Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
The Minnesota Table: Recipes for Savoring Local Food Throughout the Year by Shelley N.C. Holl, with recipes by B.J. Carpenter; Voyageur Press, May 2010, 176 pp
The Minnesota Table is not a typical cook book; it is a collection of travel stories, recipes and menu ideas. Author Shelley Holl was living in Louisiana in the late 1990s, writing and illustrating a newspaper travel column, when her long-time chef-friend BJ Carpenter visited her from Minneapolis. (Holl has lived in several states and foreign countries--her father was a naval aviator--but has always returned to Minnesota.)
They spent an evening comparing the cuisine and ingredients of Minnesota and Louisiana and came up with the idea to write a book celebrating locally produced food. Holl and Carpenter concurred that Minnesota's less-spicy cuisine is not as colorful as Louisiana's, but it is healthier, and centers on serving vegetables fresh from the field, bursting with flavor, whereas southern kitchens often serve greens stewed with ham or bacon. The friends enjoy hunting for fresh, local ingredients and felt that there are an increasing number of people "who want to experience eating local foods in season for economic, environmental and health reasons."
Organized to follow Minnesota's growing seasons, The Minnesota Table has twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, beginning with April. Every chapter begins with an anecdote on the month's weather and corresponding food-in-season, written in a comfortable, down-home style. Holl illustrates the beginning of each chapter with a lovely watercolor, which adds to the charm of the book. A menu, with 3-6 seasonal recipes, is listed for each month. Throughout the book there are sidebars with tips for finding and preparing the key ingredients, along with interesting photographs and more watercolor illustrations. Also included are instructions for drying and freezing food, and contact information for the growers and producers featured in the book.
Holl and Carpenter traveled all over Minnesota to find unusual and unique products in our food culture. The greater part of The Minnesota Table contains the stories of their travels and visits with gardeners, producers, and farmers from different parts of the state. Their interviews included Russ and Trese Willenbring of rural Cold Spring's Produce Acres, Angeline Dufner of rural St. Joseph, John Hooper, "The Yak Man", of rural Cold Spring, and Ron and Joyce Neumann of rural Princeton. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is explained in the book and Common Ground Garden, a CSA in St. Joseph, on the College of Saint Benedict campus, is featured. The authors visited with Sister Phyllis Plantenberg from St. Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, who had the vision and determination to start Common Ground Garden in 1993. While traveling to Little Falls, the authors were told "If you're writing a book on foods, you'd better not forget spiritual sustenance." As a result, one page in the book describes the baking of unleavened bread for communion wafers by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
The choices we make regarding the food we eat affect the earth and our fellow human beings. The Minnesota Table celebrates local food and sustainable agriculture in a fun and informative way. It encourages us to support our local family farms and offers us delicious and enjoyable ways to do so.