Many Maine residents know of the late Helen and Scott Nearing for their role in branding our state as a back-to-the-land hot spot. Less widely known today are the inspirational couple’s vegetarian views and diet.
But their vegetarian influence endures, if you know where to look.
Start at their former homestead in Harborside, now run as the nonprofit Good Life Center and open to visitors seasonally. Those who live on the farm – including the farm manager and his or her family and up to two seasonal stewards – must agree to eat only vegetarian food while on the property.
Traces of the Nearings’ vegetarian homesteading lifestyle also linger at the annual Common Ground Country Fair, organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association each September. In the fair’s two organic food courts and among the long roster of events, vegetarian and vegan dishes and demonstrations are plentiful and diverse. The Nearings, authors of the 1954 “Living the Good Life” and some 50 other books, are often credited with helping launch MOFGA.
In the 1970s, the Nearings’ well-known back-to-the-land philosophies attracted many people to Maine – including U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. Their vegetarian ethic touched many of these new residents.
“A lot of people who came back to the land because of Helen and Scott were probably vegetarian at various times because of them,” said Nancy Berkowitz, whose husband, Warren, is the current farm manager at the Good Life Center.
“They influenced people to think about food choices,” Berkowitz said. They showed people “the vitality of being a vegetarian” at a time when the conventional wisdom was ” ‘you’re going to die if you don’t eat meat,’ ” she continued.
Berkowitz first met the Nearings in 1975, when she and 1,500 other people traveled to the University of Maine at Orono for the 23rd World Vegetarian Congress. It was the first time the International Vegetarian Union – Scott Nearing served as vice president – held the event in the United States. Both Nearings spoke at the weeklong conference, and they offered a number of classes, including one on vegetarian homesteading.
North Texas University history professor Clark Pomerleau, who studies gender and social movements, is researching the life of Helen Nearing for a book about her role in the back-to-the-land movement.
Last summer, Pomerleau gave a talk at the Good Life Center and noted that 1,373 people made a pilgrimage to see the Nearings in 1973, and for the rest of the decade they “averaged about 2,000 (visitors) a year.”
“Maine friends remember that coping with the possibility of ‘dozens’ of unexpected guests in a given day was a continuous challenge,” Pomerleau said. “Since (Helen) never knew when someone or a group might show up, she became adept at preparing large quantities of food.”
That food was always vegetarian (often vegan, though the Nearings didn’t use that term) and extremely simple. Berkowitz, who lived with the Nearings for about a year and a half before Scott Nearing died in 1983, offers details.
They ate a lot of popcorn and applesauce, she said. They bought in bulk (this was before cooperative grocery stores and buying clubs existed), ordering 25-pound tubs of peanut butter and 50-pound sacks of rolled oats. “They ate a lot of kasha and wheat berries and grains.”
Helen Nearing herself outlined the couple’s food philosophy in her 1980 cookbook “Simple Food for the Good Life.” The book, which is still in print, contains the ultra-simple recipes for which she was known (such as Simple Celery Soup, made with celery, oil, one potato, water, salt and nutmeg). It was here she famously called herself “a far-from-enthusiastic and qualified cook.”
Organic farmer Doris Groves, who serves on the board of the Good Life Center, met Helen Nearing in 1985 and soon after bought a nearby property. Groves said that whenever she is looking for a quick, easy recipe, she consults “Simple Food for the Good Life.”
“I had parsnips from the garden, and I went to her cookbook,” Groves said. “It said: clean them, slice them, put them in a frying pan with a little bit of oil and three tablespoons boiling water and steam them. Then add salt and pepper.”
LIVING THE VEG LIFE
Helen Nearing was a lifelong vegetarian, while Scott didn’t come to vegetarianism until he was 35, according to “Vegetarian America: A History,” published in 2004 by Karen and Michael Iacobbo. Scott told Vegetarian World that he figured if it was wrong to kill people, “it wasn’t right to kill animals.”
In the 1977 documentary film “Living the Good Life,” Scott Nearing stands in the couple’s huge Maine garden and addresses a group of people interested in homesteading. He explains they use absolutely no “animal residues,” such as manure or bonemeal, in their gardens. “As vegetarians, we are against the slaughter business,” he tells the crowd, “and we don’t want to participate in it.”
Clearly the Nearings weren’t shy about sharing their vegetarian world view. “If you came to her house and Helen was asking you questions and you said, ‘I eat meat,’ she would give you her thoughts on that,” Berkowitz said.
“She was very outspoken,” Groves agreed, “but she didn’t let that stand in the way of her relations with people.”
“Simple Food for the Good Life” captures Nearing’s minimalist cooking style and folksy intellectualism. She writes of her preference for “crisp, hard, crunchy foods, raw if possible, which you have to chew – not soft, soggy, slip-go-downs.”
“The theme of my book,” she writes, “will be: live hard not soft; eat hard not soft; seek fiber in foods and life.”
Her recipes rarely exceed 10 ingredients (and many call for just three or four) and include dishes such as dandelion salad, pumpkin shell casserole, lentil pottage, Chinese thin soup and Guatemala carrots. She cooked on a wood-fired cookstove.
“We eat as simply as possible because I don’t like housework,” Helen Nearing states in the documentary film. “I’d rather be outdoors than doing housework. Meals are literally thrown together, not concocted.”
Berkowitz saw this firsthand. “I would make mashed potatoes and she would say, ‘Nancy, this is so much work,’ ” Berkowitz recalled.
Likely Helen Nearing’s most famous recipe is Horse Chow, which calls for 4 cups of rolled oats, a half cup of raisins, the juice of one lemon, a dash of sea salt and olive oil or vegetable oil to moisten. The directions read: “Mix all together. We eat it in wooden bowls with wooden spoons.”
Another favorite recipe was Scott’s Emulsion: one tablespoon honey plus two tablespoons peanut butter mixed with wheat berries.
Their influence on vegetarianism remains today, but were all her dishes tasty?
Multiple accounts agree that Helen Nearing cooked for nourishment, not enjoyment. In “Simple Food for the Good Life,” Helen Nearing writes: “The more appetizing foods are made, the more is eaten and the worse for the health of the body.”
Berkowitz said Helen Nearing’s Crusty Carrot Croakers, which the couple ate regularly, “were horrible.” It amuses her that the cookbook still sells, she said, having eaten every meal with the couple for more than a year.
But if Helen Nearing wasn’t a great cook, she was an expert and engaging hostess whose gatherings buzzed with the exchange of information and the cultivation of alternative ideas.
“She could serve soup and have it feel like a gourmet meal,” Groves recalled. “Even though her soup was sometimes questionable. I think it was sitting at the table and talking about interesting things that made the meals feel so special.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be contacted at: [email protected]