From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Abra Berens

A Conversation with Abra Berens

Talking to the author of 'Ruffage' about being a chef-farmer.

Abra Berens, chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, wrote a definitive vegetable cookbook, Ruffage: A Practical Guide to Vegetables, that came out last year. We sat down to have a chat in New York upon its release, and while I took some quotes from it to use in my coverage for Nylon, I never put it out, as I’d intended, as an episode of my podcast, “Meatless.” We covered a lot of ground in that conversation, from her upbringing that mixed food and medicine, what farming taught her about the labor that goes into even the most ubiquitous vegetables, and the importance of broad access to fresh ingredients.

In these Friday paid-subscriber posts, “Meatless” is back, and I’ll be featuring my favorite people in food and beyond in chats about their lives and the food issues of the day.

Below, a few questions I asked Berens in order to get an update on her life since the book came out and we had our talk. Then, a rough transcript of the audio in case you’d prefer to read rather than listen. Either way, I hope you enjoy.

How has life changed for you, if at all, since the book came out last year?
Setting aside the current global pandemic for a second—now that the whirlwind of touring on the book has slowed, day-to-day life isn’t that much different, which I’m grateful for. I was privileged to get to travel for the few months around the release of the book.There were big life events (meeting food and writing mentors, talking to larger groups of people than ever before, being on TV for the first time etc) almost every day, and so it was a real practice to absorb it all the way I would if there was one of those events a year.  

Now I hold those experiences and then get up and walk the dog etc. Plus, the dinners at Granor Farm didn’t change, which is wonderful. I went from being in a new city every few days to being anchored in my work kitchen, cooking from the farm, for the 24 person at a time meals we host. That juxtaposition is really wonderful. Plus, it still feels like an honor when someone who isn’t related to me buys Ruffage and cooks from it!

"Who cares about this book—the world is on fire!" is something you said at this time last year, and we're in quite a different condition now. What do you see as the role of cooking right now?
Sheesh, if we had only known when we were talking last spring! In a weird way, Ruffage feels less frivolous to me now. Maybe frivolous isn’t the right word, but last spring it felt a bit like I was just another writer hocking a recipe. I always knew that Ruffage was more than just a collection of recipes, that it is a resource on how to select, store, and use ingredients. I wanted it to be something that would give readers permission to change out the type of cheese or whatever in a recipe to make it their own. Maybe I wasn’t sure that that actually mattered or if anyone would care. 

Now it feels like it really does. I’ve had a number of readers email me and say that they liked Ruffage before but now they really are using it. That has been heart-warming and makes me feel like it was worth the effort and worth their money that they spent on it. This cookbook still doesn’t solve the massive inequities in our society, but I still believe that every story/problem has a food angle and so caring about food means that we might shift the needle on some of the larger issues in our world. Might. Hope. We’ll see. 

How have you, personally, been cooking and shopping for groceries while in isolation?
Instead of resolutions, I always do the year of something. Something to focus on or a habit to try to build. 2020 is the Year of the Pantry—to use up the things that have been on my shelves for over a year. I never expected a global catastrophe to aid me in my personal goals! All of this is to say that we haven’t gone to the store much except for fresh produce because I have a lot of dried staples as well as odds and ends into the freezer. It has been weirdly fun to have added purpose around finding a home for the random ball of dough or the pint of cooked lentils in the freezer. Let alone the things in the pantry. I’ve had a jar of teff flour on the shelf for over 3 years. I finally made a successful batch of injera and that felt very satisfying! 

Are there changes to the food system that could be made that you think this universal experience might be showing to a broader population than just those who are already concerned with food?
I think people are seeing four things: what scarcity feels like, the issues of scale of our agricultural system, seeing the hidden, now essential, workers who get food from the field to their homes, and how being food insecure is not one’s fault and that being hungry doesn’t help you get a job. 

I also think that the rise in interest in CSAs and local food supplies shows that this might be a crystalizing moment for people who thought (not always inaccurately) that the desire for farm-to-table was elitist or only fancy. In a lot of ways, a resilient, local food system that keeps money in a regional economy, is as practical as it gets. I hope that the interest in that doesn’t go away. That we are more and more willing to cut out the noise of spending on stuff and instead spend on food. Does that make sense? 

