Seasonal, local, fresh

Winters cookbook author Georgeanne Brennan was on the forefront of what became a global slow-food movement. Can she entice you into her kitchen?

Local chef, gardener and author Georgeanne Brennan has been at the forefront of the impulse toward fresh, seasonal cooking since the movement’s Bay Area beginnings in the 1980s.

Local chef, gardener and author Georgeanne Brennan has been at the forefront of the impulse toward fresh, seasonal cooking since the movement’s Bay Area beginnings in the 1980s.

Photos By Don Button

It’s the easiest thing in the world to step into Georgeanne Brennan’s nearby farmhouse kitchen.

The award-winning cookbook writer’s seven students keep up a friendly banter as they prepare a Sunday meal on day two of her “Provence in California” cooking class. It all starts with a glass of chilled rosé to accompany pizzas smothered in cheese, homemade pork sausage, garden vegetables and herbs baked outdoors in a wood-burning oven. It continues with a leg-of-lamb feast served with homemade zinfandel on a table set in the French country style with brightly colored linens under an ancient walnut tree located just outside the kitchen door.

There’s no resisting the symphony of aromas that beckons from inside as cumin and coriander seeds toast in a pan next to spring garlic sautéing in olive oil on an adjacent burner. The smell of beets enters the mix as a third student drops strips one by one into sizzling oil in a pan on the center burner of Brennan’s CornuFé stove. The scent of lemon zest mingles with a bouquet of fragrant herbs and drifts over to add to the seduction of smells from where they’re being worked by students atop a heavily scarred butcher block in the kitchen’s center.

Amidst the flurry of activity, Brennan moves effortlessly among the strangers in her kitchen, one moment demonstrating how to prepare new artichokes, the next shelling fava beans into her apron. With a former high-school teacher’s patience, she checks one student’s knife technique, encourages another to use a tool to slice potatoes she plucks from a hallway closet, and pushes herbs deep into inch-long incisions in the lamb’s leg while instructing a student to repeat the process another 60 or 70 times. She’s everywhere at the right time and then remarkably out of the picture long enough so students feel they’re the ones responsible for such beauty to come at the table.

After hours of prepping, when the sausage is made, the lemon tart is in its shell, and the leg of lamb is dressed and ready for the oven, a cheer erupts in the kitchen signaling the start of a convivial afternoon of socializing, eating and drinking that’ll go on until it’s nearly evening.

Seduced by food

Brennan, 67, just might be the region’s best kept secret.

In today’s atmosphere of bitter public fights over what and how we should eat, we hear a lot more from food activists like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan than from Brennan, with her low-key enticements to experience the pleasures of eating. But serious foodies and those involved in the local food movement are certainly aware of the nationally esteemed author, who’s written more than 30 books on cooking and gardening. Many of the students Brennan invites into her Winters kitchen a dozen times a year arrive from across the country after reading about her in Gourmet magazine. They come to learn the pleasures of gathering together to cook and eat in the French Provençal style.

It’s a style focused on the seasonal, local and largely unadorned, yet intensely flavorful, food cooked for centuries by the rural poor in Southern France, where the weather’s dry and hot, the vegetables are Mediterranean, and the people keep sheep and goats.

On day one of her weekend workshop, the students—Brennan limits groups to seven, since more than that leads to cliques, she said—shop the Davis Farmers Market or pull vegetables straight from the ground in her 4,000-square-foot kitchen garden. They pick Meyer lemons from trees outside expansive kitchen windows and clip herbs growing in alcoves close to the house, which is set on 10 acres near Putah Creek. The goat chops, legs of lamb or pork tenderloins they’ll cook come mostly from friends who raise the animals locally.

Everybody’s talking these days about seasonal cooking, but Brennan was there from the beginning. Here, Pauline McRae of Lincoln (left) and Marian Brame of Walnut Creek (right) prepare a peach tart recently in their teacher’s home kitchen.

Photo By Don Button

“You’re used to seeing the produce on the shelf, but we picked the garlic bulbs in the field this morning,” said a student who’d traveled from Chicago. “That’s what it’s all about now—local, seasonable, fresh.”

Brennan’s been cooking that way for 40 years, cultivating a passion sparked when she and her first husband moved to a farm they bought in Provence back in 1970. When 20 years later she wrote a cookbook featuring her adopted cooking style, the centuries-old ideas she presented were so new in America that one publisher after another rejected the book.

