Left in Andover: Steering toward the good life

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I treasure Simple Food for the Good Life, the 1982 non-cookbook by Helen Nearing (1904-1995), not for its recipes, but as a reminder of how fortunate I am to live in an era when women have the freedom to choose how much of their lives to invest in kitchen work.

Promotion for Helen Nearing’s cookbook.

In Helen’s words, “It has been said there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are good cooks and those who wish they were good cooks. I hold that there is a third category: those who are not good cooks and who couldn’t care less.”

Them is fighting words from this matriarch of the back-to-the-land movement who feted thousands of drop-in guests over five decades homesteading in nearby Winhall and later in Cape Rosier, Maine.

How did she and husband Scott Nearing pull this off?

Their first rule was Thoreauvian, “Simplify, simplify.” The Nearings, vegetarians, were consummate gardeners with access to a bountiful supply of their own fresh and stored vegetables and a larder of nut, grain and dried fruit staples purchased or traded for maple syrup through a nationwide circle of contacts. They also had access to inherited money as back-up.

Helen never cooked what could be eaten raw nor seasoned what could be served plain. Fresh chopped salads straight from the garden, whole wheat berries simmered on the wood cookstove, popcorn, simple soups, baked potatoes and apples were staple menu items. The quantities could be adjusted on the spot even when an additional carload of eight showed up as the meal was being dished out.

Vermont Historical Marker near the site of the Nearing homestead on Upper Taylor Hill Road in Winhall.

As for special occasions, Helen offers this advice: “Make your wants moderate and your burdens will be less. Make your feast days fast days.

“On natal or your nuptial day then is a time to shun the tempting board,” is the advice she passes on to us from Dr. John Armstrong in his 1804 The Art of Preserving Health.

“On Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years Day, Easter, any such holiday, when housewives are toiling and overfed eaters are stuffing,” Helen continues, “Scott and I give a vacation to the stomach and to the cook by going without any solid food, just drinking water or juices,” thereby cementing the Nearings reputation for asceticism.

“We do it as a protest against the folly of feasting, against the national gluttony of overfed people overeating and in compassion to the overworked digestive system … Also for one day a week (usually Sunday) we fast.”

With a regime as strict as this, no wonder gossip continues to this day about the times Helen “cheated” eating ice cream. No paragon of perfection, she confesses freely her “addiction,”  inherited from her Dutch mother, for the frozen delicacy. Perhaps her outlandish recipe on page 251 for Snow Ice Cream is offered us as just dessert:

Snow Ice Cream
6 ripe bananas, sliced
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup powdered soymeal or powdered milk
Dash of vanilla
1 1/2 quart bowl of new-fallen snow

Helen concludes the second chapter of her cookbook thus: “Dear reader, do read this book in order to learn not to cook so much. Make your meals simple, simpler, simplest- quick, quicker, quickest. And in the time and energy you will save, write a poem; sew a fine seam, commune with nature, make music … visit a friend.”

A 1975 postcard from Helen and Scott to the Herb and Miriam Leader, mentioning my recent visit.

In 1975, upon the occasion of my own solo pilgrimage to stay with Scott and Helen in Maine, I recall satisfying suppers of baked winter squash or potato — though the cookbook does include thin sliced potato crudités  — and popcorn served in their famous oiled wooden bowls.

The Nearings’ cuisine was scorned both by purists who looked down on them for occasionally indulging in dairy products, and also by folks with a less doctrinaire approach to life. The fact is that Scott and Helen traveled extensively giving lectures both in the United States and abroad. Their “home rules” were precisely that. Though they never deviated from vegetarianism, they loosened up a lot while on the road.

Even my dad Herbert Leader, an admirer as well as close friend who enjoyed their company immensely, got in a chuckle over this. Following is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of the Vermont News Guide, which he wrote, Oct. 11, 1983:

Herb Leader in the late 1970s visiting the detritus of his ’41 Chevy on the back 40 of Popplewood in Andover.

“Jackie Breen’s reminiscences of the Nearings (Vt News Guide 8/30) have been called to my attention. There are amazing facts aplenty about them, and I would like to see erased one or two of the myths that have inevitably sprung up…

“I was hired to move the Nearings from Winhall to their new home in Maine, and I made three trips to accomplish this, with my ‘41 Chevy’s (R.I.P.) 12-foot body heavily laden …

“One trip I made with Helen. The two-mile spur to their new homestead was unplowed and despite chains we had to shovel a lot to get through. But, of course it was a jolly trip and I recall that somewhere along the route Helen introduced me to those cheese twists that you find alongside potato chips in stores. It was a third of a century ago, and I see those cheese twists have not yet been banned …”

In 1952, Jackie Breen purchased Forest Farms, the Nearing place in Winhall. Following is an excerpt from her aforementioned letter to the Guide that elicited my dad’s response:

“Scott and Helen were determined to ‘hook’ us into good nutrition. My first contribution to their vegetarian table was a disaster which I later called my ‘apple pie sacrilege’ — white flour, refined sugar, butter, ‘dead’ apples. I faced Scott timidly across the long plank table in their kitchen, the pie between us, and just waited as he put the first forkful into his mouth.

“ ‘I’m afraid to say that you are a good cook,’ he said. ‘Now, if you ate these apples raw, you’d all be better off.’ ”

Reprint of New York Times article by Helen Nearing in 1971

The Nearings envisioned their “Good” daily life schedule as allocated into two main four-hour periods, one for bread labor, the other reserved for academic and cultural pursuits. Helen, who had trained as a classical violinist, begrudged any extra minutes “wasted” on cooking.

My mother, also a violinist, bonded with Helen when they played music together in Winhall. Helen even handed down a child-size fiddle for my older sister to learn on. I quote an early 1950s letter from Helen:

Dear Miriam,
Here’s the little fiddle. I hope heartily Rosa takes to it. In any case it will be there for you to work at it with her during the winter. And you’ll soon find out if she has real interest and persistence. When you need more advanced music for her, let me know and I’ll supply.
Helen
p.s. The violin repair man in Rutland is good. He charged 5.15 to fix up the little fiddle (new bridge, strings and rehairing bow) (20.00 for work done on mine! & I bought a new bow from him into the bargain!! so here’s my old 2nd one; do you want it? You’re welcome to it & it might come in handy sometime.

Curiously, neither my sister, brother nor I ever took up the fiddle, though it kicked around our house in Andover for years. But our next generation, all granddaughters, now bats 3 out 5 fiddle players.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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