What are you looking forward to about a world post-isolation?
Ironically, after championing home cooking for so long, I’m looking forward to a bit of luxury of eating out. I was talking with a friend the other day about the day that we will get to eat together at our favorite restaurant, he said “doesn’t that sound luxurious?” And it does. The simple act of getting together and eating something I didn’t make and not washing the dishes sounds pretty great. 

Also weirdly, as I’m not much of a hugger, I’m really looking forward to hugging someone who doesn’t live in the same house as me. 

I’m also looking forward to trying to make large structural changes to our world. I hope no one can look at a grocery worker and say “nah, you don’t deserve $15 an hour” etc. The Great Depression led to the New Deal. I hope that we can make big changes to de-stratify our society. So first, dinner out and hugs, and then the real work! 

Alicia: Thank you so much for having a conversation with me.

Abra: Thanks for asking. 

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up in what you ate?

Abra: Yeah, so I grew up in Hamilton, Michigan. Well, a little town called Bentheim, which is about—it's on the west side of Michigan, about halfway up the state or, you know, a third of the way up the state. And I grew up pretty rurally. My dad came from a family of pickle farmers, but both my parents were anesthesiologists, so we had this funny mix of farming and medicine in our house.

My mom was a really tremendous cook, and so we ate most of our meals at home and it was a mixture of things—everything from a lot of pizza rolls and mini quiches from Sam's Club to, you know, these really amazing home-cooked meals of venison. My dad was a hunter, so we had a lot of game, and my mom went through this period where she got really fed up with having so much game meat in freezers and not eating it because we didn't really like it and so she put a moratorium on domesticated meat. It was kind of that funny mix of some very wild things and some very traditional, like Hamburger Helper, and then some things are straight-up candy.

Alicia: So what does being a pickle farmer mean?

Abra: Where we live, it's very sandy soil, and so cucumbers grow really well because there's good drainage. We would grow pickling cucumbers, and pickling cucumbers are smaller—the size of the ones you'd see in the jar. They have a slightly thinner skin and a slightly drier interior, so it makes them easier to preserve. So when we had a good year, we would do like three crops. So we'd go in, you know, late May, this time of year, and then come to pick and harvest with a big combine and then redo that ideally three times through, and then in the fall you plant to a cover crop of like rye or wheat.

Alicia: And so when did you decide that food would be your career?

Abra: I don't know that I—I don't know that I guess I made the conscious decision when I decided to go to cooking school instead of joining the Peace Corps. So I had been cooking in restaurants since I was 16. Mostly because every farm kid wants to get a city job, so they don't have to keep doing that—or that’s my experience, and so, yeah, so I had always worked in restaurants and then through college, worked at Zingerman's Deli and had stayed on and cooked with them. And that's where I went from front of house to the back of the house. And I had always assumed I would go into the Peace Corps and then like I had lofty dreams of working for the UN or working with like, you know, all of those things still related to food and food security and health and things like that. And then I was like either Peace Corps or cooking school, and my chef at the time, Roger, said, you should check out Balleymaloe, which is in the south of Ireland. He had done his externship there. And he's like, “you don't need two and a half years of cooking school, but you need some fundamentals that we can't give you.” And so he sent me there.

Alicia: And that was from Zingerman's.

Abra: Yeah.

Alicia: How is it working at Zingerman's? I'm like a big fan. I have the anarchist business books.

Abra: I mean, I fully drank the Zingerman's Kool-Aid like well into working there. Working there is a dream and it still feels like home. And in fact, one of the benchmarks for success for Ruffage was like I want it to be good enough that Zingerman's would want to sell it, and not just out of personal relationship. And yeah, I mean, Paul Saginaw is maybe one of the most influential people in my life and he's less public-facing than Ari is, but his title’s like the chief spiritual officer, and just all of these ethos of servant leadership, community-based businesses, and I always tell people Zimmerman's was important for me, for a lot of reasons, but one of them was it showed me the why and the how, what I wanted to do, and that was also that transition between thinking like Peace Corps and maybe making a small difference for a lot of people. And what I saw at Zingerman's was making a large difference for a smaller number of people, you know, between paying a thriving wage as opposed to just a livable wage and treating everyone with respect and treating food with respect because it's someone's work, right? All that stuff.

