Kurt Timmermeister's new book, “Growing a Feast” (WW Norton, $24.95), tells the story of food itself.
His first book, after selling his Capitol Hill restaurant, Septieme, was called “Growing a Farmer.” Not always “mouthwatering,” either, with chapters on killing chickens and slaughtering pigs. Farming, he learns quickly, isn't just about deracinating vegetables or tugging at udders, it's about slitting throats, too, as his Facebook page shows this week.
We may buy pork chops on Styrofoam trays wrapped in plastic, but Timmermeister knows better. "I feel that food is intrinsically good,” he wrote in “Growing a Farmer.” “Food is from the earth. It provides us with nutrition to live. It is the source of all life, it has the power to make us healthy."
Standing in opposition, symbolically and practically, are the public health authorities. "Their view," he writes, "is that food is intrinsically dangerous." Rather than fight the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, he stopped selling raw milk and raw butter.
How did Timmermeister get from Broadway to a self-sufficient, 12-acre farm, two thirds of it pastureland, on Vashon Island? The journey unfolds over two decades, as the urbanite becomes, first, a suburban homesteader, then a cautious gardener, before selling Septième and acquiring, in its stead, a Jersey cow named Dinah.
His days become defined by the bookends of a farm, morning chores and evening chores. The four dozen birds and beasts (chickens, ducks, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs) on his property have to be milked, watered and fed. He has no farmhouse wife to help, no farmhouse kids, only a Mexican laborer (without whom, it's clear, the place would fall apart).
Craigslist is a huge help (for used tractor parts, for baby pig "weaners"). Two-day-old chicks come by US Mail. When it's time for the chickens to be dispatched, the wings get fed to the pigs, "smart, attentive, aggressive, stubborn and charming." Before Timmermeister brings himself to the painful business of killing a pig, he takes the reader through the agony and the joy of buying a gun. The dairy prospers as Kurtwood Farm, as it's now known, begins to produce a highly regarded, creamy cows milk cheese called Dinah.
And once a week, Timmermeister opens his kitchen table to a dozen visitors for a farmhouse dinner, a multicourse feast produced almost entirely from his own land (exceptions made for flour and salt). And yes, there's plenty of farmhouse butter.
It's on those farmhouse dinners that the new book, “Growing a Feast,” opens. Overwhelmed by the success of his farmhouse cheese operation, he decides to give up the dinners but realizes he misses the excitement, the people, the camaraderie. (Not the picky eaters, not the drunks.) Instead, like Babette in the 1987 film ("Babette's Feast") he decides to prepare a single grand harvest repast.
Timmermeister brings in a professional chef and spends a couple of days cooking, but then realizes that his meal really started two years earlier when a young female calf, Alice, was born in his barn. Most of the items on the menu contain the sweet cream butter that he churned by hand two years after her birth. “It begins when those first seeds are planted, the animals are born, the cucumbers picked ...”
He observes every detail, describes and explains, tells stories cinematically. From that first epiphany, the book is a countdown to the feast. And then it is time.
Timmermeister may have spent his adult life in restaurants, “in service,” as he puts it, but he remains nervous. He watches his chef roll out the dough for pizza; he watches the guests' cars come down the gravel driveway. The music changes from classic rock to a more appropriate selection. The 20 guests settle in and Timmermeister gives a welcoming speech. Soup is served, to be eaten with oversized German silver spoons. Antipasti next, including bits of cheese from Kurtwood Farms. Poached eggs over kale slathered with Bearnaise sauce. Chicken livers. Pasta, and so on, through dessert and coffee (from a roaster on Vashon).
“There is a story to every part of the meal,” Timmermeister concludes. “Not just last night's farm dinner, but every meal.” It's a deeply satisfying book, well-told by a man of great talent and great humility.
Langdon Cook, trim, with wiry russet hair and bright blue eyes, grew up in the wealthy enclave of Greenwich, Conn., prepped at Phillips Exeter, graduated from Middlebury in Vermont. An MFA from U-Dub and a post as book editor at Amazon.com followed, a genteel, Cheever-ish career path if ever there was one.
Then he came to realize that his job at Amazon wasn't really to edit books but to "sell things," so when his wife won a fellowship that involved living "off the grid" in southern Oregon, he jumped at the chance. "I'd always liked the outdoors," he says of this experience, without realizing how it would change his life completely.
Without running water or electricity, Lang (as everyone calls him) learned to live off the fat of the land, and in the decade since he and his wife returned from their isolated sojourn, he's become one of our foremost foragers. He began writing essays about ferns and mushrooms, birds and berries, and, after many rewrites, collected them into a book, “Fat of the Land.”
Encouraged to start a blog to publicize the book, Lang found himself increasingly admired by sedentary foodies whose foraging expeditions are limited to farmers markets. "I'm surprised by the foodie angle," says the outdoorsy Lang.
