Porridge and Clouds

Bowl of clouds

The first in an occasional series on things I’m thinking about + things that make me think

Back in the 1970s, Radcliffe President Matina Horner made headlines with research suggesting that American women suffered from a “fear of success” that kept them from reaching their potential. While I came of age in that era, I’ve never felt that Horner’s findings spoke to my experience. What I recall isn’t a fear of success but rather a fear of failure.

I was probably around 14 when I decided not to apply for a spot in a highly selective study abroad program for Indianapolis public school students. I didn’t think my French I was up to par. I didn’t think I’d get in. Today, I feel bad for that girl who gave up before she tried. By all accounts, it was a wonderful program. There’s a good chance I would have made the cut. And if not: Who cares?

All of which is prologue to saying that I have since become a fervent proponent of learning how to fail. Being able to cope with failure strikes me as one of life’s most important skills—which is why I devoted a session to the topic in the Living Strategically Seminar I taught this fall at UMass Amherst (and, on a lighter note, why I couldn’t wait to share the very funny Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success!” video some months back).

It’s also why I was so heartened to see teacher Jessica Lahey’s terrific new piece in the Atlantic on why parents need to let their children fail. As Lahey writes, parents who try to guarantee their children’s personal and academic success are doing them no favors. Rather they are robbing them of opportunities to strengthen resilience—to cultivate “the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (My friend Jennifer Rosner also reflects on this issue in an excellent piece just published on the New York Times Motherlode blog.)

* * *

The more open we can be about what life should look like, the greater our chance at happiness.

In this spirit, I was captivated by an essay suggesting that the successful marriages of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may include not only the obvious suspects—Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley—but also the pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and pompous Mr. Collins. “Charlotte did the best she could, and if the result is not exactly blinding ecstasy forever after–well, most of us, for the most part, don’t get blinding ecstasy forever after anyway,” Noah Berlatsky writes.

Somehow this got me thinking about the last time I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which I’d always thought of as a poignant tale of missed opportunities. I was surprised to myself concluding that the life Newland Archer got was precisely the life he needed. (The fact that he never realized this didn’t mean it wasn’t true.)

* * *

The Great Recession gave birth to a subgenre that I’ve come to think of as the Plan B Nation memoir—stories about life after job loss. Food plays an outsized role in many of these—which makes a lot of sense to me given the prominent role it played in my own post-layoff life. Favorites include Dominique Browning’s Slow Love (wherein the eating is followed by a serious diet), Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter (wherein the former Entertainment Weekly book critic reports, sometimes hilariously, on making the things we normally buy—think marshmallows, cream cheese, Pop-Tarts), and guest poster Robin Mather’s The Feast Nearby (wherein I discovered a recipe for winter squash and sausage drizzled with maple syrup with which I became somewhat obsessed for a time).

While my Plan B Nation life has evolved a lot in recent months, I’m still always on the lookout for a good recipe. Here’s one for red velvet cake that I can’t wait to try—via one of my (and possibly your) favorite novelists, Elinor Lipman.

Feasting in Plan B Nation: How to feed body (and soul) on $40 a week


Peach "seconds" from Apex Orchards of Shelburne, Mass. (now in my freezer)

You think you’re having a bad week? Consider this: Within a single week in 2009, food journalist Robin Mather was laid off from her job at the Chicago Tribune and found herself on the brink of divorce.

Faced with this double whammy, she retreated to a 650-square-foot cottage on a small lake in southwest Michigan, where she was—to put things into perspective—eight miles from the nearest street light. There, she embarked on the life now chronicled in her memoir-with-recipes 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 forty dollars a week)—a book that environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “charmingly subversive—a lovely reminder of, and guide to, the things that really count.”

Mather now serves as Senior Associate Editor at Mother Earth News—and her personal turnaround  earned her honorable mention for Best Second Act Comeback from the popular Second Act site.

In the guest post that follows, Mather shares what she learned during the year she committed to eating three local homes-cooked meals a day on $40 a week—and describes how eating well in Plan B Nation can be a first step towards bouncing back.

photo: Bob Fila

By Robin Mather

I get lots of lovely mail from readers of The Feast Nearby. “You’re so brave!” they say. “I wish I had your strength!” they write.

But I am not brave—in the book’s first chapter, I write about how frightened and fearful I was—and I am not especially strong. What I am blessed with, though, is resilience.

When life slugged me, as poet John Ciardi describes it in “In Place of a Curse”—one of my favorite poems— you can bet I fingered my jaw in painful admiration. And then I got up. Because really, what other choice is there?

Resilience isn’t strength. It creates strength. Resilience isn’t courage. It creates courage. Resilience doesn’t change your luck. It makes your luck. Resilience is why some people survive pain without bitterness, and its lack is why others become bent and twisted by what’s happened to them. Resilience helps you see that a hard punch isn’t personal, and that the punch doesn’t define you; it’s just something that happened to you.

Resilience is what you need to weather life’s hardships, and to come out better on the other side. So how do you cultivate it?

