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The Feast Nearby: How I Lost My Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eatinby Robin Mather
Synopses & Reviews
On Settling In And Making Maple
The snow melted in patches, making the dirt road muddy and slippery. The curvy road’s steep hills made me glad for my old Subaru’s all-wheel drive. Where the snow was not melted, it was crusted and rotten. The shadows lay long as the daylight dwindled.
We were, all three of us, tired. On a good day, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago, but this wasn’t a good day. Traffic was unusually heavy, and I was battered emotionally, devastated by the pain of losing a marriage and a career within the span of a week. As I eased the car down the lakeward-sloping drive to park close to the cottage, Boon sat up alertly in the passenger seat. He remembered the scents of this place and his wagging pompom tail told me he associated it with pleasure. In the back seat, Pippin, in his carrier, gave a long, low whistle--a sound that he makes only when pleased. The dog, the parrot, and I had arrived.
The cottage was chilly. It stood unoccupied over the winter, although we kept the furnace running at its lowest setting to keep the pipes from freezing. Bumping the thermostat up to sixty-five degrees, I heard the ancient oil-fired furnace kick in reassuringly. Because the cottage is so small--just 650 square feet, encompassing an L-shaped living room, a good-sized kitchen, a modest bedroom, and bathroom--I knew it would be warm in short order.
Boon, big even for a standard poodle, sniffed around for a few minutes. Finally, he settled under the kitchen table. After putting the kettle on to boil for a mug of dripped coffee, I uncovered Pippin’s carrier and invited him to step onto my hand. He stretched first the wing and leg on one side, then the other; a quick shake of his ruffled feathers and the flippant wag of his crimson tail signaled his contentment. “Pip,” I said, “there’s a whole lot of stuff in the car that needs unloading, but it can wait for a while.” He bobbed his head in the quick up-and-down that told me this was good news to him. While we waited for the kettle to whistle, Pip and I crooned to each other for a bit. Although African Greys are known as standoffish parrots, Pippin is very cuddly and sweet-tempered.
The hot coffee, sweet and milky, provided instant comfort. I leaned back against the counter, trying to prioritize. Dinner first, I thought; something simple like scrambled eggs or soup. Then dishes. Then an early bedtime. Do the simplest things first. Save the hard thinking for when you’re fresh and stronger.
I wondered when that would be, when I’d feel fresh and stronger.
The cottage was bought as a retirement place two years ago, when my husband and I were earning good money. Because of its size, it wasn’t expensive. Now, having returned to my native Michigan, it was to be my full-time home, as I figured out the next steps in my life.
The cottage sits on eighty-acre Stewart Lake, nestled in more than twenty-two thousand acres of state game and recreation land in Barry County. The far side of the lake is owned by an old cooperative camp; its nearly three hundred acres of land means that my northwest view--of a horizon of hardwood trees following a ridge line, undulating in gentle curves--will never change.
The camp, Circle Pines Center, has an interesting history. It was formed in 1940, when a group from the Central States Cooperative League bought the old Stewart farm. Through the 1940s and 1950s, Circle Pines flourished as a family camp and folk school; blues musician Big Bill Broonzy was on staff for a while, and perhaps that’s why folksinger Pete Seeger came to visit. During the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, Circle Pines members were active in antiwar and antinuclear-power demonstrations, and some were active in the civil rights movement. These days, the center continues to espouse a mission of building a sense of cooperation, community, and peace.
Stewart Lake has no public access. Because it is a “no-wake” lake, boaters can use only small electric trolling motors to move their crafts. It is refreshingly quiet. Of the forty or so houses on the lake, only a handful are year-round homes. The rest are empty most of the year, save the three long summer weekends of Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. My nearest year-round neighbor to the west is Jim, a retired submariner, four houses away; to the east, three houses away, it’s eight-year-old Dakota, his mom, and her parents. The lake’s peaceful nature was another big draw for us when we bought the cottage.
As is true with most lake properties, my lot is small. But the property owners’ association owns fourteen acres across the road, behind me, so that land, too, will never be developed. And with thousands of acres of state land at my doorstep, there is no sense of feeling cramped. Boon and I can walk for miles on trails or just through woods.
Wildlife is shockingly abundant here. White-tailed deer, wild turkey, coyotes, rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, otters, weasels, marten, and mink fill the woods; there are rumors that cougars have made Barry County home. The lake is home to several turtle species, Canada geese, lots of different kinds of ducks, swans, owls, hawks, and even an occasional bald eagle. A loon, solitary, stops by to rest each spring for a couple of weeks on his way north for the summer. Fishermen pull bluegill, sunfish, perch, crappie, and bass--as well as the occasional dogfish and walleye--from the lake. Hummingbirds, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, slate juncos, downy woodpeckers, flickers, bluejays, and Baltimore orioles visit my feeders.
