Home Maine Helen Nearing Writes an Anti-Cookbook

Helen Nearing Writes an Anti-Cookbook


Helen Nearing, a founder of the modern back-to-the-land movement, believed there were more important and interesting things to do than to cook.

Helen Nearing

So she wrote a cookbook.

Simple Food for the Good Life was more of an anti-cookbook, really. In it, Helen Nearing recommended eating raw food, including potatoes, and cooking as little as possible. She wrote the book in 1980 and filled it with recipes for brown rice, wheat seed, lentils and broccoli. She even recommended cooking casseroles in a pumpkin shell.

Some of her recipes could send a back-to-the-lander back to the city.

Scott and Helen Nearing

Helen and her eventual husband Scott Nearing inspired thousands of city dwellers to drop out of corporate life and seek peace and happiness on self-sufficient farms. The Nearings had fled academia in 1932 to homestead in rural Winhall, Vt., where they lived without electricity, built stone buildings and made maple syrup and sugar.

She had studied to be a concert violinist. He was a controversial academic considered radical for his views on economic inequality, socialism and pacifism.

Scott Nearing in 1983

Scott Nearing in 1983

They supported themselves with their maple products, lecture fees and the more than 50 books they wrote.

Their book Living the Good Life became a primer for urbanites to move to the country and to lead a simple life. They included Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

In 1952, Scott and Helen Nearing moved to a homestead in Brooksville, Maine, where they cultivated blueberries as a cash crop. Her recipe for creamy blueberry soup actually sounds pretty good. (See below.)

The Bangor Daily News credits Scott and Helen Nearing with reversing Maine’s population decline in the early 1970s. From 1970 to 1973, Maine’s population grew 4.4 percent, while the United States as a whole grew only 3.2 percent. In Waldo County, the population grew more than 20 percent during the 1970s as communities built upon ‘The Good Life’ replaced chicken farming.

The newspaper concluded the back-to-the-land movement ‘changed Maine socially, politically and culturally forever. The newcomers were young, educated and civic-minded. They brought new ideas, and founded new institutions.’

The Good Life

helen nearing bookHelen Nearing lived by her motto, ”Live hard not soft; eat hard not soft; seek fiber in foods and in life.”

The Nearings lived in Vermont for 20 years without electricity, but had it in Maine, where Helen conceded the usefulness of an electric blender, juicer and grater.

Her cookbook is filled with pithy quotations about cooking, Helen’s opinions about food and vegetarian recipes with few ingredients.

Instead of buying commercial cornflakes, she suggests, “why not try popcorn for a quick, easy, cheap breakfast? A big bowl of fresh popped corn, to be dipped into with one hand, and a good ripe banana in the other hand, combines to a fine and filling breakfast.”

Or how about “wheatberries?” Soak two cups of wheat seed overnight in a quart of water. In the morning, “drain and drink the resulting elixir water, or feed your houseplants.” Boil them for two hours and eat with honey, apples or banana, or her favorite, a dash of olive oil and sea salt.

Helen Nearing in the kitchen, from Bullfrog Films.

A quick autumn soup is made with cabbage, celery, broccoli and parsley boiled in water with a dash of soy sauce or lemon juice. Her springtime soup is scallions, carrots, peas, some asparagus sautéed then boiled in water.

Raw potato salad: chopped raw potatoes, onions, parsley, olive oil, avocado and vinegar. We suspect it’s an acquired taste.

Helen Nearing died in a car accident in 1995 at the age of 91. Scott had already died at 100. Their Brooksville farm became the Good Life Center.

Creamy Blueberry Soup

1 pint blueberries, washed and picked over 2 cups water
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch cardamom
1 cup sour cream.

Place blueberries in a saucepan with water, maple syrup, cinnamon and cardamom. 2. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes; remove from heat and let cool. 3. Stir in sour cream, and chill well before serving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Horse Chow

Helen Nearing’s most famous recipe is probably Horse Chow, which she created in the 1930s when people didn’t eat oats and granola was unheard of. It calls for four cups of rolled oats, a half cup of raisins, the juice of one lemon, a dash of sea salt and olive oil or vegetable oil to moisten. The directions read: “Mix all together. We eat it in wooden bowls with wooden spoons.”

This story was updated in 2022. Featured image/Nearing in the kitchen  from Living The Good Life with Helen and Scott Nearing, a film directed by John Hoskyns-Abrahall and produced by Bullfrog Films.


Caron Case June 10, 2016 - 7:59 am

Helen Nearing also wrote about fasting on certain days, such as Easter. Instead of overindulging on a big meal, make the day less about the food and feed the spirit instead. My family has decided that we would rather spend Easter and Thanksgiving hiking, working on our farm and simply being thankful for the day.

Dana Ward June 10, 2016 - 12:30 pm

We were part of the population boom in Waldo County in the seventies. We bought land in Unity and in 1985 started building a round stone house using Nearing as my inspiration. I sit in The Round House, thirty years later, as I type.

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