THIS IS OUR HILL, AND THESE ARE OUR BEANS

By Peter Barrett

I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, a town steeped in more seminal national history than just about any other. Fittingly, our many famous local authors and historic sites featured prominently in the schools’ curricula. I always felt an affinity for the Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau, who crafted a poetic and uniquely American fusion of mysticism and pragmatism centered around his love of nature. While it may not stand up to much adult scrutiny, his was a vision that landed well in my teenage imagination. I spent many thousands of hours exploring the Concord woods during my first 18 years, having experiences both profound and mundane, feeling at peace, noticing the minute changes that happen each day throughout the four distinct seasons that New England boasts so beautifully. I learned to swim in Walden Pond.

Thoreau, mostly a vegetarian, took great pleasure in growing his own food; that ethos of self-sufficiency formed the central impetus for his time at Walden. His ideal fell between city and wilderness: a semi-tamed landscape, productive, a synthesis of nature and culture. He found pleasure and satisfaction (and nutrition, and a little profit) in “making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms, rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work.” It made perfect sense to me, as my mother kept a sizable garden and I spent significant time helping her work in it. My garden today would fill her with pride and delight.

Thus steeped in the humble roots of America’s first homegrown intellectual movement, I was inevitably drawn to its prodigious flower: Walt Whitman, famously introduced to the world by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1855, the year after Walden was published. Leaves of Grass broke poetry open forever, and led me inevitably to the Beat Generation. Though separated from the Transcendentalists by a century, the two schools share many characteristics: a reverence for nature, a rebellious unorthodoxy, a proudly American point of view. William Carlos Williams’ introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl acts an appropriate and equally famous echo of Emerson’s letter to Whitman about Leaves of Grass, emphasizing their parallels.  

The Beats, railing brazenly against conformity in uncertain times, nonetheless did so within the gustatory parameters of postwar America. Kerouac mentions ice cream (usually adorning a slice of pie) more than any other food in On The Road, which also includes a passage celebrating the many culinary pleasures of San Francisco, praising delicacies as wide-ranging as ribs, roast beef, lobster and drawn butter, chow mein, and spaghetti sauce. Elsewhere he recounts his time spent as a fire watcher, subsisting on Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and Kraft mac and cheese: all unironically mainstream fare. Despite their other appetites, the Beats were not culinarily transgressive.

The Beat generation flowed pretty rapidly into the counterculture of the Sixties, with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Snyder morphing from enfants terribles into éminences grises. A literary fulcrum for this transition can be found in the Burroughs-Ginsberg Yajé Letters, which though written a decade earlier were published in 1963, the year the Beatles blew up. In their correspondence, Burroughs refers to ayahuasca as “the final fix,” the last drug anyone would ever need. This marked a tectonic shift away from alcohol and heroin and towards the hallucinogens that would define the decade to come.

The new generation, while rightly famous for their songs and politics, did not serve in the culinary field with much distinction. Psychedelics promote fearlessly experimental music and radical activism, but tend to inspire austere diets centered around brown rice. Brautigan’s trout fishing and watermelon sugar do not constitute gastronomy, but rather reveal the chasm between tradition and hallucination. While American youth fomented turmoil, their parents grew to understand classical French cooking as the definition of fine dining; its stolid refinement embodied the polar opposite of whatever those hairy beatniks were eating. In time, though, even Escoffier couldn’t withstand the generational shift; Nouvelle Cuisine and its focus on fresh produce over heavy cream marked the beginning of a rapprochement between the two extremes.  

It took a long time, though. I remember eating a pre-made, plastic-wrapped “wheat meat” sub purchased from a Cambridge food co-op in about 1976 by a friend’s health nut father; made from seitan, it resembled nothing so much as a piece of soggy whole wheat bread between two pieces of soggy whole wheat bread. The sad, slimy layer of wilted iceberg lettuce only made the limp dirigible more dismal.* This non-cuisine (and California in general) were rather efficiently skewered by Woody Allen a year later in Annie Hall, in which he ordered “the alfalfa sprouts... and a plate of mashed yeast” at a restaurant in Los Angeles.

That ethos, drab food notwithstanding, proved durable; natural food stores—which somehow all smell the same, no matter where or what time of year—are now ubiquitous and organic is the fastest-growing sector of the food market. We care about our health. Even in 1992, in “Autumn Leaves,” his brief meditation on mortality (which title refers to the 1945 jazz standard, as well as his abiding love of Whitman) Ginsberg’s cooking remains avowedly hippie: “mix miso mushroom leeks & winter squash breakfast.” Yet as health food became more sophisticated, meat substitutes became more palatable (which isn’t saying much). As an ironic result, many of today’s vegetarians and vegans eat a more processed, industrial diet than omnivores.

