In anticipation of this year’s Harbor Springs Festival of the Book, author interviews with some of the presenters will appear here over the next couple of months leading up to the September 23-25 event in Harbor Springs.
Erin Gleeson is an artist and New York Times bestselling author of The forest festival cookbook series.
After working in New York as a food photographer, she left town for a cabin in the California woods. Inspired by local California produce, she has now created five vegetarian cookbooks and a product line that showcase her unique blend of photographs overlaid with watercolor and handwritten illustrations.
I was first introduced to Erin’s art and recipes in 2014 when a good friend threw a fabulously memorable dinner using recipes from the first in the series, The forest festival. A couple of years later, the daughter of that same friend, then just 10 years old, hosted us all with the dishes from the second book, The forest festival for children. These have become some of my favorite food memories, thanks to good friends and Erin’s books.
The road trip of the forest festival is the fifth and most recent book (published in March 2022). This book was inspired by a family trip through California. Each chapter focuses on a different region of the state and includes 100 vegetarian recipes. As with his other books, the illustrations and unique layout make the recipes accessible and easy to follow.
It’s probably my turn to host an Erin Gleeson inspired dinner. But I’m still waiting for an invitation from good friends who introduced me to some of my favorite Forest Festival meals all those years ago.
It was a pleasure to ask the artist and author herself more about her recent book and her favorite meals.
EMILY MEIER: Your first book was inspired by moving to California and local farms and meals. How has the place continued to inspire your recipes and your art?
ERIN GLEESON: My new book takes that idea on the road, visiting a wide variety of farms, ranches, wineries, and other producers across the state. California’s agricultural and geographic diversity really inspired this book and allowed me to introduce everything from cheese made on the north coast to dates grown in the southern desert. The colors of each region also provided inspiration. The lavender fields and sunset-colored rocks of the eastern sierras inspired my watercolor palette for the illustrations in the book and the ingredients of the dishes I created after visiting that area.
EM: Beyond the location, how do you come up with ideas for new cookbooks for the series?
FOR INSTANCE: It felt like a natural progression of our life, really! My first book, released in 2014 The forest festival, he was very inspired by moving from New York to a cabin in the woods. Jon and I had just got married and it was the beginning of a new chapter for us in California. After the book came out, we continued to hear that families enjoyed cooking with their children. My editor contacted me to make it suitable for children, which we did in 2016 The forest festival for children. My husband Jon and I have always loved hosting, so the next natural step for me was a fun book. In The meetings of the forest festival I share vegetarian menus for all kinds of occasions that might be hosted and include many of the dishes we prepare for our parties, along with hosting tips we’ve learned along the way. For me, hosting and cooking for others means a lot of building relationships and creating communities through food, and this book is an extension of that idea. At this point we had two children and, while Jon had a gap year from work for a few months, we knew we wanted to take a long trip abroad. I presented a Mediterranean-inspired travel cookbook. It tells about our three month journey through Italy, Spain, Portugal and France and the vegetarian recipes I came up with along the way. With a new third child in tow, driving closer to home seemed like a good idea, so we pitched the idea of a culinary trip around California for this fifth book of mine.
EM: Do you have a favorite food memory?
FOR INSTANCE: I grew up in an apple orchard in Northern California, so anything baked with apples reminds me of that time.
EM: Do you have a favorite recipe at the moment? Or one you come back to often?
FOR INSTANCE: I constantly make a few versions of a caprese, adding what’s in season to the usual mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. This new Road Trip book has a strawberry caprese. I recently made a caprese version with stone fruit and cucumbers that come out of my local farmer’s market. My first book has a Caprese Butternut, which I love in the fall.
EM: What are some of your comfort food choices?
FOR INSTANCE: Bread and cheese!
EM: Do your kids have a favorite or favorites from this book? What are some of your family’s favorite recipes when you just need something healthy, quick, and easy?
FOR INSTANCE: Kids love blender muffins in the book. We constantly make them at home. They are so simple, you blend all the ingredients and then pour them into muffin molds. I usually make them with spinach and kids love them.
EM: What’s your favorite meal of the day? Breakfast lunch dinner? If you could host a lunch or dinner with friends, which one would you prefer and why?
FOR INSTANCE: Dinner is my favorite to eat because I have more time to spend and enjoy sitting with family.
But my favorite to host is actually a cocktail party with appetizers and drinks. It’s less stressful than a full, seated meal and feels more casual. Which means you’re more likely to actually invite people over and do it. For anyone eager to host, it is more doable. Guests can sit or stand and socialize with different people. Small bites are my favorite foods. Plus, the times (usually around 4pm to 6pm) work great with our family (and friends) schedules of having to put the kids to bed by a certain time.
EM: The Forest Feast Road Trip, is your fifth book in this series. What did writing this book teach you? What are some of the great lessons you learned in creating this series?
FOR INSTANCE: As an author I have learned that it is important to share what is most authentic and inspiring to me and that other people will respond better to this. My recipe sharing format is unconventional, but that’s what makes sense to me and people have told me it makes recipes look simple enough to actually make them. I learned that people want to feel inspired and that art and color help. I learned that people need opportunities for creativity and that cooking can fill that void.
EM: From photographs, to watercolor illustrations, to recipes, you do it all. Do you find one part more challenging than the others? How do you approach creating a new book? Does the photography of the place come first, then the recipes, then the photography again, and then the art? Or is it a more symbiotic relationship?
FOR INSTANCE: For this book, we first took the trip and photographed everything along the way. I also took notes for recipe ideas. This was a combination of things we collected or saw growing along the way and dishes we ate in restaurants or people’s homes. For example, we picked strawberries on a farm in Pescadero and I went home and made the strawberry caprese. A journey through miles of walnut groves in central California inspired walnut enchiladas.
EM: What do you want readers to know or take away after discovering one of your books?
FOR INSTANCE: I want people to feel inspired to create something for themselves and share it. I constantly get messages from people who organize their own forest parties, prepare dishes from books and invite people to enjoy everything. Nothing makes me happier!
To find out more about this year’s festival and register for the paid event with Erin Gleeson, visit: www.hsfotb.org And to learn more about the author, visit: www.theforestfeast.com