In her writing, Andrea wants to inspire people to loosen up in the kitchen and move beyond thinking cooking is a chore.
By Stuart Watson
Before blogging became common, Andrea Bemis might have written a diary and tucked it in a drawer for her grandchildren to stumble upon some day. Instead, she blogged to inform her Oregon family about the organic farming life she and husband Taylor had embraced in distant Massachusetts.
Blogging introduced her to 32,000 readers, one of whom was an agent who contacted Andrea and asked if she had thought of doing a cookbook. She hadn’t. But after selecting Harper Wave from several interested publishers, Andrea awaits release of “Dishing Up the Dirt” in March 2017. “Who knew?” Andrea asks.
“The goal was never to have a successful blog or do a cookbook, but farming is heart and soul, and anything that can bring in a little money for the farm is good.” A Portland kid who attended Central Catholic High School, Andrea met Taylor 12 years ago when they were working on a ranch in Montana.
Taylor had grown up on a 60-acre certified organic farm in Massachusetts. Together, they started bouncing from job to job. They were living in Bend when they decided to move to Massachusetts to work the family farm.
“There was nothing romantic about it,” Andrea recalls.
“It was a baptism by fire. Over time, we fell into a rhythm. At the end of the day, we were so beat up, we would crawl to bed.” Before bedtime, however, was the question of what to eat for dinner.
Andrea looked to her feet and the stuff they were growing—things she had never eaten as a kid. Kohlrabi. Beets.
Rutabagas. “Fennel? Yuck,” she recalls. She loves fennel now. In the tiny kitchen of their tiny house, Andrea built recipes from what the earth dished up. She called her mother for advice. Her mother told her, for example, to just toss the veggies in with the roasting chicken and let them share flavors.
Andrea’s blog, Dishing Up the Dirt, began as a way to document her kitchen experiments. “I wanted to show my folks that I was out in the mud, rain and getting worked to the bone,” she says. Then the farm started to promote the blog to its customers. Readership grew, and dreams of their own farm took root.
Taylor and Andrea had saved some money and had an itch. “Taylor loves to ski, and we wanted to be on the West Coast,” Andrea says. The couple liked the Hood River Valley. They found a 2-acre parcel to rent near Parkdale and started growing. “We had to buy tools,” Andrea says. “We knew no one out here. It was really scary.
We said, ‘What are we doing?’” The answer came fast: growing good veggies. To make it go, each worked second jobs—Andrea waited tables, Taylor worked at Mt. Hood Meadows— and the farm broke even. So they bought 6 acres just east of Highway 35 the next year, and dug deeper. Andrea continued the blog throughout the transition, writing from the road on their return trip to the West Coast and after they landed in view of Mount Hood.
She has written three posts a week for eight years. “I wanted to inspire people to buy what we were growing,” Andrea says. “I would create recipes from the things we were putting in our weekly CSA boxes.” Like other small farmers, they use the community supported agriculture model, selling prepaid weekly produce boxes to customers.
Andrea says her creations come to her during the boring hours working their farm. “You’re out there all day, surrounded by ingredients, so you make something up,” she says. “If it works, you write it down.” In her writing, Andrea wants to inspire people to loosen up in the kitchen, take charge, but move beyond thinking it is a chore. Pour some wine. Play a game with your spouse. “We play backgammon to determine who’s doing the dishes,”
Andrea says. With a camera she got from Taylor’s grandfather, Andrea has learned to love photography. She took the photos of more than 100 dishes for the cookbook, but heaps praise on food stylist Ashli Marti of Husum.
“She came in with trunks of props and helped me plate the food,” Andrea says. “We did all the pics in two weeks of 10 to 12-hour days.” Andrea says the writing and editing and recipe testing were pretty grueling. “It was awesome, though,” she says.
“You learn to not take things personally.” When her book comes out, Andrea will do a promotional tour to several big cities on the East Coast, plus Seattle, Portland and Hood River. If all this sounds a little like the path that led Ree Drummond to three Webby awards for writing The Pioneer Woman blog, to a TV show and merchandise contracts … Well, the thought has not escaped Andrea. “The cookbook is scary enough,” Andrea says.
“It’s memoir style, so I get a little vulnerable. But it would be great to do a show.”
To see a selection of Andrea’s recipes, turn to pages 16 and 17 in this issue of Ruralite, or go to Andrea’s blog at www.dishingupthedirt.com.