First up, our director Melissa gets a whiff of farming life in The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball.

I will admit it, the thought of reading a quaint book about life on a farm did not excite me. As it turned out, the transformation from the author’s New York city life as a freelance writer to the farm she and her husband built – Essex Farm in the Adirondacks, is an absorbing read. Her family and friends thought this Harvard educated city girl was crazy. In fact, even farmers familiar with the work told them they would fail – that no one in that area was interested in local or organic food – and even if they were they couldn’t afford it. She describes in satisfying detail the experience of learning how to do everything (milk a cow, move pigs around, plant seeds, harvest crops) and vows that they will not fall into the rut that so many weary farmers fall into who don’t have time to cook and enjoy the food they are growing.

Equally compelling is her husband Mark’s idealistic vision for this farm: to be a “whole diet” CSA, where the farm provides everything a community needs to eat for the year – beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables. Mark has a commitment to sustainable practices that goes way beyond the norm – from using horses rather than tractors to a no-waste ethic, (saving his used dental floss for some future, yet unknown use.). The farm life is not easy, and not easy on a marriage – one that she describes as the “fiery kind.” This is a terrific success story about two people with a vision that worked.

Speaking of visions, in his new book, Shadows on the Gulf, author Rowan Jacobsen uses the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a jumping off point for talking about the broader issues in what he calls “our last great wetland.” The BP spill is seen as a symptom of a larger issue—our oil-based economy. As long as we keep searching for nonrenewable energy sources, we do so at the expense of the natural environment. What struck me as I read this book was the tension inherent in our relationship with the natural world. The Gulf of Mexico has this richness of resources that, if well managed, could not only sustain a region but be a source of wealth for our country.

Instead, writes Jacobsen, the Gulf has essentially been handed over to oil companies, whose work of extracting resources has come at great cost to the Gulf’s ecological integrity—from pipelines and canals cutting into the wetlands and accelerating their erosion, to abandoned and decrepit rigs leaking untold gallons of oil into the water. Many people living along the Gulf Coast depend on the oil companies for their jobs—if they don’t depend on the fishing industry. These two industries coexist in the same ecosystem—it remains to be seen how either will fare in the long run.

It’s hard not to get mad as hell when reading this book, but just as Jacobsen illuminates the big picture of bad news in the Gulf, he offers a vision for restoring this great ecosystem in a way that creates jobs, draws tourism to the area, and engages Americans in saving and supporting one of the most valuable places in our country.

Finally, Jen, the development and marketing associate at Chefs Collaborative, has been reading High on the Hog, by Jessica Harris. She writes:

I have many interests in the food realm, but the aspects that resonate most deeply within me are history and culture. This probably has to do with the fact that I’ve studied alot of languages in my time, and my favorite classes in high school were, without a doubt, European and World Histories.

At any rate, I like to think of myself as an amateur (aspiring!) culinary historian, which is why it was my pleasure to read Jessica Harris’ book, High on the Hog. This book frames African history in culinary terms, describing how slaves held their food traditions close to them while enduring a journey from the
continent to an unknown, faraway land. Once they arrived, they steadily began transforming the food landscape using practices they had already engaged in for years. Old cooking methods transformed American ingredients, African spices entered the scene, and now hundreds of years later, we can’t imagine what it would be like without the quintessentially “Southern” dishes that evolved during this time.

When I talk with our members, I’m always excited to learn how they take traditions learned from childhood and reinterpret those culinary memories for people who come to try their food. What history and culture formed your culinary consciousness? Leave us a comment below.