After 42 years in love, 33 of them at their ravishing 27-acre North Hill Garden in Vermont, and a lifetime total of two quarrels, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd were working on their fourth book together, when Wayne died of a heart attack at 68 in 2010. Alone, Joe didn't step foot in the garden, skipped every meal, collapsed, and ended up in the hospital for a week. Little by little, he returned to life and eventually finished their wonderful new book, To Eat: A Country Life [Kindle], on sale yesterday.
I read it on an airplane. Having given away my upgrade seat in business class to my partner, I took his aisle seat in coach, until a pushy mother kicked me to her *middle seat* elsewhere -- and I didn't mind. That's how enjoyable the book is. Each of the 35 short chapters begins with an enchanting line drawing by Bobbi Angell depicting the food under discussion: apples, chard, potatoes, winter herbs, wild salads, Egyptian onions, etc. and continues with just the right blend of historical, personal, and cultivating details. Four chapters describe their farm animals, including a herd bull who was the son of the queen's herd bull at Balmoral and a pig named Rolo who died of bleeding ulcers. They asked the vet why:
"Loneliness, he thought, simply too many hours spent waiting for our two brief visits each day. Pigs are social animals and they need company; humans will do, if not other pigs. But they must not be left in solitude. We have since then always kept two pigs even though we could never consume in a year the quantities of pork two pigs render. It pleases us that they have happy communal lives and we have fine pork to give to our friends."
In the eyes of the devoted authors, the fruit and vegetables are portrayed with just as much personality as the livestock. Spinach can be "cranky," leeks are part of a "gifted and clever family" of kitchen alliums. Very rarely, the writing slips into a sun-dappled sentimentality, as when they recall in order the hallmark weather of the year's four seasons, and certainly the book is an unabashed ode to "the deepest reward of a country life... the rhythms, values, habits, and flavors of another time." Some readers may come to want a few more failures in the narrative, because those ulcers, and blight, and raccoons who stole the corn harvest are sometimes more interesting than yet another happy memory of a favorite food plant. But no one could complain about a book whose discussion of beets opens into a wider conversation about their tradition of eating Christmas dinners away, in Paris, or Amsterdam, or California.
About half the chapters end with a recipe or two, some from Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta of Il Bagatto in the East Village. Many more recipes can be found in Eck and Winterrowd's excellent Living Seasonally: The Kitchen Garden and the Table at North Hill.
For more about them and their flowers, read their longer books Our Life in Gardens or A Year at North Hill : Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden.