Novelist, screenwriter, and farmer Louis Bromfield (center), best man at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s wedding (1945) as they cut a cake he probably thought was junk, and it probably was. Photo from Associated Press published by Tucson Daily Citizen via Newspapers.com. Copyright not renewed.
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This post is based on Stephen Hayman, The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution (2020), which I warmly recommend to you.
Read ALL the way to the end of this post for a fun announcement!
An American in Paris
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Louis and Mary Bromfield had already started thinking of escaping from Paris. Not all the time, of course, because they loved the company there. And in case you are wondering, they were doing great, despite the economy. Or Louis was, anyway: Mary often suffered from depression.
Louis’s books were critically acclaimed and bestsellers back in the States. He even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927. While Mary was from a formerly rich northeastern family, Louis was a farm boy from Ohio. He first came to France to drive ambulances during World War I, and on a rare day off from his traumatic work with the American Field Service, went for a walk and found morel mushrooms, which a French cook sauteed for him in beef broth, the only thing he had to cook them in. They were good, too, perhaps eaten with cheap red wine. Food and France were already getting their claws into Louis Bromfield.
From Paris to Paradise, 1929
Paris was so cheap for Americans, Louis and Mary could easily afford a chic apartment with a maid. They entertained all the famous American expats: Ernest Hemingway (who was actually Louis’s frenemy, and was jealous of his success), witty and charming couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Louis’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald and his troubled wife Zelda, and many more.
But it wasn’t enough, and Louis was a little tired of all the hoopla. Not too far from Paris was the village of Senlis, once a major religious center in the Middle Ages, but no more. Now one of the ancient churches, just a short walk from the train station, was the local farmer’s market, where you could buy green vegetables like leeks, lettuce, and peas in the Nave (the main body of the church), meat in the apse (the curved end of the nave), including live rabbits which the lady would club and skin while you waited. In one side of the transept (the crossbar, if you like) were piles of macarons, cookies, and cakes, and on the other, fresh local cheeses. Fish was stacked in the cloisters.
Louis and Mary bought an ancient priest’s house in Senlis, and supervised a huge team of French builders as they renovated. The garden looked like a wreck, but Louis loved flowers, and loved to eat, so it was only a matter of time before that was fixed.
Louis became fascinated by his neighbor, Monsieur Bosquet, a man with very little education who loved life: He drank wine and sang songs with his neighbors, relished his food, most of which he raised himself, and seemed to have found the key to a happy life. Louis thought back to his Ohio farm youth: Food was to keep you alive and how it tasted didn’t much matter, vegetable gardens looked malnourished because they were: There was so much land on an American farm, if you just scattered seed, something would come up, and who cared how food tasted as long as there was plenty of it?
Bosquet, on the other hand, carefully and joyously tended the two acres that fed him, his wife, and their three kids. Strawberries, artichokes which took up a lot of space (but Bosquet adored them, so there they were), fruit including apples, plums, and pears growing on dwarf trees. Bosquet kept chickens for eggs and meat, not to mention ducks, goats, and rabbits, all of which fertilized his plants. Bosquet was “a poor man whose life seemed rich”, according to Stephen Heyman, Bromfield’s biographer:
Bromfield envied Bosquet’s sense of rootedness—and he wanted to experience that life for himself. He had had enough of Paris and New York, enough of the Ritz bar, the parties in Biarritz, the literary cliques in Montparnasse. In Senlis, he wanted to spend his days with the sun on his back and the earth between his fingers. —Stephen Heyman, The Planter of Modern Life (2020)
Soon, alongside a French gardener he had hired, Bromfield was putting in a kitchen garden, full of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Cauliflowers, strawberries, leeks, watercress, carrots, and salad greens, all grew in profusion, alongside American squash, corn, and tomatoes, and the colorful flowers Bromfield had always loved.
