The Feast Nearby: Self-Preservation Through Bartering, Foraging, Eating Locally... And Keeping Chickens

May 25, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
(Photo: Ten Speed Press).

UPDATE: You can read an excerpt of the book here

Two years ago, Robin Mather had what could be easily termed a "pretty crappy week." Her husband of twelve years said he wanted a divorce, and a few days later she became the latest victim of the ongoing upheavals in the newspaper industry when she lost her job as a food writer at the Chicago Tribune

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Mather found refuge in a small lakeside cottage in her native rural Michigan. And from her new perch, miles from the nearest town and light years from her big city gig in Chicago, she committed herself to continuing to enjoy her passion for good food and eating well. 

There was only one problem: this veteran food writer, who had sampled the finest foods in the world's culinary capitals for more than 25 years, was now forced to conserve financially. So she vowed to eat well, seasonally, locally — and on a budget of $40 per week. 

The result? Mather's delightful new book, The Feast Nearby: How I Lost My Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way By Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering and Eating Locally (All On $40 a Week)

The Feast Nearby is a collection of charming essays and recipes that celebrate the small pleasures in life, and reveal how a back-to-basics approach to the way we think about food can have a positive impact on ourselves, and our communities.

Sure, eating locally is good for the earth, helps us reduce our carbon footprint, and supports our local businesses. But it's also good for ourselves. 

Organized by season, The Feast Nearby's earnest essays, with titles like "On Fireflies, Sweet Cherries and the Hissing Kettle" or "On Blizzards and Dried Beans" are interspersed with simple, appetizing, and affordable recipes for enjoying each season's bounty.

Mather may not be a professional chef, but her recipes for things like Moroccan-Style Roasted Beets with Cumin and Olive Oil or Raspberry Fool, are written with the authority of someone who knows how to bring out the best in an ingredient's flavor. 

TakePart spoke with Mather from her new home in Kansas, where she is now the Senior Associate Editor at Mother Earth News — a job she happily landed as a direct result of this book. You can also read an excerpt here

(Photo: Bob Fila).

TakePart: What was it about focusing on eating locally and returning to the simpler things in life that helped you get through this difficult period of your life?

Robin Mather: I think that the connection is the relationship you build with local producers when you eat local foods. So I became — certainly not best buddies — but certainly good friends with all of the gardeners who grew produce for me, with the butcher who provided me with meat, with the growers who grew the animals that he butchered, with the dairy whose milk I bought. And those connections make you feel really embedded in your community.

TP: You clearly have a lot of experience in the food world. But for someone who might be reading your book and saying "well, she might know how to do this, but for me switching to a locavore diet will just be too hard," what do you say to them?

RM: I think that you make time for things that are important to you. And when something is important to you it doesn't feel like work. So, I was canning for about an hour to an hour and a half every week. But I don't watch "Desperate Housewives" and "Dancing with the Stars." 

TP: What was the most surprising aspect of this change in your lifestyle? What did you discover that the was sort of a revelation? And what did you discover that was maybe a return to something in your past that you really enjoyed?

RM: I'm going to go backwards on that question. Having lived in cities, I had forgotten how profoundly comforting the sense of connection is in a small community. And something that truly surprised me was how happy you can be even when you've lost things that you previously valued. Sometimes loss is a door, not a stop sign. 

TP: The book, at it's heart, is full of recipes. Which of these do you think will really stand out for people? Can you give us one that, if someone only has a few minutes in the bookstore, they should definitely flip to, because it will knock their socks off? 

RM: We're coming up on strawberry season. One recipe that everyone seems to be really responding to is Whole Strawberries in Balsamic Black Pepper Syrup. It sounds very high end, it's very easy to make, and doesn't require any complex canning instructions. It's just a boiling water bath. 

TP: At the beginning of the book you set out your philosophy for eating locally. There have been a lot of books written about the subject, and everyone has their own opinion of how to do it. But you kind of make it clear that, as someone who loves food, there are a few philosophical and personal exceptions to the eating local rule. You pass by the imported raspberries in the supermarket, but you have other indulgences. Could you talk a little bit about your philosophy and the things you think we might not want to give up when we eat locally.

RM: Well, certainly most adults that I know drink coffee, and there's not a big domestic coffee production. The same thing with chocolate; we don't grow a lot of chocolate here. It would also be true with many imported fine cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano or the classic Gruyere.

So what I try to do is apply the principle of eating locally wven when I'm doing it from far away. So the coffee beans I buy to roast I buy from small farms and small co-ops, through an American company that does the importing. When I buy spices I try to patronize a small company as well. I'm thinking particularly of Talamanca Peppercorns, which are imported by a couple of brothers down in Florida from family farms in Costa Rica. 

TP: What are you hoping people walk away with from this book? What do you hope they'll get from "The Feast Nearby?"

RM: There are several levels that this book operates on. Certainly I hope that they will take away some new interesting food from the recipes. I hope they will consider implementing or increasing some local foods in their diet, if not switching completely. And thirdly I hope that anyone who is reading a book at a troubled time in their own life will see that however bad it is, it gets better. 

Buy The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather. (Ten Speed Press, 2011).

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