People who merely have heard about Slow Food — the “eco-gastronomic” movement aimed at counteracting the effects of fast food on American diet, farming and lifestyle — might associate it with the rarified, elite world of famous chefs, expensive foods and politically correct eating that tends to be too dear for regular folk.
Roger Yepsen, however, is a living example that proves such perceptions wrong. Mr. Yepsen will be the special guest at Tuesday’s Slow Food MV benefit, and you’d be hard pressed to find a less pretentious, less haute-cuisine type of fellow. In many ways, he is the ideal speaker for the Vineyard chapter (or convivium) of Slow Food USA, for he embodies the spirit of Yankee ingenuity. He operates with an enticing mixture of practicality and curiosity; whimsy and frugality; experimentation and tradition.
And he’s regular folk. He has a day job, editing nonfiction books, usually on architecture, design and gardening, including how-to books for Rodale Press. He started working for Rodale in 1974 “because I needed to get serious and get an adult-type job — until then I’d been in a rock band. As I edited the Rodale material [with its emphasis on biodiversity and organic farming], the philosophy sort of sank in, so I guess I’m a product of that period.”
He began to write books of his own, including Apples, Berries, and A Celebration of Heirloom Vegetables. He has also written for publications as diverse as the New York Times and Popular Farming.
His writing passion, however, is fiction, and he has published short stories in a number of prestigious literary magazines. Mr. Yepsen is also an exquisite watercolorist, and illustrates most of his own books, complementing his words with images that look good enough to eat.
His talk on Tuesday will focus on how his travels with his family have influenced the way they garden, process food and eat. “We’ve done a fair amount of travel to developing nations and are really impressed by the way they do things there, the simplicity, the directness, the effectiveness,” he said.
A recent anecdote: In the Himalayas last September, while staying at a guest house, Mr. Yepsen noticed that the household women made fresh bread every morning. “They would make the dough the night before, then make doughballs, flatten them to a disc, and then heat the disc on both sides very briefly directly on the fire. It puffs up like a blowfish and you have a big round loaf of fresh bread in two minutes.” The locals eat it with butter (yak) and jam (apricot). “We brought that idea home,” Mr. Yepsen explained, adding: “Sometimes the bread catches on fire, so I try not to do it when people are watching too closely.”
Home is a stone farmhouse in Pennsylvania built in the 1790s; Mr. Yepsen writes and edits from the third floor, looking out over the “overambitious gardens that are always out of control.” He and his family like to experiment, especially with vegetables they discover on their travels. For example, they have a lot of cardoon, a relative of the globe artichoke. It’s something they ate in Assisi. “When the plant gets to a certain size you wrap it in newspaper to blanch it as it’s still growing; the stems are blanched for a month or so; you cut the stems off, you don’t wait for the bud to form, and you bread them and fry them and they taste just like artichoke,” he explained. “It’s sort of the poor man’s artichoke.”
Mr. Yepsen especially likes to grow vegetables that can be used to make fermented foods. “I’m a big fan of kimchee [the Asian pickled-vegetable dish]. It’s very nutritious and flavorful,” he said. He grows cabbage, carrots, daikon radish and ginger, ferments the mixture using natural yeast, and has had good results.
The exotic foods, and knowledge of fermentation, provide not just good eats but also good drinks. He is growing two varieties of Alsatian plums traditionally used to make plum wine. Among the many berries he grows on the farm, he has used black currants to make cassis, infusing the crushed berries and some leaves in potato vodka. “If you have a glut of berries or herbs, the traditional way to handle that is to embalm it in alcohol,” he said, providing plenty of opportunities for flavored vodkas, liqeue rs and schnapps. That will be especially true this year, which he already has deemed to be a bumper-crop year for berries of all kinds.
Other experimental treasures are curry plants, olives, kefir limes and lemongrass. The garden is also full of a variety of more traditional heirloom tomatoes and peppers, which Mr. Yepsen characterized succinctly: “Some are great, some are kind of boring, some are just weird.” His gardens also have apple trees, “but they require a lot of maintenance and I’m not into that, so they are scraggly.”
Mr. Yepsen will grace the Vineyard audience with his affable storytelling style Tuesday night at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury, as a fundraiser for Slow Food MV. The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 by Carlo Petrini in Italy, to (successfully) protest the incursion of a McDonald’s into a traditional square in Rome. There are now about 100,000 members in 132 countries.
The all-volunteer Slow Food MV was founded in 2005, and the annual summer fundraisers are to donate money to food-related causes on the Island, said Keepa Lowe, the group’s secretary. “[One year] we gave to the Vineyard Committee on Hunger. We gave two family memberships to the CSA. People appeal to us for funds; we have a meeting and then we appropriate money or not. It’s a nonprofit so we don’t carry a large balance; we try to use the money that we gather during the year for philanthropic causes related to food in any way. And that also includes supporting Island growers. When we have a potluck with emphasis on locally-grown food, that helps the local growers,” she said. “It makes the participants think about where their food is coming from.”