Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book review: The Feast Nearby

The full title of this book by Robin Mather is "The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week)". This is the truth.  I didn't make that up.  Being into books about canning, local food, and reinventing your life recently, this book called out to me from the website, and its 5-star reviews must mean that it is actually a great book, right?  So I ordered it.

Well, it wasn't what I expected. Not at all.  I feel kind of bad writing this review, because I bet Robin Mather is a very nice person in person, but her book fell flat.  There are a lot of books out there right now about back-to-the-soil, back-to-the-rural, or just plain back-to-the-kitchen and I wonder if she just thought she could ride the wave.  After all, the author had been a food journalist over many years so she could write.

I actually believed that the book would be about "How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week)".  In smaller print on the cover it also says "essays and recipes".  Here is the first revelation - half the book are recipes. Long, winding recipes.  If I want a cookbook I buy a cookbook.  If I want an autobiography I buy that.  I am not sure what to do with this hybrid book.  It won't be among the cookbooks, and if it is among the novels, then I will never find the recipes. And there is no list of the recipes in the book. There is an index, but that covers everything, not just the recipes. I am sure some of the recipes are very tasty, but they were used to fill up a thin book into a thicker one. 

What I wanted to read about was how she lost her job, how she overcome her sadness over the marriage that was gone, and how she only had $40/week to live on and budget with.  But the book lacks depth and details about these things.  Nowhere is there a budget.  Her marriage is just mentioned in the beginning as a side issue, something that forced her to move to a little cottage.  It is not really a book about moving to a new place - she already knew a lot of the suppliers and had friends in the area.  In fact, it often reads like a marketing piece for her friends that provide local food.  (Which is not bad, but not what I want to pay for.)  

And the foraging and bartering is minimal, honestly.  We are not talking about someone that picks 20 kinds of weeds and make a salad out of it because she has nothing else to eat. She is not growing any of her own food (despite the cover picture, which is not of her or her carrots). For example, how could she buy that expensive coffee and still be under $40/week?  There are other things that I wonder about - didn't she get unemployment insurance after she was laid off?  That would be more than $160/month for food I would think...  I just wonder, especially since she never clarifies her economic circumstances.  At one point she needs to earn money to pay for fuel oil, so she then freelances a few weeks and then gets the money, so why couldn't she do more of that at other times.  I just don't feel like we are given the whole picture. This might be because of privacy reasons, but if you hold back on those things, you can't have such a subtitle on a book.

Part of the book is rambling, preaching arguments about the bad food industry, the goodness of local food, the great thing about having chickens, and details about her pets.  Barbara Kingsolver has written so much better about the first themes (and Michael Pollan too, even if he is too rambling and fact-and number-crazy as well), that it feels old in this book.  We have heard this before.  

It would have been so much more interesting to read about the author's own feelings, fears, frustrations, happiness, and experiences, instead of reading another 'eat-local-it-is-good' book.  I believe in eating local and fresh food too, but I don't want to be preached and lectured to. Why spend so much time on explaining UHT pasteurization, CAFO animal farms, and coffee roasting facts?  I just didn't find her writing interesting.  It was well-written, factually accurate, but boring.  Why is each chapter focused on mostly one ingredient? Wasn't this to be about her life, not food ingredients? Why is half the book recipes?  It honestly feels a bit like a copycat of Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle book, but not even half as good. Sorry, I might be harsh, but at least I am honest. 

Instead of this book, I suggest you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (about local food), or The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball (about growing your own food and starting a farm), or American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen (about food ingredients).  All of these three books are fun, fascinating, and great entertainment and education at once.  

Now, there is some good things about this book too.  The book is exceptionally well designed and printed with nice font choices and paper.  But I still can't recommend it for reading.  I know I might be in the minority on this, but I think that with the limited time we have in the world, it is best to stick to books that are fun to read. This books get a C+, sorry.


Sarah said...

I believe I read somewhere (probably, about her the publication of her own books) that the author doesn't choose the title, or the cover, or the subtitle. This was about the cover of her book Drunk, Divorced, and Covered in Cat Hair, and also some publicity about it that went out before the publication of the book which advertised knitting patterns that ended up not appearing in the book. So, that is why the subtitle may have been false advertising--someone else picked it. Still, I am glad for the warning. :) I still haven't even read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, or any total books by Michael Pollan (so there's no way I could handle anything more didactic disguised as more of a story) because it felt too much like work and school. In my free time, I wanted something totally different from the hobbies that had become my working life. Now that my work and school are not at all plant-related, I can read these books for fun (I am reading The Dirty Life now!) so I'm glad to be warned away from this one!

LS said...

Yes, that is probably true about choosing titles and covers. But what gets me most is that everybody else on Amazon loved this book.

Maybe it just boils down to this: I am tired of the preaching from the locavore crowd, and I want more fun, excitement, feeling, despair and understanding when it comes to local food, not just that it is the best thing ever. Anybody that has had a garden knows it is like warfare against mammals, insects, weather, and bacteria and viruses, oh and fungi too, that all they want is to get what you plan to eat. Oh, birds, I forgot the birds! They are nasty too :)