“They didn’t understand a cookbook based on seasons rather than courses,” said Jim Schrupp, her second husband of 23 years, explaining that she then took showed the book over lunch to Bill LeBlond, cookbook editor at the San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. “Georgeanne just laid it all out, and he didn’t have a chance.”

Chronicle published Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style in 1992 and continues to republish it.

“That book was really way ahead of its time,” said LeBlond, still Brennan’s editor at Chronicle, which has published a dozen of her many books. “Now the food world has realized that our industrialized food system has made us fat and sick, and everybody’s talking about seasonal and local. It’s the current gestalt of food publishing.”

Although not as well-known as Waters, food activist and founder of Chez Panisse, who’s sometimes credited with single-handedly changing the American palate and inspiring devotion to seasonal cooking and local organic ingredients, Brennan has been at the forefront of the impulse toward fresh, seasonal cooking since the movement’s Bay Area beginnings in the 1980s.

In 1982, Brennan joined Charlotte Glenn (now Kimball) in pioneering a resurgence of interest in a range of heirloom vegetables through their national seed company, Le Marché Seeds. Their mail-order company sold specialty seeds across the country as well as to the local growers who supplied Waters’ now famous Berkeley restaurant and other early adapters. Among many other vegetables blending out of existence by industrialized standardization of foods, they brought heirloom tomatoes like the De La Plata from Argentina and the Costoluto Genovese from Italy to Americans.

Le Marché, which translates to “The Market,” was involved in the first Tasting of Summer Produce gathering of farmers, chefs and other food and agricultural professionals organized in 1983. That event played a large role in shaping the future produce selections for restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond. Brennan and Kimball knew all the movement’s players, including Deborah Madison, founding chef of the San Francisco Zen Center’s Greens Restaurant, who as a Zen priest officiated at Brennan and Schrupp’s marriage in their Winters farmhouse about 15 miles west of Davis. And as a consulting team called Opal & Rose, Brennan and Kimball advised Salinas growers on specialty produce.

“They broke it wide open,” said Schrupp, a former commodities broker who marvels at his wife’s strategic thinking, entrepreneurial talent and lack of impulse toward self-promotion.

A proficient writer, Brennan’s work has won many awards, including two of the food world’s biggest in the same year: the James Beard and the Julia Child Cookbook prizes in 1998. Her 2009 “Chicken in Every Pot” column for the San Francisco Chronicle just this month was honored by the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing appears regularly in the Chronicle, The New York Times and other major newspapers. Together with Ann Evans, her current business partner and former mayor of Davis, Brennan produces a monthly column for The Davis Enterprise. Her writing has appeared in a dozen national magazines, including Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Ladies Home Journal. She teaches Extension courses on memoir writing at UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

Brennan, who has won two of the food world’s most prestigious cookbook awards, demonstrates the preparation of the crust for a rustic fresh apricot tart with goat cheese.

Photo By Don Button

Brennan has also spoken on Provence at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and at Copia: The American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts. She has been a guest chef on Crystal Cruises; a frequent guest at the Chefs’ Holidays at Yosemite; Whistler Cooking School in Vancouver, British Columbia; and Macy’s De Gustibus Cooking School; as well as a guest teacher at cooking schools nationwide.

For someone so accomplished, Brennan is a down-to-earth rarity. Her knowledge of gardening and French cooking is deep and sophisticated, yet she’s got an openness that allows for beets-on-pizza-type of experimentation. Curious, intuitive and creative, Brennan, while living in Alaska, sewed herself a sealskin coat, tanned a fox skin to make a hood, and raced across ice floes on a four-wheeler with a rifle strapped to her back and her young son, Oliver, in tow. She’s at once an irrepressible force and a laid-back companion who’s as easy to be around as the get-togethers she describes in her most recent cookbook, Gather: Memorable Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Seasons.

Food is a constant

In her late 20s, Brennan bought a 16th-century farmhouse in southern France and immersed her family in an experience of the Provençal countryside that shaped the course of her life. She writes lyrically about those years in A Pig in Provence, describing an idyllic life farming and cooking with friends that resonates with the daydreams of so many of us today who long to escape our fast-food, fast-lane lives.

