Federman pens book about food writer

SARANAC LAKE — Saranac Lake native Adam Federman has stepped up to the plate, literally, with the release of his book “Fasting and Feasting: the life of visionary food writer Patience Gray,” published by Chelsea Green in June.

This biography of the author of “Honey from a Weed” and “Plats du Jour,” said Federman, is long overdue.

“Honey from a Weed” is a cult classic for those who love food and food writing. Federman, who grew up in Saranac Lake, is the son of doctors Dorothy and Jay Federman, who maintain a medical practice on Main Street.

Gray, said Federman, was a wonderful writer with a fascinating life. She and her partner, a sculptor, moved around Italy in search of the best marble for his work, living in remote villages for the last 30 years of Gray’s life.

“I think, because of her approach to food and cooking and the life that she lived, she captured this ethos that people were attracted to,” Federman said.

Adam Federman

Gray and her partner lived in the remotest parts of Italy and Greece, where people continued to forage wild plants for the table, and where the seasonal scarcity of a lot of food made harvesting an occasion to celebrate. Gray “went native” to the extent that, even after ‘Honey from a Weed’ made her famous, she continued to abjure modern conveniences.

“They lived without electricity, hot water, a telephone,” Federman said.

So did the people of Naxos, the Greek island where they lived for a while, and Apulia, a village at the tip of Italy’s boot, who either grew most of their own food or foraged for it. “This is the way of life that Patience captured,” Federman said.

At the same time, Gray brought an elegant literary sensibility to her work. Educated at Queens College and the London School of Economics, Gray was a freelance writer and a single mother of three children.

Federman said, “I had an editor at The Art of Eating, a food magazine that was founded in Vermont in 1986 — the same year ‘Honey from a Weed’ came out – who was a huge champion of her work. He said it was the best book ever written.”

For example, he quotes Gray writing about the old men in the village of Appollonas during a cold winter, “Dressed in greatcoats to their ankles, looking like the dismissed cast from Gorki’s play The Lower Depths.”

In another passage she writes that to find a man as mean as a certain restaurant owner “one would have to read Dickens again.”

“Her book actually does something else,” Federman continued. “It has this poetic, otherworldly quality to it. She was really talking about making do with less.”

It’s a practice that Federman sympathizes with. Although he loves food and worked in restaurants and bakeries for years, he avoids the label “foodie.”

“It’s taken on an elitist connotation,” he said.

Federman has written for a number of national publications, including the Nation magazine, The Guardian, Salon, Columbia Journalism Review, Utne Reader, Gastronomica, CounterPunch, Adirondack Life and Adirondack Explorer.

Featured on his website are articles about foraging for wild ginseng and mushrooms in the Adirondacks, small farming and the effect on wild bees of commercial honey production.

“I do a bit of foraging,” he said, “but I don’t consider myself an expert. Something that drew me to Patience was she had an enormous knowledge of plants.”

Federman is currently reading (Gertrude Stein’s partner) Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook.

“I’ve been getting ready to work on another book about post-World War II female food writers,” he said. “They transformed the art of food writing into form of literature.”

The star of many of these women, like MFK Fisher and Julia Child, is rising now, he said, because they’re such fascinating figures.

“They were independent, well traveled, well-read,” he said. “They really had remarkable lives.”