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Book City: What you eat is an act of belonging

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin lives on South Whidbey Island, where she’s been eating close to home for her new book “Blessing the Hands that Feed Us.” As co-author of the perennial best seller “Your Money or Your Life,” Robin was an early prophet of downsizing. She’s an amateur stand up comic and a world traveler, with a popular TED talk on “Rational Eating.”

Val Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Vicki Robin: It’s an eclectic assortment for sure. I’m in the midst of reading “Rebuilding Regional Foodsheds,” by Phillip Ackerman-Leist, because that’s the layer of social change I’m most interested in now.

“Braiding Sweetgrass,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which combines personal narrative, natural history and indigenous wisdom; the plant world is fascinating.

I always say I want to be Barbara Kingsolver when I grow up. I’m reading “Flight Behavior,” and am in awe of her use of language, how she can take me from tenderness to absurdity in one sentence. We share a love of the natural world. I’m not sure which Dave Barry book I have open at the moment, but I’m a big fan. He cracks me up. If it can’t be Barbara Kingsolver, I’d choose Dave Barry.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

“A Tale for a Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. She’s such a fine writer; it’s a layered story that reads like a mystery.

Any well-reviewed or popular books lately that you don’t think lived up to the hype?

I hate to say this, given my focus on local food and my near deification of Michael Pollan, but I couldn’t get past the first section in “Cooked.” I seemed to be reading the same scene of a pig roast over and over without much new or fascinating.

When did you and your co-author Joe Dominguez publish “Your Money or Your Life, and why do you think it’s still selling?

“Your Money or Your Life,” came out in 1992. I can’t tell you why it is a classic. We did give a voice to the absurdity of the money culture without making working stiffs wrong or bosses wrong or even bankers wrong. We just said, “Hey everyone, this is nuts. It’s a trap for everyone. Smart people (maybe you), here’s a way out.” We pointed to the obvious — we sell our lives for money, but money isn’t buying us a life we love.

Do you buy books? What does your personal book collection look like?

I buy books when I’m working on a project; books on sustainable economics, happiness, food, spiritual evolution. I have books I’ve collected over sixty years that hold memories, but should be sent to thrift stores because I’ll never read them again. And all the mysteries and novels I get from thrift stores to read on airplanes. I mostly get books from the library now, and download onto my Kindle.

What kinds of books do you seek out?

I love good narrative writing, be it fiction or non-fiction. I love writing that is lush with similes and metaphors in just the right measure to be almost a sensual experience, without getting in the way. I love language that wakes me up to see in a new way. I love elegant turns of phrase that the writer gives you — not to impress you with how great they are, but more like a taste treat…. Savor this…

Does living in a small community like Langley (South Whidbey Island) affect your reading and writing life?

I moved here to recover body and soul from cancer. My new book is all about living in the nourishment of this community. An island itself is a boundary that holds energy, lets it build. Be it friendships or shared experiences or collective work. My writing is all about this place, the island quality.

What was the genesis of your new book “Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community and Our Place on Earth”?

I said yes to a crazy invitation from a farmer friend to only eat for a month what she could grow, and to document how it went. A blog I wrote about my 10-mile diet was the basis of the new book. I found that a local diet benefits not just personal health, but nourishes the soul through the sense of belonging to a people and a place.

Growing, processing, selling, serving and eating locally and relationally is an engine of economic prosperity. But we also need a political movement for rebuilding regional foodsheds so more people can make a good livelihood all along the regional food chain. We need to go from, at best, 5 percent local food on our plates to 25 percent, or 50 percent — so that everyone can have access to fresh, whole, well-grown foods.

Can you explain what you mean by “relational eating”?

Relational eating points to the shift from being an anywhere, anytime, anything eater in a vast food court of restaurants and markets, to being a living person in a living food system. It originates in self-knowledge about our own food habits and history and radiates out into our kitchens. It’s eating as an act of belonging.

Have any cookbooks helped you to eat locally?

I love a cookbook I used when I got cancer, “One Bite at a Time,” by Rebecca Katz. She taught me the secrets of preparing nourishing, tasty whole foods.

What were your most cherished childhood books?

It’s so ordinary: Nancy Drew! My mother read us all the AA Milne books. They hold good memories, but I’m not sure if it is because I loved my mother or the Pooh stories.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?

I love Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed,” for how it plays out the dynamics of two cultures, one more socialist, the other industrialist. For the same reason, I have read “The Fifth Sacred Thing,” by Starhawk more than once.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that you return to?

When I want to reorient and reground I read Wendell Berry. It could be anything from his poetry to essays to fiction.

Do you have favorite mystery titles, or favorites in another genre?

I’m always sad when I say good-bye again to Kinsey Millhone. I love Sue Grafton’s mysteries, I’ve read them all.

What do you plan to read next?

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, “The Signature of All Things.”

What Val’s Reading This Week: “The Small Room,” a short novel written by Mary Sarton in 1961. It’s the story of a young woman joining the faculty of a New England college, and the challenges, frustrations and friendships she finds there. It might be the “Lean In” of a half-century ago in its exploration of what it takes for women to succeed in the workplace.

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