Tamar Haspel has written the “Unearthed” column in the Washington Post since 2011, so why hadn’t I even heard of it until two weeks ago? Because it’s in the Food Section, the section that for decades I’ve thrown to the floor without reading, along with the Sports section. The cause for my ignoring all food-related content? I hate to cook.

But in the last year I’ve become an avid reader of food nutrition research with the goal of following a healthier diet – with or without changing my whole DNA to that of someone who likes to cook. And the topic that Tamar covered in a recent column that finally got my attention was her declaration (shown on the paper’s home page) that diet soda is just fine. accompanied by a link to“There’s zero evidence that diet soda is bad for us. Oh, and most salads are “nutritional and environmental losers”!

Wait! So an award-winning journalist who follows the research closely and shows no particular bias on the subject says I don’t have to deny myself the occasional Diet Coke? I became an instant fan.

Then I discovered she’d written the perfectly named memoir “To Boldly Grow,” which gives even non-Trekkies like me a chuckle. The reviews all mentioned her humorous writing style, and I set out to read it.  (With my library clueless on the subject, I actually sprang for it.)

A Gardener is Born

Despite her years as a food writer, Tamar confesses that she’d never given any thought to where it came from. But then she married a “do-er,” something she warns readers to do “at your peril, because you never now exactly what he’s going to want to do. Kevin, it turned out, wanted to do a garden” – on the roof of their apartment building in Manhattan. With the success of a few tomatoes in pots, she was hooked. “There was visible growth every day, and I started – just started, mind you – to understand why people do this.”

That led to their buying two acres and a “shack on a lake” on Cape Cod and growing their ambitions – boldly. Tamar challenged herself to eat at least one “first-hand” food item every day – anything they’d grown, fished, foraged or hunted themselves.

Wondering why? “It wasn’t because we were aiming for self-sufficiency; we’re staunch advocates of interdependence,” she writes. “It was simply the tomatoes. It was the clams. It was the sense of accomplishment, and also the meals, that came from going outside, rolling up my sleeves, and taking a flyer on something just a  little bit outside my comfort zone. I’d spent the last decade writing about things other people did with food, and it was time to do a little doing myself.”

Tamar Assesses Expert Gardening Advice

The couple “got help from books and articles and forums and websites, but a funny thing happens when you consult a lot of experts on a topic like gardening: you might come out  more confused than when you went in. Sometimes it’s because experts will tell you what experts can grow, whereas we needed to know what anyone can grow. Other times, it’s because there are lots of subjects that experts disagree about. And still other times, it’s because those experts haven’t been to your house.” Can I get an “Amen”?

Oh, but she hasn’t finished with the experts just yet.

  • “Experts are heavily invested in the idea that experts are required for things.”
  • “Plants are complicated. Botany is a real subject, the legitimate province of experts.  But I found out that you only need to now the tiniest slice of it to grow a tomato.”
  • “Gardening is even more local than politics, and the truly helpful experts were our neighbors, fighting the same conditions and soil issues and pests.”

They also joined the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners “not because we wanted to grow organically, but because we wanted to garden prudently and ecologically, and there wasn’t a Cape Cod Prudent and Ecological Gardeners to join.”

Boldly Foraging, Fishing, Hunting and Raising Poultry

Chapters covering fishing, hunting and foraging interested me not so much for the details but very much for the spirit of – well, boldness. Of going much farther out of their comfort zones than I can imagine ever doing myself. And 10 years of living the “first-hand” life, she reflects.

To think that, just a few years before, I thought putting tomato plants in a whiskey barrel was stretching my limits.

Every time you solve a problem, it builds you up a little bit. It can be a small problem like designing a brooder or keeping the slugs out of the mushrooms, or a bigger problem like improving your diet or reaching your goal weight.

Solving a problem that’s in your control changes you.

And has some last words: “Start small.  Go mushroom-hunting. Build a raised bed. Plant an herb garden and see if it speaks to you. Besides, what’s the downside? Basil?

Life in a Small Town

I also loved Tamar’s description of small-town living because they perfectly describe my life in Old Greenbelt, Md.

The odds of running into people you now around town are high, so you should probably put on a bra before you go to the supermarket.

And there are little serendipitous pleasures, like going to the pub on live-music night and discovering that your plumber is the lead singer in the AC/DC cover band, and he’s not half bad.

Though I may have to move to the Cape to experience parties anything like the ones Tamar and her husband throw: “There is a primordial, a reptilian, a deep-seated satisfaction in taking food we harvested, cooking it in an oven we built, and feeding it to people we love.” See?

From the “Unearthed” Archives 

By now I’ve read about half of Tamar’s “Unearthed” columns,  which are described on her book jacket as tackling food “from every angle: agriculture, nutrition, obesity, the food environment, and DIY.” (If the paper’s paywall stops you, try reading the Post on your library’s website.)

For Rant readers in particular I recommend:

In case you can’t access that last one – a very meaty article! – the four ways are:

  1. Increase R&D on cattle methane.
  2. Regulate pollution from agriculture.
  3. Attach strings to subsidies (e.g., implementation of pollution-mitigating practices).
  4. Impose a carbon tax on beef. (She expands on how really, really bad beef is for the environment in this recent column.)

Now a Podcast – Climavores!

I now subscribe to Climavores, the brand-new podcast where Tamar and journalist Mike Grunwald “explore the complicated, confusing, and surprising relationship between food and the environment.”