After reading Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, I took a look at my library of cookbooks to see if there was anything that came as close to embracing the scope of the human relationship to food.
First, there are my favorites, classics published from the 1950s through the l970s, the books that got me started in cooking—Elizabeth David’s slim books and Jane Grigson’s two plump volumes, one on fruit and the other on vegetables. Both authors greatly enriched their work with erudition, and their recipes are peppered generously with scholarly tidbits both botanical and literary. Memories and recollections of dishes, places, and the people who knew and cooked them provide a heady stew of context for the recipes, which are breezy and relaxed in their telling; tea cups, wine glasses, and butter “the size of a nut” do for measurements. Waverly Root’s two volumes on France and Italy, which also date from the l950s, depict a geography of food as he portrays dishes that are eaten in mountainous regions or by the sea; recipes that are products of rich areas and poor; food cultures that are based on butter or olive oil or lard. Twenty years later Richard Olney wrote a marvelous book called Simple French Food in which he portrays not just how to make a dish, but the culture and context in which the dish dwells. He does give recipes, which are fairly precise, but years later he wrote, “I don’t like recipes. They keep cooks from using their intuition, and intuition is precisely what so much of cooking is about.” Perhaps that’s why he often followed the specifics of a recipe with a long verbal ramble that considers all the other possibilities, should you have leftovers or something other than what’s called for, as is so often the case. There were other writers of this ilk, authors who dove into a culture perhaps not their own and explored its food. What connects them is the sense of connection itself that they can’t help but communicate: a dish and its recipe don’t stand apart from place and season, history, and people. To me this sense of a recipe existing in a web of connections is an enormous part of these authors’ appeal. I’ve also noticed in my travels that the more a culture is intact, the fewer cookbooks it produces. Full Moon Feast also seeks connection and culture, but it reaches back farther in time to ancient peoples and practices that illustrate a more fundamental relationship to food, and food’s relationship to life.
In our ever-fracturing world everything has changed, including food writing and cookbooks. Most of my cookbooks, the ones accumulated over the past twenty years, speak not of geography, tradition, and culture, but exist in service to pursuits peculiar to America—the pursuit of speed and efficiency, for example, or for ways around commitment, time, and the pleasures of cooking and sharing meals. There are a myriad of single-subject cookbooks that vary thematically from chicken to eggs, from meat to muffins, and rice to roots. There are gigantic all-purpose cookbooks as well as guides to putting food up and keeping food fresh. And of course there are books that promise health or weight loss or cater to a diet that involves eliminating something—meat, dairy, wheat, fat. In stark contrast to these books are those glossy tomes in which chefs reveal their often intricate and costly recipes. Cookbook writing dwells in a wild territory, a place where worthy traditions are freely flaunted in order to cater to the desires of a particular audience. Foods are combined with no regard for their season or attributes; dairy that would be rich and full of good fat in its original culture is reduced to nonfat in this one, yet the promise of goodness is not withdrawn. A vegetarian might claim that nutritional yeast tastes “just like chicken stock” or act as if a cheese made from rice milk has all the complex, mysterious attributes of raw cows’ milk cheese. Recipes are executed in an exacting style and the free, open gestures of those earlier writers who pointed us to rich cultural traditions are gone. Recipes float on the page. They aren’t anchored to a greater whole.
But recently books have been looking different. They haven’t gone back to the world of exploring cultures that exist elsewhere (although some very good ones do), but they have gone on to reveal the larger context in which we need to consider eating and cooking in our consumer-driven culture. They may include recipes, as does Full Moon Feast, but at the same time they thread a path through such issues as provenance, toxicity, animal welfare, sustainability, seasonality, and more. The Ethical Gourmet wants to show us how “to enjoy great food that is humanely raised, sustainable, non-endangered, and that replenishes the earth.” Tall order. The Real Food Revival is “an A to Z guide for interacting with the multi-faceted, often convoluted business of food.” Jane Goodall has written about food and the shape of food practices in America, and Andrew Weil speaks to our health by connecting what we eat to how we live in the world. A farmer writes about raising peaches in California. From England, The River Cottage Cookbook touts real home cooking and includes a paragraph on owning a shotgun and another on slaughtering a pig—a truly whole-foods approach that considers a world of self-sufficiency and intimacy with animals.