“I recognized that food was central to life, not for reasons of hedonism or sustenance,” Brennan writes in the introduction to the short memoir published in 2007, “but because it was a link to everyone that had gone before me. In a fragile, unstable world of change, food is a constant.”

As she studied medieval history at UC San Diego in the 1960s, Brennan felt everyday life coming apart in the turbulence of the Vietnam War. In those days, families were torn apart by differences of opinion; longtime neighbors stopped speaking to one another; and in a snap decision, the length of your hair could put you on the wrong side. Though not directly involved in political action, Brennan and her husband confronted the issues daily through his philosophy department—an intellectual hotbed of anti-war thought that included radical thinkers Angela Davis and Herbert Marcuse. After earning master’s degrees, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Brennan witnessed the horrible incongruity of pushing a baby stroller along the same sidewalks where soldiers stand during anti-war protests holding automatic weapons.

The move to France was an attempt to stabilize a life that felt out of control.

“It felt like if you had land, and if you had animals, you could grow and raise your own food, you would have some control over your daily life,” she said, explaining that they’d lived in Europe previously and that her husband’s agricultural degree from UC Davis provided a foundation for a life of farming the French countryside. “You were able to act as opposed to being acted upon.”

Food has always been an important part of Brennan’s life. Her family routinely shared breakfasts and dinners—and sometimes lunches—throughout her childhood in Laguna Beach. Many of her memories are bound up in food: The first solid food she fed her daughter, Ethel, was mashed potato dug from the earth of the urban garden she shared with ethnic neighbors in a San Francisco apartment building. She recalls a teenage Ethel wailing, “I am the only person I know who has to go home and have dinner with her family.” Now, Brennan said with some pride, her daughter shares dinner with her own boys every night.

In Provence, life revolved around food. Food came fresh from the kitchen garden or farmers’ markets, was raised in your own pens or those of neighbors, or scavenged from the land with the help of skilled mushroom hunters and truffle-trained pigs. Brennan learned from locals the nearly lost art of making perfectly smooth and creamy cheese from the goats she milked, spent lazy days lingering over elaborate picnics at a nearby lake, and ended each week cooking and eating with friends, while socializing her young son and daughter around the table on Sunday afternoons.

Brennan returned to America after just two and a half years after her husband’s father died. They ultimately took jobs teaching high school in Northern California, although they returned at least once a year to the farmhouse in Provence and brought many aspects of the life back with them.

Friends and family cooking together is a central theme in Brennan&#8217;s recent book <i>Gather</i>. Here, Anisha Harper of Roseville (left) and Sandra Hopkins of Rocklin (right) enjoy working together on a chard and spinach tart with bacon.

Photo By Don Button

“We really lived that life,” said Ethel Brennan, laughing as she told how she and her brother, Oliver, walked through customs with stinky French cheeses, double-wrapped in wax paper and tinfoil, hidden at the bottom of their backpacks on their way to home in California. Their family continued the country tradition, cultivating corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, strawberries and more in a potager, or kitchen garden. They gathered crawfish from Putah Creek and shared animals raised locally with friends. Once, while camping at Salt Point on the Sonoma Coast, Brennan hauled out a food mill and prepared bouillabaisse—a complex Provençal fish stew—over a campfire.

“We were allowed Froot Loops and Raisin Bran, but I remember being very jealous of friends who had junk-food pantries,” said Brennan’s daughter, who married a Parisian, works in the Bay Area as a photo stylist and today concludes: “I’m so thankful she has that kind of lifestyle, and I can partake in it without having to live on a farm.”

A glass half full

Brennan’s philosophy of food begins with her love of eating. “Nothing tastes better than something you pick out of your garden, and 10 minutes later it’s sautéed in garlic and olive oil. You can’t buy that experience.”

Food provides a soothing rhythm to Brennan’s life. Each morning, she walks to her garden to see what looks good for dinner. She returns to the garden in the early evening, picks what she feels like eating, walks the short distance to her kitchen and begins cooking.

Brennan worries that it’s a cliché but nevertheless talks about the thrill of seeing the 100 pounds of Armenian cucumbers yielded by one seed she pushed easily into the ground. “And then you think, ‘Oh my gosh, what richness there is in a single seed!’”

