Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Hardcover: 272 pages
• Publisher: Ten Speed Press (May 24, 2011)
• Price: $24.00
• ISBN-10: 158008558X
• ISBN-13: 978-1580085588
The subtitle of Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby is a mouthful (pun intended), but it sums the book up nicely: “How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way to keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week).”
Robin Mather is a seasoned food writer and editor, having written 30 years for papers such as Chicago Tribune and The Detroit News and now at Mother Earth News. The Feast Nearby is her second book; the first, published in 1995, Garden of Unearthly Delight: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, perhaps before its time, discussing the two sides of eating locally or eating genetically modified foods.
The book caught my attention for several reasons. I have been eating predominantly locally grown, organic foods for some years now, and find myself as enthused about this food adventure today as I was when I first started. More so. I still can’t believe what I’ve been missing most of my life in terms of culinary joy. But I was also intrigued because the cottage to which Mathers moved was in the neighborhood where I’d lived once—near Delton, in Michigan’s Barry County.
I was also curious about Mather's claim to eat local and organic foods on $40 a week. Not that I am not already a believer. I don’t spend much either, and I don’t even can and preserve, but I do hear that complaint more often than I can count—that eating organic is too expensive. I’m still baffled by that. I spend less on groceries today than I did when I bought my food at the supermarket, packaged and wrapped.
Cooking from scratch is almost always less expensive. Add to that the joys of cooking with friends and family in the kitchen and at the table and, well, you get the idea of real value for your food dollar.
One might say that people tend to compare apples to oranges when they talk about cost. As Mather so well illustrates in her book, eating this way doesn’t have to cost more. It tends to cost less. What does change, however, is one’s eating habits. For me, this happened quite naturally once I started buying more of my food at farmers markets or even directly from the farmer, right on the farm. It became a new lifestyle, one that I enjoy immensely. It involves community, friendships, the building of enjoyable relationships that revolve around food … and who doesn’t know that when you throw a good party, more times than not, everyone ends up in the kitchen?
Mather's lifestyle change and food adventure evolve from what must have surely been a week from hell. As so many journalists, she was laid off from her newspaper job. That’s bad enough, but this happened within days of hearing from her 12-year husband that he wanted a divorce. Ouch and ouch.
Whether Mather really is such a trooper or she just keeps it to a low simmer, but her book does not show much anguish or turmoil at such a double whammy. This isn’t a book about shedding tears or general introspection. She simply packs up her dog, Boon, and her bird, Pippin (later to be joined by cat, Guff), and moves to the summer cottage in southwest Michigan the married couple had owned but the now single woman makes a permanent residence.
Time to set up a budget. Mather does what she does best: she shops for good food on a smart dollar, getting to know the locals in the process. As those who eat organic food and shop locally know, you soon learn to change how you eat, planning your menus around what is available when, rather than buying the items to meet the menu. One eats in season, and science is beginning to show that this may prove to be best for our health—and our wallet.
Mather is a good cook, and the 150 or so recipes she intersperses between her seasonal essays are good recipes. That is, I haven’t tried them yet, but I plan to, and they were simple enough that I could read them with enjoyment, almost as if part of the preceding essay, a continuation of her story. They mostly use local foods, yet include a pinch of this or a dollop of that, bringing them a touch of the gourmet.
For those who live in the area described, as I do, I especially enjoyed reading about local markets. In fact, as I write this, my plan for the approaching weekend is to find the local butcher shop she describes, Geuke’s Market in Middleville, Michigan, and stock up my own freezer. Reading about it once again made me realize why so many are so enthused about local markets. When she described the food available there, she also described the owner, Don Geuke, and the first seed of a food relationship is sown. That’s something you never experience in the supermarket.
For those seeking a gritty story about a woman handling life upheaval, this isn’t it. Mather's style is gentle storytelling, and she doesn’t go deep. Her way is more to skim the fat off the surface and make a fine presentation, leave the rest up to you. The reader doesn’t develop an intimate relationship with this author, but that may not have been her intent. Save the intimate relationship for reader and dish. This is a blend of cozy essay and cookbook, a nurturing nudge toward considering a more sensible and more sustainable lifestyle—and leave the excuses about financial constraints behind.
If we are a society that has forgotten how to cook, or how to keep a kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, Mather will be just the spice you need. Pull your chair to the table, read and eat the many flavors you’ve been missing.