Alicia: And so when did you start farming?

Abra: I started farming in 2009. I had gone to cooking school and then moved. Eric [my husband] was living in Chicago; so we were in Ann Arbor at the same time, I went to cooking school, and he moved home to Chicago. And then I moved back and started working at restaurants in Chicago, but my cooking school was on a 100-acre farm, and so it was there that I started to toy with these ideas of making food that was of a place. And so I had kind of been kicking this idea around and then our mutual friends Jess had started farming for Zingerman's. And so he said, I think I want to have a farm, but I want there to be some sort of food component with it, so we started farming in 2009 to give it a go.

Alicia: And how did you find that?

Abra: Great. I mean, it changed my life. And also, I know that I don't want to be a farmer and I have so much respect for people who do because it's, it's a very thin margin work that's very hard and physical and very uncertain. But it fully changed the way that I cook and in a way that I'm endlessly grateful for.

Alicia: How did it change your cooking?

Abra: Before farming, I was interested in vegetables but I was still in the, like, big rib-eyes and big things of pork, you know, and then I started realizing the sheer diversity of textures and flavors within the vegetable category. And I was just around it more, you know, so it's like the same thing that when you're in something every day, you get to know it in this other way.

And so it gave me a lot of respect for how that food is produced. The onion seeds are some of the first seeds that go in. When you're starting sets to go outside, and they started in February, they go into the ground, you know, in May, or late April. They are in the ground until after the solstice, and then they cure, and so then they're ready to eat, like at the earliest, at least for us, like kind of July-ish, and then they'll last, ideally, until the next round of onions. Like that's an entire year for this vegetable that is like so ubiquitous that it's often like a throwaway thing. And then that's true for carrots and celery, like mirepoix is this thing that was like the baseline and those things take so long to grow. So it was that level of appreciation for it.

Alicia: And so much of your kind of style seems to be vegetable focused—was that a conscious choice or…?

Abra: No, I think it was a form following function and the way that because we were around vegetables and we wanted to tell the story of our farm, obviously, the vegetables were the primary thing on the plate. And then I just fell in love with them. And then also—and I have a story in the book where the first year farming was maybe the poorest I'd ever been because we had put, I put my savings into starting this farm, and I had taken a job at a winery just pouring in the tasting room for extra cash and they needed me to stay on for a couple of weeks before I went back to Chicago when my pie shop job started, because I always help bake pies over Thanksgiving. And so I was, like, eating—we had carrots and kale and some eggs left from our chickens. And so I was eating those three ingredients every night and each meal was different and like really, really comforting and homey but I was also dreaming of, like, all the things I thought that I loved in food like salamis and cheeses and you know, again, and coffee. And then I got home and started eating those things. I just felt like garbage. And then I realized like, Oh, this is how I'm different. Yeah, like, at least I'm appreciating. I don't want to say it because like, I don't ever want to be like, eating vegetables is better for you. Yeah. And like cinnamon rolls, like that's a trope that nobody really needs. Yes. But at the same time, I know that I personally always wake up craving a cinnamon roll. And if I eat one, I don't feel good. But if I have like, a big breakfast salad with some sort of protein in it, like, you know, then I feel good the rest of the day, so I don't know.

Alicia: I feel like I have this conversation on the podcast a lot where like, people are like, they don't want to say that this is better, like make a blanket statement, right? Because why? It's silly to make a blanket statement and we all, you know, eat the cinnamon roll or eat the pancakes and stuff but like that, like the idea that like it matters how you feel.

Abra: This whole, like, wellness movement or whatever. I feel like there's not a questioning of what people are trying to sell you when they're trying to tell you like this hot yellow thing is gonna make you feel better. But at the same time, it also requires people to be deliberate in their choices and to be honest with themselves. And I don't know, it seems very complicated and also like super classist and super like, you know, gender-tailored and all of those things. So, yeah, the shoulds of eating feels really laborious.

