Abra Berens Reveals the Hidden Work of Farming in Her Acclaimed Cookbooks and “Non-Restaurant”
March 22, 2023
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Abra Berens wanted to be a writer, but became a cook and a farmer first. She grew up on a farm in Michigan, found herself drawn to working in kitchens, and started her own farm before finally returning to her initial dream of writing. She has now produced three cookbooks, the latest of which, the fruit-centered Pulp, comes out on April 4.
“The food world is so broad, and there are so many different ways to make it your own,” she says. “Pretty early on, I knew that I wanted my food to be a window into agriculture and what it means to grow this food.”
You might not think of cookbooks as containing all that much writing, at least not the kind that an English and history major like Berens might aspire to, but her cookbooks are much more than simple collections of recipes. Pulp not only glows with luminous descriptive writing (she and her grandfather would “wrap up the day sitting on the tailgate as he sliced a sun-warmed fruit with his pocket knife, juice dripping down my chin, and my heart wrapped in the gauzy, golden light of future nostalgia”); it also contains clear-minded, straight-talking explorations of complex issues around the economic realities of agriculture, sustainability, and farm labor—easier said than done.
Berens has a distinctive voice, which she brings to both her unorthodox but insightful approach to cooking (her culinary “thing,” she writes ruefully, might be “That didn’t sound good, but it was!”) and to sections of the book that discuss the challenges farms face, as well as what being a responsible consumer might mean. She won’t claim to be an expert and refuses to offer judgments or prescriptions, but it’s clear that she has thought deeply about food production, is still learning, and hopes that you might do so, too. Though she argues in favor of locally grown produce, she’s not afraid to admit to eating a store-bought apple and enjoying Gushers and Doritos. It is not often that a real sense of a person comes through in a cookbook, but you feel like you know Berens after reading through Pulp. You can even pick up a sort of sketch of her life in the book, via the personal details and stories and ideas and conversations sprinkled into recipe headnotes, explanations of cooking techniques, and interviews with colleagues.
Berens’ actual biography goes like this. She grew up on a family farm near Holland, Michigan, in a part of the state known as the “fruit belt,” where the climate is moderated by Lake Michigan. The state is the second-most agriculturally diverse in the country, she points out in Pulp, speculating that her proximity to its bounty is part of why she cooks with fruit so much. Pulp, which presents both savory and sweet recipes for various fruits, includes only Midwestern produce. “I don’t know jackfruit about cooking with pineapple,” she writes.
She started working in restaurants around age 16—in part to avoid working on the family farm. During one summer of college at the University of Michigan, she worked for the legendary Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor and hungrily learned everything she could about cooking and kitchens. A chef there suggested that she continue her education at Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, which has its own farm and focuses on sustainable, seasonal cooking.
Ballymaloe taught Berens that cooking is entirely dependent on farming and its exigencies, a philosophy she has carried through kitchens and her cookbooks. After almost a decade of operating a farm near Traverse City and shuttling back to Chicago in the off season to work in restaurants and bakeries such as Vie, Floriole, and Hoosier Mama, she moved to Chicago full-time to open the cafe at the late grocery store Local Foods. She and her husband eventually decided that they wanted to move back to Michigan, and Berens found a job as a chef at Granor Farm in the state’s southwest corner.
She continues the Ballymaloe tradition of literal farm-to-table dining there, hosting ticketed farm dinners on weekends. Guests learn about and often tour the farm before eating a five- to seven-course meal that showcases its produce and grains. “The whole idea is to try to give people a good meal out, but also a place where they can understand a little bit about what we’re doing,” says Berens.
Her work there has won her inclusion as a semifinalist in the Best Chef: Great Lakes category of the coveted James Beard Awards this year.
“We're a weird non-restaurant, and we're trying to do something that is mission-driven, but is also delicious and is unique to our area,” says Berens. “The fact that an institution like the Beard Foundation finds that relevant and is supporting it and encouraging it makes it feel, on the harder days, like ‘Okay, there’s another reason to do this. Somebody else believes in it, too.’ Farmers’ work is hard to understand, they’re often relegated to rural spaces, they’re often in family-run businesses. To be able to share this attention on food with the people who are growing it is really amazing.”
Revealing the hidden work of food production and directing the contemporary culture’s obsessive interest in food to the people who actually get it to the kitchen has become Berens’ mission. (Pulp is dedicated “to every person who does the often invisible work of bringing food to our tables.”) Pulp contains interviews with farmers, activists, and even the founder of a fresh baby food brand to illuminate the actual work of tending acres of produce, getting it to market in a financially viable way, and making enough money to do it year after year, despite the challenges that a changing climate brings.
Those challenges can be compounded by disinterested or disappointed consumers, especially in the case of fruit, Pulp’s focus. Fruit, Berens admits, is “frustrating,” because it is inconsistent, even when grown by the best farmer. “Fruit is an agricultural product subject to the whims of weather, soil, transport, and the farmer’s care,” she writes. Furthermore, many people think fruit is best when it’s raw, or perhaps made into a topping or filling for dessert. Why do more with it?
The project of Pulp is to show readers that fruit is a wonderful tool in cooking and not just in baking, although it does include a “baker’s toolkit” section of recipes adaptable to many fruits. Berens purposefully puts savory recipes first in each section of the book, as a way to goad people away from only using fruit for dessert. “For the food that I try to make, I want it to be things that are familiar to people so that it feels accessible and comforting, but with just a little bit of a flavor difference that gives you that little glint in the eye,” she says. “Fruit can do that a lot. It’s sort of an unexpected component.”
Cooking with fruit can also help a less flavorful specimen along and bring out its strengths through pickling, grilling, roasting, stewing. Pulp includes guides on how to select, store, and preserve each of the fruits it covers, giving you methods to prevent that haul of plums or big batch of ephemeral strawberries you bought from going to waste. For instance, Berens loves to freeze drupelet berries (raspberries, blackberries, and mulberries), letting them “wait patiently for the pale shadow of long, dark nights and dinner parties that fill those luxuriously slow hours” instead of gorging on them in summer.
But the easiest way to get the best product and avoid the possible disappointments of fruit, according to Berens, is to go to the farmers’ market and talk to the growers about what currently excites them. That’s how she first tried ground cherries, which are one of the more esoteric fruits included in Pulp. “Put yourself in our capable, dirt-nailed hands,” she writes.
As her career has progressed, Berens has extolled those dirt-nailed hands and their work more and more. Her first cookbook, Ruffage, was nominated for a Beard Award in 2020 and spotlighted vegetables in a way attuned to their growing seasons. Its follow-up Grist focused on grains and legumes, and included profiles of farmers. Pulp has its interviews, and Berens’ entire Granor Farms job is predicated on introducing people to the work of agriculture.
“Fewer and fewer people just don’t know farmers, and so they don’t understand what goes into it,” Berens says. “It's trying to just get people to understand why these systems need to change, or why certain things are the way that they are without belaboring it. Food is a joyful thing, and there’s a lot of work that goes into creating that joy.”
Try Berens’ recipe for Chocolate Pudding with Coffee-Soaked Cherries from Pulp.