Like many of us, Melina Hammer came to New York City, blinded by the city of dreams’ lights, energy, and glamour. The former metal smith went to the city and carved out a place for herself in the publishing industry with grit and determination. When digital media was accelerating the decline of print, where long-held industry standards were being challenged by a fast-changing world, she had to work at juggling different skills, a never-ending race to a forever changing finish line.
After ten years in the city, Melina—a self-taught writer, stylist, and photographer—found herself at what most people would consider the pinnacle of success in the food and publishing world: The New York Times, in addition to being a freelance contributor at multiple popular online websites like Food52. Although satisfying to find her skills validated in a challenging industry, she saw the changing atmosphere, with plummeting rates for work and the constant struggle to improve the bottom line at the cost of most else. She was beginning to feel helplessly buffeted by a mercurial industry and craved greater autonomy and a change of priorities.
While many culinarians who come to New York think of it as the ultimate goal, and many writers consider the New York Times the final destination in their careers, Melina decided to use both the city and the publication as a milestone marker on a longer journey ahead. Making a deliberate decision to leave behind the iconic skyline of New York for the endless rolling expanse of open skies of upstate New York, Melina found a new path forward. By choosing to prioritize herself as an entity in her own right rather than as a cog in the massive machinery of the city and its foodscape, Melina found herself in the heart of the Hudson Valley, where Catbird Cottage was born. For Catbird Cottage, a sort of gourmet bed and breakfast, courage and irreverence were her guiding principles; courage to dream of a life beyond the arches of stable city life and polite irreverence towards the accepted milestones of the successful American dream.
I first spoke to Melina online on a temperamental spring morning, where the weather remained undecided between sunshine and chilling winds. Melina, hot mug of tea in hand, was warm and open, her cat Ozzie making brief appearances across her screen. She spoke of her journey thus far, her dormant garden that is just beginning to wake up for the spring, her beliefs and values, and her hopes for the future.
Melina takes pride in her heirloom garden, in the storytelling that accompanies every seed planted, every root unearthed. She looks to the land she stewards for history and wisdom. Melina spoke of the careful thought that goes into deciding her garden plan for the year. Why only heirlooms? I asked her, and she spoke of the tragedy of marginalized seeds that carry within them, culture, and history, disappearing into oblivion.
As always these days, our conversation was divided into pre-pandemic and post quarantine. A stark division between times where our priorities, considerations about self-sufficiency, and values all had to pivot. Even before the pandemic, unpredictable weather, changing food economics, and deurbanization was changing the way people viewed food security. Those concerns have taken on a more significant presence in peoples’ lives post-lockdown, with many growing their own food or realizing the value of supporting local food producers.
For Melina’s guests, Catbird Cottage is a space to take a temporary reprieve into a quiet, meaningful space full of thoughtful choices, an extraordinary experience away from the din of urban life. With her secret patch of spring ramps and her endless creativity with foraging and gardening, Melina turns her harvests into a spectacular feast with no set menus and few repeats. Whether fresh or pickled, fermented or dried, every part of her harvest is used. She grows what she can, works with many local producers, and creates unique experiences for her guests, all within the framework of environmental, social, and economic sustainability, but also her own emotional satisfaction, one of the reasons she left the pavement for the pastures.
Melina’s next big venture is an attempt to share the experiences, the joys, and the ethos of Catbird Cottage through her book, A Year at Catbird Cottage: Recipes for a Nourished Life.
Each recipe was tested through a network of friends, family, and social media followers, ensuring that the recipes would be successful in the hands of a wide array of cooks. Writing the book was a catharsis for Melina, a process of finding and reliving joy. When I inquired whether the book would be available as print or digital, she replied: “Can you beat the tactility of the pages of a physical book? The undeniability of its existence? Isn’t a printed book a testament to its own importance and enduring nature?” This self-taught writer has found legitimacy in the ink and paper that will become her legacy.
“Nourished” is not a throwaway word Melina casually used in her book’s title. It invokes the feeling of home, safety, comfort, and the warmth of belonging. Nourishment is the cathartic process of uplifting and feeding both body and soul. Even further, beyond the individual, to lead a nourished life is to uplift not just themselves, but the entire ecosystem that supports the eating and feeding process. Melina strives to live a nourished life, and through the pages of her book, she invites her readers to join her in discovery and exploration, learning to let go of tightly-held control and experience the profound magic of nature and its bounty. By understanding how fleeting and finite the world around us is, Melina’s words remind us to be careful and tender with how we embrace and honor the natural world we are temporary stewards for.
A Year at Catbird Cottage: Recipes for a Nourished Life was released this May 31st. Find the link to the book here.
[Images courtesy of Melina Hammer; some images sourced from Instagram: Melina Hammer and Catbird Cottage]
Rohita Aiyer ’22 recently graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Food Studies after completing her associate degree in Culinary Arts. In her twenties, she developed a deep interest in global cuisine through her extensive travel as a commercial pilot. When she realized her love for farmers’ markets at her destinations was greater than the love for her job as a pilot, she took a leap of faith into a new life and career. Currently, in Dubai, she is working on an heirloom garden for market produce and food writing, while also feeding her hungry pilot husband who now gets to go to farmers’ markets around the world for her.