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Tea and Cookies
A life-long traveler and adventurer, Tara is trained as a master gardener and permaculture designer. Editor of Edible Seattle and writer of the award winning blog Tea & Cookies.
I am so excited to have Tara Austen Weaver, author of the new book Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow, here on the show today.
On Food Writing:
It’s funny, I actually fell into food writing completely by accident.
I had always been a writer, but I mostly wrote travel and then I went to graduate school and was writing some fiction and non-fiction. It’s funny, because I didn’t pick up on it at the time. But a lot of people in my workshop group, I was writing a novel that was in Japan, people would say, “When I read your chapters, I always find myself at the refrigerator afterwards, looking for something to eat. I love the way you write about food.” But it never occurred to me.
Then I got sick, this was at the end of 2005, after the holidays. I got really sick and I was in bed for two months, really just exhausted. We didn’t know what was going on. Years later, it was discovered that I had had mono. But the doctor never, it never occurred to him.
So I was just tired, but I couldn’t really do anything. I had discovered food blogs in about November of that year. I just followed a link. Blogs were pretty young then and I had never heard of a food blog. I thought, “Huh! I’m not interested in this weird blog thing but food blog sounds interesting.”
I just fell into this world, and here were these people who were so passionate about cooking and food. In the geeky way that I was. They are having dinner parties and talking about their recipes and posting pictures. And for a couple of weeks, I just read blogs.
No one had been blogging more than a year then. But it was wonderful and it was this community. They all seem to know each other.
And then, it was January 1, I just decided to start a blog. I thought that I would just do it for a couple of weeks until I felt better and could go back to work. And I didn’t even put my name on it. It was anonymous and it was just sort of my little secret. I didn’t tell my friends and I certainly didn’t want my writing clients or editing clients to find it. But it was the most fun writing I had ever done, and I was posting everyday.
It was so much fun to go to the market and have a reason to make these recipes and to share them, and then other people started leaving comments. It just sucked me in. And it was actually about three years that I didn’t have my name on it.
The food blog world was really small back then, but within a month or two, editors started contacting me and asking me to write about food. Maybe just one or two, but that never happens. I had been a writer up to that point. So it was just kind of amazing.
They responded to the voice on the blog and I said in my bio that I was a professional writer, so they sort of assumed that I would be able to do these jobs. It just took off. After three months, a friend of mine who is an agent, read a post and she said, “You should write a book about this.” So that turned into a book contract, it really just happened very organically.
On Her Interest in Cooking:
I have a mother who’s a horrible cook. She will tell you this, the joke in my family is that my brother and I learned how to cook in self-defense.
My mom was a single parent when I was growing up and still. And we had a couple of babysitters who lived with us.
Some of them were horrible. But we had one in particular who really liked to cook. She would take the plums that fell off our tree and make jam, and make pickles. She would make kimchi, which was sort of hippie 1970s, 80s, Northern California, white person kimchi. But it was really good and she made like, we called it baby kimchi. A version for us without spices, but we really liked it because it was salty.
I think that that was the spark, seeing someone enjoy themselves in the kitchen. She was with us for awhile and then she moved away. And at that point, we were sort of growing out of needing babysitters. I was about 13 I think when I started taking over all the cooking for my family. I enjoyed it and my mom hated it and she wasn’t good at it, and so I would give her a shopping list and she would go and bring back the ingredients I wanted.
Mollie Katzen actually, who wrote the Moosewood Cookbook. I feel like she was my cooking teacher, because I would just make all the recipes.
When I was on the tour for my first book, she came to my event and I had sent her a copy of the book because I mentioned her in it. She had emailed me to say how much she enjoyed it. And she came to my event and I didn’t have my copy of the book to show her. I really, really wanted to.
It’s funny, because I came to this as a writer and not as a recipe developer or chef or anything like that. So I’m always surprised when people make the recipes. And in the beginning, I was actually terrified. Like it worked for me, I hope it works for you. But people do say, sometimes they’ll leave a comment and say, “I make this all the time, every time I get sick, I make this.” It’s like part of my family and my kitchen, goes into their kitchen and their family. It’s a lovely thing.
On Her Book, Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow:
The book is set in Seattle and it is a story of a somewhat broken family, which will be mine.
I was looking for property for my mom who wanted to move to Seattle, because my brother and I both live here. In the process, I discovered this sort of not totally exciting house that happened to be on half an acre of land within the city limits which was really, really unusual.
I put it on the list of properties to look at just because I was curious. I said, “If we have extra time, let’s go see it.”
We did, we went and we all just fell in love with this yard. It was completely overgrown. It’d been neglected for about 10 years. Blackberry vines everywhere and it just felt like a secret garden.
My sister-in-law and my nieces were with us that day and the girls were running wild in the sunshine and coming back with berry juice all over their face, and their arms full of Asian pears and it just was this magical moment.
My mother decided to buy the house and moved to Seattle, and all of us were going to work together to bring the garden back to life. Of course the garden sort of ends up bringing us back to life, bringing us together. So yeah, it’s about growing food but also a lot about family and community in Seattle. Which I find to be a really unique community, and discovering unexpected things and overgrown deserted locations.
