Land remembered for wit, 'adherence to what was true'Wrote 'Good Food' column for Camden Herald
Cushing — When she died Aug. 10 at the age of 66, Leslie Land was not only a well-known food and gardening writer, art collector and co-founder of Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., she was also something of a fixture in her adopted home of Cushing.
Described by friends and family as fiercely honest and passionate about whatever caught the attention of her large intellect, Land spent summers at her Cushing house, tending her gardens, inviting friends over to taste recipes she was testing, and writing. She had many friends among the artistic community of the Midcoast, and collected the work of several of them.
She was also deeply concerned, according to her husband, Bill Bakaitis, and her friends, with local, sustainable agriculture.
For the last 25 years, she and Bakaitis had made Pleasant Valley, N.Y., outside Poughkeepsie, their winter home, at first because he had a job teaching at SUNY Dutchess. They also maintained large vegetable gardens there, designed to require minimal upkeep during the months the couple was in Maine. These “production” gardens contain 30 varieties of tomatoes alone, plus many more vegetables. The crops are planted so that they are ready for harvest when the house is occupied, he explained.
Land was born into a wealthy, cultured family in Pennsylvania, her husband said, and later moved with them to Miami. Food made an impression on her early, he said. She remembered the African-American woman who cooked for her family when she was a child. Later, she was sent to private school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. She spent a year at Columbia University as a teenager, and later went to Berkeley.
While at Berkeley, she became involved in the student movement of the late 1960s, a harbinger of her lifelong interest in politics and policy. To support herself, Bakaitis said, she cooked for a fraternity, where she met Alice Waters, with whom she later collaborated in starting Chez Panisse.
Land put her skill as a chef to use again when she came to the Midcoast in the early 1970s, supporting herself with catering, according to her close friend Lois Dodd. The painter and resident of Cushing said she met Land in 1972. Land was renting a summer cottage from the sculptor Bernard “Blackie” Langlais, but could not remain there for the winter. She ended up staying in Dodd’s house that winter, while the artist was in New York City.
The following year, Land purchased a cottage and moved it to the far end of Dodd’s field, making the two near neighbors. The two houses are now separated by vegetable and flower gardens, with the produce shared between them. As the artist described her, Land “was little, very energetic, very strong, intelligent, talkative.”
Several Midcoast artists painted in Land’s garden, among them Cushing resident John Wissemann, who described it as “like being in the midst of a huge bouquet.” Dodd also painted in the garden, and did some portraits of Land as well. “She never liked any of them,” the artist said.
Wissemann recalled that in the early years, artists who painted in Land’s garden were also asked to weed it.
Dodd and others spoke of the informal tasting parties Land would have, inviting whatever friends were available to try out a recipe she was testing. Alan Magee, another artist and Cushing neighbor, recalled that his and his wife, Monika’s, friendship with Land began with just such an invitation when they were new to town in 1979.
“We were both impressed and taken with Leslie,” he said, and with the “wonderful, eccentric energy” of her home.
He said he and Monika “enjoyed good food and good conversation” with Land, but it was always after dark, because she used every bit of the daylight hours for work in her garden.
Land thought about food “in a much more in-depth way” than most people would, Dodd said, and favored organic, local produce.
Another friend, food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a native of Camden, remembered that Land was asked once to compare several varieties of sweet red pepper for an article. She assembled a group of friends to taste them and served them three ways: plain, in a salad and cooked. When the tasters could not distinguish between the different peppers, Land wrote a “funny, witty” piece about how hard it was to tell the difference.
In Land’s mind, “Even mistakes [were] worthy of writing about,” said Jenkins, “because you can teach someone.” She “was an old-fashioned country person,” who enjoyed canning, freezing and pickling, Jenkins recalled. Bakaitis remembered his wife’s saying, “Everything I make is from scratch.”
Land’s food writing began in the ‘70s with a column in The Camden Herald called “Good Food,” Jenkins said. “It was sharp, pointed writing,” informed by her “really scrupulous honesty about what she was doing.” Jenkins noted that Land went on to write the “Garden Q & A” column for the New York Times for several years, and was also the editor of Yankee Magazine for a time.
Though two of her books contain recipes, Land knew that “food is so much more than a recipe,” Jenkins said, adding that she found it “much more interesting to read what [Land] had to say about food than how she cooked it.” She and others compared Land’s food writing to having a conversation about food.
It was Land’s interest in foraging that let to her meeting Bakaitis at a mushroom conference in Rhode Island. At the time, he was married to his first wife. He said his first impression of Land was “small, cute and smart.” The two met again a few years later, after Bakaitis and his first wife had separated, “and the rest is history,” he said.
Alan Magee said Bakaitis “really got” Land’s “adherence to what was true.” His wife added the couple had “enormous intellectual respect for each other.”
Described by Monika Magee as “a perfect match,” Bakaitis and Land approached their shared interests in cooking and gardening from different directions. Bakaitis, who grew up on his grandparents’ farm in western Pennsylvania, summed up the difference between himself and Land, saying, “She majored in culture, I majored in agriculture.”
He called her, “the brightest person I have ever met in my life,” adding that Land was also, “the most loyal, and the most responsible and the most ethical” person he had known.
“We never had a fight,” he said, although they disagreed at times, sometimes even to the point of tears. "I could not have wished for a better partner."
To illustrate Land’s sense of ethics, Bakaitis told how she had said she would not be in a relationship with him if his daughter, Celia, did not approve. Fortunately, she did, and the two women became close, sharing a passion for sustainable agriculture. The first time Celia met Land, Bakaitis said, she remarked to him, “She’s like a little gnome.”
He and Land shared an agnosticism that viewed “the physical, biological process of life [as] what is sacred.” By the time she was diagnosed in late 2010 with breast cancer, she had known for years that she had genetic mutation common among Ashkenazic Jews that predisposed her to the disease, he said. She had chemotherapy with a cocktail of two drugs, followed by a double mastectomy, and was told she was free of cancer in the summer of 2011. However, in late 2012 the breast cancer was found to have metastasized to her lungs.
She did not make it to Cushing this summer, but was able to see some of her Maine friends before she died.
Friends and family will have several opportunities to remember Land, her husband said in an email. During the rest of the growing season, a portion of her remains, including her ashes and hair, will be placed in her white garden in Cushing and in one of her gardens in Pleasant Valley. Heroux made ceramic boxes to contain the remains in each place. Friends are invited to come and sit with the remains in either place, and to take a pinch home with them if they wish.
At the end of the growing season, the remains will be buried in the respective gardens, except for a small amount to be spread by Bakaitis in several spots that were special to him and his wife.
A celebration of Land’s life will be held at the Cushing house in mid-September to mid-October, according to the email, and another at the Pleasant Valley house around the winter solstice. There will also be a celebration in Cushing around the anniversary of her death next year.
There are two memorial funds to aid causes that were important to Land: one in New York to help provide medical care in remote areas of Haiti, and another to support hard-to-fund projects at the Cushing Community School. For more information on the latter, contact Beth Heidemann, Cushing Community School, 54 Cross Rd., Cushing, ME 04563.
Sarah E. Reynolds is a reporter for the Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, hike and play word games.
Recent Stories by Sarah Reynolds
Dec 09, 2013
Dec 09, 2013
Dec 07, 2013
Dec 05, 2013
Dec 05, 2013