Alicia: I have been talking to people about CBD a lot and it plays into all these things that are bad in the way we talk about what we consume. And so there are people who just—there's no real scientific basis for its efficacy in certain things, like maybe in treating childhood epilepsy, maybe it'll help your muscles, but then people are just like, no, it's amazing. It's like an adaptogen. And then like, what is an adaptogen? I don't know, like, I haven't heard about this word yet, but everyone talks about it. It's like, well, it's like putting mushrooms—like people are drinking mushrooms and all these kinds of things. Like, I don't know, just all this stuff people just like, accept.

Abra: There's part of me that's like, if it makes you feel better then do it, but that doesn't mean that it's gonna make someone else feel better. And it doesn't mean that it erases the hurdles that other people have to feeling good. Yeah, it's funny. I was just reading something about the placebo effect. And it's still the like, you know, the number one most effective pain reducer is a placebo. And so like, I don't know, there's something there that I haven't like fully thought through.

Alicia: People are always looking for a solution to something that's not just eating vegetables. Like, I work at a wine bar and I see people eat, like they'll order these two arepas, and there's like a little arugula, like dressed arugula in the middle, and no one eats the arugula. But these might be the same people who are looking for something somewhere else, but then not eating that. I don't know. I mean, it's complicated to say that vegetables are better, but they are, you know.

Abra: And I do feel like there's, there's gotta be a middle line with that or a middle ground with that, too, where it's like, do what makes you feel good. But also, part of it is to me is like, Is it all just marketing?

Alicia: Vegetables don’t have PR.

Abra: They don't have a lobbying group. Like, you know, and part of that I think that gets into some of those issues with the larger food system, is that we spend significantly less of our disposable income on food than we ever have in the history of the planet. That’s part of why vegetable farming and dairy, why farming all over is having a harder time: Those raw ingredients, they don't have those marketing lobbies. I mean, there probably is a carrot-growing association, but it doesn't have the weight of a corn or soy. And so I don't know, all of that stuff is really hard. And so part of me says like, yes, buy vegetables because they are better and those farmers need your your dollars. Yeah, I don't know. It's,

there's a lot it's a lot.

Alicia: I try and like walk that line of like not being classist about it, because it's difficult, but it's also like, you know, I'm not rich. So it's not like it's not like I'm like coming from some sort of high horse.

Abra: It’s funny how not being rich does put you in the minority in this world. You know, like one of the things I'm thinking about with all of the like, conversations about inclusion is we don't is that we don’t often talk about economic inclusion. And it felt very true to my experience but also notable to me that the entire like first bit of the book is about being like freaking poor. When people are like, “oh, Whole Foods, whole paycheck,” it's like, yeah not if you buy the produce. Though it might be a slightly more than, for us, we have a Dominic's as the grocery store and Mariano's. And it's maybe slightly more than that. But it's also almost all organic. And there's a price associated with that, or, I don't know all those things. And so part of me is like, well, is it actually more expensive? Or is just that the crackers are more expensive, or the toilet paper is more expensive? I don't know.

Alicia: The conversations about class and food are always so complicated, and recently I got into—well, now I'm not tweeting anymore. But someone was like, someone was talking about natural peanut butter, not liking it, and I was like, oh, but if you just turn it upside down like that, then the oil incorporates and they blocked me. And then someone else was like you were food shaming, because I said something about like palm oil being bad, like, I don't know. And it's like, but you know, palm oil, like, is terrible for the environment and for ecosystems and if you're, I think this person was vegan, it's like if you're vegan, like you have to think about these things, right? And like, it's, I'm frankly, like, Smuckers makes natural peanut butter. And it's like, you know, it's not much more expensive, it's totally good and it's more available.

Abra: That was a big thing about the book too is like, what are the things that are available across all of these spectrums? Because yes, I love Koeze peanut butter, which is made in Grand Rapids, and it's like, my family always sent Koeze nuts at Christmas, you know, whatever. But it's not available everywhere, and so that excludes people.

How for you, I'm curious about your sort of track with veganism and where does it come from for you Why are you passionate about it?

