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Thoreau and compost cookies

(post, Joan Menefee)

Honest to Pete, during class the other day, my Environmental Literature students asked me if I thought Henry David Thoreau hunted magic mushrooms in the woods near Walden Pond.

Bless their countercultural little hearts, I say. As good as it is to understand Thoreau as a purveyor of American Romanticism, it is almost equally important to see him in your mind’s eye, hunting for a juicy patch of ‘shrooms. Thoreau for real.

In Walden, as he begins his discourse on eating in a chapter called “Economy,” Thoreau writes, 

bq.“Bread I at first made of pure Indian meal and salt, genuine hoe-cakes, which I baked before my fire out of doors on a shingle or the end of a stick of timber sawed off in building my house; but it was wont to get smoked and have a piny flavor. I tried flour also; but have at last found a mixture of rye and Indian meal most convenient and agreeable. In cold weather it was no little amusement to bake several small loaves of this in succession, tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching eggs. They were a real cereal fruit which I ripened, and they had to my senses a fragrance like that of other noble fruits, which I kept in as long as possible by wrapping them in cloths.” 

He goes on to recount how he figured out how to omit yeast and sal soda from his baking, reducing bread until it was an elemental cracker-like thing, which offered pleasure chiefly in the baking and not so very much perhaps in the tasting, although Thoreau would certainly take me to task for saying so. 

His description of his experimentation with bread is beautiful for its leaps and bounds through history and its attention to image — Egyptian hatchlings and real cereal fruit. Substance exudes essence in the pulse of his prose. He was, as you can see, quite the  culinary minimalist. 

Far short of eating magic mushrooms, elsewhere in Walden he reserves judgment about tea. Yet he was a wild-eyed maximalist when it came to language.

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I was actually reading the very section of Walden I quote above while making compost cookies. Have you heard of this culinary beast? Sugar, eggs, butter, go-ahead-sleepwalk-through cookie ingredients. Then you get to potato chips, pretzels, butterscotch chips, chocolate chips, and (wait for it) coffee grounds — no, not instant coffee, but coffee grounds. Yeah, baby.

Compost cookies are a revision of “garbage cookies,” extreme baking for a more sober, sustainability-minded decade. Whatever you call them, to make them you take a bunch of processed shiny packaged goods and hold them together with cookie dough, a feat which requires a stint in the refrigerator. 

So I am thinking that if you add all the energy and processing inputs, the carbon footprint of this cookie is Sasquatch-sized.   

It felt pretty weird to be painstakingly assembling a cookie that pays homage to junk food in Technicolor while preparing to lecture a group of college students about the beauty of Thoreau’s asceticism.

Moreover, I am such a spirited (some might say heedless) eater that I feel sure Thoreau would have found much to criticize (beyond my making such a baroque and hedonistic cookie) in my food ways, both eating and baking. 

He might have said of me, as he did of Alek Therien, the Canadian woodcutter, whom he seems to admire and revile, that in me “the animal \[wo\]man chiefly was developed.”

Some historical background is in order: In the 17th century, aristocratic food was often reduced to silken pap. Refinement was measured in the distance between the original appearance of food and how you found it at the table. 

John Locke suggested that this extremely processed food might not be the best thing for growing children, that there was an argument to be made for eating whole foods and using one’s teeth and tongue as nature intended, to rend and subdue that food ourselves rather than using outside tools to do the job.  

The Romantics took this ball and kept running. By Thoreau’s time, in the mid-19th century, an incipient whole-foods movement was afoot. Thoreau devotes a significant chunk of Walden to describing the gathering and preparing of food in ways that respect its original form. 

He believed that by restricting the number of foods he consumed, he could appreciate discrete flavors more fully. Michael Pollan’s ingredient rule certainly finds precedent in this.

As in most of his philosophy, Thoreau advocated dwelling in the familiar and the seemingly humble rather than forever chasing an exotic or novel sensation. 

For me, the compost cookie was certainly a novel sensation, though I actually found it too much work for the final payoff.

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