Lots of people see the northern winter as an empty, fruitless time. But it wasn’t always so: Just a generation or two ago, the people living even in legendarily snowy parts of North America dined year-round on an abundance of local foods. Did this help them see winter not as a barren time, but as a time for rest and restoration among abundance?
To understand how a northern winter could be abundant, it’s important to keep in mind that the foods our forebears ate were different. There weren’t mangoes in January, of course, but they weren’t missed because the root cellars were full of “keeping apples,” as well as parsnips, rutabagas, parsley roots, beets and squash varieties we now regard as exotic. In addition to the root cellars, the actual farm fields were filled with vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, that kept growing in good condition despite a little dusting of snow. As if that weren’t enough, the pantries were filled with dried beans, dried fruits, nuts and all sorts of winter-ready local farm produce.
The abundance of the northern winter is particularly vivid on the pages of Deborah Madison’s Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets (Broadway Books, 2008). Madison is probably the nation’s premier vegetable chef, and this book is her guide to how to cook the foods you can actually find in real farmers’ markets. As such, it’s a tremendously helpful resource for those trying to eat the two ways our ancestors did: locally and happily.
Madison blanches Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli, and dresses them with a mustard-caper butter to bring the richness of late-winter fields indoors (see the Web Extra! at the top right of this page). She turns parsnips into salads, galettes and braises, releasing those sweet, pale roots from their conventional role as a soup partner to carrots. Meanwhile, even late-season radish greens and feathery carrot tops find their way into her unexpectedly vibrant soups and salads. Who knew the northern winter could be so tasty?
Evidently, everyone who came before us, says Madison. “It’s funny — we crave variety, and so our supermarkets are so full of variety that there’s an almost obscene amount of choice,” she notes. “Yet, on the other hand, we’ve taken to habitually overlooking or ignoring all of these vegetables, fruits and so forth that are a part of our culture — and for what? In favor of having the same green beans all year long.”
Those trucked-in green beans, asparagus and other heat-craving vegetables have forced many classic North American winter vegetables like rutabagas, turnips and parsley root out of the average grocery-store produce aisle. What’s even more distressing, however, is that because farmers have stopped growing them, many of our most extraordinary cold-climate foods are on the verge of extinction.
Gary Paul Nabhan offers portraits of some of these foods in his new book, Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), which includes a foreword by Madison. Nabhan catalogues dozens of foods that were once critical parts of the North American diet, but are now gradually disappearing.
The Short and Thick parsnip, for instance, was once grown and eaten in all the snowier parts of the United States and Canada because it grew fast and kept for months. Now it’s only commercially available from a single company, Saskatchewan’s Prairie Garden Seeds.
The Arikara Yellow bean is a fast-producing bean that was prized in places with short growing seasons like North Dakota — it even kept Lewis and Clark alive on their cross-continent journey. Now it’s all but unknown in a country that has replaced so many of its native food traditions with produce bred for long-distance hauling.
“The saddest thing happened the other day,” Madison told me. “I was baking something with an apricot from the supermarket, and my husband actually had to ask me what he was eating because the fruit had no taste.
“It’s really dreadful — so many people are eating fruits and vegetables because they’ve been told they should,” she continues, “but the varieties aren’t grown for taste; they’re grown for shipping, so they taste awful. And they’re expensive.”
Madison suspects that the only reason people tolerate this total lack of satisfaction in their food is because they’ve been told to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “So they don’t smell what they’re eating, they don’t taste it,” she says. “They just put it in a bag and go out the door like it’s a prescription.”
But the real prescription for having a healthy life might be to rediscover the original great foods of the northern winter, and to let that particular flavor of abundance both nourish and restore you.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a celebrated food and wine critic. Nominated seven times for James Beard Foundation Awards — the Oscars of the food world — she has received four awards for her restaurant and wine columns. Since 2001, her work has been regularly featured in the Best Food Writing anthologies.
For the recipe pictured above, Beets and Their Greens With Marjoram and Pine Nuts, as well as more recipes from Local Flavors, see the Web Extras! below.