Abra Berens’ new cookbook made me a grain and bean evangelist
What a weird, mellow coincidence that 2021 has been blessed with not one, but three new cookbooks that start eating cereal. In January I wrote about cooking all the goodies of Roxana Jullapat Mother Grains, and this fall we have Cereals for every season by Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg, and now there’s my last obsession, Grist by Abra Berens.
I’ll let you think about why the cereal books are coming out (as well: the popped cereal). Maybe it’s something about how, in times of crisis and discord, (some) Americans seek out hippie ideals – peace, buckwheat, and psilocybin – in the hope that it will help us calm down. and hear us again. Heady stuff. But what I really want to redirect your attention to is how delicious and full of possibilities it is. Grist is. Read on for the recipes!
The premise is this: Abra Berens is the chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, where she runs a dinner series, works on the farm, and advocates for the area’s local food community. His first book, Ruffage (2019), was all about vegetables. We liked it. Grist stars beans, lentils, and grains – three things I’ve tried to eat more between all the cheese, gin, and salami. In 2019, our food editor, Christina Chaey, said Ruffing changed his way of thinking about vegetables. In 2021, I can easily say that Grist changed the way I think about cereals.
Which makes Grist What’s so special is that Berens went further than saying ‘lentils are good for you, easy to cook and tasty, here are a few recipes’. Even though these things are true. Here, she also connects each ingredient to the place, people, and story behind it. I ate lentils because I love their versatility – I had no idea how regenerative they were for the soil, too.
The cookbook also feels distinctly a product of the pandemic, which marks a place in time and will stand the test of it.
During the pandemic, as Berens writes in Grist, we’ve seen how fragile, heavy and unfair our food supply is – some cooks stuck at home have taken to sourdough while millions go hungry. We’ve seen people buy shopping carts full of long-life beans and grains that Berens dedicates his book to. When grocery stores ran out of merchandise due to disrupted distribution, demand for local food increased. At the same time, thousands of largely immigrant farm and factory workers have been placed on the front lines of the virus.
Berens grapples with all these tensions in Grist with beautiful writing that is simple, honest and open, and sometimes very funny. There is also a line of gratitude for these natural resources, their long and complex histories and the people who care for them. She gives her words the respect she gives lenses, which is, well, a lot.
If you read each page you will find out how both dark and inspiring it is to be a farmer right now, every part of the buckwheat plant, how cowpea came to America woven into the hair of slaves and how wild rice is harvested by native Minnesota farmers (and it’s not even technically rice!). Each recipe group includes an interview with a member of the local food and farming community. When she asks Carl Wagner, a seed cleaner, what he wants more people to know about his job, he replies, “Just knowing that this is part of buying a bag of flour or a bottle of whiskey. In some ways, knowing that we exist is enough.