THESE DAYS, THERE is a cookbook for nearly every cuisine, every kitchen whim and fancy. Most contain brightly lit images of ultra-styled table settings. Erin Gleeson’s “The Forest Feast Road Trip” is not one of these, which may be why it’s so refreshing. Rather, it’s a kind of art book and travelogue with watercolors, hand lettering, and vibrant vegetarian recipes. The book documents the 2,500-mile road trip that Gleeson and her family took through the state of California, the 10 unique homes they stayed in, and the recipes Gleeson was ultimately inspired to create. With a focus on movement over mise-en-scène, this book captures the spirit of eating on the road. The vivid produce of California, photos of Gleeson’s family, including her three small children, and her own paintings lend the book a happy, wholesome bohemian vibe evocative of a simpler time.
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Fans of Gleeson will know that “The Forest Feast Road Trip” is the latest in a series of “The Forest Feast” cookbooks, the first of which was published in 2014. They grew out of the author’s blog, which she started shortly after she moved from New York City to a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains in her home state of California. Gleeson previously worked as a food photographer in New York, but once she found herself back on the West Coast living a rustic life, she was inspired to start cooking with local, colorful California produce while documenting some of her own dishes.
Since the success of the original “Forest Feast,” Gleeson has published a version of the cookbook for kids; one geared toward entertaining (though not a professional chef by training, Gleeson has always loved cooking for gatherings); and one devoted to Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. She also released a line of stationery items like journals and art prints featuring her watercolors and photography.
Like the other books in Gleeson’s series, “The Forest Feast Road Trip” feels like a self-contained world — one where an influencer who is also a wood sprite might make its home. The collage effect of Gleeson’s illustrations and photography, combined with simple, visually driven recipes, welcomes a reader right in. The food is natural, brightly colored, and decidedly unfussy. And you can always tell how much Gleeson likes feeding a crowd: recipes like “Root Vegetable Nachos” and “Pumpkin Deviled Eggs” are enticing hippie-mom takes on classic party appetizers. She also features a slew of festive non-alcoholic drink recipes made with garden-fresh ingredients.
This latest book rounds out the “Forest Feast” series. But what makes this addition to Gleeson’s catalog special is how incredibly relatable it is, especially for young families, and especially now. The book has a pleasingly not-staged feel, an approachable, accessible attitude toward food and travel. Each of the places Gleeson’s family stays is beautiful in its own way, but she does not peddle a fantasy of luxury or excessive ease. Rather, she writes about piling her family into a Nissan Pathfinder and staying in Airbnb rentals. This book is about a real road trip — with a husband and three kids — and the inspiration Gleeson finds along the way, whether in farmers’ market goodies or in unexpected moments of beauty and grace. “We stayed on a lavender farm in the Sierras that prompted the shortbread on page 214,” she writes, “and the apricots we picked on the Central Coast led to the salsa on page 138.”
Because she photographs each abode where the family stays along the route, “The Forest Feast Road Trip” also functions a bit like a home-design book. It isn’t just the recipes that hold the reader’s attention, but also the ocean view from the Santa Barbara home of Gleeson’s artist uncle and aunt, the midcentury decor in an A-frame house near Big Bear Lake, or the beautiful clutter of the outdoor kitchen at Skyfarm Yurt in Los Angeles.
Gleeson writes in the introduction about what it was like to see so much more of her home state than she ever had before. She recalls learning about California history on the trip, and encourages visitors to embrace the opportunities to stop and learn at sites like Manzanar, an internment camp where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Taking in some history and talking about it is a way to honor those who have come before us. A road trip just might be the best way to learn the history of a place, even one you’ve long called home. It also remains a solid choice for a family vacation. “I don’t love driving in my daily life,” writes Gleeson, but once you settle in for a long drive, “thoughts of everyday life turn to white noise and your mind becomes serene. The kids fall asleep, you get into the music, the scenery is amazing, and you’re in the groove.”
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Erin Gleeson Photographer
Erin Gleeson is the New York Times best-selling cookbook author and artist behind the lifestyle brand “The Forest Feast.” After working in New York as a food photographer, she left the city for a cabin in the woods, which took her work in a whole new direction. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California with her husband, Jon, and their three kids.