Life is inherently messy, though, and the collision of asceticism and hedonism makes for entertaining mashups. In the parking lot before a Dead show in Augusta, Maine in 1984, I witnessed a straight-from-central-casting deadhead gingerly take two puffed rice cakes (those thick, brittle discs that taste like packing peanuts) out of their cylindrical plastic bag, shamble sedately over to a neighboring vehicle, scoop a greasy cheeseburger off their grill, and plop it between the two rice cakes. Cutting-edge omnivore or stoned idiot? I like to think that if I had asked him he would have replied, between blissful bites, “I contain multitudes, dude.” Two years later, the acutely unhappy coexistence within my body of LSD and a hot dog would result in my own 18-year abstention from eating meat.

It turned out that my aversion to meat was really just a hatred of factory farming. Eventually, in 2004, easy access to pastured meat from regional small farms (plus the twin pressures of a burgeoning wine collection and a pregnant carnivore wife calling loudly for more protein) won out. In the ensuing decade—which coincided roughly with my emergence as a food writer—the essential difference between pastured meat and its horrifying corporate opposite began to permeate the national consciousness along with the benefits of organic agriculture and the importance of eating locally. Chefs everywhere began larding their menus with descriptors for the provenance of not just the animals, but nearly every ingredient. The health and ethics of eating have now fully meshed with the most refined technique and presentation.

As a result, it is now possible to eat a responsibly sourced, finely prepared meal almost anywhere in the country, and not just in college towns. The ascendancy of proper food to mainstream popular culture (i.e. television) has taught regular folk how to shop, cook, and eat better, and that’s an absolute good even though most of the content is hot garbage. Americans are finally learning that eating asparagus in the fall doesn’t make you a gourmand, it makes you an asshole. Farmers’ markets proliferate. Food porn adorns a meaningful portion of the Internet (after, you know, actual porn). Eating like Europeans, and much of the rest of the world, for that matter, has become the blessed new normal for many people. And that deserves celebration.

Which brings me, finally, to the point. The Fish & Game crew’s cooking—and beyond cooking, their foraging, fermentation, experimentation, and collaboration with farmers to obtain the tastiest and most nutritious food possible—combines the healthfulness and ecological awareness of the most beatific flower child with the savvy and hard-earned chops of the most seasoned traditionalist. It’s a seductive balance, melding grandmotherly nourishment with immaculate execution, unburdened by the smug preciousness or fusty pretense that diminishes so many restaurant meals. Immune to trends, it nonetheless changes constantly, in time with the inevitable fluctuations of living things growing in a four-season climate. Expert improvisation, with all its attendant triumphs and perils, remains a defining characteristic of their food.

Unlike many in the Woodstock generation, who moved upstate to escape the rat race, to drop out, most newer arrivals in the Hudson Valley are moving towards something, proactive rather than reactive. We moved to the country because we wished to live deliberately, which as in Thoreau’s case means getting much closer to our food. (And also not waiting in lines. And always finding parking spaces.) Fish & Game’s cooking, this passionate and holistic approach to food, represents the ethos of the counterculture refracted through the prism of twenty-first century worldliness and expectations of quality. It lacks both the strident preachiness of dietary zealots and the self-important strutting of haute cuisine while still supporting exemplary farmers and delivering sublime experiences: a happy medium, a dynamic equilibrium wherein the simple act of eating becomes a seamless synthesis of activism and hedonism.

This combination of irreverent countercultural authenticity and diligently practiced technique sits at the center of our collaboration and friendship, our shared aesthetic. And this new, improved quarterly intends to reflect both qualities in equal measure. We have, as in previous issues, dispatches from the Fish & Game world, but we have added fiction, journalism, opinion, photography, and illustration—great talents all addressing food’s many roles within our culture from diverse perspectives. We promise this: like a meal at the restaurant, it will be different every time, it will be honest, and it will reflect our love for what we do. Welcome to Fish & Game Quarterly 2.0.

 

*On the plus side, my friend’s dad also did Pilates, which must have registered because when I met my now wife 20 years later and she told me what she did for a living I knew what it was and totally got in her pants.