New York Times bestselling author and artist Erin Gleeson is known for The Forest Feast, a series of cookbooks and merchandise that combines watercolor, photography and simple vegetarian recipes. Gleeson’s latest cookbook, “The Forest Feast Road Trip,” coincidentally arrives at a time when the pandemic has popularized traveling by car. The work inspires wanderlust through a journey around California, including stops at 10 stunning vacation homes ranging from a cabin on a lavender farm to a yurt with an outdoor kitchen overlooking Los Angeles.
However, the Woodside resident makes one thing clear: Her latest work is a personal journal of lessons learned and recipes inspired by California, not a guidebook.
Gleeson started The Forest Feast as a blog after a career as a food photographer in New York City, where she also taught photography classes. Unhappy with the font choices available to her when designing her website, Gleeson eventually decided to paint titles in her own handwriting and lay them over her photography.
In “The Forest Feast Road Trip,” that means that watercolor beets dance across images of the beach picnic that inspired a beet hummus recipe. Blood oranges are superimposed onto a San Diego sunset.
The main road trip behind the book occurred in the summer of 2019. Gleeson had previously written one travel cookbook, “The Forest Feast Mediterranean,” and she and her husband Jonathan Prosnit were brainstorming ideas for their next trip. A cross-country journey became overwhelming, so they instead set out to visit the many parts of California that they had never seen. Prosnit laid out the route, which encompassed 2,500 miles within the state. Starting at the couple’s scenic home in the Santa Cruz Mountains, they traveled down south to Los Angeles, east through Big Bear Lake and the eastern Sierra, and north through Lassen. Shorter trips to destinations like Joshua Tree and San Diego rounded out the book.
Most of these travels were completed before the pandemic started, but Gleeson recognizes how the safety and relative affordability of road-tripping in California have become more appealing. “We’re obviously lucky to live in California with access to so many diverse places within a day’s drive,” she says.
Considering herself an artist more than a cook or recipe developer, Gleeson writes visually stunning but easy-to-prepare recipes that usually have five or fewer ingredients. “I feel like I’m (driven by color) when creating the recipes and also trying to think a lot about shape,” she says in reference to a salad that pairs spheres of watermelon with whole yellow cherry tomatoes. This visual focus is also reflected in recipes like rings of roasted delicata squash drizzled with tahini and pink pancakes made with pancake mix thrown into a blender with a beet.
Throughout Gleeson’s travels, which involved several stops at farms owned by friends, even the smallest moment could inspire a recipe. For example, the family picked apricots at a Santa Barbara ranch, sinking their teeth into fresh fruit while running through the orchard. When a meal of breakfast burritos at Gleeson’s aunt and uncle’s house lacked salsa the next morning, the apricots became apricot salsa, enjoyed on a beachfront deck after a morning swim.
Despite the simplicity of these recipes and the whimsical nature of these watercolor fruits and vegetables, the travels behind “The Forest Feast Road Trip” inspired growth among Gleeson’s family. Reading the introduction, which Gleeson calls “the hardest pages in the book,” reveals a number of reflections. Gleeson was inspired by efforts to preserve traditional foods and crops at the Paiute Cultural Center, confronted this country’s xenophobia at the former internment camp of Manzanar, and witnessed the essential contributions of migrant farmworkers at each photogenic field of kale or orchard of almond trees inserted into the book’s pages.
The writing process also included a major transition in Gleeson’s life, as she and her husband Jonathan welcomed their third child, Winnie, during the pandemic. Needing to care for Winnie while overseeing distance learning for Max, 5, and Ezra, 7, Gleeson pushed back the book’s release, working on it late at night after the children went to bed.
While some might be wary of traveling with young children, they are a motivator for Gleeson’s travels. The book is dedicated to Winnie. “I feel like their little minds are developing so much … it’s important for them to see different places and try different foods and see where things are growing,” she says.
Gleeson highlights the most powerful moment of her travels as a surprise stop at a lavender farm named De La Cour Ranch. Run by a woman named Julie who grew up near Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside, this ranch was visually stunning and provided a chance to appreciate California’s history. “(Julie) was telling us about some of the Native American culture, the people who lived there before her, and how she felt the history being there, and you kind of could too,” Gleeson says. “It was just this really magical spot.”
Above all else, Gleeson learned a lesson that many others have during the pandemic about the joy of driving off and exploring your surroundings. “Once you settle into a long drive, the thoughts of everyday life turn to white noise and your mind becomes serene,” she writes.
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Anthony Shu writes for TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.