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Towards the end of our foraging journey, there was a flurry of excitement. Someone had spotted a lone morel mushroom growing on the side of our trail. This sought-after fungus, for which connoisseurs will pay up to $35 per pound, was the most valuable find of our entire trek, but no one ventured to pick the specimen — perhaps because of its neighbors. The cone-shaped mushroom grew right next to a leaky-looking battery and just steps away from a rusty razor blade.

We weren’t foraging in a beautiful park or someone’s woodsy backyard. No, on this Sunday morning, we were looking for edible and useful plant life in “The Cut” — an abandoned, four-track-wide section of Philadelphia’s abandoned Reading Viaduct railroad, sunk some 40 feet below street level. We entered, somewhat ironically, through a chain link fence separating the encroaching wilderness from the employee parking lot of a Whole Foods market. A few members of the tour took the opportunity to forage for some coffee inside before signing the requisite waiver form and venturing down the parking ramp and into the unknown. After circumnavigating a moderately sized pile of general trash, it quickly became clear that this little section of abandoned city space was home to more than just weeds and rats (and a few vagrants). Tall grasses, sprawling bushes, and full sized trees had spent the previous few decades reclaiming The Cut and creating an impromptu slice of nature.

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Max Watman’s new memoir Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, depicts the author’s quest for real food and real farm life – minus the farm. This excerpt is his cautionary tale of raising chickens – “The Girls” – in his Hudson Valley backyard. Harvest is available now from W.W. Norton and Company, on Amazon and at your local bookstore.

We named our chickens Goldie, Pepper, Karen, and Penguin. Goldie was a Buff Orpington hen, the biggest of the girls and the leader — the top of the pecking order. She was a very good-looking bird, with soft feathers the color of straw — so good looking, in fact, that when I lent her to a neighbor girl who entered her in a country fair, she won a blue ribbon as a perfect example of her breed. I liked to pretend that she lorded this victory over her coop mates. Goldie had been out there in the world. She’d seen things, and she’d taken her prize. She was the most cosmopolitan of the chickens.

Pepper and Penguin were Blue (a color more like slate, really) Ameraucanas, with little pea combs and muffs around their faces; the eggs they laid had pale blue-green shells. Penguin was not much by way of personality, but Pepper was the smartest and most daring of the chickens. She was the one who would hop up onto people’s shoulders and was always out of the coop first when I opened the gate to let them run around in the yard. Karen was a Golden Laced Wyandotte. She was lovely to look at but slightly dumber than the rest: she was easily confused by obstacles — she would stand in front of a twig, unable to go around or over it, or she would doubt her ability to squeeze through a door that wasn’t open all the way. She liked cozy spaces and seemed to find comfort in a slot between a dense bush and the fence. She was very easy to catch. One got the feeling that Karen was a sweetheart.

Penguin died early, before she was two years old, of what I termed sudden chicken death syndrome — she simply dropped. I walked out to the coop and she was lying in a heap by the watering fount. It was a sad, mysterious moment but very much the sort of thing to which one must be inured. To care for chickens is to carry their corpses. They are vulnerable birds. Insects can beat a chicken in a fair fight if they get themselves organized. The birds are susceptible to all sorts of maladies and mishaps. Most of all, everything likes to eat chickens.

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Beer and food have always been natural bedfellows.

While everyone can benefit from knowing which style of beer best complements a good blue cheese, or the best crafty recipes for integrating stouts into your holiday dinner, there’s an emerging school of beermakers who are looking beyond the obvious ways beer and food intersect to craft their house ales and lagers.

Brewers across the country are taking notes from the kitchen, approaching recipe development and production techniques as a chef might, by cultivating relationships with local farmers, sourcing seasonal produce, and finding ways to make sure ingredients are manifested in the beer in simple, honest ways.

First Person

Wedding Cows

Giving the gift of humanely-raised beef


Usually, when I go to a wedding I bring a check as my gift. But one Saturday morning in November, I found myself trying to explain in my neatest small penmanship inside a sparkly wedding card that my present for the bride and groom was waiting for them in my basement chest freezer.

I bought them a fraction of a cow.

