Originally drawn to this book by its cover in the Barnes & Nobles Gardening section, I picked up a copy. The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keep chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week) will have you lining up to buy a pressure canner, eating thick-cut bacon like it’s going out of style, and wanting to visit every farmer’s market within a 100 mile radius. A collection of essays spaced over the course of a year, The Feast Nearby chronicles Robin Mather’s first post-divorce year, but without being an overly emotional read. Although the story touches on the hardships she faces that year and gives the reader intimate insight into the financial and social struggles she faces, the story centers on her growth through her new-found independence, the people she comes to share her table with, and the relationships she builds through becoming a “locavore.”
Besides being an easy, enjoyable read, this story raises some important socioeconomic and health questions for many Americans. From my own perspective, it really challenges the way I think about food, money, and what I can afford at the market. Although I have a deep love for artisan cheeses, homemade breads, pesticide-free veggies, free trade coffee, and organic, free-range eggs and dairy, I too often use the “grad student budget” excuse for pb&j for dinner and cheap coffee, but, as Mather says, there’s “little there to please the inner woman.” Mather’s book poses an interesting challenge though: she enjoys better quality food, tastier coffee, and a much better stocked pantry than I do. Yet, she spends less on it per week, and wastes far less of food than I do. Moreover, she produces very little of it herself. She keeps chickens (chooks as she calls them) for eggs, but there’s no garden to tend to, no weeds to pull, to pesky caterpillars to squelch. In a way, though, Mather makes her whole community her own little farm, as she buys from local growers, local butchers, local dairymen (and women), and then uses their products to sustain her throughout the year by canning and freezing and drying.
In addition to being well written and filled with recipes that sound delectable (hard cider, buttered pecans with chile and brown sugar, maple walnut pie… my mouth is watering already), she forces us to reconsider the foods we can afford. Sure, you can eat a McDonald’s hamburger every day, and be physically sustained for under $40/month, but you can eat much more richly if you budget that on locally grown food from small businesses in your area. I now long for a pantry filled with canned peaches, dried tomatoes, and homemade preserves instead of the granola bars, cereal, and pasteurized, overly sweetened juice I have in there now. Sure, there are healthy things in my pantry – organic oatmeal, dried cranberries, nuts – and, sure, canning and preserving takes a whole lot more time and effort, which is hard for the average, working American to find. But perhaps if I prioritized my food a little more, and thought of cooking less as a chore and more of a privilege and joy, my dream pantry would be a reality.
Do you think this is challenge is realistic? Comment below, and pick up a copy at your local bookstore or here.