Phaedra Taylor, artist, mom, and wife to the Director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center for the Arts in Texas. The couple, along with their daughter, recently moved back to Texas after spending a few years in North Carolina, where David was finishing his PhD. I met the couple many years ago in Texas. Phaedra’s presence was captivating and I wanted to know more about her art and the way how she lives a sustainably. I am so honored that she decided to share her story with Mary Lee Kitchen.
ML:Where did you grow up? How do you feel like your background has shaped your outlook of food?
PT: I was fortunate to grow up in a semi-rural agricultural community on the North East coast of Scotland. My “normal” was tractors in the fields and the smell of manure, farms all around our village, and small fishing boats on the beach at the end of every day. We had time off from school for the potato harvest, and the school offered hot lunches that I remember being served on real dishes. I think this kind of environment made it impossible for me to separate the cultivation and harvesting work from what we were eating. I grew up very aware that people worked hard to produce our food and that it came from farms and boats rather than supermarkets. I think that this is what I’m always trying to get back to in my adult life. I feel really good if I can somehow be connected to the people that are raising, growing and foraging the food that we are eating, and I’m pretty distrustful of large food corporations because I want to be able to trace my beef back to the land it ate from, so to speak, and I want to see the fields where my cabbages grew.
ML: When did you begin to start experimenting with food?
PT:I remember being a poor college student and realizing that I could make soup out of about anything in my pantry. I was the one offering hummus and tzatziki at keg parties, and bringing pots of tortilla soup to my co-workers for fun. I never got into ramen noodles and frozen pizza, or any of the other cheap foods that college students use to stretch their tiny budgets. I didn’t find those things appealing. I think this forced me to be really creative with what I cooked. And I usually lived with other girls who introduced me to new things. I didn’t eat bell peppers until my roommate brought one home. We simply never ate them at home, but I fell in love with them after I tried one. I did have a weakness for macaroni and cheese.
ML:Who are your food influencers? Has anyone shaped the way you view food?
PT:Definitely my parents and grandparents. My mom was always cooking. I remember very little processed food in our house and plenty of whole foods. When we did go out it was something adventurous and different because my father has always been excited about interesting ethnic foods. We frequently ate at the Indian and Turkish restaurants in the nearby city, and it was never an option to not try something new. When I think of my mom’s parents, I think of grandma making fresh bread and putting a roast in the oven, and my grandfather picking up pecans to take home for roasting. With my dad’s parents, I can see the mason jars of canned green beans, grandpa barbecuing chicken outside, and grandma slicing tomatoes from the garden. Both my grandparents grew rather substantial gardens, and in both homes food was something we made/ate/celebrate/shared together as a part of our family culture. Today my parents have a large garden themselves and we often talk about food together – cooking it, preserving it, growing it – and we’re still excited about exploring new foods together.
I’ve also learned a tremendous amount from Joel Salatin. His books, and the way he is farming at Polyface Farm, have opened my mind to what it really means to have a sustainable integrated food system. I grew up surrounded by farms, but I didn’t really know anything about the grit of running a farm. His writing helped me understand why I’m drawn to certain kinds of food choices. It motivates me to keep searching for farms to support when it’s so easy to go to the store instead.
ML:What is the connection between food and the “table” for you? Mary Lee Kitchen’s whole idea is about getting people back to the table.
PT:I think the simple answer is that real food feeds, and fake food doesn’t. I approach the Eucharist to feed my soul and to make me more alive, because I’m empty on my own. I often tell my daughter, when she doesn’t want to eat, “you’ve got to feed the fire.” Traditional Chinese medicine uses this fire imagery to explain how food and medicines can either harm or heal. If we feed the fire with good kindling it roars high, and we have energy and clarity to live well. If we don’t feed our fire, or feed it with wet soggy logs, it sputters and dies, leaving us lethargic and damp and sick. Food can fuel us, or poison us. The Eucharist is the way I’m feeding the fire of my soul. Real food is the way I’m feeding the fire of my body. Together they make me a more alive human being.
ML:You believe in community building through food, what are some ways that you do this?
PT:In other seasons this has looked like having a lot of people in our home to share food with, but we moved to a new city and are still building community, so it’s looking different. I’m mostly share food with family right now. I love giving away food – sending fermented vegetables back to Austin for my in-laws, giving a scoby to a friend that wants to try Kombucha, sharing recipes with my mom, teaching my nephews how to cook my favorite marinara sauce. It’s a small way to connect through food, and I hope it grows into more as we root ourselves in our new home.
ML:The land is seen as sacred throughout the Old Testament, do you believe that there is hope of get back this? If so, how?
PT:I have a big hope for this. Sometimes it seems as if large and wealthy food companies are going to take over, but I’m encouraged by all the farmers and small food producers that keep going. It’s not as obvious because usually we don’t hear a lot from the media about these people, and they are all too busy working to go around shouting about what they are doing. But books keep getting written, urban gardens keep being planted, local nurseries keep teaching, farmers markets keep popping up, milk groups keep forming, and backyard chickens keep being brought home. It’s like a small, steady push back against the industrialized way of relating to food. I feel like we have to believe that every tiny act adds up to something bigger. That’s why I get excited about buying food directly from a farm. It’s my small dollars, but those dollars mean that it’s a little bit more likely that the farm stays open. And my small garden? It’s three 3 x 6 foot raised beds, but it shouts out to my neighbors that the earth is good for something besides a lawn. I think if we lose our belief that the land is sacred, that is, beloved by God and therefore worth “tending” with a holy care, then we lose something about being human. So we have to keep talking about and sharing what we are doing in our small way, and it will encourage others to join in.I’d also add that supporting organizations that are fighting this fight is another stellar way to add your weight, to the push back. Arocha is a fantastic non-profit organization that is doing its part. You can volunteer with them if there is an Arocha project near you; or you can support them financially as well.
