Chelsea Green Publishing cofounders Margo and Ian Baldwin weren't committed to any particular editorial bailiwick when they printed their first books in 1985. "At first, we did a bit of everything," Margo Baldwin recalled, sitting at a book-strewn table at her White River Junction office earlier this month. "We did novels, art books, nonfiction."
Within a few years, the company — then based at the Baldwins' home on the south green in Chelsea — needed to specialize. Early successes, such as Jean Giono's earnest reforestation fable, The Man Who Planted Trees (1985), and Eliot Coleman's how-to guide to natural gardening, The New Organic Grower (1989), hinted that the couple's personal convictions about environmental stewardship and sustainability could translate into a viable book business. A focus was born.
Thirty years later, Chelsea Green's backlist includes four New York Times best sellers. Among these, Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World won a James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2013. Naomi Wolf's The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (2007), which outlines a 10-step transition from democratic to authoritarian rule, seems even more urgent now than it did upon publication toward the end of George W. Bush's presidency.
As artisan cookery has become an American obsession (thanks, Food Network), many mega-publishers have jumped on the farm-to-table bandwagon. But while other houses "often don't do it very well," Baldwin said, Chelsea Green's decades-long engagement with slow-food culture means the company can endow its books with unusual depth and nuance.
Chelsea Green's collective catalog — which has remained on the leading edge of the cultural curve — arguably reflects an evolving, eco-friendly hive mind over time. So, what do the publisher's 2016 releases reveal about where we're headed, in terms of food and agriculture?
Let's take a look at a few of them.
Pascal Baudar, 432 pages, $40
Have you ever wandered a wooded path after a rainstorm, inhaling deeply to absorb as much of the rich, complex forest aroma as possible? Maybe you've salivated at the scent of a fragrant herb as you brushed against shrubs at the edge of a summer meadow, or crushed a wild berry between your fingers to better understand its bittersweet, musky flavor.
For cooks interested in translating those sensory experiences to the plate, this cookbook offers specific, step-by-step instructions on everything from making crunchy candied tree leaves to capturing wild yeasts for sourdough to flavoring a batch of soda with wild herbs or fruits.
With chapters on "cooking with dirt, sticks, bark, leaves, sap and stones" (wrap meats in bark or grasses before cooking to impart plant-based aromatics) and "creating wild hot sauces," this beautiful, exciting book is best suited to readers with a strong culinary vocabulary and decent familiarity with wild edibles.
Michael Ableman, 256 pages, $29.95
Food-justice advocates spend untold hours devising plans to bring more fresh, whole foods to the ghettoized urban poor. While some of these seek to improve institutional food programs, most involve community gardens or other forms of urban agriculture.
In Vancouver, B.C., Sole Food Street Farms cofounder Michael Ableman and 25 farmers grow more than 25 tons of food per year on five acres spread over four locations near the city center. Most of the farmers have limited means and are recovering from addiction or other mental health issues. Theirs is now the largest urban farm project in North America. Street Farm offers a detailed, if unspecific, guide for readers hoping to establish similar projects in their own cities. But it is also a friendly story about formerly isolated individuals building nourishment and independence through learning, observation, awareness, personal growth and community.
Evan Mallett, 400 pages, $40
While many cold-climate residents think of a year as having four seasons, Vermonters often ascribe to six, adding "mud season" and "stick season" to the usual winter-spring-summer-fall cycle. In Portsmouth, N.H., Black Trumpet restaurant chef Evan Mallett divides his year into eight.
By splitting each of the year's quarters into "early" and "late" micro-seasons, this cookbook reminds us that, while a salad of warm spinach, citrus, goat cheese and pickle might open a late-December dinner, those greens are long gone by February. By then, buttery ricotta cheese puffs become a more likely pre-supper snack.
Even if you don't often cook from cookbooks, flipping through the recipes might just inspire you to grab a tote bag and head to the farmers market. Luckily for Vermonters, Portsmouth's climate exactly parallels ours.
Sandor Ellix Katz, 320 pages, $29.95
While living at a Tennessee commune, Sandor Katz sent Chelsea Green a packet of materials on fermented foods back in the early 2000s. The sample was handwritten, Katz was unknown outside his local community and few Americans were interested in fermentation. But Chelsea Green saw something in the proposal and decided to go for it.
"We didn't know how well it would do," Baldwin recalled. "People thought we were crazy to do a book on fermentation."
The book would launch Katz's career. Now, Baldwin said, "He's the guru of [the fermentation] movement." In his book, the author contextualizes humans' relationship with nutrient-enhancing microbes as a world tradition and as a health-giving medicine that's played a key role in his own struggle to live a full and active life with HIV.
Then there are the recipes. Katz's instructions provide precise, easy-to-follow road maps for readers embarking on their first attempt at kimchi or kraut. After the basics, Katz offers strange and obscure recipes such as gundruk — a dry, leaf-only pickle from the Himalayas. He empowers his readers to explore new techniques and ingredients by developing their own new and unique ferments.
Eli Rogosa, 272 pages, $24.95
In 2014, Chelsea Green published The New Bread Basket, in which Amy Halloran made a case for restoring the grain production that characterized open valleys throughout the Northeast in the 19th century. Throughout the past two decades, culinarians have nurtured a love affair with heirloom vegetables. But, until very recently, elder grain varieties have been largely taken for granted.
In western Massachusetts, Heritage Grain Conservancy founder and baker Eli Rogosa cultivates hundreds of ancient wheat crops, many of which she first encountered while working in the Fertile Crescent. Using seed collected from around the world, she is working to preserve biodiversity in the age of industrial wheat monocultures, which exist only with the aid of powerful fertilizers and pesticides.
Restoring Heritage Grains provides a field guide to ancient wheat varieties while weaving a multimillennial narrative of the grains' origins, development and role in humanity. It also offers practical instructions on growing, harvesting and storing grain crops, along with recipes for pastas, breads and sweets.