Alicia: I hardly identify strongly as vegan, okay? I vacillate so wildly on this and like, there, there's probably an interview with me six months ago where I was like, vegan vegan vegan. But I feel more strongly identified with vegetarianism right now just in terms of like, the relationship to the farm, like to farms, the relationship and the relationship to an ecosystem and like what needs to happen in order to feed ourselves and like, what's a more honest relationship with that? And I, you know, I do see like, animal-human or animal-farmer relationships as significant and like not always inherently exploitative, right. So it's difficult for me but my, the reason I'm into this is because I just I feel like it's the one way to, I don't know, to always talk about justice in the world, in the food system, and I think I mean spiritually I just can't eat meat; that's just where I am. I don't know what my track is with veganism; it's more of a way to talk about politics and food. It's a way to talk about economics and food. It's a way to talk about labor and the environment and that's what I found in it. And also, just culturally, I've always found it fascinating like even from when I was a teenager. I like many people found out

about veganism through like Moby's liner notes. But at the same time, I was like always, it always seemed like a subculture that was like fascinating and it always has political

ties and so I'm really obsessed with how veganism has evolved from being this hippie thing to be a punk thing to being like more of a wellness thing to be like that. So where veganism intersects with all sorts of different politics and different identities, that's, that's like my, I love that I'm, like, super fascinated by that. But like, in terms of—it's become extremely hard for me to say I'm vegan.

Abra: I am fascinated by that those challenges too, because as someone who's not vegan, you know, like, I, in some ways, you know, I used to, like do a couple days a week at a butcher shop where like, veganism was just made fun of like, so intensely. Yeah, I was like, I don't know. I mean, it seems like if you care about the environment or care about animals, taking that stance feels really brave. Yeah, because it's so—it seems very intense to me. And whereas, like, if people are like, Oh, I don't eat meat because like animals are so cute. And it's like, right, well, you drink milk, right, like they like take the calf from the mother. And then raise it for meat. Like, it's just the nature of it. And so I don't know, it feels like it feels like a very deliberate line in the sand. Yeah, that I really respect. 

And then for me, I think that there's a part of being having spent so much time on a vegetable farm is realizing we had hogs and chickens and recognizing their role on our farm for soil tillage and fertility and also, and then also feeling like the exchange felt reasonable. Yeah, like they were safe, they're protected. They were well fed. They were photographed. And so that felt like a reasonable way—that was the exchange. But it's also why it's really hard for me to like—we don't bring feedlot meat into the house. But then like, I still go to mom and pop restaurants because I want to support business or because it's like protecting some of that sort of culture and I know that they're getting Tyson chicken, you know, so,

no, it's super complicated.

Alicia: But yeah, I mean, I just I see veganism as a, you know, a really strong political choice and like—I mean, it's a protest, you know, of exploitative systems. This is how I see veganism. But at the same time veganism has been used in awful ways by right-wing people. There are literally like Nazi wings of veganism.

There's really there's like conservatives who are like, maybe pro death penalty but then vegan and like, like anti abortion but vegan. Veganism can be used in so many insane ways, right? That it's complicated to say, vegan and so, but like I think in my work, what I'm trying to do is figure out the real thing, but I don't know if that even exists. So, but you know, it's like more of a philosophical question. Like, if you're making these choices, they have a logical conclusion

In other ways that you're living your life. And I don't think that that logical conclusion is the death penalty or like, I don't know, like, it makes it exciting but yeah, for me like right now, it's hard to say, especially because I travel a lot now. And so it's hard for me to go into somewhere else and like, make these demands on them, so I just don't anymore. I mean, my only demand when I'm abroad is I don't eat meat anymore, or fish. So yeah, but it’s complicated. 

Wait, so to actually talk about your book? It’s called Ruffage. And I love that word. But like—it's a word that I have always only heard my mom say when you, you were like constipated. I love it. But like, it's always like, for me, it's like you need roughage. Yeah, you're having stomach problems. You need to eat some roughage.

Abra: It's funny because one of the riffs that we had on that when I, our mutual friend, Tim and I were joking about the title or like, kind of going down that rabbit hole is he was like, what about the suffragette movement? He's like, wait, that sounds like a bowel movement.

That's funny that you have that association.