I was counting on the lake’s beauty, its wealth of natural riches, to provide sustenance as I rebuilt myself and learned how to live in this small corner of the world.
The sun shone brightly the next morning as I finished breakfast. The car still needed unloading, but I was drawn to go for a walk with Boon first. On that first day we just walked up to the nearest stop sign, about a half-mile away; the road’s hills gave us both an energizing work-out.
As is typical in early April in Michigan, it was raw and blustery, but it felt good to be outside. Boon romped ahead as I trudged along, eyes down to plot my steps carefully, to keep from slipping and falling on the muddy, rutted road. At the top of the steep hill where the stop sign is, I paused to catch my breath. I lifted my eyes to scan the maples and oaks, looking at the tips of the branches, checking to see if the buds had begun to swell. They had not. It was still sugar season.
We make a lot of maple syrup here in Michigan, where old-timers call it “making maple.” The relatively warmer days--with temperatures above freezing--and the still-cold nights of March and April cause the sap to rise in the sugar and black maples that are best for tapping. Fewer than 1 percent of the possible trees for sugaring in Michigan are tapped, and that’s probably because sugaring is a lot of work. First you have to find and tap the trees, which means walking through cold, slushy, muddy woods; then you have to drill the hole, drive in the spile (the little tube that lets the sap drop into a bucket), and attach the bucket. Then you have to come back every day to collect the sap you’ve gathered, and then boil it down to evaporate the water until you get a single gallon of syrup from every forty or so gallons of sap you collected. If your evaporator is wood-fired, you can figure you’ll burn a cord of wood a day for every twenty-five gallons of syrup you make, and all that wood had to be cut, split, and stacked.
There have been some minor technological improvements in how the sap is heated to boil off the water--some sugarers use oil or gas now, instead of wood--and some use vacuum tubing to draw the sap for collection. But otherwise, the process is the same as it was when the Ojibway, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi made syrup in bygone years.
When I was growing up, my mother always gave us Michigan maple syrup on pancakes, waffles, and French toast. She disliked the maple-flavored sugar syrup found on supermarket shelves--the Mrs. Butterworth and Log Cabin sort of stuff--and wouldn’t buy it, so I grew up knowing the flavor of real maple syrup. Mom also used maple syrup--sparingly, because it was expensive then as now--on baked ham and in baked beans.
She was right to feed us the real thing. Maple syrup has some trace minerals: calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium. It also has some trace vitamins: B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), niacin, biotin, and folic acid. Today’s maple-flavored syrups, besides being empty of nutrients, are generally made with high-fructose corn syrup, which I strive to avoid.
As I stood at the road’s junction, thinking about maple syrup, I realized that I had most of a half-gallon I bought last summer, still in the refrigerator in the cabin. It was Grade B, which is darker than Grade A, but which I prefer because it seems to have more maple flavor and is perhaps slightly thicker. Mine came from Shane Hickey’s Hill Top Maples in Vermontville, about thirty-five miles from the cottage, where a maple syrup festival is held in late April each year. Kept refrigerated, maple syrup will last a long, long time; if it develops any mold, which has never happened to me, it can be heated, skimmed, and returned to its jug for further storage with little change in flavor.
So perhaps that would be Step One on my road to rebuilding my life: Remembering the good foods that my mother gave me and finding my own sources for them.
Boon was restless, ready to return to the warm house. So was I. My heart felt lighter; my mood lifted. On the way, I thought about which maple-infused delicacy I wanted to prepare to please myself. Should it be maple-oatmeal cookies or baked acorn squash with sausage and maple syrup?
I’d figure that out later, I guessed. Right then, I had a car to unload.
baked acorn squash with sausage and maple syrup
makes 4 servings
This simple dinner is easy and delicious. My mother usually served Waldorf salad with baked squash--the crunchy apple-celery-nut salad was a good companion to the baked squash’s silky richness, and its cool-weather flavors seemed to go well, too. My father especially loved this dish; I can see him rubbing his hands together in gleeful, greedy anticipation of one of his favorite dinners.
2 acorn squash
1 pound bulk sage pork breakfast sausage
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Using a very sharp knife, prepare the squash by cutting them in half from stem end to stern. Scoop out and discard the seeds and fibers. Turn the squash over; cut a small flat slice from the bottom of each squash half so it will sit squarely in a baking dish. Place the squash halves in a baking dish large enough to hold them.
