Cooking is a dreaded chore for some, and many others take a nonplussed, let’s just get-’er-done attitude into the kitchen—the shopping, chopping, mixing, and heating are simply the means to a meal.
How extraordinary, then, are the blessed few who truly embody the joy of cooking? For them the kitchen is part playground, laboratory, and artist studio—all in the creative pursuit of flavorful masterpieces.
One such whisk-wielding wizard is Sara Bir, author of The Fruit Forager’s Companion (Chelsea Green), one of the most delightful, unsuspecting cookbooks we’ve seen in a long time. Beyond her cooking talent, according to reviewer Rachel Jagareski, Sara’s greatest gift may be her writing skills and ability to convey an infectious love of cooking. Check out Rachel’s starred review in the May/June issue of Foreword and you’ll see why we just had to get these two foodies together for a Face Off.
The Fruit Forager’s Companion is a gloriously wide-ranging compendium; a biblio-hybrid crammed with information about plant identification, agricultural sustainability, food preservation methods, botanical folklore, recipes, self-sufficiency, and your saucy, considered ruminations about such wide-ranging topics as mortality and the joys of an eclectic diet. How did you approach writing and researching such a creative type of book?
The book came about because as I got deeper into foraging for and appreciating unusual fruits, I got frustrated with the lack of solid culinary resources for the next step. “Okay, I have six gallons of white mulberries, now what?” Since there wasn’t a book that did that, I figured I’d write one. (There are no recipes for six gallons of white mulberries in the book, by the way, but a person reading it might get inspiration for what direction to go in, and that direction could even be not harvesting those mulberries to begin with if they were not that good. White-colored mulberries can be hit and miss. When they are good, boy are they good! I’d say dehydrate them until they’re still a bit pliable. My friend puts them in his trail mix, but I might infuse them in a syrup to add to fizzy water.)
When I came up with this idea for The Fruit Forager’s Companion, I realized it was not going to be a typical cookbook, and thus would not appeal to everyone. I figured I might as well do it my way and have fun. If asides about Flemish paintings or the fictional band Spinal Tap are not your bag, this is not the foraged fruit book for you. Fortunately, Chelsea Green Publishing was receptive to my vision. I don’t think this book would have made sense to any other publisher.
I go out on walks every day. Walking is a significant part of me writing anything, but I had to do the foraging to make this book work. In developing most cookbooks, you wind up going to the grocery store over and over throughout the week, but when you are testing recipes with foraged fruit, you must go out and find the fruit. For fruit I couldn’t harvest in Ohio, where I live, I either ordered online or didn’t include recipes for them.
I’m an obsessive reader—ask my family, I sneak-read at mealtimes, which justifiably drives them nuts—so I had a whole lifetime of articles and cookbooks and god knows what else to pull from as sources. With a library background, I’m very good at searching for things I read fifteen years ago based on a few keywords.
I love your exuberance and evangelism to get folks outside foraging and exploring their own backyards and communities. The sections describing the culinary possibilities for using all those dozens of different fruit species contain so many open-ended ideas for cooking them up, even when the results are less than stellar. What is your most memorable kitchen catastrophe? What are some of your best ideas or recipes that have emerged from less-than-successful first outings?
I’m still getting a grip on American persimmons. They’re small persimmons found in the eastern US, and like Hachiya persimmons, they aren’t palatable until they’re squishy and soft. At that point, their flesh is like a cross between a date and pumpkin puree. I got hung up first on making a persimmon quick bread, and then on steamed persimmon pudding. I had a lot of breads and puddings collapse on me, which never happened with Hachiya persimmon pulp. Also, baking soda in a batter with American persimmon will make the resulting dessert turn black over time, which understandably creeps people out. I kept re-formulating and tinkering, and it seemed every version turned out exactly the same no matter what. Lots of persimmon desserts got composted. Eventually I arrived at a persimmon quick bread that made it into the book, but I’m still chasing the persimmon pudding. I feel like Wile E. Coyote pursuing the Road Runner. I’ll nail it one of these days, just to prove to myself I can. Let’s face it—who makes steamed pudding?
Your confidence and relaxed attitude is delightfully reassuring and elevates “goofy kitchen experimentation” to an art. I am reminded of Ms. Frizzle of the Magic School Bus children’s series fame as much as Pablo Picasso. Who are some of your food, art, and literary inspirations?
Music is my biggest inspiration. It’s giant for me. I think a lot about how musicians have to practice to be good. Let’s say you sit down and play piano an hour a day. It makes you better, but the music just evaporates into the air. With cooking and writing, the evidence of the learning curve lingers longer: lopsided cakes, overcooked salmon, bad poetry. This can be discouraging, but you gotta keep writing and cooking, or nothing new happens. I’ve been cooking for years and years and I still screw up!
I’m an information grazer. Everything goes into the hopper. I have so many inspirations, and leaving any out seems unfair, but if I named everyone it would be tiresome to anyone but me. My favorite cookbooks are Better Homes & Gardens and Betty Crocker titles published between the 1950s and early 1980s. I like them for their images more than the recipes. They are very visually driven, with tons of oversaturated color photos, and they evoke an entire world (albeit an idealized and sanitized upper-middle-class one). Most of those photos are vignettes with no actual people in them, so you become the person attending this bridge buffet luncheon or whatever affair the photo depicts. I think a lot of people who love cookbooks feel the same way people who are obsessed with genre fiction feel. Those books—fantasy, science fiction—pull you into an entire realm. A cookbook reader might not actually make any of the recipes, but it doesn’t matter because as they peruse the book they can imagine making them. Those books are, for me, both art and cooking inspirations.