I didn’t go into it thinking I would ever write about it. A friend of mine when she heard me talking and heard how excited I was about the garden, she was the one who said, “You really need to write about this.” It really has been a pretty unexpected journey but a really wonderful one.
On Getting Started with a Garden:
I recommend starting with herbs. Because they are not that hard, and tremendously rewarding and it will save you so much money because you don’t have to buy an entire bunch of rosemary to get one sprig.
I don’t know about you, but I always have these bunches of herbs that are getting slimy in my fridge because I didn’t use all of the cilantro. But they are rosemary, thyme, oregano. These are some very chives as well, very hardy plants. If you’re putting them in the ground especially.
I think a lot of people try with house plants or grow herbs in their kitchen and get discouraged because they die. The problem with putting something in a pot is that it’s going to dry up pretty quickly. And most people put things in pots that are too small.
So the plant looks great at the nursery, it’s in a pot. But when you get it home, you actually need to take it out of that pot and put it in a pot that it is generally twice as big. Those roots need somewhere to go.
I grow herbs in my kitchen in the winter, because actually this huge garden is at my mother’s house. I don’t live there, so I need some herbs for my kitchen. I generally expect that they are going to die at some point in the winter. Sometimes they make it through all the way and I put them in the ground in the spring, but often times especially if I get to travel anywhere, they die. I just accepted that that is part of the process.
I think that is another thing, is that sometimes plants when taken out of their native environment will die. One of the gardeners in my clinic, the master gardener says, “You just have to accept that this is part of the cycle of life and gardening means sometimes death.”
On Good Resources for Starting on a Garden:
I love Gayla Trail, who is is a Canadian garden writer and she has a site that she’s been keeping for probably a decade now called You Grow Girl. I think she has a fantastic approach, series of books.
Margaret Roach is out of New York or Massachusetts. She was the garden editor for Martha Stewart for years, her site is A Way To Garden.
The third person I would point you towards is Willi Galloway, who is out of Portland, she used to live here in Seattle. She has a great book particularly if you are a food person, it’s called Grow Cook Eat. She talks about growing food but also has recipes, so you can trace the whole cycle. It’s a really inspiring book.
Those are three people who will not steer you wrong. And there is an entire garden blog community that I am just starting to explore.
The other book that I think is really great and I’ve had a copy since I was in high school, but it’s sort of encyclopedic but a good resource is Barbara Damrosch, who is a very famous garden writer and I bought her book when I was in high school. I think it’s a Garden Primer, that is a resource that I’m always going back to.
The Pressure Cooker:
(*The camera angle’s not the best but Tara shares a ton of really good information. Thanks Tara!)
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I’m watching a lot of garden shows these days, Alys Fowler‘s series out of the BBC is really fantastic. It’s all about edible gardening. So that’s kind of cooking and garden related.
What are some food blogs or websites we have to know about?
I have a lot of friends who have been blogging since my early days and I’m sure you know all of them. So I’m going to tell you about a more recent blog, The Yellow House. She lives out of D.C. in the Virginia countryside, and it’s beautiful, beautiful writing. Really lovely recipes and gorgeous photography, I’m a huge fan of her work.
Who do you follow on social media that make you happy?
I’m going to call out a rising star here in Seattle, Brittany Wright, and her Instagram’s feed is Wright Kitchen. She is an upcoming food photographer and does these amazing color gradients with food, just go look at her feed. It’s really inspiring.
What is the most unusual or treasured item you have in your kitchen?
I have a lot of tea pots that people have given me as gifts that I really treasure. I actually love everything in my kitchen that has been a present, because every time I use it, I think of that person and I feel like I have my people with me when I’m cooking.
So even a set of measuring spoons that were a gift from friends, it really is, I feel like my people are around me.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Eggplant. When I was a kid, I used to lie to people and tell them that I was allergic to eggplant because I could not take it. It was often prepared in bad stir frys where it gets bitter and soggy.
I grew up in the kind of culture and hippies do not know how to make good stir frys. They needed some Asian cooking classes back then. But I went to Greece when I was 20 as a student living in Europe. I ate eggplant prepared well for the first time ever and now it’s one of my favorite things.
What are the few cookbooks that make your life better?
I’m editor of a food magazine now out of Seattle and I get all of the new cookbooks that come out, so I’m drowning in cook books a little bit these days. But I have to say that Heidi Swanson, her site is a 101 Cookbooks, I love her work because she really looks at ingredients with a fresh eye.
She has a new book coming out that is inspired by her travels. I feel like she takes ingredients from different cultures and uses them in really fresh and inventive ways. And the other culture I know the best is Japan. Sometimes she’ll do things and I go, “Oh, I never thought that you could do that with it.” So I love people that make me think differently.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I listen to podcasts when I cook, I don’t actually listen to music.
I cooked all of the food for my book launch party, which is a bit of a crazy thing. I also actually grew all of the food, it was all from the garden. My kitchen looked like a caterer set-up. I was running around frantically and I actually put on a whole bunch of Taylor Swift and played it really, really loud to get me through the experience. So whatever works.
Keep Posted on Tara:
My blog is teaandcookiesblog.com and I’m on Facebook and Twitter. Instagram is my favorite, favorite thing.