It was 20-some pounds of local, grass-fed, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)-free beef to be precise. This may not at first seem like the ideal wedding gift. But hear me out:

These two are some of my closest friends, and moreover, they are probably my favorite couple to eat with. They’re the rare pair with no real food hangups, weird picky preferences, or dietary restrictions. At least they were until recently, when the groom became increasingly educated and concerned about the realities of factory farming and the meat that makes up most of the conventional food supply. Disgusted, he practically stopped eating meat.


The Swedish Chef

Trying to cook from the year's most inspiring and frustrating food book


When it comes to cookbooks, I am typically willing to do whatever the writer asks of me. Order obscure ingredients online and pay more for shipping than the product? I’ve done it. Visit seven specialty and international markets to make a specific pan-Asian noodle dish? No problem. Start a dinner three days in advance to allow gels to set and flavors to meld? I am ready, willing, able.

So when I got my oven mitts on Fäviken, a new cookbook by acclaimed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, I looked forward with pleasure to the rigors of what I had heard was an ambitious, challenging cookbook.

Before glancing at any of the recipes, I read the long introduction by Bill Buford, author of one of my favorite culinary memoirs, Heat. He dedicates numerous paragraphs to describing the stark remoteness of Nilsson’s restaurant (also named Fäviken). According to Buford, a visit there requires employing the services of the region’s single cab driver. He tells the restaurant’s origin story, explaining how difficult it was for Nilsson to hire anyone to work at his new restaurant due to its isolated location in the northern part of snowy Sweden. Though Nilsson’s ambitious daily hunting and foraging is reverently described, I was no less confident I could cook from this book. MORE

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Raw shrimp, moss foam, pine oil, and unfamiliar herbs. These are the hallmarks of a bigger trend currently sweeping Nordic-inspired restaurants all around the world. As a Dane I tend to ask myself: are these really the only things people should associate with the New Nordic Cuisine?

I say, emphatically, no. In fact, I am on a mission to show the world what New Nordic Cuisine can mean to a home cook. I’ve been teaching cooking classes on the topic for several years, and I’m surrounded daily by the research and development of the New Nordic diet and cuisine at my home university in Copenhagen, where I’m a graduate student in Food Science and Technology. The research underway is mainly focused on the potential nutritional benefits of the New Nordic diet. MORE

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Few consider the faith of the food writer. And this is probably a good thing. I won’t say that to worship food and drink is to pray to a false god. But even with all the high-minded talk of farm-to-table or Slow Food movements, of molecular gastronomy or urban gardening, of locavorism or fruitarianism or whatever-the-latest-ism, in my experience it rarely leads one down the shining path of enlightenment.

Or at least that’s what I believed until this past spring, when I spent one of the most glorious weeks of my life eating my way through Copenhagen, capped off by a 25-course, five-hour lunch at Noma, considered by many to be the best—and most thought-provoking—restaurant in the world.

“Some people see going to Noma as a religious experience,” said Michael Bom Frøst, a food scientist and director of the nonprofit Nordic Food Lab, which was established by Noma’s owners. This was several days before my own meal at Noma, and we stood in the lab’s shiny test kitchen, inside a houseboat moored across the canal from Noma. The brilliant Nordic sun shone in the bluest Nordic sky as we ate a pink ice cream made from seaweed and looked across the cold water toward Copenhagen’s center. MORE

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I rush home from work, change into my gym clothes, and scurry four blocks to my friend’s house. It’s a nice five pound one, she says. From Maryland. They didn’t have any from Lancaster this time. We wash and dry the chicken, slice lemons and peel garlic for the cavity. We work our fingers underneath the skin and slide sundried tomatoes and rosemary over the white breast meat. We work quickly, making jokes about chicken parts; we’ve done this often.

By the time I get back from the gym, the roasted chicken is golden brown all over. Crisp, salty skin pulls away from meat so tender that it falls off the bone. Maryland raised this broiler well.

We pull the wings and legs for our supper and divide the rest, picking the bones clean. The meat will be shredded into soups, salads, rice, or couscous through the rest of the week. The refuse—bones, gristle, and innards—will freeze until we have a chance to boil them with clean carrot peels, the coarser layers of onions, and stems from parsley and thyme. Her boyfriend calls it garbage soup but it yields such a savory broth that we don’t dare add vinegar or salt. MORE