His new book, “The Mushroom Hunters” (Ballantine, $26), is a wonderfully satisfying excursion into the woods. Off they go, Cook and a devoted mushroom picker named Doug Carnell. They are tracking down lobster mushrooms, growing in the forest shade, big and bright red. "With each new discovery, I am filled with immense pleasure. It's like being a kid again, on a treasure hunt in the woods."
In addition to Carnell, there are professionals like Jeremy Faber of Foraged & Found Edibles, and his friend, restaurateur Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce and half a dozen other ventures. Cook is the guy you want at your side if you so much as set foot into the natural world, though you realize that even in a city park or vacant lot he'd find plenty of interesting stuff to eat.
So what's the subtitle all about? Turns out that "On the Trail of an Underground America" doesn't really refer to the shrooms, but to the pickers, "...the men and women — many of them immigrants from war-torn countries, migrant workers or refugees from the Old Economy — who bring wild mushrooms to market."
Katherine Cole's new book, “Complete Wine Selector: How to choose the right wine every time” (Firefly Books $24.95), sounds slightly intimidating, as if there were anything as disastrous as picking the wrong wine. But the foreword is by no less than the distinguished wine historian Hugh Johnson,
Cole builds a whole wine primer around the structure of wine flavors and weights (from light, aromatic whites to rich sweet reds), a concept that Johnson himself had sketched out 30 years ago with his own “Wine Companion.” Cole has fleshed out the concept, explaining that it's far better to organize wine by style than by geography.
Crisp, lean whites, for example, include Italy's Soave, Germany's silvaners, French melon de bourgogne (Muscadet), Spanish Albarinos and Portuguese Vinho Verde. Moving along to lively, aromatic whites, Cole lists sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, pinot gris from Oregon, gewurztraminer from Alsace, and riesling from Germany. For sparkling wines, there's true Champagne, of course, but also prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain and Sekt from Germany.
On the red side, medium-bodied reds like Italy's sangiovese is in the same category as tempranillo from Spain. Richer, fuller-bodied? Try Malbec from Argentina, merlot from Bordeaux, nebbiolo from northern Italy, or shiraz from Australia, or Zinfandel from California.
But the ten wine styles are just the skeleton for a raft of suggestions on what to eat, what to spend, what the experts like, where to buy (Pike & Western is her pick in Seattle). Cole's previous book, “Voodoo Vintners,” described (and deftly skewered) the earnest, well-meaning and self-absorbed practice of biodynamic wine making in Oregon. Now firmly in the mainstream, Cole has assembled a terrific guide to the entire world of wine.
Here a few more titles that work well for anyone interested in local food.
"Ivar's Seafood Cookbook: The O-fish-al Guide to Cooking the Northwest Catch." Is there a more iconic seafood spot than Ivar's? Acres of clams, gallons of chowder. Yes, I know, there's Duke's, too, but Duke Moscrip doesn't have a cookbook this season, and Ivar's — courtesy of the peripatetic ghost-writer Jess Thomson — does. Chowder's not all that complicated: clams, potatoes, celery. Duke's uses bacon and heavy cream; Ivar's uses half-and-half. The trick, obviously, is scale. Ivar's is a pretty good-sized company, 25 units and counting, not to mention supermarket sales of the chowder. More than chowder, though: the tried and true recipes for Ivar's crabcakes, salmon sliders, halibut and blackened ling cod. (Sasquatch Books, $29.95)
"The Northwest Cookbooks." Cynthia Nims turns out cookbooks like some people turn out blog posts, Her latest is a series of seven individual Northwest Cookbooks that draw from content she first wrote a decade ago: crab, salmon, wild mushrooms, appetizers, even breakfast. Best of all, they're on Kindle, so easy to download and keep on hand. (Rose Street Editions via Amazon Digital Services, $3.50 each)
"The Kitchen Pantry Cookbook: Make Your Own Condiments & Essentials." Erin Coopey's “Kitchen Pantry Cookbook” teaches home cooks how to make mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, salad dressings and stocks. The sorts of things, in other words, that every household used to make, before Kraft, Campbell and the four H's (Heinz, Hunt, Hellman, and Hidden Valley) came along with their jars, bottles and powders. We've become so attached to the artificial flavors (and high-fructose corn syrup) that it can be a bit of a shock to taste homemade ketchup, for example, but the freshness is well worth the extra effort. (Quarry Books, $29.95)
“The Calorie Myth.” A suburban Seattle Microsoftie named Jonathan Bailor has just published “The Calorie Myth,” a book that blames so-called bad calories for weight gain. “What if you could eat more, exercise less, lose weight and live better?” Bailor asks. It's hardly his first foray into the world of nutrition; a tireless software inventor, he also hosts a radio show, blogs for Huffington Post, and runs a personal training company. Bailor's self-help shtick postulates that people have an ideal “set point” weight, and that consuming “good” calories (peanut-butter chicken stir-fry, chicken & cabbage carbonara, berries with lemon sauce) makes it easier to maintain that weight. (HarperWave, $29.99)