Alicia: But so how did you come to that title?

Abra: So it is sort of multifaceted and one, it's just playful, and I feel like a lot of food stuff takes itself very, very seriously. And so it was meant to be sort of light-hearted. And then also it comes from the very first round of dinners that we did at Bare Knuckle farm. It was a friends and family dinner and I was like, my dad is sort of my favorite person to assess food because he's, you know, he's eaten at the French Laundry, he's eaten all these places. He loves food and like food is such a part of our lives. But he also is just like, not part of the food world. So it's a very, like, I like his perspective a lot. So I asked him, I was like, Dad, I'm really looking for critical feedback to make these dinners as good as they can be. And he's like, Well, you know, Abra, it was very good meal. It's a lot of vegetables. And I was like, well, we're a vegetable farm, dad. And he was like, yeah, it's just, it's a lot of roughage. Maybe you could serve some bread. Okay, duly noted. I'll take that into consideration. He's like, everything else is fine. So it's sort of a nod to this idea that vegetables are drudgery and or that it's like purely utilitarian so that you get the fiber or whatever. And so yeah, that was kind of where it came from. and wanting to play against that. I find vegetables very exciting and like fun and all of those things.

Then for the spelling of it: Sometimes I feel like I'm like a little bit dim in the world because I always whenever I read that ROUGHAGE I read it as RU-HAGE, even though like I know how to spell rough and like I don't pronounce that weird. But in my mind it never like sounded right so then I looked up with FF and it was like, Oh, this is also an accepted spelling of this word. So I thought it was like, you know how you can spell gray like with an a or an e? I thought it was just like that. And then I didn't realize that it was like, not exactly an equal acceptance.

And so yeah, in my head, this is the spelling.

That's okay. I'm glad to hear that because so many people were like, Can we talk about the spelling of this and like, all of these things. I was just like, I don't know why. And then but also spellcheck kept underlining it like the entire book, and I was like, well spellcheck is wrong

side of the spell check.

The real dirty secret of the title is that we got a dog and my dog like was obsessively eating grass one day at the park and I made a joke. I like oh, the dog is just like me, he needs to eat a lot of grass, ruff-age And he was like, cool. We're going home. And so then it just stuck

in my mind possible that all of this came from like a very bad dog pun. 

Alicia: So how did you decide to do a book?

Abra: So I started writing a food column for the local paper in Traverse City, Michigan, about five years ago, and that was because we were going to the farmers market on Wednesday, which is also when the food section came out. So it seems it was I had always been interested in writing as an English major and enjoy writing and enjoy, like having a different creative part of the food world and not just something you do with your hand. So I pitched it to them and started doing it. And that's part of why the format for the book is what it is. And that that column really allowed me to work through some of these ideas. So it was every week, I would take a vegetable or an ingredient, it didn't have to be a vegetable ingredient, and then talk about like either different preparation techniques, but the same flavor profiles to show like, how is poached asparagus different from roasted asparagus? And what are you trying to achieve out of those two things, or take the same ingredient and the same preparation technique and then change the flavor profiles. So the best example I think it's like the beet salads that are in the book. You know, I always steam roast beets. And so I take those and then whatever you put with them can be as different as you know, something that's very Northern Michigan, Eastern European of smoke, whitefish and beets, and caraway and sour cream, or something that's like apples and walnuts and dairy, fall-ish, or something that's like a, you know, like a curry spice yogurt and chickpeas or something like that, like all of those things that can kind of travel that spectrum. And so that's how it started.

Alicia: And the book is, like, divided by vegetable, which is really cool. How did you kind of decide which vegetables would make it into—like the book is, it's like a tome. It's huge. And like, which is great, and it's like, so beautiful. But um, yeah, how did you decide what vegetables?

Abra: I mostly used the ones that we grew. And so it wasn't, I knew that it was gonna be a Midwestern-based book, so there were things that we don't grow like, at that point. We weren't growing sweet potatoes. Granor Farm where I work now does grow sweet potatoes and so I'm sort of like ruling the fact that there isn’t a sweet potato chapter, but also then it's 465 pages. So Chronicle was like, you cannot. Like there's a whole Brussel sprout chapter that I like, didn't really finish and kind of forgot about it. And I didn't put it into the manuscript. So then I was like, maybe I can just like, sneak that chapter. And they were like, absolutely not. So there's more to come. But yeah, all stuff that we were growing and wanting to really showcase even the most—like things that are usually just a component in something else like garlic, onions, ramps, celery, stuff like that. And so that's how the selection came.

