marriage. Rather, Robin Mather takes us on a seasonal journey of a year in her life at the cottage. We meet her neighbors, her butcher, a local farmer. We learn how to keep foods as she cans the local bounty to build a store for the winter. We fear for her as her heating system starts faltering just as the cold builds and we cheer for her when a newfound friend and neighbor helps set up a wood-burning stove. By the end of the book, she herself is like a friend to her readers.
I love the focus on the “local” and on the combination of self-sufficiency and interdependence with the neighboring community. It’s a worthy read (with some great recipes, including a section on how to make your own hard cider). Frankly, I think it deserves greater attention. The book isn’t new (its copyright date is 2011), but it has a timeless relevance. I’ve already bought three copies—one for me and two for friends!
One note about the author: Robin Mather’s first book was a prescient tome on bioengineering in food called A Garden of Unearthly Delights. It was published back in the mid-1990s, well before people became concerned with the genetic modification of food. I’m sure had it been published years later (the advent of attention paid to GMO crops), it would have received much more attention. That said, I will be seeking it out to read.