Joe YonanPhoto Credit : Aubrie Pick/Ten Speed Press
As a cookbook author and food editor (formerly of The Boston Globe, now of The Washington Post), Joe Yonan was a chronicler of how we source, cook, and eat food long before his sister, Rebekah, and her husband, Peter Kellman, moved to southern Maine to live on a homestead. But his exposure to their modern-day Eden, where they grow vegetables, mushrooms, beans, walnuts, rye, wheat, fruit, and more, reshaped his life and his approach to how he thinks and writes about food. We talked with Yonan about urban farming, why he gave up meat, and how the best Thanksgivings are spent on the farm.
Q. Before you got to know homesteading through your sister, you were a very urban guy. How did you eat in those days?
I was a big farmers’ market shopper, and I still am. I really enjoyed having access to the freshest-possible food and talking to farmers about things. But I wasn’t really growing very much myself. I always thought that I couldn’t do it.
Q. What changed your mind?
It was my experience going up to the homestead that got me into gardening and growing some of my own food. I started in a community garden plot. Then I spent a full year on the homestead in 2012, and Rebekah basically taught me how to grow my own food. So when I moved back to D.C., I knew I needed a place that had garden space.
Q.While living on the homestead, you also became a vegetarian. Why?
I was gradually moving in that direction. One day I opened up my freezer and there were hundreds of dollars’ worth of the most beautiful humanely raised meat that I hadn’t been cooking. Then, when I got to the homestead, my brother-in-law ordered some pigs. But I was less and less interested—and this was going to be my project! Then he began reading The China Study [which details the benefits of a whole-food, vegan diet]. He got 60 or 70 pages in, and he canceled the pig order. Which was a relief.
Also, it’s one thing to shop at the farmers’ market, but it’s not the same as walking out your door and picking your salad from the garden. You cannot get it fresher than that.
Q. How much can people with regular backyards or city plots grow for themselves?
You can grow a lot! When I moved back to D.C., I planted a garden in the tiny front yard of my townhouse. But with space and time limitations, you have to make decisions about what you’re going to do. So while it didn’t make sense to grow melons or winter squash, because they take up a lot of space, I could grow greens, kale, tomatoes, and enough garlic to last me almost all year.
Q. How did living on the homestead change your sense of the holidays?
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love having Thanksgiving on the homestead because it reminds you that it’s a harvest festival, and it’s glorious to be able to celebrate a successful harvest. Rebekah and Peter always grow so many gorgeous staples, especially for vegetarians—pumpkins, squashes, root vegetables. We fire up the wood oven and then we just start putting trays of food in, pushing and pulling them out as they cook. It just kisses everything with smoke and you have these gorgeous vegetables and it’s fantastic. Sometimes there’s turkey someone has given them. I also try to do something a little “chef-ier,” maybe some centerpiece dish. And we bake a million pies.
That’s it. It’s glorious. And the weather’s always so gorgeous. The light is so special. It’s just all golden and crisp. It’s what Thanksgiving is meant to be.
Joe Yonan is featured on season six of Weekends with Yankee, which airs on public television stations nationwide. To find out how to watch, go to weekendswithyankee.com.