Six months after I moved from Seattle back to the Twin Cities, I was in a winter-induced funk. Every time I stepped outside into frigid, January air, I wanted to run screaming back to the misty Pacific Northwest, where winter is indeed dark, but at least I could leave my house without feeling like the wind was searing my lungs in half. I was deeply homesick for a home I hadn’t known long, but one that had left its mark on me all the same.
Around that time of wintry angst, I heard an interview with local author and chef Beth Dooley on the Splendid Table. She was promoting her latest book, In Winter’s Kitchen, published in 2015 by Milkweed Editions, in which she relates the story of her own move to Minnesota in 1979 and her subsequent education in Upper Midwest cooking. Her book also profiles various farms and sustainability programs throughout the region, and each chapter is paired with a recipe. At its heart, what Dooley has crafted is not unlike other books in the current food-memoir trend. What sets it apart is its focus on simple food and preparation (no foie gras or truffles here) and its unique take on finding abundance in a season that seems to lack it. And, for me, what set it apart further was its ability to bring comfort and familiarity during a time when I was questioning my place in Minnesota.
In her introduction, Dooley writes, “Our small, independent farmers, processors, and chefs are not romantic innocents. They understand community and honor relationships, work on trust and shun huge bureaucracies. They’ve said ‘no’ to the culture of the suburb and lives of needless convenience. They live where they work, make business decisions for the future, not immediate profit, and their success depends on their physical strength, endurance, and nerve. They contribute to the local economy, provide jobs, pay fair wages, and treat animals humanely while providing us all with delicious, nutritious food.” Dooley employs this earnestness as she tells of learning to steep lemongrass in soup from the Hmong farmers at her market; tasting bread made from Turkey Red, a “heritage” wheat that is easier on people who can’t tolerate gluten; and observing the revival of chestnut trees in Iowa and Wisconsin.
Sometimes, that earnestness can feel a bit overdone, and even though Dooley claims to not romanticize the food and the people who grow it, she writes with the same awe that you would expect from any city person enamored with local food and the people who grow, tend, and harvest it. It’s off-putting at times, but possibly unavoidable. Luckily, the author does offer some perspective on the challenges of living through Minnesota winters. In her chapter on cranberries, she describes some of the challenges of her life, concluding, “for me, none of these temporal setbacks compare with the crushing, ever-present weight of our region’s winters. Caught in the grip of its iron bough, the months of bone-chilling cold and the absence of light, I am a prisoner to my bleakest thoughts and grimmest doubts.” And, lest you think it’s all winter all the time, Dooley presents plenty of summery scenes: making and maintaining a sourdough starter in a lake cabin in July; lying in the grass while her sons bottle-feed a baby lamb and eat homemade yogurt and honey from the hive; and watching teenagers who are part of the Youth Farm program selling sugar snap peas at St. Paul’s West Side Farmers Market. Frigid winters, blazing summers, achingly perfect spring and fall days: the charm of this book lies in the landscape of contrasting seasons Minnesotans know so well.
Whether you want some winter nostalgia, some summer lake-house envy, or a recipe for the “best mashers,” In Winter’s Kitchen certainly scratches the itch of Midwestern nostalgia. Dooley’s words gave me a sense of solace and belonging when I needed them most, and I have no doubt they’d equally welcome other wayfarers back home.