December 2013

Teri Vlassopoulos


Learning About Winter

Winter took its time coming this year. The temperature dropped and there were flurries, but it wasn't until the morning after the first major snowfall that it occurred to me that maybe I should've thought more seriously about the garden. Protecting it? Clearing it out? I'd never had a garden before and hadn't considered what to do with it in the winter other than wave goodbye as it got progressively covered in layers of snow and ice.

When it's this cold and snowy, it's hard to think about a garden anyway. Usually around the time of these first storms, I will retreat and make the warmest things -- roast chickens, roasted root vegetables -- and I will reread Robert P. Tristram Coffin. Coffin, a writer from the 1930s and '40s, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but also a rhapsodic, hyperbolic food writer who wrote about Maine cookery. Living in Montreal taught me a thing or two about surviving winter, but the only time I've been truly cowed by the weather was driving along a Maine highway on a snowy night, following the tracks of the single transport truck in front of the car as the gas gauge dipped lower and lower and lower. You can learn even more about winter from a person from Maine, and you can learn a lot from Coffin.

I first came across Coffin's essays in Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet, a book that taught me much about the food-writing masters. It includes three essays by Coffin. There's a nighttime boating expedition for lobsters, which are steamed on a fir-scented fire and eaten on a beach at low tide. There's another night hunting venison. And then there's an essay about the Maine breakfast, which is hearty enough to warm you by reading alone. "The Down East breakfast is concocted under the sign of the frying pan," he writes, and proceeds to describe a parade of pork fat, flapjacks, hulled corn, pig's feet, smothered eels, fried cod, headcheese, and then, of course, dessert. (Pies, plural.)

There's a swagger to Coffin's writing and he's prone to excess. He says things like, "The Maine breakfast is a hefty meal for hefty he-men," and would no doubt be part of the current celebrity chef boys' club if he was alive today. But Coffin wrote about Maine with an admirable, fevered obsession -- every single piece of his work is shot through with the state, including his poetry and visual art. It's a shame that Mainstays of Maine, his best collection of food writing, isn't still in print. The tone of the book isn't as hyper-macho as the Gourmet essays, but is still delightfully puffed up, and the various descriptions of living off the land in all seasons and focusing on simple, hearty, locally sourced food is in line with the way of eating heralded today. I wish when I was in Maine I'd looked for more copies of it to give away. I found mine on the side of a highway in a barn that had been converted into a bookstore mostly stocked with used trade paperbacks. Mainstays of Maine is out there, floating around, and worth tracking down.

I was reminded of my snowed in garden again while reading Alice Waters's second installment of The Art of Simple Food (imaginatively titled The Art of Simple Food II). It's subtitled "Recipes, Flavor, and Inspiration from the New Kitchen Garden," except the garden she describes is not so much new, just maybe occasionally neglected. The inside cover has a Ten Commandments-esque listing of rules such as "Treasure the farmer," "Nurture the soil," and "Make your own" that make the goal of the book clear.

The Simple Food cookbooks are similarly simply designed affairs -- text heavy, no photographs, but scattered with line drawings. I loved the first Art of Simple Food and once even used it as a makeshift cutting board when I was chopping a carrot and didn't have a cutting board handy. (I don't recommend it for that use.) I appreciated that it was an intuitively ordered book -- a proper lesson in cooking simply with techniques that were easy to riff off of. The Art of Simple Food II follows a similar path, alphabetically working through descriptions of herbs and interspersing them with recipes, and then moving on to larger groups of vegetables. It meanders and because of the way the connections are made between different types of food, something I'd never considered making before, like a sorrel cream sauce, seems like a natural leap.

It can be frustrating to read about the virtues of fresh vegetables in the middle of the winter, and even harder to read about fruit and see recipes for things like peach trifle and blackberry soufflé, but of course there are vegetables you can eat when it's this cold. The section about winter, unsurprisingly the shortest, revolves around cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts, but the recipes are good suggestions for a time when I forget what else I can do with a vegetable other than cut it into chunks, drizzle with olive oil and stick in a hot oven. There's a recipe for red cabbage salad with Medjool dates and kumquats, for instance, and sautéed spigarello broccoli with bacon. The preserved vegetables and jams and jellies section also ensures you'll have something to carry forward into the next cold season if you think ahead.

Alice Waters's insistence on eating seasonally and growing your own food is a message we hear so often that it can sometimes feel repetitive and tired, particularly when it's presented in a New Age-y blithe statement like "Nurture the soil." But the gentle accumulation of knowledge you get from reading The Art of Simple Food II is convincing. The second shorter part of the book is about the logistics of actually growing a garden and is almost unnecessary. It covers such a large swathe of topics, from choosing soil to worm composting to vine planting to garden tools, that it's difficult to get anything more than a basic primer. The first section, with the recipes and descriptions, is already the perfect loamy base.

"So you live off your own rabbits, piecened out with smelts and maple sugar, through the lean Winter of your year," Coffin writes about surviving a winter in Maine. Waters is more direct: "And what a revolutionary idea: That we can preserve the land by nurturing the vital link between taste, cooking, and gardening!" They are both passionate about maintaining this relationship between us and the land, and, particularly in the winter when the outside world seems more alienating than anything else, their words are comforting and inspiring.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. She writes about food at Ways to Cook an Egg and writing and life at