When Erin Gleeson’s fiance got a job offer he couldn’t refuse from Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, she worried that the best part of her career was behind her. The photographer — raised in Sebastopol and living in New York — was working with some of the top chefs in the industry, shooting for such publications as the New York Times and Gourmet magazine.
At the same time, she acknowledged that being in the center of it all, while invigorating, was equally exhausting.
“I felt my career was getting stagnant in New York,” Gleeson, 34, said recently. “I wasn’t excited about it, it was always such a hustle to get work, and it’s so expensive. I was burnt out and tired. Coming here, I could take a breather.”
“Here” meant a cabin in the woods in Woodside, and the couple got married a month after they arrived. When Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit began working at Beth Am in the summer of 2011, for the first time in a long time Gleeson had time to unpack, get settled and think about what was next for her.
She tried setting up meetings with food editors in the Bay Area but quickly learned that what got her gigs in New York — heavily backlit food on stark white surfaces — didn’t go over so well here in the land of untreated wood, rustic pottery and natural light.
Inspired by the trees surrounding her, and the Community Supported Agriculture box she subscribed to each week, Gleeson began a blog, The Forest Feast (www.theforestfeast.com), to showcase her work to editors — with a new California aesthetic, “or at least my take on it,” she said.
Using her love of watercolors (she’d painted as a child, but hardly ever in New York), Gleeson created artful titles for her recipes, which she crafted in diagram form with raw ingredients, often shot on unvarnished wood. A shot of the finished product followed.
Gleeson has a master’s of fine arts in photography and did not go to culinary school. Her recipes are simple, with minimal ingredients. A mutual love of entertaining is one of the things that brought her and her husband together, and photos of their gatherings also appear on her blog.
“When I started, I didn’t read a lot of food blogs,” she said. “I didn’t set out to be a food blogger at all. I was thinking of it as a mini-portfolio and wanted a different place to put my work online. Now I’m much more aware of the food-blogging world and have started to read them more.”
It took just six months before an agent called, offering to help her with a book proposal.
“The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes from my Cabin in the Woods” (240 pages, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) is the result. A beautifully illustrated and photographed book, it is meant to not only be admired and ogled, but motivate people to get into their kitchens. The book just came out this month.
“I really like the idea of creating community through food and people coming together,” Gleeson said. “I hope my simple way of displaying the recipes makes them accessible and approachable for people, so they’ll actually cook from the book and not just look at it. The goal is getting people in the kitchen and then eating together.”
Gleeson’s family was vegetarian when she was growing up, and for a long while, went vegan. While her mom experimented with tofu and tempeh, Gleeson often helped. Living among apple orchards, they were sometimes overrun with the fruit and needed to come up with creative uses for them.
Though she says her father has some Jewish roots way back, Gleeson attended Catholic school and wasn’t exposed to Judaism at all as a child. She converted before marrying Prosnit.
Her book includes recipes for sweet potato latkes, an apple, honey and brie galette for Rosh Hashanah and challah, but her blog offers more recipes for Jewish holidays, including Passover. (She also shows how to make a citrus menorah: she halves oranges, positions them cut-side down, and sticks candles in each half.)
Given that one of her husband’s tasks is working with Beth Am’s young adult community, Gleeson takes to the role of being a rebbetzin naturally (though she added that no expectations were placed on her whatsoever). She often hand-letters invitations to events, and enjoys having people over at Shabbat and for other synagogue-related occasions. “That all just comes naturally,” she said. “I would do that no matter what his job is.”
Gleeson will lead a food photography workshop at the Hazon Jewish Food Festival at 11 a.m. Sunday, April 27, at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, and she’ll be at Bookish bookstore in Berkeley at 4 p.m. the same day. She also will be speaking at Omnivore Books, San Francisco, at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 26; at Books Inc., Palo Alto at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 1; at Book Passage, San Francisco Ferry Building, at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3, and at Rakestraw in Danville at noon Sunday, May 4. (More details are on her website.)
DISHING IT: About 200 people joined Bay Area chefs Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière, Craig Stoll of Delfina and others to hear stories about their families and food earlier this month at Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen, a project of Reboot, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. J. cook columnist Josie A.G. Shapiro and yours truly also participated.
Guests feasted on some of the dishes the chefs spoke about, including Stoll’s matzah ball soup with a walnut inside. How so? A German couple with less-than-perfect English often did the cooking in Stoll’s household. One year, they misread the instructions on the Manischewitz mix: “Shape into balls about the size of a walnut.” Which is how Stoll’s family came to serve matzah ball soup with a walnut inside. They still eat it that way today.
A video podcast of the event can be viewed at www.tinyurl.com/beyond-jccsf.
FAREWELL, FARMER: Daron Joffe — aka “Farmer D,” featured in last month’s Organic Epicure — will soon be leaving the Bay Area. He has accepted an offer from the Leichtag Foundation to be ranch development director at the new Jewish community farm and educational center in Encinitas (north San Diego County). He will continue to consult with some of his clients and maintain his Atlanta-based business.
Alix Wall is a personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is www.theorganicepicure.com. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.