Artisan Producers, Cooking, Farming, Field Notes

How the OAEC Cookbook Also Teaches about Life

oaec cookbook

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) folks have lived peacefully in an intentional community for nearly 25 years, co-owning some 80 acres of pristine growing grounds near the ocean. From this place of centering, they teach thousands of people how to farm and how to honor and preserve biodiversity.

They maintain, enlarge, and propagate a “mother garden” that contains a wild amount of biodiversity and offers a continuous food production cycle amid West County’s wild weather. They paint and hold Chauttauqua and even produced a cookbook.

All of which is to say that the OAEC community is pretty amazing. But there are some things that they do that you might be able to do, too. Like grow a garden. Like buy what you can’t grow from those who can. Like cook at home. Like remembering to smile.

These and other simple lessons are among the pleasures of the OAEC’s eponymous Cookbook (Chelsea Green; $40), a richly illustrated photo-heavy 416-page declaration of intent, process, and good ways to eat from the land — whatever your land might be.

Founded by seven friends in 1994 as the Sowing Circle intentional community and soon incorporated as a 501(c)3, the OAEC exemplifies the human interdependence that their innovative permaculture design work encourages in the plants and trees that surround them.

Hosting workshops and classes, retreats and day visits, the OAEC has a robust seasonal schedule, so the recipes in its cookbook are cleverly calibrated for either four to six people or 30 to 40 hungry folks.

They’re used to feeding a crowd, and an enduring and crowd-pleasing dish that visitors have come to expect is one of their epic salads.

Called the “biodiversity salad mix,” this collection of propagated and foraged foods changes with the seasons, as the cookbook deftly illustrates. Mother Garden biodiversity director Doug Gosling, in charge of the collective’s nightly salad, has such a wealth of options available that he sometimes picks solely for color palette.

In spring, it might contain tulip petals and broccoli leaves amid the myriad; in the summer, rose petals and celery flowers. While his salads always feature a lettuce or green of some type, the point being celebrated is that “salad” isn’t solely Romaine or iceberg glopped up with something from a bottle but rather, a living expression of what’s happening on the earth the very day you sit down to eat it — and that said eating should be fearless in its wandering and appetite for taste.

As pleasurable to simply read as it is to cook from, the OAEC Cookbook, primarily written by Olivia Rathbone but naturally contributed to by all members of the community, offers such wisdom as that chamomile will get bitter if boiled (and make you sleepy!); how best to cook cactus; that seed saving is a radical act; how to start your own sourdough; what the role of rosemary is in transforming whipped cream; that carnations taste of cloves; why lemon verbena is good with steamed rice; and how sometimes in the winter you are simply so very glad that all visitors have gone home and you’ve got the whole 80 acres to yourselves.

Join us on Thursday, March 15, when members of the OAEC are honored at a special Taste of Place dinner featuring recipes in their cookbook.

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