A Bare Bones Manifesto

Coming home through food in a world gone mad.

I was born in early autumn of a year of a year of great optimism, 1989. Several months after I arrived, the Berlin Wall fell, a symbol of the imminent “final stage of history,” globalized liberal democracy. Nationalism was out; peace was in. Communism was dying, Apartheid unwinding, and the world wide web would take care of the rest.

The author and his food journal (aka shirt), summer ‘91. Things were looking up.

Thirty years later, we find ourselves reliving the nightmares of the 20th century, but in hyperspeed: racist police killings, economic collapse, authoritarianism, a pandemic – all with the added spectre of environmental destruction – bombard us daily on our hand-held screens. The internet promised to liberate humanity by liberating information and connecting people, but, like many revolutionary promises, it could not see its own dark side, mesmerized as it was by the light of progress. Twitter, it turns out, is a great place for Nazis, and a powerful tool for autocrats. Our screen-addled brains are more anxious than ever, and who needs to take climate action when you can protest virtually, or watch nature documentaries in the tub? 20,000 years into this experiment called civilization, humanity is still earthbound, still tragically and comically flawed.  

And though it’s true that every generation, and every person, must endure its share of tragedy, the year 2020 – the 30-year anniversary of the Berlin Wall and my own birth – has felt particularly disillusioning. 

It’s painful, even heartbreaking, but also an opportunity to reassess. This disillusionment is, I think, predicated on some mistaken notions about progress. namely, that efficiency and speed, the supposed twin engines of progress, are inherently good. They’re not. Human connection, for example, leads to very weird things when brought to hyperspeed. Consider the vast and strangely compartmentalized sea of information about food on the internet: not just recipes and how-to’s, but meat-only Instagrams, vegan Twitter, five-star soufflés in five-second TikToks – an endless buffet line of trends and images we will likely never touch or taste, food as performance, food as shopping, food as self-improvement, food as anything but what it actually is: nourishment for the body, nutrient for the soul, an intimacy with each other and the earth.

My mom, Beth Dooley, has been writing about food for 30-odd years. Fundamental to her work is a simple idea: food, done right, teaches us, slowly, old and new ways we can heal our world. Good growing heals the land from generations of extraction. Good cooking heals bodies, families, and communities. And good food businesses create wealth and build bonds between farms and cities, neighbors and strangers, banks and bakers.

Mom and I in Ireland, summer ‘99. Y2K was about to break everything, but it still felt like things were looking up.

I do my best thinking in the kitchen. At least once each day, I make a point to shut my computer and try making something tasty with my hands. Almost all I know I learned not from the internet, but from my mom, a gal from New Jersey with no formal culinary training. She’s spent much of her adult life writing recipes for cookbooks, but rarely relies on them. She’s always bought and cooked food based on look and feel  – or, the look and feel of the guy or gal selling it. She’s a shameless flirt, and a smart one, too. In ten seconds of farmer’s market stall banter, she can spy the freshness of a crop of carrots, the readiness of corn, the ripeness of berries.

We started cooking together on Zoom at the start of the pandemic (we’re tech critics, not Luddites). I hadn’t been to the grocery store in a week. “Mom,” I said, as she fiddled with her camera, “I want to make a pizza sauce, but I have no tomatoes.”\

“Ok,” she said.” Well, what do you have?”

From then on, one night a week we’d see what we had in our cupboards and try to whip something up from cans, jars, and farmer’s market veggies. Behind every trick she taught me were fascinating stories, ideas and people, and pretty soon, we were dreaming about how we might share this exchange through a blog, a newsletter or, God forbid, a podcast.

Our first foray into YouTube, thanks to Milkweed Editions.

Bare Bones is a way for us to delve into what matters as the world goes mad, to reach into the grand old house called humanity, and grab onto its frames and its beams – its bones – while the earth around us shakes. In a country so often lost in the endless woods of “me,” food offers a path back to the home called “us,” a home large enough to hold it all: our dreams, our faults, our quirks and our differences.

Bare Bones means essential. Raw. Nimble and no-frills, tried and true. In an age of information overload, these are the things we long for, not an iPhone upgrade, not virtual “likes,” not another show to binge, but the vital elements, the bare bones, from which to rebuild ourselves and our world. 

Which begs an important question: why does anyone need another newsletter?

Fair point. I’ll be brief. Each month, Bare Bones will bring you 4 simple things to enrich your life:

  • Dish - no frills, low-fi, down-home cooking you could pull off tonight

  • Simmer - a story of the science and the sweat behind our food

  • Shout-out - good-doing, big-hearted people worth celebrating (and funding!)

  • Longshot

What’s the Longshot, you ask? Find out by subscribing below, and let’s. get. cooking.