When Sara Barbour (Laguna Blanca School ’07, Columbia University ’11) left Carpinteria to attend college in New York City, it seemed that her future would be an urban one. A gifted writer, outstanding student, and key link in an unusually close-knit group of Laguna Owls, Sara relished the opportunity to experience both top-flight academic challenges at Columbia and big-city culture in the Big Apple. Four years later, having excelled in her History and English double major and risen to the top of the publishing world with a full-time job at O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, Sara would seem to have secured that most elusive of contemporary goals, the high-profile first job.
Yet it was her close friend and boss at O who introduced her to Cynthia Sandberg and David Kinch, the proprietors of Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz and Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, and within a month of graduation, Sara had left the city for the farm. Soon after that, Sara established her own publication on the web, the wonderfully well written and thoughtful food blog girlfarmkitchen.com. The students currently enrolled in AP English Language and Composition at Laguna Blanca were so inspired by Sara’s writing (and her delicious recipe for bran pancakes) that they started their own AP food blog at apfoodblog.wordpress.com.
Sara emailed recently to fill us all in on how she became a part of the growing movement towards more conscious and healthful eating, and about how her education at Laguna Blanca and then Columbia University inspired her to become a writer.
What first sparked your interest in farm food?
Growing up in Santa Barbara it was hard to avoid farm food: it’s valued in a way that it took leaving home to appreciate. Only when I was in New York and cooking on my own did I realize how rewarding it is to cook with fresh produce, and it was also around that time that I began following food blogs in a big way. Many of the blogs that inspired me most—101 Cookbooks, Sprouted Kitchen, and David Tanis and Mark Bittman’s columns in the New York Times—used vegetables that were difficult to find at a grocery store, like Toscano kale or Delicata squash. My interest in farm food grew out of my interest in cooking—when you love to eat, variety of flavor and ingredients is something that excites you.
What was the impact of your time at Columbia and in New York on your writing? My senior year I took a nonfiction class in the creative writing department, and it was the best decision I made for my writing in college. Fifteen students of all ages and backgrounds meant stories ranging from an ex-ballerina’s exposé to a senior’s story of leaving Columbia for a year to work in a rural gas station. Truth is not just stranger than fiction, it’s often much more compelling—the voices I read were so honest, so insightful in turning personal experience into something anyone could relate to. I discovered that the true gift of non-fiction writing is looking at the world through different eyes—once you nurture that skill, you can turn any experience into something beautiful.
And on your interest in food?
Working at O, The Oprah Magazine my senior year I experienced food in an entirely new way—as an intern under the food editor I met chefs, farmers, and food entrepreneurs from the founder of Baker Creek Seeds to Wolfgang Puck. I’d always been interested in food, but in New York I became obsessed: I read food blogs religiously, I made lists of restaurants for my parents’ visits, and I spent every Friday night grocery shopping. New York is a city where everyone has a favorite bagel, cup of coffee and slice of pizza, and New Yorkers’ love for food is infectious.
What would you say is the most interesting thing that you’ve learned on the farm?
At the end of my first few weeks on the farm my whole concept of the word “edible” had changed. When it comes to a fava plant we don’t just give the restaurant the beans, we harvest the tops of the young plants and the flowers as well. In fact we harvest over 15 different kinds of flowers for Manresa, from arugula and radish to viola and borage. Growing up buying food from grocery stores you get accustomed to eating familiar ordinary types—and parts—of fruits and vegetables, but there is so much more out there that is not just edible, but incredibly delicious.
How would you advise young people about becoming writers? My advice on writing is to cultivate a writer’s way of seeing the world. Go through each day looking for stories in your life—look for setting, characters, and moments of human connection that are awkward or tender or funny. It’s always moments like these in my day that inspire me to write, literally draw me to the page to try to capture what I’ve seen or experienced. It doesn’t work every time, but do it enough and you’ll stumble on something that comes alive because it is true to human experience.
And about eating well?
When it comes to eating, I think that the most important element is often missing from our lives—the unadulterated pleasure of eating real food. Everyone knows about the dangers of fast food, but the other extreme—deprivation and dry crackers pumped with omega-3’s—is just as joyless. For me, eating well is cooking whole ingredients and enjoying them as a meal at a table. Whether you end up with 5-minute braised kale or homemade spaghetti and meatballs you’ll be eating what you made and what you want, and you’ll enjoy it that much more.