SOUTH BERWICK — Food writer Kathy Gunst’s kitchen looked ready for fall last week as the tail of September slipped out the door.

Late-morning sunshine gave warmth to the room, and the last summer flowers from her garden reposed in a vase on the kitchen island. In the window sat the last of the garden tomatoes and a couple of squash. On a counter were bowls of eggs from a neighbor and spinach ready for a video shoot planned for later.

Simmering on the stove, alongside some chicken stock, was a big pot of Mulligatawny soup made from a recipe in Gunst’s latest cookbook, “Soup Swap” (Chronicle Books, $24.95). It’s her 15th cookbook, another culinary feather in her cap after winning a James Beard journalism award last year for a magazine article she wrote about cabbage.

Gunst can hardly believe she has lived here in her beautifully restored 1760s farmhouse for three decades. Her love affair with Maine began in the early 1980s, when she was an editor at Food & Wine magazine in New York City and her then-boyfriend, John Rudolph, was a freelance journalist. She got an assignment to write about the best restaurants along the New England coast and, after several days of traveling, ended up at the Blue Strawbery in Portsmouth, N.H. The chef there, James Haller – who still lives in Maine – was considered ahead of his time. He later invited Gunst and her husband back to spend Labor Day weekend.

“We both had this moment of, wouldn’t it be amazing to live here for a year?” Gunst recalled. “This is before the Tuscan book (“Under the Tuscan Sun”) and “My Year in Provence,” but that was the idea: This will be our year in Maine.”

So they sublet their New York apartment and rented a big farmhouse down the road from where they’re living now. They moved at Christmas and were lonely at first, but soon met people and became part of the South Berwick community of artists and writers and craftsmen.

“Our quality of life was so much higher,” said Gunst, who is now 60. “There was no turning back, really. We stayed and we stayed and we stayed, and it’s been 32 years. I’ve raised two daughters here. I’ve written 15 cookbooks here. Maine informs everything that I do. Everything about it – the landscape, the ocean, the seafood, the chefs, the community. The food consciousness in this state is huge.”

Gunst wrote “Notes From a Maine Kitchen” about learning to cook with the seasons in Maine.

Award-winning food writer Kathy Gunst has a new cookbook which includes a recipe for this mulligatawny soup, which can be topped with, from left, cilantro and scallions, a tomato chili topping and greek yogurt. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Award-winning food writer Kathy Gunst has a new cookbook which includes a recipe for this mulligatawny soup, which can be topped with, from left, cilantro and scallions, a tomato chili topping and greek yogurt. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

SUDDENLY, 10 MUSTARDS

But the path was not so clear in the 1980s. Gunst and Rudolph got married and bought their farmhouse – “super cold, super dark and super charming” – and Gunst wrote her first cookbook, “Condiments.” It was the beginning of the gourmet food craze when “suddenly there were 10 mustards.”

Gunst spent the next decade or so writing cookbooks (including six for Stonewall Kitchen and one – her favorite – titled “Roasting”) and freelancing for major newspapers and magazines.

In the late 1990s, Gunst heard that WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, was launching a two-hour show called “Here & Now,” which follows the news of the day. She got the gig as “resident chef,” and decided that she would do her cooking segments live in the staff kitchen.

“The host would leave the studio at the beginning of the show, come into the kitchen and I would start to cook something in real time,” Gunst said. “And it had to be very sound rich because it was radio. You don’t do pasta – boiling water is not interesting on radio. You need sound-rich cooking, which generally involves high heat because that’s drama. I became really tuned into the sound of chopping a parsnip versus chopping an onion.”

When the war in Iraq broke out in 2003, the news trumped food and the live cooking stopped. But she stayed on the show, eventually going from one appearance a month to three. Today, “Here & Now” airs on more than 550 stations; Maine Public Radio airs one hour of the show, at noon, Monday through Friday.

Gunst’s 5- to 6-minute food segments typically feature her live in the studio with the show’s hosts, chatting about ingredients and how to prepare them. The topics are seasonally driven, say, the end of tomato season, although she is careful not to become “too New England-centric.” Related recipes get posted to the show’s website.

“My goal is always to excite people to get home and start cooking,” she said.

This year, the radio show, which Gunst calls “an unexpected joy,” won her an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

“I hope the thing that comes across on the radio is how much fun we have,” she said, “the joy of the kitchen. So many people have stopped cooking. There are five million cookbooks being published every year, and there are several networks on TV. People sit at home and watch food programs. They don’t cook. This makes me crazy.”

A pot of mulligatawny soup made by food writer Kathy Gunst, with accompaniments.

A pot of mulligatawny soup made by food writer Kathy Gunst, with accompaniments.

