When Beth Dooley moved from Princeton, N.J., to Minneapolis with her husband in 1979, a restaurant called Becky’s Cafeteria was one of the young couple’s first stops. The menu included cucumber and sour cream salad, potato hash, beef loaf and Jell-O, as well as homemade apple pie.
The diner was popular with everyone from students to businessmen, but the experience left Dooley disheartened.
“The meal was honest, but I had to wonder: Do people here really eat swampy broccoli, iceberg lettuce, and fried chicken for lunch every day?” she writes in “In Winter’s Kitchen,” her memoir of creating a meaningful life through growing, harvesting and cooking food in the heartland. “We had landed in ‘the nation’s breadbasket’ only to find it filled with tasteless white bread.”
The author of six cookbooks, Dooley developed a love of food at an early age, preparing meals with her grandmother and reading Irma S.
Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking” like a favorite novel.
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As she settled into her Midwestern home as an adult, her initial misconceptions faded when she discovered the food-based community surrounding the local farmers market, a diverse group of growers who held the keys to eating well even during the region’s harsh winter months.
She also lived near one of the country’s first community co-ops, as well as the first community-supported agriculture in Minnesota. Receiving a different box of produce each week helped Dooley learn to improvise instead of relying on familiar recipes.
“I relinquished control of my kitchen to the whims of our moody, northern climate,” she writes. “I adapted my cooking to the rhythms of a land that served up so much variety.
“Finally, conventionality became the exception, not the rule.”
As Dooley describes her discovery of local food in the Midwest, from the Hmong farmers who have introduced more than 23 new varieties of fruits and vegetables, to area farmers markets, to a dairy farm that has sold raw milk for three generations, she reveals the many ways local agriculture can benefit communities across the country.
“It’s only within my short sixty-year lifespan that gardening and cooking have become recreational skills. But local food isn’t a novelty; it’s going to be increasingly important when energy prices begin to soar once again and unstable weather is the norm.”
Through her passionate yet straightforward and enticingly simple prose, Dooley invites us to share in her bounty. Like any good book about food, “In Winter’s Kitchen” inspires us to cook; thankfully, it concludes with recipes for some of Dooley’s Thanksgiving favorites, from pickled ginger carrots to chestnut stuffing.
Her book is also a story of eternal optimism and survival, and she gives us hope for weathering the long Midwestern winter ahead.
“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,” she writes. “But I survive. I’ve learned to soften as the days lengthen with the new season’s gentle light, and trust, in the worst moments of winter, in the earth’s next turn.”
“In Winter’s Kitchen,” by Beth Dooley (300 pages; Milkweed Editions; $25)