Flyover Book Review—The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather

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.

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.

Feast Nearby

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.

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About Asparagus

When I think of asparagus, I think of spring. I also think of California. Not necessarily in that order. Okay, it is one of the first produce crops to appear after the winter and for folks thinking seasonally, those green (or purple) stalks are a welcome sight at markets. Indeed, supermarkets often promote asparagus (perhaps as a loss leader) in springtime sales flyers. But in the Flyover States, those supermarket spears often originate from California (or Washington State). Or so I thought. Did you know that Michigan is actually the third largest producer of asparagus in the United States? I didn’t know either. Why Michigan? Well, growing asparagus requires soils that drain well, so the sandy soils of Michigan certainly meet that requirement. Think about Michigan’s location: It’s not THE Great Lakes State for nothing! Michigan shares boundaries with four of the Great Lakes: Huron, Superior, Erie, and, of course, Michigan. Sorry, Ontario!

Michigan2

The Great Lakes are a remnant of the last glaciation and retreat, forming when the Laurentide ice sheet retreated. And the soils of Michigan reflect the materials carried by the glacier and left behind when it receded–silts and sands and stuff, oh my! Also, the soils should freeze occasionally, so again, Michigan fits the bill. But here’s a question–is my supermarket asparagus from my neighbor to the north (given that I’m in Indiana, that neighbor would be Michigan). So, I took a trip to my local supermarket to see from where the asparagus they proffer for sale actually originates. Turns out, my local Marsh supermarket stocks asparagus from California. At least it isn’t China (the world’s largest producer) or Peru (number two in production). Fortunately for me, I’ve got access to wonderful local asparagus!

Asparagus is native to Europe, Africa (North), and parts of Asia. It didn’t really appear in the United States until the mid-19th century. Asparagus has been considered both a food and a medicine, as well as an aphrodisiac, no doubt owing to its rather phallic appearance.

In much of Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, etc.), asparagus is eaten as a white vegetable, renowned for its tenderness and flavor. I recall the excitement of Spargelzeit (asparagus time) in Germany, where it was served with hollandaise sauce. Americans typically eat the plant green. Interestingly, both white and green asparagus are cultivated from the same plant—to keep asparagus white, shoots are kept covered to prevent exposure to the sun (and thus keeping the process of photosynthesis from occurring).

I love asparagus, especially roasted or grilled! On my first trip to the farmers market of the outdoor season, I stumbled across—not literally—local PURPLE asparagus.
PurpleAsparagus2
The grower told me that other customers found the purple variety (and it is a different variety) a bit sweeter. Ever the foodie, I bought a bunch and roasted them (recipe in the next post). The verdict? Yes, sweeter and full of flavor. And I love the color!

Asparagus tips

  • Asparagus is often sold in bunches affixed by a rubber band. Remove the band toward the bottom (where the stalks have been cut off) or simply snip the band with a pair of scissors to avoid damaging the asparagus tips.
  • To keep your asparagus fresh if not using immediately, place the stalks in a jar or glass with some water, then put the glass/jar in the refrigerator.
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