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Reviews and Press for In Winter's Kitchen 

In Winter's Kitchen


IN WINTER’S KITCHEN  By Beth Dooley  Milkweed, 336 pages, $25


By Beth Dooley
Milkweed, 336 pages, $25

A Prairie Dinner Companion

Eating well with Ojibwe wild-rice pickers, turkey farmers and Hmong sweet-potato growers.



One doesn’t have to be raised in the northern Midwest to know that its cuisine is often misunderstood—a dust-up over “grape salad” in the New York Times’s list of supposed state specialties last year stands out in recent memory—but you may have to be a local to know that this region’s food is also grossly underrated. Certain traditions, like Jell-O salads, lutefisk (lye-soaked whitefish) and tater hot dish (ground beef, canned vegetables, cream of mushroom soup and packaged tater tots in a casserole) dominate the general public’s awareness of North Woods fare, but its true signature foods, like wild rice, are ancient and peerless staples. They’re lovingly researched and personalized in Beth Dooley’s “In Winter’s Kitchen.”

A chef, cookbook author and New Jersey transplant, Ms. Dooley has now spent close to four decades in Minnesota, long enough to witness the rise of the Honeycrisp apple, the continued contraction of family farms and the opening of the state’s first community-supported agriculture programs. She has also spent a lifetime developing professional relationships with local farmers and suppliers whose conscientious practices predate today’s hipster food boutiques by decades.

Unless you’re a farmer, butcher or gardener, every ingredient of what you’re about to eat next will be provided by someone else, and Ms. Dooley does much more than recycle familiar arguments for eating local; she personalizes the path from farm to fork with heart and skill. Unapologetically sentimental, deeply informative, and always practical, Ms. Dooley introduces us to traditional dairy owners, Hmong sweet-potato growers, teenage turkey farmers and Ojibwe wild-rice harvesters. “In Winter’s Kitchen” is equal parts memoir, history and guidebook.

Every chapter is centered on the provenance, tradition and utility of a food common to her region’s late-fall and winter dinner table, including turkey, cranberries, chestnuts and sweet potatoes, with her own family’s Thanksgiving meals as a framework. Each journey is informative and poignant; many times, while unraveling the narrative of a particular ingredient, Ms. Dooley is forced to reckon with a bleak history or worrisome present. Indigenous chestnut trees are virtually gone, for instance, wiped out by a blight spread by imported species. Authentic wild rice is outnumbered and undercut in the marketplace by mass-produced imitations.

Over her years in Minnesota, as she adds children to her family and loses her father, Ms. Dooley cultivates a circle of close friends, many of whom are, like the author, concerned with the relationship between where they are in the world and what they should be eating. The late-season harvest of Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin is restrained by virtue of its temperamental seasons but Ms. Dooley refuses to regard these states’ offerings as limited. Rather, she finds richness in the expressions of each food and enthusiastically describes her experiences, from trying the obscure heritage apple Geneva Crab (“shockingly red flesh the color of the peel . . . gently astringent”) to tasting the work of cheesemaker Mary Falk, who ages her unpasteurized cheeses in a Wisconsin cave.

Many of the organic farmers behind old-fashioned practices and reliable heritage crops stand at a precipice, unsure of who in their family or community will continue their work. But whether her subjects are folks from tiny outstate dairies or third-generation cranberry bogs, Ms. Dooley endeavors to understand farmers’ fears, problems, successes and hopes, and she enriches each narrative with historical context. As a people’s history of her region’s native foods, “In Winter’s Kitchen” is essential reading.

While Ms. Dooley mostly writes about people who are devoted to a career in food, she is also concerned about its role in everyday life. She began writing about food when she was still employed full-time out of the home, working as an account executive for a marketing firm. She was surprised and heartened to discover colleagues whose leisure hours were passionately devoted to food. “This is what it takes to create a life,” she writes. “The belief that no matter one’s day job, the real work is at home and with yourself.”

Ms. Dooley emphasizes cost-effectiveness in her dietary suggestions, aware of the geographical and budgetary barriers that many American families face. While some foods she discusses are necessarily more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, many are affordable heritage staples, left for dead by the homogenizing advances in food science until they found new homes on organic heritage farms. Others, like the cave-aged cheese and the unpasteurized milk, may take a bit more legwork to possess, but Ms. Dooley’s descriptions will be all the motivation that some readers will require.

Featuring food varieties and agricultural methods familiar to farmers of 80 or even 50 years ago, parts of this book will read like a Northern heartland version of oldies radio to some. That’s the author’s way of asserting that some of the crops and methods that fed our expanding republic are worthy of an overdue homecoming. If your next meal happens to be in the North, amid the cheeses, fruits and grains that Ms. Dooley so exquisitely and temptingly describes, there may also be something more to enjoy.

—Mr. Stradal is the author of the novel “Kitchens of the Midwest.”

Wall Street Journal


Twin Cities' Pioneer Press

"In her latest book, a memoir subtitled "Growing Roots and Breaking Bread in the Northern Heartland," Beth weaves touching personal stories about her long-ago move west from New Jersey and the challenges of adapting to our rugged climate, through equally touching accounts of how her new friends in the organic movement embraced her as one of their own."

Heavy Table

"...a book that feels alternately like a poignant trip down food memory lane and an inspiring field trip to the farms and factories of the people who are trying to change our food system. And yet it works. Dooley’s tasty food memories and stories of real people bring home all the reasons why we should care about things like crop diversity — but they’re also just plain interesting."



Kansas City Star

Great Lakes Echo