Cold Spring author to read from his work April 6 at Sunset Series
By Alison Rooney
An investigator dusting off prints on whatever writing implement Max Watman used while writing Harvest: Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, his just-released new book, would report some offbeat findings on both the object and the prose produced from it: traces of and musings on North Dakotan pheasant; bladderwrack (a sea-weed foraged from the Atlantic); a not-quite-what-it-should-be Camembert, to name a few.
All vaguely connect in a farm / food / ocean / sky kind of way, each essentially harvested by Watman in word and deed in his quest for the ultimate in ‘locally-sourced’ food: Food he himself obtained from the wild or produced from scratch. And he did this partially from home, home being a house not on the range, but rather a typical cheek by jowl Cold Spring Village house.
“You can’t dig into a subject unless you experience it and get your hands dirty,” says Watman, referring to not only his latest literary effort but pretty much all his previous work, which includes two other books, Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine, about just that, and Race Day: A Spot on the Rail, a picaresque journey through the history of American horse racing. Writing for Watman entails “a lot of experiential larking,” for “you can’t write about a place without going there — it’s not going to read as well or be as smart a piece.”
Watman, who will read from Harvest at the first Sunset Reading Series of 2014, at 4 p.m. Sunday April 6, at the Chapel Restoration, grew up in the Massanutten Mountains of Virginia along the Shenandoah. His pre-writing resume included stretches as a cook, silversmith, and greenskeeper. He was writing features and book reviews for the nascent New York Sun when his writing life was altered by a fluke occurrence.
“Their idea was to not hire experts but to fool around and see what hobbyists could do. I was feeling like George Plimpton. I said I would go and cover the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct,” Watman said. “I wrote it, saw [the New York horse] Funny Cide come second, heard he was going to the Derby and thought a “local horse makes good” story would work well. Well, Funny Cide won the Derby and I scooped it entirely by accident — I looked like a genius — it was wonderful.”
After several years penning stories with rather poetic headlines, such as “Nine Run For the Black Eyed Susans” and “1 ½ Miles Will Define Curlin,” Watman compiled his stories into a book, something he has repeated twice since, each time experientially. “In the moonshine book it was really clear the only way I would learn it is to do it,“ Watman says. “The techniques are arcane, the jargon is so thick. You go into these places and there are shelves of things — it could be an alchemy shop. I came to know most of their uses. The jargon starts to seem necessary. Moonshine is a part of my history and culture …
Epiphany brings on preserving and pickling
“This is the same, but more organic. The topic has always been there, but suddenly it came more into focus as a whole.” That “whole” is Watman’s desire to provide and consume meals from scratch, the scratch not meaning just bypassing a box of pancake mix, but raising, feeding, foraging for and yes, slaughtering the provisions for his own food. Or, in the words of his publisher, “After an epiphany caused by a harrowing bite into a pink-slime burger, Max Watman resolves to hunt, fish, bake, butcher, preserve, and pickle.”
In taking this from idea to book, Watman didn’t want to give it parameters. “I wanted to stay away from the ‘year-long-project’ kind of thing,” he explains. “I wanted this to have no delineations because I wanted it to be realistic — it’s not a puzzle or a game, it’s just life. This isn’t preachy, but I hope it inspires. I think it’s important to look at where stuff comes from. You can’t believe it just because that’s what you’ve been told. It’s not enough to simply shop better.”
Watman began by writing about the death of his backyard chickens. “I was upset and that’s how I think about things: I write them down. They were killed systematically by a raccoon. I started spying on it and what happens is you get mad because they’re your flock. You’re not a shepherd but your instinct is to protect. I was in a fury — the anger of Achilles. The raccoon, of course, won. And raccoons are supposed to try to eat chickens and you’re supposed to be mad at them. Thoughts on that then became how to live the farm life without the farm … searching for farm rhythms in a town. There’s a narrative but the chapters are very distinct.”
Other chapters are less overtly primal — perhaps. Take Watman’s battle to produce a Camembert: “There’s a history of cheesemaking in my family,” he says. “My mom was a purveyor — she would take farm food into Washington D.C. and sell it to restaurants.” Despite parental instruction and participation in a Camembert class taught by an expert, his result resembled “a chalky hockey puck,” Watman says. “I thought I had succeeded — I was really close! — but I hadn’t. I couldn’t get them to age right — it’s hard because if you mess up the humidity, open a door even, it’s ruined … But it was important to me that a lot of stuff in the book doesn’t ‘go well’ — it’s not a book about being prepared, it’s a book about trying to do these things. The grand gestures are untenable — so too are constant successes.”
In other chapters Watman details further exploits: foraging the waters of the Atlantic off Block Island, scooping up what he could, then turning it into a briny seafood risotto, experiencing an “intensive, wild, pheasant hunt in North Dakota, working with Brittany Spaniels. It changed my opinion of what dogs are, seeing them in the hunting field. There’s such an incredible link between hunter and dog — they’re doing what they’re there for.”
Interspersed throughout the book are chapters on Watman’s acquisition of a steer, whom he named “Bubbles.” Bought as a yearling, 695 pounds, Bubbles had a year to get to 1,100. Watman recounts: “I thought about putting him in the yard. But I quickly realized this was not a miniature, cute cow. So I called an old friend who works on a Virginia farm and said let’s do it together. Why not? The steer ended up staying at that farm for a year, grazing, settling into his herd … Eventually we took him to the slaughterhouse, hung the carcass and I went down and butchered it. The meat was not only delicious but guilt free.”
To those questioning raising cows for meat, Watman understands but counters, “I know its life and its harvest allows that farm to continue. If nobody buys them the herd will go away; there is no wild cow population. I like cows and I like farms. Done right, with responsible planting and water conservation, this creates something viable and sustainable.”
Watman’s family, which includes his wife Rachael and their third-grade son, has lived in Cold Spring for about nine years. They found it while visiting a friend who was then a dairy farmer in the Catskills.
“I remember driving past Breakneck Ridge,” he says, “wondering out loud, ‘Who gets to live here?’” Three weeks later, they bought a house. Watman says that his family, handily, “supports every endeavor. Some things are met with chuckles. I have their sympathy and enthusiasm.”