Back in Ohio, up to 1917
Louis Bromfield’s grandfather’s farm near Mansfield, Ohio, was nothing like these small heavenly gardens in France, in which the gardener communed with nature. Starting after the American Civil War, farmers became distanced from their crops and animals. Increasingly, they didn’t even grind their own wheat. They sold it to wholesalers, and bought flour from grocers in town. As factory owners and merchants began building big mansions, teenagers on farms wondered why they were working so hard to raise corn and hogs: Surely their future was in towns, and big money? The factories filled the air with soot and carbon dioxide, and the fishing streams with chemicals. Mass production in America promised luxury for more and more people, but at what Bromfield had already decided as a teen was a horrendous cost. And Bromfield’s family? They lost most of their land, leaving only his grandfather’s struggling farm and a small house, which is where he grew up.
Before World War I, he had dropped out of Cornell University to try to save the farm. He learned, though, that sending apples wrapped in tissue paper to the East sometimes resulted in a loss: Every middle-man took a cut, and claimed that the apples arrived damaged. How would he or any farmer know if that were true, or they were lying to him? His dairy made a loss, while the owners of the factory that canned his milk got rich.
To try to make a profit, Louis began to corral his cattle in the barn and feed them corn, instead of letting them wander and eat grass. His farm looked like a factory. He hated it. He sold the farm, enrolled in journalism school, like his mother had wanted, dropped out in 1917, and went to France to drive ambulances in the trenches. Later, after the war, when he was already a successful author, he returned to France, bringing his wife Mary and their kids.
After the joys of the 20s, and in the increasingly foreboding atmosphere of 1930s Europe, Paris and Senlis were not enough. Even as he became more and more French, Louis Bromfield remained American. Another war in Europe seemed increasingly likely. Louis would sit by the fire and dream of going home, and starting a new, very different kind of farm.
He and Mary became friends with the recently abdicated King Edward VIII of England, now known as the Duke of Windsor, and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, who were living in exile in France. But the friendship soured as the Duke and Duchess’s enthusiasm for Hitler grew. Their luxurious way of life and their repellent politics grated on Louis Bromfield. Expat life in France had grown stale, and distasteful. The rush of the British and the French to appease Hitler, to give him what he wanted to avoid a war, appalled him.
In 1938, Louis, Mary, the kids and their Scottish nanny, packed up and fled for America.
Malabar Farm Main Barn and Dairy, near Mansfield, Ohio. Photo: Public domain, released by User:OHWiki
Louis Bromfield and the Way We Eat Now
You may be wondering where I am going with this story. Louis Bromfield, forgotten author, who loved food and liked to garden, an Ohio farm boy who had seen real farming vanish into an industrial nightmare of processed “foods”. What does he have to do with us?
Think of what you plan to do with food this week. Maybe it will be all processed foods from factories and fast food joints, because who has time to cook? Or maybe you’re uneasy with that these days. Headed to the farmer’s market? Spreading some Kerrygold Butter on your toast? Eating sausages made from scratch from a real butcher? Bringing home a quarter of a cow for the freezer from the farmer in the next county? Chowing down on local ice cream or salad? You may have noticed that what we eat in America has started to change, and the older you are, the more you have noticed. A friend of mine recalled in her thirties, back in the 80s, eating hamburgers her grandmother made in the 70s, served on Wonder Bread, spread with Crisco, fake lard.
We at least can agree now that this is kind of gross.
Look, I am hardly an advertisement for healthy eating. But I make every calorie count these days: Tonight is local duck breast from the freezer, which I butchered myself a few months ago, with freshly-picked asparagus from a gardener who leaves it outside her house with a margarine tub for cash on the honesty principle. I make stock from the bones of my expensive pastured chickens, which I buy from Nico Bryant, a veteran turned farmer who loves to wear a silly chicken hat. His chickens are amazing, and cost about $22 each. So to balance out the cost, we eat homemade soup some nights. It’s worth it. One of Nico’s chickens each week is cheaper than eating out, and way better than huge tough, woody even, supermarket chicken breasts, cheap and plentiful, but kind of disgusting.
I did not used to eat like this. I did not haunt farm stands and farmers’ markets. I did not know or care where my food came from, or who grew it, as long as it was tasty and cheap. And then I realized how much more I enjoyed life with good food when I would go back to the UK, where the national reputation for bad food has long been out of date.