Divide the pork sausage into four portions. Pack the cavity of each squash half with pork sausage. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the maple syrup over the pork sausage in each squash half. Add 1 inch of water to the baking dish around the squash halves. Cover the dish with aluminum foil.
Bake for 1 hour, or until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife. Serve immediately.
maple and sherry vinegar–glazed pork loin
makes about 6 servings
Maple’s sweetness complements roast pork; adding a little sherry vinegar and powdered mustard to the glaze lends complexity. I usually serve this with a simple dressing of stale torn bread pieces with lots of onion, celery, sage, and black pepper, moistened with chicken broth. Add a green vegetable or a salad and you’re good to go.
1 (4 1/2- to 5 1/2-pound) bone-in pork loin roast
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon powdered mustard
2 large cloves garlic, smashed and minced
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Place the roast, fat side up, on a rack in a roasting pan; season with salt and pepper.
Roast the pork, uncovered, for about 2 hours.
Combine the maple syrup, vinegar, cornstarch, powdered mustard, and garlic in a blender or food processor. Blend until the mixture is combined. Transfer to a small saucepan on medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and brush the glaze over the roast. Continue roasting, basting once or twice, for 30 to 45 minutes, until the roast registers about 155°F on a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the roast.
Let the roast rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
"This certainly isn't the first memoir about living la vida locavore, and while its subtitle might inspire a little eye-rolling, the first page lets readers know that the author's scenario is decidedly not contrived. She's middle-aged, suddenly alone and unemployed, and endearing in her frankness about her plight and her financial fears. Though she's not a professionally trained cook, Mather is a longtime food writer and she knows her way around the kitchen. The recipes that accompany her earnest prose are lovely, simple, and just-gourmet-enough. Entries such as whole strawberries in balsamic-black pepper syrup; butternut squash with honey, cherry vinegar, and chipotle; and cardamom-coffee toffee bars are intriguing yet approachable, and they all have a reason, seasonal or otherwise, for being in the book. She shares kitchen wisdom, from the anecdotal ('Get the water on to boil before you pick the corn, and then sprint back to the house with it, shucking as you run') to the practical, such as instructions for making fromage blanc and fresh chevre. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Within a single week in 2009, food journalist Robin Mather found herself on the threshold of a divorce and laid off from her job at the Chicago Tribune. Forced into a radical life change, she returned to her native rural Michigan.
There she learned to live on a limited budget while remaining true to her culinary principles of eating well and as locally as possible. In The Feast Nearby, Mather chronicles her year-long project: preparing and consuming three home-cooked, totally seasonal, and local meals a day--all on forty dollars a week.
With insight and humor, Mather explores the confusion and needful compromises in eating locally. She examines why local often trumps organic, and wonders why the USDA recommends white bread, powdered milk, and instant orange drinks as part of its “low-cost” food budget program.
Through local eating, Mather forges connections with the farmers, vendors, and growers who provide her with sustenance. She becomes more closely attuned to the nuances of each season, inhabiting her little corner of the world more fully, and building a life richer than she imagined it could be.
The Feast Nearby celebrates small pleasures: home-roasted coffee, a pantry stocked with home-canned green beans and homemade preserves, and the contented clucking of laying hens in the backyard. Mather also draws on her rich culinary knowledge to present nearly one hundred seasonal recipes that are inspiring, enticing, and economical--cooking goals that don’t always overlap--such as Pickled Asparagus with Lemon, Tarragon, and Garlic; Cider-Braised Pork Loin with Apples and Onions; and Cardamom-Coffee Toffee Bars.
Mather’s poignant, reflective narrative shares encouraging advice for aspiring locavores everywhere, and combines the virtues of kitchen thrift with the pleasures of cooking--and eating--well.
A charming ode (with recipes) to eating well and locally, on $40 dollars per week, from a recently unemployed food-journalism veteran.
In 2009, Robin Mather found herself unemployed. She consequently moved to rural Michigan, where she committed to eating three home-cooked, seasonal, and local meals a day. In essays that chronicle a year of her ambitious project, Mather explores the confusion surrounding local eating and examines how often we fail to pay attention to the seasons that surround us. With 150 winning recipes such as Lemon-Tarragon Pickled asparagus and Greek-Marinated Grilled Leg of Lamb, Mather draws on her rich kitchen knowledge, honed by years as a food writer. This narrative-cookbook hybrid shares encouraging advice for aspiring locavores, offering both the virtues of kitchen thrift and the pleasures of cooking well.
About the Author
ROBIN MATHER is a two-time James Beard finalist for feature writing on food. She was food editor of the Detroit News, a senior writer at Cooking Light magazine, and most recently, a staff reporter for the food section of the Chicago Tribune. She also started and ran a small goat dairy from 1995 to 2000.
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