There’s little as personal as the food we eat. Yet it’s also as political a subject as any.
Beth Dooley explores this intersection of the dinner table and the soapbox in her latest book, “In Winter’s Kitchen” (Milkweed Editions, 288 pages, $25), a collection of essays that reflect her deep commitment to the issues behind those good-tasting foods that appear in the cookbooks she has written.
While all of them celebrate the local harvest, this new volume gives voice to many of the farmers and food advocates she has encountered during her 36 years in Minnesota. That’s the political end of her book.
She offers up the personal with a tale of her growing interest in food over those same decades, from discovering “Diet for a Small Planet” and “The Moosewood Cookbook” in her college years to picking apples at her sons’ school and weeding vegetables at a local farm.
The Thanksgiving meal serves as the framework for her story. After packing up a U-Haul in New Jersey, she made an offer to her family that they couldn’t refuse: to host them at the next Thanksgiving meal in her new home. It was an invitation that was pure Dooley, a challenge she would embrace with exuberance, fearlessness and a ready smile.
Q: I love that Thanksgiving shapes your book with chapters on cranberries, potatoes, turkey and the like. What prompted this?
A: Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday, and we are the breadbasket of the country, if not the world, so it allowed me to focus on each of the iconic foods that we grow so well here and that are part of the meal. It seemed to make sense to try and look at all the themes of the book through these foods.
I thought about how I could talk about everything I learned since we landed here in Minneapolis, and it really comes down to what our growers are doing that seems so right for the Thanksgiving meal.
Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking when I invited my entire family for Thanksgiving that first year. But it really showcased all the things I was beginning to discover, so that seemed like a good place to start as well.
Q: What made a difference for you when you landed in Minneapolis?
A: I thought the Minneapolis Farmers Market was overwhelming and exciting, and that was early on when people were talking about food. That was the ’80s, and goofy things were going on with food then, too.
I remember being fascinated with Julia Child, with Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines. I would do things like spend all day going to the farmers market and finding everything I possibly could and making these elaborate meals and inviting people over for dinner.
It was great because I learned how to cook by doing those kinds of things.
But it didn’t take me long to realize — and I certainly wasn’t the only one — that it’s really not what you’re doing to the food, it’s the food itself that’s so important.
The more I cooked and the more I looked for good food, the more I understood it had to do with where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how the soil is taken care of and those kinds of things.
Q: What are you thankful for?
A: I’m thankful for connecting with all the people I’ve written about in this book — and for the others who didn’t quite fit in the pages. I’m thankful for cooking and how it has connected me to people and to this place.
I am most grateful seeing how many different ways people live really well. I’m thankful for independent farmers and independent chefs because they are passionate and use the best practices. These are people making a good living, but not a great living [income-wise].
I feel that if more businesses paid attention to values other than just being extremely profitable, then things would be different: that everyone’s lives would be better and there would be more good food for everyone.
Q: How do you get more people interested in the quality of their food?
A: It’s a hard message to convey, but it makes a difference when you work with the food itself. Going out to help on a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] farm changes your appreciation of the value of food and the importance of it. Food tastes better when you are engaged that way. And you tend to care a little more about it.
Q: Do folks today think too much about food?
A: I have to confess that the older I am, the less interested I’ve become in food as entertainment and athletic contest. What “wows” me these days is what Sean Sherman [who calls himself the Sioux Chef] can do with dandelion greens and cattails and the stuff we walk on. I suspect that’s why chef Marshall Paulsen [Birchwood Cafe] is such a rising star, his nimbleness in responding to whatever is coming out of the fields.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste