Over 25 years ago, when I was doing a great deal of newspaper writing, I had the great good fortune of visiting and interviewing the famous, radical, back-to-landers, Helen and Scott Nearing. The occasion at the time was the publication in 1981 of Helen’s cookbook, Simple Food for the Good Life. The Nearings were locavores nearly a century before the word was invented.
Their philosophy was, in their own words, to ”Live hard not soft; eat hard not soft; seek fiber in foods and in life.”
Back in 1932, when the Nearings had fled to an old farmhouse in the Green Mountains, they considered themselves twentieth-century pioneers. They wrote about the satisfactions and rewards of living off the land in a book called Living the Good Life, first published in 1954. Before long, they became the symbolic leaders of generations of homesteaders in a movement back to the land that in recent years has been once again gaining momentum. I wonder how many people are still inspired by this book; during the sixties and seventies it had a cult following.
When I drove up the dirt path to the Nearings’ hand-built stone house on Cape Rosier on Penobscot Bay in Maine all those years ago, I remember that it seemed absolutely deserted. Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the 77-year-old but still very spry Mrs. Nearing, who came bounding out of the house with a striped cat cradled in her arms.
”Welcome to Forest Farm,” she said. I could make out the figure of the tall Scott Nearing, then 97 years old, through the living room window. He was obviously getting up from a nap. It was Sunday and the Nearings were on their once-a-week juice fast and taking it fairly easy.
Guiding me through the kitchen and its century-old wood-burning stove, Mrs. Nearing observed that there was little wood in the box. ”Scotto,” she yelled to her husband, ”how will I cook tomorrow morning if you don’t get me some wood?” Mr. Nearing approached, slightly stooped, with a faint smile that sent ripples along his ruddy, wizened cheeks. As if putting on a little skit for the visitor, Mrs. Nearing added: ”I provide the food, you provide the fire.There, that’s a good division of labor, don’t you think?”
As Scott Nearing headed for the woodshed, Mrs. Nearing led me into the living room, its book-lined walls interrupted only by a panoramic view of rugged Maine coastline. ”Actually, Scott loves splitting wood,” proclaimed Mrs. Nearing, ”but I think cooking is drudgery.”
Indeed, Helen Nearing made no bones about the fact that she would rather be setting stones into mortar than stirring soup. So why did she bother writing a cookbook?
”The idea got its start back in 1970,” she recalled, ”when Scott and I were spending some time in the south of France. Many of the foreign guests we invited to our vegetarian dinners ooh’d and aah’d at the soups, salads and desserts I served them and asked me for the recipes. I was astonished. They were the simplest of foods – vegetables in season, grated apples, rolled oats, raisins and honey.”
Each year, as soon as the frost broke, hundreds of visitors stopped by Forest Farm to find out for themselves what the Nearings’ way of living was like. ”Some of them stayed for months,” said Mrs. Nearing, who, before meeting Scott Nearing in her early 20′s, had studied to be a professional musician in Vienna and Amsterdam.
”They helped us with our building projects in return for room and board. I never knew how many people there would be for dinner and I didn’t want to spend any extra time in the kitchen, so I tossed some beans or vegetables from our garden into the pot and went off to build a wall or play my violin. Everyone always said the food was delicious and asked for the recipes, and I continued to be amazed. They all kept asking, ‘Why don’t you write a cookbook?’ ”
Helen Nearing felt that she should be the last person on earth to write a cookbook, but she also felt intrigued. ”I am a library inebriate,” she told me. ”I began spending long hours in the rare book room of the New York Public Library every time Scott and I were in New York. I made my way through the introductions of 14,000 old cookbooks to discover if I had anything new to say.” (Since she was strictly a salad and potatoes woman, few of the recipes interested her.)
She decided that she did have something to say, and the goal of ”Simple Food for the Good Life” became ”to simplify cooking to such a point that it would take less time to prepare a meal than to eat it.”
Since part of the Nearings’ philosophy was to avoid the use of and dependence upon money, they ate primarily what they grew–vegetables flourished all year in their solar greenhouse. They also believed that the day should be divided into two main four-hour periods — one for ”bread labor” and the other for pursuing other meaningful activities such as playing the violin, reading, and writing. Alone and jointly they wrote 16 books on such diverse subjects as maple sugaring, homesteading, and political economics. (Mr. Nearing had taught economics in various universities before becoming a homesteader.) Mrs. Nearing told me emphatically that she was unwilling to take up much of her ”breadlabor” time with cooking since she felt that there were more interesting and important things to do.
”Whenever I cook something the least bit fancy,” said Mrs. Nearing, ”I ask Scott if he likes it. ‘It’s O.K.,’ he’d say, ‘but where are the potatoes?’ I’m glad he feels that way, because so do I. We’re perfectly happy with a daily breakfast of horse chow — raw oats and raisins mixed with a little lemon juice and oil. For lunch and dinner, nothing makes us happier than boiled potatoes and salad. And, in general, we prefer raw food to cooked.”
”One thing for sure,” continued Mrs. Nearing, ”is that I never cook from recipes. I just use what’s in the garden and in my healthfood store,” she said, pointing to the large barrels of beans and grains lined up just outside the kitchen. ”I had a very hard time getting all of those recipes down on paper, but I had a simple rule: If a recipe cannot be written on the face of a 3 by 5 card, off with its head.”
And she meant it, as you’ll see from the following recipes adapted from Simple Food for the Good Life, which I am happy to report is still in print.
Creamy Blueberry Soup
1 pint blueberries, washed and picked over
2 cups water
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch cardamom
1 cup sour cream.
1. Place blueberries in a saucepan with water, maple syrup, cinnamon and cardamom.
2. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes; remove from heat and let cool.
3. Stir in sour cream, and chill well before serving.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Horse Chow ”In the early 1930′s, before health foods and granola became household words,” recalled Helen Nearing, ”I made up a dish we called Horse Chow. At that time raw oats were not being eaten by humans. This is the simplest granola of all and perhaps one of the earliest. It was dreamed up in the Austrian Tyrol, where we holed up one winter in a village far from supplies and with a very slim larder of hit-or-miss articles, but with great appetites. We eat it in wooden bowls with wooden spoons.”
4 cups raw oats (old-fashioned, not the quick-cooking kind)
1/2 cup raisins
Juice of 1 lemon
Dash of sea salt
Olive or vegetable oil to moisten (see note).
Mix all ingredients together.
Yield: 6 servings.
NOTE: Two to four tablespoons of oil is an appropriate amount. I would recommend this ”chow” only to people who are patient about chewing their food.