From her productive homestead in northeast Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest has been gardening, preserving, and cooking up a storm for more than a decade. The stylish and energetic 60-year-old ran a string of popular Portland cafés and restaurants in the 1980s and '90s, all while raising her first son as a single mother. These days, she has turned her attention to the home, making it her mission to promote the role of the modern-day balabusta—Yiddish for "a good housekeeper." Harriet's mother, Sonja—a German immigrant balabusta of considerable prowess—taught her the essence of good homemaking. Growing up in the Bronx, Harriet knew nothing about vegetable gardening; those skills came later, growing from her passion for preserving. But she learned about food at an early age.
"When I was a kid, I went shopping with my mother—to the butcher, bakery, and greengrocer—each one was an experience," Harriet says. "Homemakers were proud of their ability to select good food and prepare it."
Growing and preserving food crops at home is another important part of Harriet's vision for successful homemaking. Not necessarily because it's cheaper to prepare meals from a homegrown harvest, she adds, although it can be, but because it helps us see that we can produce or make what we need instead of buying everything from a store. "Figure out what you need and get the raw materials directly from the farmer or your own garden—then you become the producer." This puts you in control of what and how much you consume so you can tailor meals to your household's needs, she says.
Harriet's direction crystallized in 2000 when she noticed mountains of rotting fruit beneath an old pear tree in her garden. "That was my 'Newton' moment," she recalls. "What had turned these ripe pears from a prized food resource into a nuisance in my back yard? How had I come to take them for granted and leave them to rot? What had turned those nutritious pears into valueless objects?" The years that followed found her planted in her kitchen, processing all the gleaned food she could get her hands on as she learned the once-common (but today esoteric) techniques of food preservation.
Photos: Jon Jensen