Like Jessica Prentice’s, my library doesn’t include cookbooks alone. I too have Dr. Weston Price’s book on nutrition and physical degeneration; collections of folktales; books on the ethics of eating meat; others on botany, plant origins and histories; memoirs of cooks; books on food chemistry, on wild fermentation, and others on the dangers of modern food. But the difference between Jessica Prentice and me is that these books live in her home, whereas my cookbooks live in my office, as if home and office occupy different worlds. In Full Moon Feast, Prentice deftly shows that they clearly are of one world. It takes someone with a wide vision to bring all these facets of human thought and experience together into a rich and unified whole, which Prentice has.
The moons in the title refer to food times, times of the year when certain foods assume prominence, and they make perfect sense, if you can imagine—and with this author’s help, you can—a world in which human cultures are exactly in tune with the places they occupy on the planet. This was once a universal human experience, but for modern Americans especially, it is not easy to imagine how it feels to live such a vital connection between season and food, let alone experience it. Full Moon Feast takes us far from the mechanistic bent of our “everything all the time” culture and shows us how we might see ourselves as members of a human community that ranges far back in time and wide in place, much farther and wider than the world of the authors I’ve mentioned. This is not about fashion or style on the plate; it’s not about trendy new foods or amazing equipment. Nor is it just about how cruel and disconnected our ways of raising, cooking, and consuming food are. Closesr to Walden Pond than The Joy of Cooking, Full Moon Feast puts aside what isn’t important to realize a more fundamental relationship to food, one that weaves history, anthropology, folk life, myth, medicine, a personal journey and, of course, food itself into a whole.
Full Moon Feast picks up the whole cloth of our human world, not just the rag that is our food-as-fuel (but not too much fat, please) approach. Rather than telling us only what’s horrific about something, it digs down to those fundamental attitudes that have produced our now-trying relationships to food and shows us what other possibilities might exist, have existed, for deeper connection and joy in our life. The cost of replacing our intuition and connection with such things as the desires for speed, thinness, the constant availability of foodstuffs, is the vitality and joy of life itself. Not just about the right or wrongness of a situation, Full Moon Feast brings together the threads of human culture that we might look more deeply at the nature of the collective self and ask the question: What kind of a human animal do we want to be, really? Amazingly, preachiness is avoided, even in the heartfelt offerings that conclude each chapter. And the recipes, which in most cases appear to be for familiar foods (sauerkraut, sourdough fritters, taboulleh), are recast as foods that are alive with cultures other than human—beneficial bacteria, yeasts, things causing fermentation that makes foods alive and probiotic. You can taste the difference in food that is alive, and feel it, too.
It hasn’t happened often, but on a few occasions I have had profound encounters with food. One was eating honey, collected from an orchard in Hawaii, that had never been heated in its making; another was eating bison that was shot in its field then blessed by the Native American rancher; and just recently, savoring a piece of beef cooked in Barolo, both from the Piedmont. The breed was an old one, still loved and raised by a few wise farmers in that area. It was more than simply good. On these occasions I experienced something I can only think of as deep nourishment; food as sacramental sustenance that went far beyond everything we usually make food into. These were foods that were whole in the deepest sense, foods that were alive, and foods you could feel; foods that came from human hands, hearts and minds at work. As soon as I tasted them, I felt something was different, and a feeling of reverence arose spontaneously. This was physical and spiritual nourishment, food that expressed webs and layers of connections. It was, in each case, astonishing. I believe that we are nourished by foods that come out of wholeness or, in other words, foods that have integrity, that come from a place where things are connected. For me, Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection is ultimately about this deep nourishment and the lives we might live that include it. Reading it, you sense that this might, just might, be possible.
Author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets