For the past year, Robin Mather has settled into her life in Topeka. However, just three years ago, the author/editor/food writer found her life in turmoil.
In a one-week period, her husband told her he wanted out of their 12-year marriage and she was laid off from her food-section staff reporting job at the Chicago Tribune.
Mather moved into her tiny Michigan lake house to regroup. since money was tight, she budgeted $40 a week for food, and she was determined to spend that allotment on as much local food as possible.
Her efforts are chronicled in “The Feast Nearby,” a book of essays and recipes from the first year living on the lake.
“The first three months were filled with profound grief and shock,” Mather said while sitting in a conference room at Ogden Publishing, where she is now senior associate editor of Mother Earth News. “I had defined myself from my family and work, and both were taken away.”
A Michigan native, Mather knew she needed to prepare her pantry for winter. So she canned, dehydrated and froze her produce purchases and stocked up on local meats and dairy items. (Her book is full of food preserving tips and inspiration, as well as recipes for canning, pickling and cheese-making.)
She raised chickens, but because her property was too shaded for a garden, she bartered with neighbors for their garden surplus and shopped at farmers markets and local food producers. For the items she couldn’t get from her favorite local sources, she spent her dollars at locally owned grocery stores.
“People have the mistaken idea that eating local costs more, but that is only true for the foodie elite,” she said. “I spent $40 a week for six months and far less for the rest of the year.”
Mather describes her cooking style as one of simple ingredients made in an unusual way. She enjoys a variety of ethnic foods and eats to fit the season. For example, in the summer she prepares light, cool meals, often with a bit of spice, which makes one sweat and thus feel cooler. this includes making a big batch of gazpacho, which she enjoys for breakfast.
“I like to take an ingredient and then think of how it is used around the world,” Mather said. “Say I buy a bag of cucumbers. I’ll look at all the cultures that use cucumbers and gain inspiration from them. Typically, those dishes are going to be family food, not high-end chef-y food.”
One reason Mather believes in eating local is it keeps her dollars in the community.
“When you buy local, the money moves around locally,” she explained. “If you buy from a farmer, he then spends the money at places like the local tractor supply, the local veterinarian or the local grocery store. That’s slow money that stays in the community for a long time. fast money is when you give your money to a big-box store and it moves out of the local community quickly to pay for the products made overseas in China or Burma. They took the money out of circulation for the local people.”
For people who feel they are too busy to eat — and cook — locally, Mather suggests a little planning can make it possible. She has a list of five to 10 dishes that take only 15 to 20 minutes to prepare, and another set of recipes that take 45 to 60 minutes to create. Then she has her weekend dishes, such as ones for cheap cuts of meat that take hours to braise.
“We all get hungry 21 times a week, so why not do some planning for that,” she said. “If you can’t get the kids home so everyone can eat a meal together, then maybe they don’t need those activities. after church, sitting down each night for everyone to eat together should be the priority.”
Mather has settled onto a small farm outside of Topeka surrounded by neighbors she adores. She continues to eat locally by going to the farmers market each Saturday, buying Iwig milk and shopping at places like the Topeka Natural Food Co-op. Her co-workers at Mother Earth News also provide her with their home-raised meats and produce, and she still does a lot of canning and preserving.
1 sweet onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced lengthwise
1/2 cup cider vinegar, white vinegar or white wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
Coarse salt, such as kosher salt
Cut off the tops and tails of the cucumbers. Taste a slice and peel if the skins are bitter or waxed. I prefer not to peel cucumbers whenever possible, but if the watering was uneven while they grew, the peel is sometimes bitter. Slice the cucumbers as thinly as you possible can while keeping them in whole slices. place the sliced cucumbers in a quart jar or nonreactive bowl and add the onion.
In a large glass measuring cup, combine the vinegar, water and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Add as many grindings of fresh pepper as seems right to you; I generally end up with somewhere between 1 to 2 teaspoons of pepper. you want quite a lot here, so the pepper flavors the brine. Pour the mixture over the cucumbers and onion. Stir to combine (or cover the jar tightly and shake), then add a little salt. Refrigerate until serving time, at least 2 hours. These will be better the second day and best on the third day, if they last that long.
Servings: about 2 cups
6 to 8 very large, red-ripe globe tomatoes, cored
2 green or red bell peppers, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, leaves and stems
Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle or in a zip-top plastic bag with a rolling pin
Chicken broth, tomato juice or water, if needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Quarter the two largest tomatoes and whirl them in a blender or food processor until they are liquidized. Transfer the mixture to a large non-reactive bowl. Chop the remaining tomatoes coarsely; I don’t bother to seed them, but you may if you like. Add the tomatoes to the bowl.
Cut off the tops and tails of the cucumbers. Taste a slice; if the peel is bitter or if it’s waxed, peel the cucumbers. Split the cucumbers lengthwise and use a teaspoon to scoop out the seeds. Coarsely chop the cucumbers and add them to the bowl.
Seed the bell peppers; chop them coarsely and add to the bowl. Add the cilantro, parsley, lemon juice, vinegar, oil and coriander seeds. if the soup is too thick, thin it with some broth. once the consistency is correct, taste again. Does it need more lemony brightness? Does it want more vinegary tang? Adjust accordingly, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Refrigerate, covered, in the coldest part of the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours before serving.
Servings: About 6