A few years ago, I heard a woman praise the pastries at a well-known coffee chain, these terrible defrosted things from a factory, that made me feel ill after I ate them, and I suddenly realized: Our tastebuds have been corrupted. I love to eat. But not like that. I began baking more of my own baked goods, buying flour from a nearby farm in Wisconsin, where two young former chefs from New York now live on the land, mill the grain, and share recipes. As early as 2008, I was taking American students to farmers’ markets and cheese shops in London, trying to educate palates as well as minds, to show them that while real food is unfamiliar at first, it’s worth getting to know.
If you have found yourself eating differently than your parents did, or even if you have not, you might want to know why. You already heard part of the answer: Industrialization, mass production in 19th century America, led to the era of supermarkets, of cans, packets, frozen stuff, of looking around to see which supermarket is selling the chicken cheapest this week, of sick chickens spreading illness to us, of food that no longer tastes like food. Of endless factory recalls. And our obsession with superfoods when honestly? People who eat a variety of foods in places where food is raised traditionally live longer and better lives than we do.
I’m not the only person who thinks about this, and I didn’t invent any of this thinking. But Louis Bromfield did.
Bromfield Back in Ohio, 1938
In 1938, Louis Bromfield drove around rural Ohio, looking for a farm. In January, 1939, he found it, buying 600 acres, including a small house, from the Herring Family.
Not that a small farm house would be enough for the famous writer with three kids and a staff. He didn’t demolish it, however. He began to add to it. It ended up a sprawling place of 19 bedrooms, and six baths, 137 feet long.
But the House isn’t why I have introduced you to Louis Bromfield. It’s the farm. The food.
He called the place Malabar Farm, in honor of a trip that he and Mary made to India, where they feasted on Indian food.
When the snow melted in Ohio, Louis Bromfield looked on in dismay and disbelief at what had been lurking beneath. The land wasn’t fertile. It was also eroded. The old worn-out sheep died after birthing lambs, which Louis and Mary’s daughter Ellen, age 7, fed cow’s milk from a Coke bottle. The goats Louis bought ate book manuscripts, which has got to be symbolic as this writer began to morph into a farmer. He didn’t trust other farmers in the area, who seemed to be done down by poverty, and unwilling to change what they did.
But he had a vision. He called it The Plan. Malabar wasn’t just 600 worthless worn-out acres that had lost up to 75% of its topsoil. It was the beginning of a new world, one that drew on the best of the old, before industrialization ruined agriculture. He wanted farms like he had seen in France, everything from wealthy vineyards to his poor neighbor Bosquet’s lush two acres, that kept him fed and happy.
Bromfield wanted to grow everything and anything, to go against impersonal modern agriculture with its specialized crops of corn or beef cattle. He wanted chickens, ducks, cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and every possible vegetable and fruit. Eggs, butter, milk. Strawberries and cantaloupes. Malabar Farm would have it all, it would can, freeze, dry, and store its surplus, and be a shining example to American farmers and their customers of how to farm, how to live with the seasons, how to survive, how to thrive, and how to live.
His workers would be housed rent-free, and supplied with foods like coffee and sugar they couldn’t grow. They would also be paid a small salary, plus a share of the profits once Malabar Farm became profitable.
And having made all these plans, Louis Bromfield went to Hollywood, where he was working on a movie script.
Meanwhile, his farmer-manager, Max Drake, got to work, following “Mr. B’s” instructions. He even got help from a New Deal program to provide the farm with free workers to restore the soil, so Malabar could be a “demonstration farm”, using the latest science and technology.
When “Mr. B” returned from Hollywood, he was thrilled.
This was not only going to be about the food, but about the very land itself. This was about conservation, caring for the environment, and farming that didn’t destroy the soil and its farmers’ lives: Sustainable agriculture, as we would say today. In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold was already at work with New Deal funding to restore the watershed and the soil of the land. Albert Howard in Britain was moving toward “organic agriculture” before WWII. In 1936, the FDR administration produced a movie about the devastating effects of modern farming in light of the Dust Bowl: The Plow That Broke the Plains. Hollywood studios saw the film as New Deal propaganda, and wouldn’t show it in the chain movie theatres. they owned. But it was released in independent picture houses, and about eight million people saw it.