ML: Now that you live in Texas, how has the culture affected your take of food? Do you crave BBQ?
PT: I’ve been craving Texas BBQ since we left this state 5 years ago, and I’m happy to be back within reach of it. I don’t want to get into any BBQ brawls, but I must say that I’ve got a real soft spot for sausage, brisket, and sauce with tomatoes in it. I’m having a great time exploring the culture of food in the South Texas area, and it’s been exciting to find out how many new things I can grow. Olives! Citrus! Tomatillos! It’s been really fun.
ML: Did you eat like this when you were pregnant?
PT: Mostly, when I wasn’t nauseated and sick. I was super hungry most of the time and one of my cravings was chicken, roasted root vegetables, and gravy. It’s pretty interesting that this is one of my daughter’s favorite meals now.
ML: Which online blogs to you follow? Do you follow any online blogs?
PT: I’m much more of a book person than a blog person. I rarely have time to read something online, but when I do I’m usually searching for instructions on how to do or make something and pop around all over the place. I do read the SouleMama blog occasionally when I want some inspiration to add a new “homesteading” skill into our life. And I like The Cultured Food Life blog for all traditional fermented foods. And when I want something beautiful and soul filling, I head to the Art House America blog, which is the loveliest thing online.
ML: What do you garden?
PT: We are developing our suburban homestead here in our new house.We’ve got citrus (lemons, limes, and oranges); lots of sun-loving herbs; greens and radishes now while it’s still cool, and all kinds of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and beans ready to go in once it’s a bit warmer at night. I’m babying my seedlings right now and so anxious to get them in the ground. I’m dreaming of a few olive trees, a bay tree, and a eucalyptus tree, and I’m planning a garden for medicinal herbs and shrubs to replace a sort of scrubby landscape bed that was here when we moved in. The plan is to use every bit of our yard for plants that we can eat or use for medicine. Many of these plants are also beautiful, so it seems like the best way to utilize the space we have until we can get out on some more land. It will take a few years, but it’s going to be great fun to slowly develop this lot into something exciting.
ML:What’s your favorite meal?
PT: It’s not that adventurous, but I’m always excited about a perfectly roasted chicken, with buttery crunchy skin, a big pan of roasted root vegetables, and delicious gravy made from the chicken drippings. Add a salad with greens from the garden and some local cheese and I’m in heaven. I can’t even count how many times I’ve made that meal. In fact, I might make it tonight.
ML:You have mentioned you like fermenting “things”, what are your favorite things to ferment? Will you share a recipe with us?
PT: I love fermenting things because it feels a bit like magic. You put a bunch of vegetables in a jar with some salt and it turns into bubbling spicy sauerkraut. You heat milk, add bacteria, keep it warm, and it turns into creamy sour yogurt. It’s kind of amazing. My favorite thing to ferment is vegetables. I find it easy and simple to keep up with, unlike Kombucha, which I’m always forgetting about and letting it get too vinegary. I love that it lasts so long in the fridge so I can ferment up a whole bunch and have a six month supply available. Here’s a recipe that came from combining and tweaking a few recipes, and it’s been my favorite way to do fermented vegetables lately. It’s kind of a mixed up Kimchi:
- 1 Large Cabbage – Napa, white, red, or a combination.
- 4-5 Carrots
- 1 White Onion
- 1 Head of Garlic, Peeled
- 1 3-inch Piece of Ginger, Peeled
- 1 Bunch Green Onions
- 1 Daikon Radish
- 3 Tbsp Sea Salt
- 3 Tbsp Fish Sauce – (Be careful to use a brand that doesn’t have added junk. Red Boat or Golden Boy are good.)
- ¼ Cup of Sriracha or other Spicy Chili Sauce (less if you don’t want it very spicy)
- 1 TEA Raw Honey
- Optional – 3 Tbsp Whey (Omit 1 Tbsp Salt)
- Shred or finely chop all the vegetables. You can do this in a food process with a grating attachment, or by hand. Place them in a very large bowl and sprinkle with the sea salt. Toss the salt and vegetables together. Let it sit while you mix the wet ingredients.
- Pour the liquid over the vegetables and toss again. Pound the vegetables, with a potato masher or other blunt instrument, until juice forms on the bottom of the bowl when you push the vegetables to the side.
- With clean hands, pack the vegetables into clean, wide mouth, mason jars. Smash firmly as you fill to squeeze out any air. Liquid should cover the top of the vegetables. Try to get all the vegetables under the liquid. Leave 1 inch of room at the top of the jar. Cover the jar with a lid and ring, hand tighten only.
- Place the jars on a towel inside a baking dish. Leave them in a safe place at room temperature, away from drafts, for at least 1 week. Do not move the jars or open/stir the contents. The jars will bubble and might seep juice. After a week open and taste. Transfer to the refrigerator if you enjoy the taste, or let them ferment longer if you like a stronger ferment. In the winter it may take longer to ferment.
- Always use a clean spoon when scooping the Kimchi out of your jars. This will keep in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.