Alicia: And you also have kind of a big pantry section in the book. So what is the significance of the pantry? Like, especially when you're focusing on vegetables?

Abra: Yeah, so I think for me, the pantry serves a couple of different functions. One, it's the ease of preparation. So if you have these, it's sort of like solving an algebraic equation like if you have one variable, which is the vegetable, but everything else stays consistent, it's really easy to get to solve for that. And so having certain things on hand meant that like whatever vegetables you have in the fridge, you can turn it into something pretty quickly. And then also thinking about—I felt really important to me for this book to be inclusive for anybody across class lines, regional lines, and just like access lines, and so I wanted the pantry to be something that you could always get in a small-town grocery store or at like a corner store. ideally, I mean, some things are like wild ric;, I don't know if like your corner store has wild rice or not. But it's a part of all small-town grocery stores where I am. And so wanting to be sure that that list was sort of circumscribed so that it didn't feel like you had to go out and buy a bunch of stuff that you might not use again, or that you didn't have access to. I saw somebody flipping through a book. And they're like, Oh, this looks really good, Calabrian Chilies like no thanks, you know, Calabrian chilies are delicious and beautiful things. And you can also use like crushed pepper from a pizza place, you know. And so wanting to really hone that part of it down and it felt like that needed some explanation.

Alicia: So in your mind what is the biggest misconception that people have when it comes to vegetables? Like you talked about your dad's joke about the roughage, but when people are like cooking vegetables.

Abra: I feel like people still think that they're the work that you have to go through to get to the prize, right? And I wonder sometimes if that's because maybe they're harder to season because there's more nooks and crannies or something like that. Or like they change more with the salt? I don't know exactly, but it seems like often people, I feel like they're not doing it quite right. And so there's like a little bit of a weird resentment there, or just sort of a trepidation about it. So I would say that people feeling confident cooking them, or being excited by them.

Alicia: And so how, I mean, you've touched on this, I think before but like, working as a farmer and like, still like being very involved in a farm. How has that kind of influenced your thinking on people who choose not to eat animal products?

Abra: I think it makes me want to be a resource for them. And because I think that there's a natural alignment between people who are growing, you know, plant-based food and people who have consumed that like, so it’s a pretty normal thing but, it is also interesting because I think, and someone asked me recently about like, what do you think being a farmer teaches people about food, and I think part of it is those little acts of celebration and I really believe in that for food, that it's a true privilege to be able to eat three meals a day. And so that like excitement of pulling radishes out of the ground for me directly translates to being excited about having them at dinner.

And oftentimes I think another misconception about vegetables is a lot of people will say meat is the star of the plate and I felt that way before I was growing vegetables. And I realized like it's a decentralization play which I really love. And so it's like being excited about the radishes with some sort of like thing to dip it in like you know, butter’s the classic or like something rich like that. And then something like a carrot that's really long roasted and has this like sweetness right out of it and it's a totally different texture than like a tomato and cucumber salad and all of those things can live together and you get to like eat all of them at one time feels so exciting and joyful. And so that also I think tempers like I think you're right about veganism and plant based eating—it has a element of a political act. And there's a joyfulness. Like part of me is like, who cares about this fucking book; the world;s on fire? Yeah, you know, and I, but then there is this thing where it's like—food is such a balm for so many problems. And it causes a lot of problems too, but it's a way for people to connect and I don't know, that feels really powerful to me. And that's why at  Granor, when we do our dinners, they're all family style. I mean a couple of the courses are plated, but most are family style, and we live in a very purple area and I have heard a handful of times like very heated political conversations, like one end is like talking about Bernie Sanders and the other side is talking about Trump and they still have to pass the platter and that feels like something that we need right now. Absolutely. I don't know that anything was resolved that, like at least treat each other with dignity and that feels valuable. 