Well, I think resilience has to be fed—literally, as well as metaphorically. I think that cooking for yourself, really cooking good food, the kind that nourishes your spirit as well as your body, builds resilience.

This spirit-building kind of food will never come out of a box, or be passed to you out of a drive-through window in a paper bag. It requires ingredients as near their natural state as possible. These ingredients remind you of your connection to the wide, wide world every time you lay hands on them to cook. And if those ingredients connect you to the person who grew them, then they will really nourish you, because you have begun to build a community.

A plain bowl of stew-y beans can be a spiritually nourishing dish, as well as being good eating that costs pennies. A roast chicken is the dish I prepare for myself when I’m most frightened, because a roast chicken provides tangible evidence that I went to some trouble to care for myself. The dishes you prepare don’t have to be expensive or complicated. There are nearly 100 recipes in my book for honest, simple food.

That I could set about rebuilding my resilience—gaining the ability to get up after those hard punches—while spending just $40 a week on food should demonstrate to you that you can do so, too. It’s not about the dollars, you see. It’s about the kinds of foods you choose to prepare for yourself (and for whatever lucky family and friends happen to come your way).

So whether you have $40 a week to spend on food, or $80 or $200, spending it wisely will help you feel stronger and more confident. In my experience, cooking what you buy—transforming it into truly nourishing food—gives you a double return on your food dollars.

As I see it, when we allow other people to prepare our food, we surrender our resilience—starve it, if you will. Even if you pride yourself on not eating processed food, you have still surrendered a lot of your confidence in your ability to feed yourself to strangers’ hands. Just think of all the processed or manufactured foods in your kitchen right now, including things like the peanut butter and canned broth in your pantry, the plastic tub of yogurt in the fridge, and even the ice cream in your freezer.

Psychologists say that we humans’ most primal needs are food and shelter, in that order. Only after those two are met do we begin to think about that other primal need: sex. Food is so important to our sense of well-being that, until and unless we feel well-fed, we won’t meet our most fundamental need.

There’s a fair amount of hubbub that eating locally is just for the foodie elite. I am living proof that this isn’t true, and the methods I used to keep good, local food on my table all year ‘round will work for you too. Buying local food in season at a farmer’s market or farm stand remains the least expensive way to provision yourself. Expect to pay more (sometimes much more) for locally and sustainably raised meat; use the savings from your produce purchases to buy it. And while you’re at it, if you eat meat or fish, cut back to two or three days a week. Even a very tight budget can afford a weekly pound or two.

Here are a few more concrete tips to help you in your journey:

  • Stop shopping on auto-pilot at the grocery store. Take a minute to consider where each item you’re purchasing comes from, and whether its sources match up with your values.
  •  If you don’t know how to do canning, learn. Knowing myriad ways to preserve food, as well as the pros and cons of each method, sustains your spirit twice: once in the work of doing, and again in the eating later.
  • Think up 10 dishes you know you love and can prepare almost without thinking. Many of us eat the same 10 or 20 dishes in an unconscious rotation, so it shouldn’t be hard. Then figure out how you can make them with honest, whole food—ideally fresh from someone’s nearby garden or farm.
  • Know that, like all humans, you’re going to get hungry at least 21 times a week, and plan for that. Once you’ve thought that through, you will have breakfast, lunch and dinner under control, and you won’t be tempted by less nourishing choices—including those “healthy” organic potato chips you picked up at Whole Foods for a special treat.
  • Expand your knowledge of herbs and spices. Certain herbsnd seasonings “make” a dish French, or Mexican, or Moroccan, and once you know the flavor profiles of different cuisines, you can pull an interesting meal together quickly and easily. There’s tarragon, thyme and rosemary for French; cumin, cilantro and citrus juices for Mexican; cinnamon, cumin and saffron for Moroccan, and so on.
  • Enjoy the process. Cooking is sensual, and sensual pleasures also feed your self-reliance and resilience. They remind you that you are indeed human, and that, like all other humans, you are created to survive.

Because you will. You will survive, no matter how hard you’ve been punched. But you’ll heal faster and more thoroughly if you have some well-fed resilience on your side.

Note: Robin is kindly providing one copy of The Feast Nearby for us to give away. To enter the drawing, leave a comment below. The winner will be selected next weekend.

In the meantime, here’s a recipe—one that’s high on my personal list of the many I can’t wait to try.   

Peppery Cherry Spoon Bread
from The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons dry sherry
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt, such as kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped dried cherries
4 large eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking dish.

Combine the milk, cornmeal, butter, sherry, salt, red pepper, and oregano in a saucepan and mix well. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer for 2 minutes, or until slightly thickened, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheese and cherries. Let stand for 10 to 15 minutes, until slightly cooled.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir them into the cornmeal mixture. Beat the egg whites is a bowl with an electric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the cornmeal mixture until well mixed. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites with a few quick strokes; some white streaks will remain. Pour into the prepared baking dish.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is browned and the center is slightly loose (a knife inserted into the center should come out clean). Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.