It seemed an interesting idea to compare Kurt Timmermeister’s “Growing a Feast’’ and Vicki Robin’s “Blessing the Hands That Feed Us.’’ Both books concern their authors’ quests to test themselves with locally-sourced diets. Additionally, I was surprised to find the two books take place on islands in Washington’s Puget Sound. Timmermeister has a farm on Vashon Island, southwest of Seattle, while Robin lives further north on Whidbey Island. Separated by only a few miles of water, how different could their experiences be?
About a Pacific Ocean’s worth.
Timmermeister — chef, farmer, author, cheese maker — previously wrote about Kurtwood Farms in “Growing a Farmer.’’ He’s been at it for more than 20 years, every year, he writes in his latest work, “growing a bit more food than the past year.” Locally renown for his Cookhouse dinners as well as his farmstead cheeses, Timmermeister sets out in this new book to spend two years growing almost every ingredient for one dinner.
A more pedantic writer might start throwing around terms like “locavore’’ or “sustainability’’ at this point, but Timmermeister puts his head down and gets on with the business of describing his daily challenges, successes, and failures. There is a brisk, appealing, no-nonsense feel to Timmermeister’s narrative. After all, the man has a farm to run.
The author rivets attention with the detail he uses to describe the daily tasks of farming and food production. I’m not particularly obsessed with the origins of cheese, but I hung on every word he wrote about his own process. Timmermeister has the knack of helping the reader imagine the tastes of the produce coming out of the earth and the smells of dinner being made in the cookhouse. Though his profiles of friends and neighbors can be a little fawning, they are vividly drawn.
Therefore, it’s perplexing that the book’s one major failing occurs at the dramatic juncture of food and people. A dozen projects (such as raising the calf that gives the milk that produces the cheese that ages for 18 months before serving) all come together when Timmermeister and a fellow chef spend a couple days cooking for the invited guests.
However, we never learn a single thing about these guests. After so many excellent profiles in the book, Timmermeister treats these guests as nameless, featureless eaters. It’s a strategic error. After a couple hundred pages of preparation leading up to the meal, the dinner guests have become proxies for the reader. Giving them names and faces, likes and dislikes, histories and idiosyncracies, harsh critiques and lavish praises would have given us a greater degree of identification and might have elevated this book to something truly splendid.
I also have one quibble that is as much the editor’s fault as the author’s. Timmermeister cannot seem to go a single page without using the phrase “a bit.” There are sometimes several “a bits” per page. There may be several hundred “a bits” in the book, maybe even more than a thousand. But just a bit.
Meanwhile on Whidbey Island at a July 4 party, Vicki Robin takes up a challenge made by a neighborhood farmer to try and survive by only eating food produced within a 10-mile radius. Robin is the best-selling author of “Your Money or Your Life.’’ I haven’t read it, but she mentions it often enough that I developed acute financial anxiety.
With minor trepidation, Robin agrees to adhere to a purely locavore diet — albeit with a few caveats. The experiment will only last 30 days. Her personal prohibition on meat goes by the wayside when she stocks the larder with 8 pounds of locally-raised beef, rationalizing that even extreme locavores allow themselves a few treats. Robin also permits herself cooking oils, lemons, limes, salt, Indian spices, and caffeine, all of which come from far outside her 10-mile limit. As far as I could tell, Robin’s greatest obstacle was not tripping over the low bar she set.
Spoiler alert: Robin successfully completes her experiment, at the end of which she writes about landing this book deal. A dramatic ending it is not. Along the way, Robin’s book ranges between memoir, self-help, polemic, and cookbook. I found little here to be original or compelling. Unlike Timmermeister who inspires by doing, Robin relies more on exhorting. In books concerned with things that come from the earth, I prefer writers with a bit of dirt under their nails.
BLESSING THE HANDS THAT FEED US: What Eating Closer to Home Can Teach Us About Food, Community, and Our Place on Earth
By Vicki Robin
Viking, 352 pp., $26.95
Kent Black is an editor and writer who lives in New Mexico.