Alicia: It does feel valuable. And so what do you think that people who don't consume animal products might be missing from what the reality of a farmer is?

Abra: I mean, I think that there's—I don't know that there is a missing piece. I think that my argument for eating animal products or having animals involved in the agricultural system is that I think that they serve a very necessary purpose. You know, there is a natural fertilization when we had hogs; they did a ton of our tilling and land clearing, chickens, the same thing, pest management, all of that sort of stuff. So I think there is an element of going back to some of those integrated systems. But I also think that we are such a meat-focused and animal-product focused society that I don't, I think that you can be pro animals in agriculture and still not choose to not eat meat without missing out on that. And I do think there's some validity to that argument of if you want to save it, eat it, you know, and like some of these heritage breeds, especially of hogs and cattle, but you can support their production without eating it. I don't know. I think that there's less to be missed out on by avoiding meat products than there is to be very meat-centric.

Alicia: I think that's a great distinction. I always have this complicated feeling because I recently interviewed someone who makes whiskey upstate and like, they have their own farm and they're raising like a heritage breed of hog. These pigs that you're raising, you're keeping that kind of breed alive. And also, they're part of the cultivation of the rye that you're using to make the whiskey and it's like this beautiful circle. And it's all about New York State terroir and blah, blah, and like, it's really great. But then I'm like, Oh, wait, but then they're eating the pigs. But yeah, no, but to find that compelling while still not wanting people to eat it. I don't know. It's complicated.

Abra: I think that too, it gets back to you know, making—it's a complicated line, like making choices for yourself and then advocating choices.

Alicia: Advocating is the difficult part.

Abra: But I don't think that there's I think that also too, one of the sort of on heralded benefits of veganism and also just being plant emphasizing more like, hippie dippie way to say it, but is that there's a care and deliberateness that goes into it, that thought is going to flow along the food chain, right. And I feel that way about farmers too, that like if you have a farmer that has separated their asparagus stocks by thickness, that's a level of attention to detail that is going to carry through to other systems on their farm, and probably means that they're gonna be growing beautiful things. And so if there is a level of care that you make in your food choices, and people see that even if they don't agree with it, it might make them think, Maybe I should be thinking about that. And if everyone ate less meat and better meat, and that was somehow an outcropping of a vegan mind-set, I think that's a great thing. Yeah. And I don't think all of that stuff can happen simultaneously.

Alicia: So for you is cooking a political act?

Abra: Yeah, I mean, I think that everything is. For me, that is mostly manifest around— I've been thinking about this a lot lately, about how do we reclaim the phrase pro-life, right? Because it's such a, like, black and white term. But for me the way that cooking is a political act is that I feel like I am truly pro-life in the sense that I think even the like, most losery lazy person who doesn't work, you know, a person that is like, has no moral compass, still deserves to eat and still deserves to be treated like a human being. And I think that wanting to make food and protect people along that. There's very few of those people quite honestly, I and, you know, the idea of cutting SNAP benefits and making people like prove that they are looking for a job like they're so poor, you know, like, and being hungry doesn't help you get a job and having to like spend, you know, three hours a week trying to upload proof that you're looking—it doesn't help you get a job and doesn't help you get food. And I don't know that stuff makes me like really, really—I'm not a very hot-headed person, and it makes me really angry.

And I think about that a lot with rural life, too, because a larger, the larger percentage of the population of rural dwellers are on SNAP than in urban centers. And so the dollar amounts are true, but the percentages, and this idea that we would make it harder for anyone to get food. It is immoral to me. So I think that's how it manifests. And also just waiting to tell the stories of the people who are growing that food and respecting their labor. You know, like 100 years ago, 30% of our population were farmers. And now it's 3%. We have to replace 40,000 farm jobs every year just to maintain the level of farmers in this country. And some of that's because of automation and I get that and there's lots of good technology, technology that can be used. But if people don't understand what that lifestyle is, it feels harder to understand their products, right? I don't know. So those are sort of the ways that that that comes together for me.

Alicia: Thank you so much.

Abra: Thank you for having me. It's a true honor and and yeah, thanks for being interested.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.