At just under 5 feet tall, Leslie Land was diminutive, but she had a powerful presence and sharp wit that peppered her conversations about food, gardening, politics, art and music.
Land, 66, a longtime resident of Cushing, well-known food writer, former editor of Yankee magazine and former gardening columnist for The New York Times, died Saturday in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from complications of breast cancer.
“She was a tiny little slip of a thing, but she just knew what she believed in, and if she didn’t know it, she researched it until she was able to say something about it,” said Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food writer and friend of Land’s who lives in Camden. “She went out and found out things. That was a reason, I think, why people respected her so much.”
Land was known for her beautiful flower and vegetable gardens in Cushing and Poughkeepsie, where she lived with her husband, Bill Bakaitis. She hosted occasional “taste tests” of vegetables — she grew many varieties of cucumbers or sweet red peppers to test their mettle in the Maine climate — and often tested recipes on her friends.
Her talent in the kitchen and the garden led to several books, including “The Modern Country Cook,” “Reading Between the Recipes” and “The 3,000 Mile Garden,” which became a series on the BBC and PBS. She also kept a blog called “Leslie Land: In Kitchen and Garden.”
“Her gardens were visually spectacular, and the foods they produced were really delicious,” said chef Sam Hayward of the restaurant Fore Street in Portland. “It was that combination of visual aesthetics and taste and experimentation, and the intellectual rigor she brought to writing about food and to cooking and gardening that I think made her unique.”
Land was born on Feb. 22, 1947, in Pennsylvania and grew up on a farm near Philadelphia. She went to boarding school at the Kingswood School in Michigan, then to college in Berkeley, Calif.
Her first real job was cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where she staged a revolt in the kitchen on one particularly hot day by taking off her clothes and working the rest of her shift wearing nothing but an apron.
Less than two years after that, Land wrote, she “joined the great hippie migration of the early 1970s and moved to rural Maine,” where she began working as a caterer, consultant, guest chef and food writer.
She lived for years on the property of artist Lois Dodd, and they became close friends.
“She came into my life because she was looking for a place to spend the winter,” Dodd said.
During the summer, Land lived in a cottage on the property of artist Bernard Langlais. He suggested that Land ask Dodd about living in her house during the winter, when the painter was in New York.
At first Dodd refused because all she had for heat at the time was a stove in the kitchen, and she was afraid Land would “freeze to death.” But she finally relented, and Land lived in her kitchen for a few winters.
Eventually, Land bought an old garage and moved it onto Dodd’s property. She had to use the outhouse in Dodd’s barn until she was able to do renovations.
The two women took walks together every day.
“She was always cooking wonderful things,” Dodd recalled. “I had some wonderful times at Leslie’s little house across the field and met a lot of nice people there, as well, over the years. It’s a real loss for me not to have her there, really. She was witty, energetic and strong, and very small.”
Hayward first met Land in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when he had moved to South Paris from New York and was cooking at Maurice, a French restaurant. They met at a gathering and got into a conversation because Land had eaten at Maurice a few weeks earlier.
“We had a great conversation, but in sort of classic Leslie style, with that big smile on her face and that twinkle in her eye that was always there, she proceeded to tell me everything that I had done wrong, either on the menu or with the meal that she had ordered,” Hayward recalled fondly.
Land’s neighbors, Alan and Monika Magee, met her when they moved to Cushing in 1979 and developed a friendship that “really wound around food and gardening intimately.”
Monika Magee said Land knew a lot about unusual plants and had a great sense of design that made her gardens “always exquisite.” She said she especially loved Land’s white garden. “With many white flowers,” she said, “their perfume is more evident at night. It was always very special to walk in between Leslie’s house and Lois’ house in the evening. You’d have to go through the white garden, and their fragrance would just be intoxicating.”
Alan Magee recalls Land as a woman of “great exuberance and intelligence.”
“She could recognize nonsense when she heard it,” he said. “But instead of just reprimanding or correcting, she would have something that would be worthy of Mark Twain to come back with — a memorable, wonderfully funny kind of response.”
The Magees often came home to find a message from Land on their answering machine, inviting them over for food because she was testing recipes.
“We’re 66 years old,” Alan Magee said. “We’ve lost friends and family, but Leslie is, in the best sense of the word, a formidable presence in our lives, and it’s hard to imagine her not being here.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: