Book Review: In Winter’s Kitchen
by Beth Dooley
Milkweed Editions, 2015
The premise of Beth Dooley’s book In Winter’s Kitchen is the stuff of which book-pitches are made: she and her family move from New Jersey to the wilds of small-town Minnesota, and in so doing, she’s exposed to the local-food movement and becomes a passionate advocate. From nearby farmers and “locavores,” she learns the ways of small-scale organic produce and livestock, the intricacies of planting and feeding, the joys of eating food with a known and humble past. She had always been fascinated by food – in college, she read The Joy of Cooking as if it were a novel – but her move to the frozen northern “flyover” states teaches her with renewed urgency the vital link between people and food.
Normal readers will long since have begun gently retching at this description, and if they need any help in that direction, they’ll get it on virtually every page of Dooley’s book, despite the fact that the book itself is both wonderfully written and genuinely pure of heart. When one of the chefs in the book first uses the term “terroir,” those readers will have the same visceral reaction anybody would: to grasp that chef’s head firmly in the back and hold it face-down in a vat of scalding grease until all that’s left is a bleached – and yet still pretentious – skull. When Dooley’s architect and interior designer friends from the Twin Cities close their MacBook online investment spreadsheets just in time to snap beans, every reader with an ounce of integrity will feel the identical urge to indiscriminate homicide. The book’s chapter on milk takes us to the “tiny town” of Grand Marais, where we enter the Lake View Dairy not via the front door but via a time-warp to 1890:
Lake View’s customers typically help themselves to the jugs of whole, skim and chocolate milk; yogurt; and butter from the cooler in the milk house, jotting down their purchases in a dog-eared ledger below the price blackboard and leaving their payments in a coffee can.
And sometimes (we almost hear), when the day’s chores are done, everybody will gather ’round the fireplace and talk about how them Wright brother fellas is fixin’ to defy gravity.
It’s probably unavoidable: the local food movement is so firmly entrenched as the redoubt the most insufferable element of the moron-yuppie crowd, and the wonder of In Winter’s Kitchen is that Dooley seems to be the very last person not to know this. Despite the evident world-wisdom of its author, this is a winningly optimistic and even innocent book, one that delights in taking the mundane and extracting fascination from it – as in the humble spud:
The potato’s essence relies on how and where it’s grown; the vitality of the soil will determine a potato’s texture and taste. When I lived in New Hampshire as a graduate student, I craved those tiny “salt potatoes,” with a briny savor, that thrive in the low-lying New England coastline. In contrast, our region’s potatoes taste of the sweet prairie and flinty limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. Freshness determines quality, too. I once ordered a box of “gourmet” potatoes from New England but when we served them alongside the potatoes from our farmers’ market, their flavor was flat and indistinct. Those Maine potatoes had been stored too long and flown too far to retain their character. You can’t just separate the quality, flavor, and general goodness of a potato from how and where it’s grown.
Dooley’s book is pitched full of such passages of bright faith in simple things (passages that show she did indeed absorb the best parts of The Joy of Cooking) , and her narrative voice is so convincing that you just want to hear more of it:
I cook to work through gratitude and worry, history and joy, through my hands. I like rubbing butter into flour to make tart and piecrusts. It often takes days to get the bread dough from under my fingernails. The food I’m serving comes from the people I know, the farms I’ve walked, the kitchens where I’ve shared coffee and pie.
But the essential problem of the local-food movement is the same essential problem that’s shared by all other fads of bored, rich white people with infirm ideas of self: lockstep fascism. Thankfully, Dooley herself seems untouched by the worst of this, but even so, it sprouts in the crevices of her book just like the seasonal watercress hedge fun managers hunt in the rocks of central park before meeting their spin cycle instructors. You can see it in that quote above: nowhere in In Winter’s Kitchen is there even any awareness of, let alone allowance for, the possibility that some people might not work through their emotions by rubbing butter into flour for hours on end. Once the joys of local food are discovered, they are advocated, and once they’re advocated, there’s a temptation to mandate them.
“What do we forfeit when we rely on other regions to provide us with fresh food we could grow ourselves?” Dooley asks. “We gain reliability and consistent supply, of course, but we also lose the flavor of a diverse life, and its savor – the knowledge that this flavor is only a season long, or only found with some searching.” But we gain one other thing from non-local pre-prepared food, something far more important than reliability and consistent supply: we gain freedom from the twelfth century. At no point in Dooley’s book does she take into account that some – maybe most – of her readers might not want to spend an average of six hours of every day concentrating on the local procurement, elaborate preparation, and loving, lingering consumption of food curated by old friends. It happens to be her passion and the passion of her friends, but she should be grateful it’s not likewise the passion of the doctors who study interminably to keep her family healthy, or the technicians who study to keep her supplied with heat, electricity, and an Internet connection, or, for that matter, the publicists, proofreaders, and designers who made her book possible. She’s entirely right to total up the personal, gastrointestinal, ecological, and economic benefits of more conscientious eating habits, and for this In Winter’s Kitchen deserves all praise. But some of us order takeout so we can get back to writing.