Before writing Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, Melanie Rehak had no experience working in a kitchen or on a farm. But a year working at applewood in Park Slope, and visiting farms that supply much of the restaurant’s food, helped her appreciate cooking and the meaning of local, seasonal food–even as her son decided he was barely interested in eating.
Rehak approached Eating for Beginners, which comes out on Thursday, and the local food movement from the point of view “of a normal person with a kid, not super-wealthy, not totally obsessed, trying to make decisions,” she says. Rehak’s son Jules, who is four now, and still “not a great gourmet,” grows from a baby to an opinionated toddler over the course of the book. “He didn’t eat pasta until he was three and a half,” she sighs, but “he’s better now.”
Rehak, though originally a Manhattanite, has lived in Park Slope for thirteen years. It’s a neighborhood she’s watched grow and change–applewood, the 11th Street staple of the local dining scene–opened the first year that she and her husband moved to their current apartment around the corner from the restuarant. They’d been eating there for years by the time Rehak worked up the nerve to ask if she could work in the kitchen as research for Eating for Beginners. Owners David and Laura Shea agreed and she spent a year moving from station to station applewood’s kitchen. “I don’t think I ever told David I wouldn’t do something,” says Rehak. Her culinary education including dispatching live lobsters (many chefs kill lobsters by splitting them down the middle rather than by cooking, as it’s quicker) and butchering lambs. She left grateful for the opportunity and impressed with the Sheas and their dedication to local food. “They feel about applewood how I feel about writing,” Rehak says. ‘
The pricetag on a locally grown meal is a major issue for many shoppers, and Rehak explores that conundrum from a farmer’s perspective. Unlike large commercial farms, whose costs are offset by government subsidies, small farmers are forced to charge more to just break even. “There are certain choices that you can make, like eating less meat,” regardless of how much money you have to spend on food, Rehak says. However, “if you can pay more, you should. The farmers are so broke.”
But Eating for Beginners never chastises readers for buying out-of-season tomatoes or frozen fish sticks. Instead it illuminates the farm and restaurant framework that shores up our choices as consumers. “Far be it for me to say, ‘Don’t go out for drinks, buy organic broccoli,'” says Rehak. “The point is to have the idea and work toward it. Remember where your money is going.”
Melanie Rehak will read at Greenlight Bookstore on July 9.
Text by Casey Acierno, sent by Annaliese. Photos courtesy of Melanie Rehak.