Eat Drink Local Profile #20: Joan Gussow (and Why She is the Toast of Pollan, Barber, Kingsolver and Me)

Courtesy of Chelsea Green

The Movement Matriarch

Joan Dye Gussow, suburban homesteader, food activist, partial inspiration for our Eat Drink Local Challenge, octogenarian role-model and emeritus chair of Teachers College nutrition program, the oldest in the nation.

What She Does

For nearly half a century Joan Gussow has waged a tireless war against the industrialization of the American food system. Long before mad cow, avian flu, E. coli or the “diabesity” epidemic made headlines, Gussow, who we profiled last spring, foretold the impacts of the post-modern diet on public health, ecology and culture. Along the way, she laid the foundation for modern-day locavores, from non-celebrity chefs to food nonprofits like Just Food. (Gussow is a founding board member, btw, and tickets are still available for their annual fundraiser this Wednesday, which is appropriately called Let Us Eat Local.) But Gussow also challenged nutritionists everywhere to look up from their microscopes to see the cafeteria, the factory farm and beyond.

And that’s not all. Gussow continues to show us all just how much good work one person (senior citizen or otherwise) can pack into one life. This 81-year-old somehow finds time to serve on her town board, attend a local writing circle, teach and mentor students, and grow and cook much of what she eats — even in the dead of winter. And her latest book, Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life and Vegetables, comes out in a few months.

Why We Love Her

We just got an advance copy of that new book and we can’t put it down.  As Dan Barber writes in a cover blurb, right next to praise from Pollan, Waters, and Kingsolver, “Joan Dye Gussow once again proves herself the consummate writer, gardener, cook, professor, and–it turns out–philosopher, too. This is a memoir about death, but much like Joan herself, it’s brimming with life. A vivid, unflinching, and unexpected self-portrait.” Times garden columnist Anne Raver recently told the story of Gussow’s post-flood garden rebirth, and that same never-ending moxie comes through strong in Growing, Older — in Gussow’s unconventional dealing with her husband’s sudden death and her tips on making sure you have enough sweet potatoes to last you through the winter. Her “Tomato Glut Sauce,” which I first read about in her early book, This Organic Life, is a height-of-season recipe so effortless — it involves roasting chucks of tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots and whatever else is available with ample olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and freezing — that I’ve made jars of it every year since. (In fact, that recipe may well come in handy when we start going down that Eat Drink Local Challenge list, in a couple short weeks.)

Where to Find Her

Well, if you’re a student at Columbia or Teachers College, you can take her class. This is Gussow’s 38th straight year teaching her course on food and ecology at Teachers College to a packed room of would-be nutritionists, as well as chefs, farmers, food writers, and city politicians who stop by to get schooled: It’s been attended or audited by just about everyone in the food decision-maker community, plenty of whom are seldom seen in a graduate class. Sadly she will not be speaking at the September 27 Edible Institute at the New School. (We invited her to speak on the 5 p.m. time capsule/time machine panel, although she had other commitments that night.) But she will be speaking at the Edible Institute in Santa Barbara this January — stay tuned for details at ediblecommunities.com — while she’s on book tour up and down the California coast. And of course, you can buy that new book right here.

From September 26th to October 6th Edible Manhattan, Edible East End and Edible Brooklyn — in conjunction with Edibles statewide and GrowNYC — present Eat Drink Local week, our celebration of the local food chain through heirloom vegetable auctions, wine tastings, DIY challenges, lectures, garden tours, farm to table dinners and countless other events. Over the next few weeks we’re highlighting a few of the restaurants, wine shops and wineries, breweries and beer bars, farms and food artisans and cultural institutions that the week is meant to celebrate.

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Brian is the editor in chief of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.