‘Forest Feast’ cookbook inspired by California road trip
In “The Forest Feast Road Trip” (Abrams, 2022), Erin Gleeson offers an idyllic and delicious view of the Golden State from the windows of the family’s Nissan Pathfinder as it glides over back roads and stops at breathtakingly beautiful vistas.
If you’re not planning a road trip this summer, this cookbook may change your mind. Once you gaze at its beauty shots, you’ll be packing your picnic basket and heading for the open highway, even if it’s just for a long weekend to Gualala or Tahoe. And, hopefully, you’ll be cooking along the way.
“We considered a cross-country road trip of America, but we didn’t have time for that,” Gleeson said of how the book came about. “My husband wanted to see more of California, and there was a lot of the state that I hadn’t seen.”
Raised in Sebastopol, Gleeson now lives in a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband and three young kids: Ezra, Max and Winnie. With Winnie’s arrival in 2020 in the middle of the cookbook project, the couple switched to a minivan to finish up their research on the road.
The cookbook idea grew naturally from Gleeson’s most recent book, “The Forest Feast Mediterranean” (2019), based on the family’s three-month trip through Spain, Italy, France and Portugal.
Her first cookbook, “The Forest Feast” (2014), was a New York Times bestseller. It was followed quickly by “The Forest Feast for Kids” (2016 and “The Forest Feast Gatherings” (2016). Those grew from a blog she launched after moving West.
“When my husband got a job in California, I left behind a career as a freelance food photographer in New York,” she said. “I felt like I was starting over, and I started a blog called the ‘The Forest Feast.’”
One project led to another, and pretty soon “The Forest Feast” blog fledged a line of gift items such as art prints, stationary and mugs, available on her website (theforestfeast.com).
Roots in agriculture and farms
In “The Forest Feast Road Trip,” the artist and mother chronicles the family’s series of road trips with mouthwatering food photos woven together with snapshots of the geographically diverse farms, beaches and markets along the way, plus the charming cabins and cottages where they bunked for the night.
“It’s very much like a personal travel journal of a cookbook,” Gleeson said. “It’s not a guidebook, and it’s not a comprehensive look at California in terms of culture or California cuisine. That would be a whole other book.”
Instead, she wanted to capture the flavors of a culinary road trip, grounded in the Golden State’s rich and diverse agricultural roots.
“This is very personal and agriculturally inspired,” she said. “There were so many farms.”
And if you salivate over photos of beautiful, cozy cabins, you’ll find plenty of guilty pleasures in the book, including watercolors of 10 “homes on the road.”
“I tried to find cabin-esque places — an octagonal cabin in Tahoe, a Craftsman cabin in Big Sur, my aunt and uncle’s beach house in Santa Barbara,” Gleeson said. “None of the homes are fancy.”
As the family toured from the Mexican border to the Coast Redwoods of Humboldt County, Gleeson took notes on the foods she encountered at farms, farmers markets, restaurants and ranches. Inspiration came everywhere, from a date farm near Palm Springs to a lavender farm near Lone Pine in the Eastern Sierra.
“Those gave me ideas for different flavors and ingredients to play around with,” she said. “The recipes evolved as we traveled.”
Back at home, Gleeson set to work developing the book’s 100 plant-based recipes, inspired by everything from the grapes of her native Wine Country to the avocados of San Diego. Then she styled all the food, shot the dishes herself and designed each page with her signature style.
Each chapter focuses on a different region of the state and includes everything from snacks and drinks to main dishes and sweets. The recipes are illustrated with photographs and watercolor drawings, typewriter font and hand-painted lettering, all mashed together.
Despite the pretty graphics, Gleeson said she hopes the book serves as inspiration in the kitchen and isn’t just a coffee-table curiosity.
“I think of myself as a cookbook author,” she said. “My job is (not to) teach people how to cook; it’s to give people ideas of colorful ways to use produce. And I try to make it as approachable as possible.”
Instead of making focaccia dough, for example, she uses ready-made pizza dough and decorates it with herbs and flowers to create a Floral Flatbread, perfect for serving as an appetizer with dips.