Lamb Stew with Winter Squash in The Hour of the Land // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food.  It turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This tenth installment is a book of essays.

In this aspect of the challenge, I really did think about choosing a wonderful Wendell Berry collection, but I knew there was an essay on food in that collection, so that seemed to be stacking the deck in my favor. So I went for something that seemed less obviously connected to food.  And I am going to admit, there were a few moments of panic that I would be making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pack on the trail.

In Terry Tempest Williams' latest collection of essays The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, she explores 12 national parks and what they mean to her personally and, one would hope from her urging, what they mean to us nationally. The very first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant; less than a decade previously, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Land Grant into law in 1864, protecting Yosemite Valley (and it later became a national park in 1890). Williams starts us off with the question of just precisely from whom was Lincoln protecting the land?. The government itself, which as Williams details throughout some of the chapters, encroaches on some of these national parks with a gusto and glee? From the very white frontiersmen who sent back pictures of El Capitan and the Merced River, as they displaced the indigenous people so that tourists who would later travel to the parks would not encounter the hostility of someone wanting to protect their homelands? From industry and westward expansion? From frontierspeople with visions of McMansions in their eyes? She doesn't answer the question, but she certainly suggests that the answers are complex.

Williams writes that the purpose of her book is to bring a "fuller and more honest narrative" of our national parks, considering the "particularity and peculiarity" of the national parks which will "show us as much about ourselves as the landscapes they honor and protect" (12). In order to do so, we must move to restoration--not the restoration of self-serving myths, but of integrity in a fragmented nation, moving from independence to interdependence (12).  Williams admits that she is "not a historian or a scientist or an employee of a federal land agency privy to public land policy and law. My authority is simply that of a storyteller who lives in the American West in love with this country called home" (13). However, this authority is the authority we all can have, or was at least entrusted in us as a nation with each national park. 

And so Williams journeys to a dozen parks, some of which she was visiting for the first time, and others of which she considered home (she does live in Southern Utah, home of five national parks (Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce)). I feel a connection to Williams (on a side note, I once sold her a book at the bookstore I was working in while I lived in Utah myself, and there was a little bit of a starstruck quality to the exchange. I was 22), and this collection of essays, which at times is a bit uneven, truly is a great read for any naturalist, nature-loving, camping or hiking enthusiast you know. It's a beauty.

From her gorgeous rumination on the oil industry in North Dakota and its effect on Theodore Roosevelt National Park to her musing on American politics and racism in Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, this is not a book for the politically shy. Williams will take it all on--from drug addiction to the economy, from latent racism to energy independence--but she does it in a complex and often poetic way, celebrating the mythic qualities of the land itself. This is an American heritage--filled with an ugly history of destruction and a spiritual connection to the restorative qualities of the land. She writes in layers, recognizing the desire for sweet simplicity in our solutions but acknowledging that such simplicity is a myth in itself. 

This is also  an idiosyncratic book about near miss tragedies and personal losses: she survives a near forest fire in Glacier National Park in Montana and laments the addictions of both herself and her brother in Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska (in possibly the most beautiful of the essays). But she comes back, time and again, to the communities we need in order to restore our individual selves, our land, our sense of nationhood, and ultimately a much larger global community. And along the way, she eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Until her ninth essay on Canyonlands National Park in Utah, her own backyard: finally, a lamb stew with winter squash. Served with cornbread, a Southwestern coleslaw, and apple slices with caramel sauce, all served with a Cabernet.  But let me tell you how we got to this feast.

In this essay, she details the letters she has written--some of them never sent--to eleven people or organizations in order to save the southern part of Utah, which is '[d]ownwind from nuclear testing. Downwind from the state lawmakers who want to sell public lands to the highest bidder so they can develop them. Downwind of shale oil and gas extraction that threatens to erode the very beauty that defines America's red rock wilderness" (255). These letter recipients include the environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey, her neighbors and friends, multiple newspapers and media outlets including The Los Angeles Times, the great western explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, the environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, and the former secretary of the interior Sally Jewell.  Her net is wide. 

She writes to the Los Angeles Time, worried that the land adjacent to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks (as well as to the national monument of Dinosaur, where the husband and I once spent my birthday) will be sold for oil and gas drilling back in 2008. She details the outcry, and the subsequent backing down of the BLM, as well as the auctioning of the land which involved DeChristopher (who was convicted of two felony violations and for making false statements). Williams holds the government--under Bush and subsequently under Obama--to task. She pulls no punches, saying in 2013, "I write to you [Major John Wesley Powell] from the banks of the Colorado River at a time when the landscape before me feels much like the political landscape in our nation's capital. Both are collapsing. Both are experiencing a state of drought: one involves a lack of water; the other involves a lack of vision" (285). 

