The new book by Harriet Fasenfest, A Householder’s Guide to the Universe (Tin House, 400 pages, $16.95), is like a thick slice of rhubarb pie. Tart, saucy, colorful, perhaps an acquired taste, but one with forgotten healing properties. In its pages, the Portland food-preservation teacher and former cafe owner is equal parts Martha Stewart and Che Guevara, promoting the empowerment in a bowl of your own applesauce, the simple but radical act of growing Copra onions to store in your basement.
This woman hates going to the grocery store with a vehemence usually reserved for elective root-canal surgery. Her almost-allergic reaction to pushing the cart provides the jumping-off point for her theme: The food-shopping experience is a zombie walk in which we endorse corporate systems that don’t serve our well-being and threaten all that is diverse and delicious. That means everything not marinated in chemicals and owned by Monsanto.
Her strategy for stepping off the consumer treadmill is “householding,” a concept inspired by old-school agrarian guru Wendell Berry. On a city lot, Fasenfest maps out a rewarding, if potentially demanding, model of stewardship and self-sufficiency.
The book unfolds as a well-paced travelogue of her year in the kitchen and garden, with smart charts and cozy recipes sandwiched around essays on topics from her German mother’s joy in running a household to her own passion for pickled nasturtium seeds, homemade crème fraîche and Shuksan strawberries. She charts a month-by-month plan of attack—and make no mistake, she’s a kitchen warrior, picking and preserving her edibles like a many-armed Ganesh—inviting urbanites to harvest and ferment their way to a more tasty, meaningful life.
Her observations are rooted in our climate and culture, which make her book of particular value to Oregonians. Yet Harriet Fasenfest is not like you, unless you have 500 jars of restaurant-quality food that you grew squirreled away in your pantry or boast a complete “outdoor kitchen,” the better to preserve fruity fabulousness sans swelter. (Don’t look for off-the-grid energy-saving here—Fasenfest is that peculiarly American person who revels in her two refrigerators and two freezers, and fantasizes about more.)
Her readers may not have the resources of time, money or, frankly, courage to adopt her practices whole hog (which, in this case, entails developing a relationship with a farmer to buy the whole hog, then mastering the myriad steps to get it to your plate; it would just be easier to become a vegan).
Fasenfest doesn’t retreat from honest descriptions of her off-the-wall enthusiasms (Velcro plant ties she uses “like crack”) as well as her disappointments, struggles and failures. She makes some errors in her otherwise useful gardening info: misspelling her favorite strawberry “Shuckson”; referring to the common plant disease damping off as “dampening off”; reporting that famously easy pattypan squash are hard to grow from transplants; and recommending crop rotation yearly (what a nightmare of extra work) rather than the standard advice of every 3 to 4 years. But screwing it up—growing a crop of crookedy carrots, or making fruity soup instead of fruit sauce—is part of the natural growth curve toward greater resourcefulness. The truth is, as the exuberantly opinionated Fasenfest only proves, if you want to become a real locavore, you’ve got to be willing to go a little loca.
GO: Harriet Fasenfest reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 22, and 7:30 pm Wednesday, Nov. 17, at Annie Bloom’s, 7834 SW Capitol Highway, 246-0053.