My online Lit Happens book group is reading an commenting on The Farmer's Wife: My Life in Days by Helen Rebanks this month. Many thanks to the publisher Harper Horizon for the books and to The Book Club Cookbook for the #GalleyMatch.
The Farmer's Wife: My Life in Days by Helen Rebanks is part memoir, part recipe log of the Rebanks' working farm in the Lake District of England. One of the most poignant passages in the book, encompasses a conflict of most marriages: "When I look at this photograph now, all I see is struggle. There was the constant struggle between me and James about work, money, and family life. There was a struggle over how to hold on to this ancient way of life that we were both from. But maybe strongest of all was my personal struggle: my reluctance to throw myself into what was, at that time, his dream" (pg. 194). In my twenty-three years of marriage, I can say that that is the biggest challenge - communicating constantly so that Jake and I are always moving in the same direction. It doesn't mean that we are always actively pushing for something together; it does mean that we understand and respect the other's drive and get out of the way when necessary.
I love Rebanks' passion and commitment to clean food. "Being a farmer's wife has changed my relationship with food. ...Perhaps I should have cared, given that I grew up on a farm, but for a long time I didn't. I fell into a habit of shopping thoughtfully, just picking up anything form the supermarket shelves...often choosing the cheapest plastic-wrapped chicken. I didn't properly understand the consequences of my action. But we now know beyond a doubt that cheap food from bad farming wrecks the world" (pg. 202). She cautions her readers that it's not just about switching to a plant-based diet to save the planet, instead urging her readers to "understand ecosystems and farming better to make informed decisions about what to eat" (pg. 202). I appreciate her 80:20 rule, accepting that one fifth of the food she buys might have dubious roots. I don't usually think that mathematically, but I also don't beat myself up if I want to buy a bag of chips, a pint of ice cream, or a can of soda.
And I have to say that I wholeheartedly appreciate her final thoughts, "No one does anything entirely on their own. ...I know that the small domestic things matter; they always have - my mum taught me that. Learning that the word mundane has its roots in the Latin work mundanus, 'of the world' made me see everything through a different lens. To me, caring for my family is, and always has been, the most important work in the world" (pb. 278). I wish more people understood and acknowledged the value of child-rearing and housework. I hated having to explain the gap in my work history, apologizing for staying home to raise my kids. That isn't something for which women (or anyone) should have to apologize!
The #LitHappens Menu
Though this is not a cook-from-the-book group every book selection, I did ask those that are food bloggers to try a recipe or two for this month. But as it's a busy time of year, I understand people's schedules are busy. Here's what we shared...
There were so many of her recipes that are already family favorites. Rebanks shares her recipe for Classic Oatmeal and Overnight Oats (pg. 62); I have posted Maple-Sweetened Overnight Oats that I make all the time! She differentiates between Hot Chocolate and Hot Cocoa (pp. 39-40); I guess I generally make hot chocolate. You can read my post A Hot Chocolate Flight. Rebanks shares her Lemon Meringue Pie (pp. 103-105), writing, "I love making things that people enjoy. I pore over recipe books and challenge myself to make giant lemon meringue pies; they turn out exquisitely. I perfect my shortcrust pastry and fill them deep with golden-yellow custard and pile them high with soft mallowy meringue." I shared my 'actual good meringue' in A Citrusy Sweet and a Savory: "The Actual Good Meringue" Lemon Pie + Calamari-Lime Salad.
I will definitely be trying her Gingerbread (pp. 297-298) in the next few months. We love all things gingerbread! But for this post, I was inspired to make a Rebanks-inspired breakfast.
Breakfast à la The Farmer's Wife
Rebanks shares her recipe for Steak and Homemade Fries (pp. 170-172), giving the option of deep-frying or oven-cooking. I opted for the latter.
olive oil (Rebanks uses beef tallow drippings, lard, or goose fat - I didn't have any of those)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Scrub or peel potatoes; slice into wedges. Place potatoes in a mixing bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt. Place in the preheated oven and roast for 30 to 40 minutes until browned and crispy. Serve hot.
Rebanks shares six different ways to make eggs (pp. 184-185) - scrambled, omelet, poached, boiled, fried, and French Toast. Okay, I wouldn't actually consider French Toast an egg preparation, but I do agree with her that "the care and patience you give the eggs will be rewarded in silky-smooth deliciousness." I did add in my own favorite ingredient, crème fraîche.
6 large eggs
3 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons crème fraîche
salt and pepper, as needed
fresh herbs, snipped (I used fresh thyme and chives)
Beat eggs with crème fraîche until well-blended. Season with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a pan and pour in the eggs. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to gently stir the eggs into loose curds. Serve hot.
Thoughts from the #LitHappens Group
Though in-person book groups are always fun, this group has been online since its inception and I love that I have friends who are avid readers from all over the country. Copies of The Farmer's Wife went to Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Missouri; and, of course, there were several books that were handed off to local reading friends. We sourced discussion questions from Reading Group Choices.
Thank you so much for the book. I could identify with a lot of the scenes, it didn't matter if it was in the Lake District in England or in central Oklahoma. Family farming is similar in both locales. ~Debra of Eliot's Eats
The book highlights the unseen and uncelebrated work of farmers’ wives. How did Helen Rebanks’ portrayal of domestic life on a farm challenge or expand your understanding of this role?
W: Living in a rural area with farming friends I wasn’t surprised by anything and thought it was an accurate portrayal.
A: I also live in a rural area so I was unsurprised and found much of her portrayal to be whiny, to be perfectly honest.