Cooking with the seasons means something’s always beginning, something else is always ending. “Right now there are little blossoms on the tomato plants, so you’re looking forward to the tomatoes,” she explained, smiling a crookedly shy grin that pulls you close in to her. “The beets are starting to get leafier. I’ve starting picking the fava beans. The asparagus is finishing, but that’s OK; we had it every night during the season. There’s a nice forward-looking aspect to seasonal cooking that keeps your glass half full.”

Brennan mentions a theory that attributes America’s food extremism to the denial of pleasure that stems from its Protestant heritage. If eating is pleasurable, call it “bad.” If too many eggs are bad for your health, then ban them entirely. But the Catholic countries, France, Italy and Spain are known for their good food. They have a different approach to enjoying the pleasures of eating.

“If they ate too much or overindulged, they went and confessed. Check. It’s easy,” Brennan said, laughing. “I guess you’d have to say I fall in with the Catholic approach to food. I think one reason food is enjoyed by so many people in those countries is that it’s local and in season. They ate just what they had—a chicken out of the farmyard and leeks from the garden—and they made wonderful food out of it.”

After Brennan and her children’s father divorced, she kept the farmhouse house and continues to return year after year. Since remarrying in the late 1980s, Schrupp has become part of Brennan’s French country life as well, and he also figures prominently in her memoir of Provence. In 2000, she opened a cooking vacation school in a restored 17th-century convent located in a medieval village in Haute-Provence, not far from her own small farmhouse.

Marge Carter, a 72-year-old lifelong foodie from Vermont, marvels at Brennan’s relaxed approach to teaching that’s as skillful yet so different from the formal demands of classes she’s taken at places like The Culinary Institute of America in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Mother-and-daughter guests Mary Jo Alderson of Sunnyvale (right) and Nora Keenan of Sacramento (left) collect fresh potatoes and beets in Brennan&#8217;s kitchen garden.

Photo By Don Button

“Georgeanne knows her business, but she just has the right attitude,” said Carter, who traveled to France in 2003 to take Brennan’s weeklong cooking class, and this spring arranged her visit to California relatives so she could take part in a weekend “Provence in California” workshop. “She doesn’t care if you’re a novice or an expert cook. She just wants you to enjoy food as much as she does.”

Slow-food movement

Ask her daughter what people don’t know about Brennan, and she’s stumped momentarily. “I don’t think there’s anything—she’s pretty transparent,” said Ethel, before quickly finding an answer: “She’s known for her passion for Provence. But what people don’t know about her is that she feels the same way about California as she does about France.”

That’s revealed in her work with regional food programs, including the Davis Farm to School Connection and Slow Food Yolo.

Improving school lunches is important in affecting how people learn to eat and live. It’ll also improve their health, Brennan feels. Through the Farm to School program, she’s developed cooking classes for staff, teaching them to cook from scratch using local ingredients and incorporating their own food heritages into the lunches they prepare for the 8,500 kids enrolled in the Davis Joint Unified School District.

“Georgeanne is a powerful educator,” said Evans, who’s also deeply involved in the Farm to School program. “Her approach to providing information is so enjoyable, and it’s easy to agree with her.”

Evans also praises Brennan’s ability to “find the strategic fulcrum to move things forward.” Working together as Evans & Brennan, they spent the past three years consulting on a marketing initiative to help Yolo County reposition its wine and food businesses, and they recently drafted a proposal to improve school lunches in Oakland. The pair make fun out of work, sometimes taking what Evans calls “culinary adventure outings,” like crab fishing south of San Francisco or spending hours searching for special ingredients for one of Evans’ old recipes for mincemeat. Not long ago, they toured Corto Olive Farms in Stockton while on a mission to float the idea of getting California olive oil used in schools.

With Evans, Brennan co-leads Slow Food Yolo, a group that comes together to promote local artisans, local farmers and local flavors through regional events. Slow food started in 1986 in response to the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome. It’s a reaction against the standardization of our food that’s annihilating thousands of food varieties and tastes. It works to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat. Today, it’s grown into an international movement. It merges Brennan’s passion for the slow enjoyment of good food, good wine and good company, with her interests in bringing the old ways of preparing artisanal foods into the contemporary world.