A NEW GENERATION

In 2010, after a visit to the White House as part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Gunst started a gardening program at the Central School in South Berwick, where her daughters were enrolled. She also taught cooking classes for the students, trying to influence a new generation of potential home cooks. Her own children, at least, got the message, both at school and at home – one is now a cookbook editor in San Francisco.

“You would think that kids in Maine had gardens and knew where food came from and had an awareness about food because we live in a place that’s surrounded by land,” Gunst said, “but I was really shocked at how many kids had never had an avocado or asparagus.”

When Gunst cooks at home, it’s in a modern kitchen she added onto the farmhouse about 15 years ago. The home’s original “kitchen,” a huge open fireplace with beehive oven, has been turned into the dining room, and for years Gunst cooked in an adjacent room on a tiny gas stove. That room is now her office, where she writes and she stores her cookbook collection. Propped along one wall are her IACP awards. Perched on a bookshelf is her coveted Beard medal.

She won the award for a story she wrote on cabbage for Eating Well magazine. Her first draft was “very generic.” Then her editor suggested she write from a more personal perspective, as a survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, since cabbage is a well-known cancer-fighting food. (Gunst has been cancer-free for five years.) At first, she resisted, but after thinking it over, she rewrote the piece.

“It was a terrible time,” she wrote in the article. “But as often happens with adversity much good came out of it. The shock of being told that I had cancer led me to make changes in my life, including taking a serious look at my diet.”

She gave up, at least for a time, dairy, gluten and “gooey ripe cheeses.” And she ate a lot more cabbage.

The experience of writing the article was, she says now, “a real lesson.”

“When I won, I acknowledged that editor and that I had been pushed,” she said. “If you don’t tell your own story, then what story are you telling?”

Despite Gunst’s bout with cancer, “I never lost my appetite,” she said.

‘A TOTAL WIN-WIN’

Her new cookbook also springs from her life. Gunst and her husband are part of a community soup swap organized by a neighbor. Once a month, six couples get together for dinner and each brings a big pot of soup and take-home containers. The host couple provides salad, bread and dessert. Everyone samples small portions of the soups, then carries the leftovers home at the end of the evening, stocking their refrigerator for the rest of the week.

Gunst was a little skeptical at first.

“I really don’t like potlucks,” she said. “If someone invites me to something, I want them to cook for me. I don’t want to bring half the meal.”

But with the soup swap, “everybody has to bring something, but you go home with more than you bring. It’s a total win-win.”

The soups, a little ordinary at first, quickly got better and better. Some of the couples discovered the monthly ritual improved their cooking. One couple with children at home went from eating canned soups to making homemade. Others found themselves bringing home spices from overseas travel to flavor their soups.

The couples begin the evening by “introducing” their soups.

“What I learned quickly was that more than anything else, except maybe baking, soups tell a story,” Gunst said. “People would start by saying ‘My grandmother was French, and she used to make an onion soup but she did it this way and I’ve lightened it up over the years and this is my version.’ And then they start to talk about their grandmother or their family.”

Almost all the soups in “Soup Swap” are Gunst’s own recipes. She spent the snowy winter of 2015 testing “comforting recipes to make and share,” as the book’s tag line goes. But the end product is more than a collection of recipes. In the book, she argues the importance of making your own stock – making stock from scratch controls the amount of salt that goes into it, for example. Homemade stock is a lot easier than most people think.

“You put a few things in a pot,” she said. “You cover it with water. You let it simmer. How hard is that?”

For home cooks who don’t mind more work, she’s included a roasted bone marrow bone beef stock in the book “that will knock your socks off, it’s so good.”

Gunst also emphasizes the importance of toppings and garnishes to make soups something really special. To illustrate, she dishes up a bowl of Mulligatawny Soup and asks a guest to taste it on its own. Then she adds a tomato-chile topping that adds not only flavor, but a swirl of color.

“Then you add a little dab of Greek yogurt and suddenly it’s got this whole other dimension,” she said. “Then you add the cilantro and the scallions, and it’s, like, whoa.”

Gunst occasionally goes back to New York, where she appreciates the energy of the city, “but once I leave and I’m driving home and I hit that New Hampshire toll booth, I let out a big sigh of relief that I’m here and not there.”

Her day-to-day work at the farmhouse finds her planning radio segments, testing recipes, freelancing articles and – once she gets an idea – working on her next cookbook. Her family jokes that she is always thinking about food.

“I stay incredibly busy,” she said. “And I feel incredibly grateful that I get to have a career doing this thing that I love so much.”

Correction: This story was updated Oct. 5 to correct John Rudolph’s last name.


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