She then writes in 2014 to Sally Jewell about a dinner she held in Castle Valley, Utah, with Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo-Diné spiritual leader from Monument Valley, her friend Gavin Noyes, and fifteen students from the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities Program (291). There, they discussed the proposal to protect the Bears Ears National Monument. Together, they witness a rare horizontal rainbow, a sight both part of Navajo-Diné stories but also just plain beautiful. Amongst the 18 of them, there is a sense of hope, that this is land that can be protected and preserved and held onto for one another. 

A week later, she held a dinner party of Yellowman, Noyes, and leaders from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Grand Canyon Trust, Canyonlands National Park, the Nature Conservancy, and San Juan County officials. These were not all people who could agree on the boundaries of Bears Ears. These were people who had different stakes in this race. These were people not in agreement.  However, a student from the previous dinner party made a lamb and winter squash stew, and there is a sense of blessing and togetherness, despite the disparate viewpoints of those around the table. "Politics were set aside. The conversation was lively and spirited, full of wit and affection and stories" (293). 

After dinner, they pulled together maps, all of which had different boundaries for a national monument; however, despite these differences they all realized they were "gathered around one common table of concern" (293). In this letter, Williams then chastises Jewell for recommending that the Navajo not work with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. In other words, Jewell suggests tht each of political sides not work with the others--even if Jewell ostensibly seems to be siding with Williams in calling for the creation of the monument. Instead, Williams calls for alliance, connection, and continued communication with all, including those who are opposed to the monument. She does not want division and politics; she calls for a sit-down meal. She calls for conversation and community, even with those with whom we disagree. Such was her optimism in 2013.

This book was published on May 31, 2016.

On December 28, 2016, President Barrack Obama signed Bears Ears into a National Monument (with full support from Sally Jewell and Terry Tempest Williams!). 

Only to be undone on December 4, 2017, when President Donald Trump slashed the size of the monument by 85%. 

This past spring, Williams had a few more things to say about it:
No amount of money is a substitute for beauty. No amount of political power can be matched by the power of the land and the indigenous people who live here. If we do not rise to the defense of these sacred lands, Bears Ears National Monument will be reduced to oil rigs and derricks, shining bright against an oiled sky of obliterated stars.
I suspect this conversation is far from over for Williams. I just wonder if it's going to take a lot more than a large, albeit pleasing, pot of lamb stew with winter squash.


Red Wine Lamb Stew with Parsnips and Butternut Squash

[A] student... offered to make the meal for the dinner party. Her menu was simple, thoughtful, and local: lamb stew with winter squash; cornbread; a southwestern coleslaw, and for dessert, apple slices with a communal caramel sauce for dipping. A Caste Rock cabernet was served with the inner. Jonah gave a blessing on the food. We broke together as neighbors and friends. Politics were set aside" (The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks, 293).

Adapted from A New Way to Dinner 

Oh my. My, my, my. This is a wonderful little stew, filled with umami countered by sweet parsnips and nutty butternut squash. The original was beef stew with carrots and parsnips; however, this rendition is delightful, and you will love the lamb. No, you will. Oh, and if you have the wherewithal to whip up a batch of mashed potatoes, you would do yourself well. But why bother? Because this works just fine on its own.

Serves 4

1½ pounds lamb, cut into 1½-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1½  Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
8 ounces (about 1 cup) peeled and ½-inch cubed butternut squash
2 medium parsnips, peeled and sliced into ½-inch chunks
½ large onion, diced
1 celery stalk, cut into ½-inch slices
½ large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef stock
½ cup canned chopped tomatoes
2 thyme sprigs
1 small rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf

1. Heat the oven to 350℉.

2. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper/ Warm ½ Tbsp of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Working in batches, add the lamb, being careful not to crowd the pot. Cook the lamb on all sides until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer the browned meat to a plate and keep warm while you Brown the rest.

2. Pour off all but about ½  a Tbsp of the fat in the pot and turn the heat down to medium-low, and add the remaining 1 Tbsp of olive oil an the pancetta. Cook until it starts to crisp, about 5 minutes.

3.  Add the parsnips, butternut squash, onion, and celery, and cook until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic an cook for a minute more.

4. Add the wine, stick, tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, bay leave, and 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the lamb, submerging it in the liquid. Cover, and bake until the meat is very tender, about 2 hours.

5.  Remove from the oven. Let the stew cool slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Discard the herbs.  (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the stew, gently reheating over low heat for 10-15 minutes when ready to serve.)


By Popular Demand

Cookbook #4: Cheese Board: Collective Works

Ottolenghi's Lemon and Eggplant Risotto

Ottolenghi's Semolina, Coconut and Marmalade Cake

Butternut Squash Crumble

Classic Frisée Salad (Salade Lyonnaise)