Introduced to the idea more than a dozen years ago, Brennan attended her first slow food gathering in Germany as a guest of that country’s tourist agency. One of the events she participated in was a recreation a 17th-century Baltic Sea dinner, in a 17th-century historic home with 17th-century music. Another event was a seminar on cattle and dairy along Germany’s north coast that included a six-course sampling of dairy products and meats, accompanied by wine and conversation around a table.

“For me, it was bringing history to life through food,” said Brennan, a student of history. “That’s my idea of a good time.”

At that gathering, she met Carlo Petrini, the founder of the slow food movement, which was just breaking into the American consciousness at the time. From there, she was invited to sit on the international Slow Food Awards selection committee. She then got involved in Slow Food USA and continues to co-chair the Yolo County convivium.

For Brennan, food is a &#8220;link to the land, a link to friends.&#8221; Here, Brennan (right) lets Marian Brame (left) know that the saut&eacute;ed vegetables for the zucchini gratin are cooked just right, as Pauline McRae (center) watches and learns.

Photo By Don Button

A global movement has evolved since then, becoming increasingly insistent that food be not only be “good and clean” but also be “fair.” But for Brennan, eating well is not so much a political choice or moral imperative as a matter of taste.

Food tastes best when it’s fresh. Food is fresh when it’s in season. And seasonal food is grown locally. It’s common sense, she said, telling stories of her repeated disappointment each times she gives into a craving for out-of-season foods, like the Mexican-grown zucchini she bought one March to make fritters. “Every time, it doesn’t taste right.”

“Locavore” is a word that grates like fingernails on a blackboard to Brennan’s ears. “Veggies” is another aberration she can’t stand to hear. “They’re vegetables, not veggies. I’m not a very trendy, slang kind of person.”

Neither is she a food activist in the uncompromising sense of Waters or Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Brennan doesn’t quibble with chefs who fly in high-quality ingredients from around the world, but she’d rather eat a good hamburger than processed trout stuffed with crab that a chef thawed out and served heated on a plate. She worries about unfamiliar ingredients in jars of pickles, fish flakes shaped into caricatures of fish for school lunches and how we’re surrounded by fresh food from local farms yet cabbages continue to be imported from Mexico. Still, her own garden isn’t fully organic.

But she doesn’t preach or argue or shame. Instead, Brennan seduces people into seeing the desirability of her choices, as if saying, “Why don’t you come along with me and see if you don’t just enjoy it?” Read her remembrance of friends and family cooking together as smoke rises from the kitchen fireplace and mingles with the rich aroma of the cassoulet cooking in the oven in her introduction to Gather, and see if you can restrain an urge to jump into the scene and share a toast of Champagne for no other occasion than an opportunity to be together.

Brennan has lived the lesson she learned in Provence that food “is a link to the land, a link to friends and family around a shared table, and a link to future generations to come.” Passing on her passion for food to her children and grandchildren gives her joy.

All four of her children—daughter Ethel, son Oliver, and stepsons Tom and Dan—love to cook, and her daughter worked as the gardening instructor for the East Bay French American School in Berkeley earlier in her career. Stepson Tom, who lives on 6 nearby acres with a big garden, makes his own pancetta in a refrigerator Brennan special-ordered for its lack of frills. On a recent weekend, her 3-year-old twin grandsons planted radishes, picked chard and ate favas out of the pods.

“Last summer they were picking tomatoes and dragging their baskets along,” Brennan said. “They bring them in, and we cook whatever they pick. That’s a wonderful thing to be sharing with your children and grandchildren.”

Bag of fresh favas

With the leg of lamb roasting in the kitchen, the students move to the backyard, where Schrupp slides pizzas into the wood-burning brick oven he built, while his son, Dan, uncorks chilled bottles of rosé pulled from an ice-filled bucket. The wine flows and the conversation continues nonstop as everyone eats handmade pizzas piled high with heirloom tomatoes, pork-sausage and beets!

I leave them to their afternoon feast, feeling full and happy, and toting my own bag of favas fresh from Brennan’s garden. Driving back home to Sacramento from Winters, the sky is flat and milky with high clouds, alfalfa lies baled in fields edged by chest-high mustard plants, and the air is soft and warm against my face through the open roof.

Just before reaching Davis, I spot a roadside stand and make a U-turn on Covell Boulevard to buy field strawberries and new cherries for home.

And for now, everything’s right with the world.