My cookbooks are a mix of old and new titles mostly gleaned from book giveaways. I like free things. Free things are another big inspiration. I used to work at a chocolate factory, so there was a period when I had pounds of artisan chocolate at home and tried out many inventive chocolate desserts or savory recipes laced with chocolate. Today I earn my living in part as a recipe developer, so sometimes I’ll have three different batches of, say, chicken paprikash in the fridge. I’m obsessively frugal, so you can bet we will eat all three batches in some form. Let’s say I’ll pull the meat from the bones and use it as a base for a chicken and dumplings kind of situation, only instead of dumplings I might use torn-up chunks from a savory Dutch baby pancake. Those are recipes no one sees, which is too bad, because the best things I make are combinations of what most people would call leftovers.
As far as actual writers are concerned, my inspiration is my writing group. We started out workshopping via Google Hangouts once a month, and now we just sporadically email each other. Those emails are like Christmas presents in my inbox. I’m lucky because our email threads go in these crazy directions. They’re all incredible writers and I adore our epistolary friendship. It’s important to write to people you care about—not just a note, but really write to them, things longer than a five-word text. I’m fine with texting, but I think we’re losing the depth of those written connections. It’s beneficial for both parties. Things come up in longer emails or handwritten letters that don’t come up (or out, you could say) in a spoken conversation. And certain things don’t need to be shared with everyone on social media. We express ourselves differently when we address them directly, personally. Anyway, I am so thankful I have people I can direct verbose email tangents to.
I envision your kitchen as a sort of alchemist’s workshop, with ferments quietly burping on your overstuffed pantry shelves, freezer door bulging, retorts bubbling away on the stove, purplish blots spattered around the walls and counters. Is this an accurate depiction, or is your kitchen laboratory a more sedate environment?
Our kitchen is tidy, but not obsessively so. It’s the library person in me. Everything is labeled, and I only buy what we have room for. I’m terrible in other people’s kitchens—I wash dishes, I rearrange cupboards, I throw out rancid nuts (I do ask if it’s okay first). I spend a lot of time alone in my kitchen, since it’s essentially my office, but I love it when we have parties and guests make a bottleneck in there, because it means everyone’s comfortable. It’s the happening place to be.
When I turned in the manuscript for The Fruit Forager’s Companion, I deep cleaned for two days—under the cabinets, under the stove, all the light fixtures. It was incredibly therapeutic. I recommend deep cleaning over a gym membership any day.
Your book is studded with information about food history, old-fashioned recipes, and intriguing lore. Where do you find your best research sources? Libraries, the Internet, used bookstores, your own home library?
It’s a mix of everything. I’ve had a lot of jobs in public libraries, so I’ve handled thousands and thousands of books. It goes into your brain through some kind of osmosis. I’ll remember something about a book I shelved two decades ago, but I can’t remember my mom’s birthday.
I have a lot of old cookbooks, but not an obscene amount. Maybe three or four hundred. And there’s rarely a time I don’t have at least a few books checked out of the library. When print resources come up dry, I log into academic databases using my library card. JSTOR is a favorite—they have a good mix of literary journals, old consumer magazines, and research studies.
Living people can be the best resource. As much as I love books, they don’t energize me as much as hanging out with smart people who are happy to talk about plants. Plant nerds are the best.
What is it with you and pawpaws? They are clearly your fruit favorites: “It’s fun to tear into a ripe pawpaw on the spot like a savage wolf-person, flinging aside the skins and wiping your gooey hands on your pants.” Jeez, get a room!
Ha ha, fair enough. Pawpaws are not for everyone, but very much for some people. I’m often loud and brash and apt to say inappropriate things. Not everyone is into the Sara Thing, but when people are they really are. So we are kindred spirits, if you can be kindred spirits with a fruit. I’ve always loved fruit, but I feel about pawpaws the way I feel about my first favorite band, the Ramones. Periodically new-to-me fruits sweep me off my feet, but pawpaws will always be the first.
Fruit, among food plants, is especially sensual. Not just sexy, though it’s that, too—fruit is made up of a plant’s sex parts!—but in having to do with the senses. Fruit wants to be noticed. It wants to be seen and smelled and heard and eaten. We’re raised to be very prudish with food. We handle it with knives and forks, tongs and packaging. If you’re out in the woods or an orchard, you can pick up fruit and just get in there and indulge in terrible manners. It’s a free pass to slurp, rend asunder, tear apart.
What’s in development as your next book and/or culinary project?
For a long time I’ve wanted to write a cycle of critical essays about The Ramones, similar to how Margo Jefferson wrote On Michael Jackson but it would be On Ramonesiness. I know that sounds totally made up, but I’m not kidding. The Ramones are my pawpaws, and pawpaws are my Ramones. Even if no one ever reads it—does the world need another book about the Ramones?—I get a lot of satisfaction from working feelings out in words, and that gratification seems to buoy other aspects of my career, so it’s totally worth it.
At the time I was writing The Fruit Forager’s Companion, I was putting together another book called Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State (Farcountry Press, 2018). Working on two completely different cookbooks at once really stripped my gears. I’ve been spending time in my happy place so I can see what food project surfaces from the muck. I certainly wouldn’t mind doing a little book of quince recipes. Then I think I could work on concurrently with a bunch of Ramones essays.