Meet our latest Agrarian inspiration: Sarah Searle, creator of the blog The Yellow House. We love following Sarah’s blog, where she shares her practical approach to growing and making her own food with photos, recipes and thoughtful essays. Here, we ask her all about how she learned to cook, her favorite DIYs, and her best advice for beginning gardeners.
Tell us about your background in food and writing. How did you get your start?
I’ve been a cook and a writer for as long as I’ve been able to hold knives and pens. But I am not culinarily trained, nor do I make my living in the food industry. I started writing about food and cooking from that perspective — what does it mean to be a normal person with a 9-to-5, a commute, a budget, but who still cares about preparing most of her own food, sourcing ingredients well, and perhaps even growing or producing a few things from scratch? I started there.
I don’t write very strictly about recipes, the way most “food blogs” do. My writing is an account of the life lived around food, about heritage, place, and culture. I have degrees in politics and public health, and I think that perspective is reflected in my writing.
How did you learn how to cook? Who were/are the culinary influences in your life?
I learned the basics from my mother, probably just from watching her and helping out. She never really set out to teach me. She was an accomplished cook in a non-fussy, get-dinner-on-the-table sort of way — and she wasn’t afraid of salt or fat or acid, which I think makes all the difference in good, satisfying home cooking.
Later, when I really started cooking for myself in my 20s, I turned to people who place emphasis on simple food made from really good ingredients for inspiration: Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton of Canal House Cooking, David Tanis, Deborah Madison, Judi Rodgers, just to name a few. I was raised in Virginia and live here again, now, and I’m especially inspired by real Virginia cuisine, like that from extraordinary African-American cooks like the late Edna Lewis.
You make a lot of foods yourself (jam, kombucha) that many people buy pre-made. Why do you make the extra effort to DIY?
There’s a certain amount of quality that you get in some homemade products that you can’t get otherwise — or sometimes, you can’t get that product at all unless you make it yourself (there’s a particular tomato jam I make that is one of those things). I also try to do things like canning tomatoes myself because it’s a way to extend the season for local products that I can’t get during winter. Sometimes, also, I think there are some products where I prefer homemade because they’re free of excess preservatives or processed ingredients that I might not want to eat. Mostly, I’m just the type of lucky soul who enjoys a project — I think tangible work with your hands is nice, especially if, like me, you sit at a desk during the week quite a bit.
I should probably clarify, though, that I’m not totally hard core about doing-it-myself. Among the “foodie” crowd, there’s a certain amount of shaming that goes on if you use pre-prepared or not-from-scratch products, and I think that’s so counterproductive. If there are pre-prepared foods that can supplement your cooking and help you get dinner on the table, more power to you.
I also try to acknowledge that certain products are pretty reserved for artisans or specialty producers. With my current lifestyle, I will never be able to consistently make a gorgeous croissant, roast my own coffee beans, or age my own goat cheese — I’d rather buy these from friends, neighbors, or local producers who dedicate their lives to it, and whom I like to support anyway. Self-reliance is great, but community-building is even better.
Describe your garden. Do you plant, grow and harvest every season?
Our garden is a joint effort. I grew up with big vegetable gardens, and I’ve gardened for as long as I’ve had windowsill space, but I’m not the expert of the house. My partner, Ben, is a vineyard manager, and he knows much more intuitively about plants and what they need and want than I do.
Not only do we plant, grow, and harvest every season, but it’s something we think about all winter and for which we get very impatient. Our plans are always grander than what actually happens, but it’s always rewarding.
What do you get most excited about growing? What is your favorite season? Is there any fruit or vegetable you wish could be in season all year long?
I love greens of any sort, and they are easy to grow. They’re also one of the first crops of the season, which means I get to enjoy them early. I have a “greens garden” that Ben made for me, it’s a bed for lettuces and leafy greens that has a plastic row cover to allow the season to be extended. We eat gorgeous salads for dinner almost every evening in the spring.
Do you have any edible gardening advice for beginners?
I always tell people to start on their windowsill with some pea shoots. It’s rewarding, and you’ll have pretty greens growing just a few feet from your waiting skillet. (Also, pea shoots cost a fortune at markets, so it’s an economical way to get them.) I wrote about growing windowsill pea shoots here. Even though we have space for a larger garden, I still grow windowsill greens, because a house in the winter is about the perfect temperature for growing lettuces.
Tell us about your chickens! How long have you had them? Why did you decide to take this step?
When I was 11, my family moved into a house that conveyed with a flock of laying hens. We loved them. As an adult, one of the first things I did when I moved to a place that had space to accommodate them was to make plans to get chicks. We definitely consider our chickens to be livestock rather than pets, but you can’t help but develop affection for them. It’s hard to explain to non-chicken owners how interesting they actually are. It’s a little society operating in your front yard — dramas play out, babies are born, social statuses elevated and demoted. In warmer months, Ben and I find ourselves outside when we get home from work, glass of wine in hand, watching the chickens.
What is your favorite recipe from the blog? Your favorite post overall?
Tough question — I don’t really write about any recipe unless I really like it. In terms of sheer repeat value (and to continue the theme of how much I like leafy greens), this collard cobbler with cornmeal biscuits is unusual and really good. My favorite posts usually aren’t recipes at all, but an essays or stories. This post, in particular, about my paternal grandparents and their farm life, was popular and is something of which I’m proud.
What has been the biggest surprise about The Yellow House?
That people read what I write! That sounds self-deprecating, but the truth is that I started writing at The Yellow House for myself. (If I had known people would be reading, I probably would have picked a more timeless name for the site: I don’t live in a yellow house anymore!) To think that thousands of people are interested in everyday dispatches from one woman’s corner of the world is amazing. On top of all that, my readers don’t just passively absorb, like we’re so apt to do in this Internet age — they’re very smart and engaged, leaving stimulating comments and starting discussions.
What food blogs do you read every day? What are your favorite cookbooks?
I like food bloggers who have something to say, rather than just sharing a recipe and pictures. Poor Man’s Feast, Lottie + Doof, and Orangette are among the small handful I read regularly (and, full disclosure, I count some of them as personal friends).
My favorite cookbooks include anything by Nigel Slater, Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors, Maria Speck’s beautiful Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and Molly Stevens’ destined-to-become-a-classic, All About Braising. There are a few kitschy standbys that remain important to me, like The Betty Crocker Cookbook, too.
You’re having a dinner party — who’s on your dream invite list? What’s on the menu? What’s on the stereo?
We throw a lot of dinner parties, and my biggest lament is how we have friends spread across the globe that we can never get them all in the same place to sit down to dinner. So, I guess my dream dinner party includes some sort of teleportation device so that we could have all those beautiful people in one place!
When I cook for a lot of people, I like easy, satisfying things that can be served family style—we’d probably have a mess of grits with butter and parmesan, a big braised pork shoulder with cider vinegar and fennel, and a bunch of wilted kale or mustard greens on the side.
I have a dinner party playlist on Spotify right now, so I’ll tell you the artists of the first five tracks: Fela Kuti, Nina Simone, The New Pornographers, Robert Johnson, and Emmylou Harris. (Come for the food, stay for eclectic playlist!)