D: I grew up on a farm and saw how much work both my grandmothers and my mother put in. It's a stressful life. I loved that Rebanks was able to put some poetry to it. It's also very stressful on marriages.
C: I have never lived on a farm, but my husband grew up farming and ranching. So, when we visit my in-laws I get a glimpse of that. It's one thing to get up early and help my mother-in-law collect eggs from her hens or send my sons to help her feed the pigs before dinner...once or twice during a visit. It's quite another to have that be a daily task! There is certainly a rhythm of a farm or ranch.
The Rebanks family works as a close-knit team on their farm. How does their family dynamic contribute to the success of their farm and their personal lives? Have you experienced a similar sense of unity in your family or community?
W: It takes a village as the saying goes.
A: This is pretty removed from my personal experience. I love far away from family and at times wish I had help, but I'm more of a lone ranger.
D: I was drawn more to the issues of her ancestors had with family farming. Her grandfather caused a good deal of stress to all in his family. Swapping to the younger generation and giving up the reins is always stressful.
C: I am on a board for a one school district, a local public charter school that is an accredited International Baccalaureate school for grades K through 8. My family has been part of the school since 2007 when our eldest started kindergarten. And, even after eleven years as parents there, I joined on as a trustee for the school; my term doesn't end until my youngest graduates from school. It takes a village - from families pitching in to drive and chaperone fieldtrips to pulling weeds in the school garden - this community isn't a farm, but it is an organization that requires people roll up their sleeves and work to keep it going.
Helen Rebanks shares both the joys and challenges of her life on the farm, including moments of self-doubt. How does she demonstrate resilience and personal growth throughout the book? Have you faced similar moments of doubt and growth in your own life?
W: Of course. I think we all can reflect back at how different we look at things through different eras of our lives.
A: I think we all meet cross roads in life - it's part of being human.
D: Finished the book last night and in the final part I now feel like she really needed to reach out and make her feeling known about her true thoughts of inadequacy.
C: I think we all face challenges or question our actions and decision. That reflection is part of being human, right? We also surround ourselves with people that we trust to offer advice or guidance. It takes a village!
The Farmer’s Wife emphasizes finding beauty in everyday moments. Can you share a passage or moment from the book that particularly resonated with you? How has the book influenced your perspective on cherishing the simple joys of life?
W: I really enjoyed the family dynamics portrayed by Helen.
A: I can't really think of a passage like that. Many of the cherished family moments she recounted felt a bit forced to me, I'm not sure why - I just had trouble connecting with her. I do try to cherish moments with my children. I'm big on creating memories and I need to remember that day to day can be memories too.
D: The introduction and the first chapter were just lyrical; I felt like I was reading a prose poem. I was hoping she would keep this style up throughout the book but then life and struggles got in the way and her voice became more realistic. (That sounds jaded as I write it but I enjoyed both her lyrical idealism and her practical realism.)
C: Nothing jumps out at me, but I do think that there's something to be enjoyed in simplicity.
Helen Rebanks emphasizes that gender roles can be limiting and that what truly matters is using one’s skills. Do you agree with this perspective? How can we challenge traditional gender roles in both rural and urban settings?
W: Absolutely. My farmer for my CSA and my friend Vicki who provides my meat have been farming for years.
A: Gah - I totally missed that one - did she make it in the end when she got a bit preachy? I was skimming by then. Anyhow I have trouble with questions like this having chosen a very traditional path for my life, being both an at home mom and a teacher. (W's response to A: Because that is what truly matters to you. Never feel like you need to apologize or explain your choices to others. Being a mom and a teacher are both very admirable and important callings.)
D: I remember she wrote about her and Jamie falling into traditional gender roles, even as enlightened (and young) as they were. She was the caregiver and Jamie was the bread winner.
C: One of my favorite local organic farmers is a fierce, fabulous woman. She started with one site and now farms multiple plots from Watsonville to Carmel. I always wondered if her employees looked at her differently than they would a male farmer. But she is such an advocate for farmworkers rights; I think she is beloved by all.
In the book, Helen Rebanks shares several recipes that hold deep personal meaning for her and her family. Can you think of a recipe from your own life that holds a special memory or connects you to a significant moment or person? Can you identify scenes or character interactions that exemplify this theme?
W: I also started cooking at a young age. Not because my Mom didn’t but because I loved being in the kitchen. I think the first meal I made for my family was steamed artichokes with drawn butter and Mac and Cheese. My Mom was happy to provide whatever I wanted.
A: Definitely my bun/dinner roll recipe - it's from my grandma who taught me how to bake!
C: There are so many foods that evoke memories and connections with special people. In my December 2022 #EattheWorld post, Ginataang Seafood, you can read about my Grandma Meling finally teaching me her sinigang recipe after she met Jacob and about how I have taught many people how to roll lumpia after my Grandma Eva taught me. And I would help my dad make huge pots of spaghetti for his Air Force ROTC students when he and my invited them over to dinner. After living in Italy, I have my own version of Spaghetti Bolognese, but I will never forget sitting on the countertop, stirring his sauce. All three of those people are no longer with us, but whenever I make those dishes, I feel close to them.
D: Mom's pecan pie. Grandma's fruitcake. Grandmother's green tomato relish. Uncle Chuck's spicy dill pickles.... I know the marmalade making had to be stressful for her mother (with the MiL looking over her shoulder) but I had to smile at those scenes. Maybe her mother's memory of that weren't necessarily joyous but I bet they were memorable.