Malabar and Louis Bromfield were in their era. A new society was formed in 1940, the Friends of the Land. Louis Bromfield apologized for having missed the first meeting in Washington DC, but he invited the group to Ohio to see Malabar Farm. Bromfield led a caravan of about 100 cars through the state, to see the damage done to good farmland by strip-mining coal, and neglect and mismanagement. By the time they got to Malabar, the procession had picked up random cars with West Virginia and Pennsylvania and Kentucky plates. Bromfield and his caterer in Mansfield expected 150 for lunch. Now there would be 500. A phone call to Mansfield, and one insanely overworked caterer later, and shrimp salad, potato salad, ham, sandwiches, beer, and more were laid out for the masses on tables on the lawn.
People’s lives were changed that day, when they saw the progress made at Malabar Farm.
Malabar also drew famous visitors, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Lauren “Betty” Bacall, plus Bacall’s mother as chaperone (the couple weren’t yet married). They returned a few months later in 1945, and after collecting a license at the courthouse in Mansfield, Bogey and Bacall were married at Malabar, with Louis Bromfield as best man.
In the years after World War II, Malabar thrived, using sustainable ecofriendly farming techniques, such as intercropping (growing several different crops in the same field). Each year, about 20,000 people came to see what was being done there. Farmers, gardeners, school parties. Bromfield, in work clothes, took his visitors to the highest point on the property and gave them a speech from what his assistant jokingly nicknamed Mount Jeez. There were hayrides, picnics, and singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic by the fire.
Sounding the Alarm About DDT
I lived in Georgia a long time and I never saw a firefly. DDT had killed them, that’s what people said. I was afraid to learn more.
DDT was a miracle pesticide that slaughtered mosquitoes and, unfortunately, almost every other insect. Louis Bromfield was not enthusiastic. He wrote in 1944 that very little was known about DDT, and that it might be dangerous, given that it was made from poisons, and that Americans were rushing to adopt something they didn’t understand. By 1951, he had read the science, and seen DDT’s effects. Studies suggested that DDT accumulates in human bodies. That it could lead to cancer. And yet, he said, American gardeners and farmers had adopted it without asking questions. And DDT was on virtually all the food in grocer’s shops.
Worse, he said, by killing beneficial insects like ladybugs, DDT upset nature’s arrangements: a dead ladybug could not eat aphids, which weren’t much bothered by DDT. Some insects, like barn flies, were rapidly evolving to resist DDT: The barn flies that had a natural immunity to DDT survived, thrived, and bred.
Influential scientists and gardening experts told people to ignore Louis Bromfield.
Turned out, he was right.
He also spoke against chemical fertilizers, which wore out the soil. He wasn’t an organic farmer: he valued scientific intervention as well as tradition and nature. But he took us closer to organic farming.
Louis Bromfield died in 1956. Malabar Farm is now an Ohio State Park. Think of its legacy, and Louis Bromfield’s, every time you go to your farmer’s market, or hesitate to spray your garden with the latest miracle substance.
Read part 2 of this story: Pilgrimage to Malabar.
Don’t miss a post. Non-Boring History is the work of the Non-Boring Historian, Dr. Annette Laing, who writes a variety of stories, especially in early American and 20th century US, and British history, with an emphasis in African-American history. Subscribing is free or cheap (your choice) Paid helps keep Annette writing, but Free is warmly welcomed. Here you go. And tell a friend before you leave!
Stephen Heyman, The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution (2020) Here's what I based this post on. Heyman is a journalist, and this is popular history. In other words, it’s very readable, and if I have hooked you, do check it out. There’s so much more in the book than in my post! Louis Bromfield is the most famous writer you never heard of before, and his contribution to the food revolution of today is enormous.
Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948) I’ve not read either of his books about the farm, so let me know what you think if you do. Even his biographer considers them weak. That said, Bromfield lost his reputation for literary fiction as he became known as an author who churned out trashy novels that women like, which, honestly, may not be as damning as the critics alleged . . .
Spectacular view from Mount Jeez (get directions from the Visitor Center), great visitor center with a talking parrot greeter. FREE admission, house and farm tours resume June 1, 2021, farm and hiking trails open now. You can visit the Big House once COVID restrictions loosen. Check Facebook or call for the latest before you fly into Columbus! I cannot recommend this place too highly.