In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. This first installment is a book inspired by a fairy tale.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a dark treasure of a book.
Set in a harsh 1920s Alaska this book tells the story of two forty-something Pennsylvanians (Mabel and Jack) who have chosen to homestead. They are not young pioneers ready to forge their ways in the rough and tumble world of Sarah Palin. Instead, they are world-weary adults who have come to a darkened Alaska Territory for some quiet.
In a novel that lusciously describes snow, cold, darkness, and silence, Ivey writes a love letter to Alaska, to magic, to possibility. But also to independence, (dare I say) feminism, community, and communion. And I loved it.
And while I somewhat arbitrarily chose this for my first book in my Cook Your Books series, it could not have been more perfect, as food plays a central role in this novel inspired by a fairy tale. (I know you're going to think I planned this, but I really didn't. I, too, was surprised by just how much food there is in this book.)
In the Russian fairy tale "Snegurochka," or "The Snow Maiden" (upon which this book is based), a childless couple creates a snow child, complete with mittens and a hat. Miraculously the child comes to life (à la Frosty, but minus the old silk hat). However, she has some conditions in that old Russian tale, mostly involving the promises we make to those we are indebted.
For you see, in that original tale, a fox leads the snow girl home to her newly adopted parents after she loses her way in the forest. The old man promises a fat hen as payment despite his own poverty; however, he puts his hunting dog in a sack, hands it off to the fox, and in no time at all the dog devours the fox. The ultimate in betrayals. The snow child, who seemed so wanted and loved and adored, was not worth the chicken to the couple. Yes, the chicken is everything earthly to an impoverished couple, but the fairy tale suggests there needs to be something more than the earthly or the tangible when it comes to paying off debts. Especially when those debts involve those we profess to love.
And so it goes in this book. Mabel, aware of this version of the fairy tale, even makes an offering of a chicken for a fox that trots about with Faina (our novel's snow child). It is the essential recognition that even when something reeks of "dark winter's madness," when someone brings you something precious, you return the favor with your own cherished offering.
In the end, that's where food comes in here. The food seems to be made again and again as offering. From moose steaks with boiled potatoes (people, we were this close to having to find someone to sell us moose steaks for the blog) to a Thanksgiving turkey, from lynx (!) and dumplings (252) to "fire-grilled salmon, potato salad, and an extravagant white cake with white frosting and candied rose petals" (356) and homemade elderflower wine at a wedding--food is offered to one another with care and precision. There's cranberry relish (149), ptarmigan (31), hot tea and bread in a Dutch oven after showing someone what "home" means to you (249), and cold sandwiches in wax paper on a fishing trip (312). And there is roast black bear and rhubarb pie in summer (271) and cranberry cordials sipped between just two women (253).
Contrast with that refined food with the bounty found on the land itself: "Eskimo potato root, blueberries, tender spruce tips, grayling, and salmon, grouse and rabbits, which she skinned and cleaned and dried in strips on racks by the shore of the Wolverine River, where the wind kept away the flies. Sometimes she smoldered a green alder fire beneath the racks to lightly smoke the meat" (359). All offering. (And are we ready to move to Alaska yet?)
See what I mean about the abundance of food in this book?
But the food that stuck with me the most was a simple basket of blueberries. When Faina is beginning her tentative steps toward a relationship with Jack and Mabel, she brings a handwoven birch bark and root basket the size of two cupped hands. The basket is "heaped" with blueberries, and Jack picks it up from the doorstep, slowly becoming aware of what this offering means: communion and community with this fantastic child. Mabel worries that the little girl will be too cold in the wilderness, but Jack explains, "I think she's warm. And she must know how to get food. Look at the berries, and that little basket. She knows her way out there, probably better than either of us" (85). She is an independent girl. She does not need to come indoors. But she gives an offering, which is properly accepted.
This moment clarifies the connection with someone who refuses the whole of the book to be separated from her truest self--one that is independent and self -sufficient and clear. Even to the very end of the book. This book is not just about the commitment to one another--and it is about that (from Jack and Mabel to each other and to Faina, but also the commitment that they make to their friends and their friends make to them, and also the commitment that they all make to Alaska, even when brutal Alaska doesn't seem so committed to them). No, this book is also about the commitment you make to yourself.
Sure, sure, this could dip into sentimentality in less deft writers' hands. But not with Ivey. She reminds us that a fairy tale (and all sentimentality) has a dark possibility. But it also has a reminder of hope and community and connection--if only for a moment. Those blueberries are just a little glimpse at that reminder.
This is a sad book. A heavy book. This has no Disney ending and there is deep concern for the grief and loss that Mabel and Jack have faced and face again at the end of the book.
But Ivey dances through this sadness with a lightness, a sense of possibility. With lush descriptions of ice skating and falling snow and two people huddling together--sometimes beneath a pine tree in a blizzard and other times together as they look out the window past their own reflections to two figures playing in the snow. There is a glimmering beauty in the midst of loss.
I could not have chosen a better inaugural novel for this series. To be clear, besides the book based on food (come on, you and I both knew I was choosing that as a category), none of these books have been (or will be) chosen because I think that they'll explicitly connect with food. I just have a hunch that in general most literature will bring us back to food and in particular the literature that I gravitate towards has an almost preternatural disposition towards food. And this book did not disappoint, either in its connection to food or in its narrative.
And so, I am beginning my Cook Your Books series with a lovely book. It's time for blueberry pancakes, my friends. And there's no one better than Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Every Day, to ensure that when we make pancakes, we're making them with health and happiness in mind. We need to commit ourselves to one another and to our own selves more than ever this year. We need more cherished offerings to one another.
Come. Join me.
Blueberry Multigrain Pancakes with Blueberry-Maple Compote"When [Jack] brought an armload of wood inside, Mabel was cooking pancakes. She dotted a few of the wild blueberries in each one, and they ate them at the table, the small basket between them" (The Snow Child 84-5).
Very liberally adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day
Swanson does not put blueberries in her pancakes and her original compote is with blackberries rather than blueberries. But I wanted a pancake that wasn't made solely from wheat flour. And so here we are. And this is a good place to be, for these pancakes are worth making again and again, regardless of your fruit options.
For the Multigrain Pancakes
24-26 silver-dollar pancakes or 12 large pancakes
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ cup spelt flour
½ cup rye flour
1½ Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
scant ½ tsp salt
2 cups buttermilk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
⅓ (3 ounces) butter, melted and cooled a bit, plus more for the skillet
2 cups blueberries
1. Combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
2. In a separate medium-sized bowl, whisk the buttermilk and eggs together. Add the butter, and then whisk again.
3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and then stir until just combined. Gently add the 2 cups of blueberries until they are evenly distributed in the batter.
4. Heat a griddle until medium-hot, and brush with a little bit of butter.
5. Pour the batter 2 Tablespoons at a time onto the griddle (you can make bigger ones if you pour ⅓ or ¼ cup at a time). Cook until the bottoms are golden and the tops have started to bubble. Use a spatula to flip the pancakes. Cook the other side until golden and cooked through. Repeat with remaining batter.
For the Blueberry-Maple Compote
2 cups blueberries
2 Tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp fresh minced ginger, plus more if needed
1½ tsp fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed
Pinch of salt
1. Combine the berries along with the maple syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat. Gently simmer for 5-8 minutes.
2. Stir in the ginger, lemon juice, and salt. Taste and adjust with more lemon or ginger, if needed.