Two Books Help Locavores Navigate What's Local and in Season

It’s the locavore’s dilemma: there’s a staggering amount of information out there these days on how to “eat local,” but the resources themselves aren’t necessarily fine-tuned to one’s particular locale. I may share similar principles with a local food lover in San Francisco, but we certainly do not share the same growing season or farmers markets. So if I prefer a tomato from my own backyard over one shipped halfway across the country, shouldn’t I also prefer a cookbook with local roots?

The answer to that question—in at least the small case study I just conducted—is yes. I pursued two local foods books: one with a national purview and one with a Minnesotan perspective. Eating Local, a cookbook said to be “inspired by America’s farmers,” jumps across the country providing recipes for ingredients from asparagus to avocados, and vignettes on 10 small-scale farmers along the way. The Minnesota Table, on the other hand, covers a much more specific geography. In fact, several of the farm stories within arise from conversations at one farmers market—St. Joseph’s—which I presume is a favorite stop of author Shelley N.C. Holl.

The geographic range of the books helped dictate the layout of each. While The Minnesota Table is organized by month, Eating Local is first broken into sections by food type (vegetables, fruits, and poultry, meat, eggs), and then by featured ingredient. It was handy to search for recipes by key ingredient, say if you just received a load of squash in your CSA box, but the recipes themselves had so many ingredients I didn’t find myself using it this way. If I wanted to follow the recipes exactly, I’d have to plan a trip to the store to get the two or three (or six) ingredients I don’t normally keep on hand.

Farms profiled in Eating Local contributed some of their recipes, and the photos of farmers and food are absolutely stunning. It was fun to read the section on Nitty Gritty Dirt Farm in Harris, MN, but overall I felt I was reading a whole-foods cookbook rather than a local-foods cookbook. This was especially the case in the fruits section, which had only three apple recipes and many more for fruits you can find at grocery stores, but not at farmers markets here in Minnesota. The dust jacket calls Eating Local “the definitive locavore cookbook,” but I’m still skeptical over whether such a thing can even exist.

The Minnesota Table has half as many recipes as Eating Local, but would likely provide much more mileage for the Midwestern locavore. (In fact, it was this month's Simple, Good and Tasty bookclub selection.) I’m hesitant to call it a cookbook, as it’s more a guide to the seasonal rituals available to eaters in Minnesota. It tells you (and shows you -- check out the beautiful, original watercolors, like the pears at the top of this page) about hunting for morels in April, picking and freezing berries in June, and setting up your own modern-day root cellar in November. Each month has a menu of four to six recipes that highlight the local foods at their peak during that time of year. The recipes are of varying complexity but tend to have simple ingredient lists (a decently-stocked kitchen will likely have most if not all components on hand), and sidebar tips for executing some of the more difficult techniques.

My only complaint with The Minnesota Table is that there is no ingredients index. After stocking up on garlic during August’s Minnesota Garlic Festival, I had to page through the book to find a recipe that would showcase my bounty. I eventually stumbled upon a fantastic roasted garlic mashed potatoes recipe in the September chapter (egg yolks, butter, and sour cream? I like the way recipe-crafter J. Carpenter thinks!). In general I would recommend letting the book guide you to the dishes and experiences, rather than trying to find recipes for the ingredients you have on hand. I could foresee sitting down each month to take in that month’s chapter and learn about what’s available; it could become a nice habit to get into, and help ensure you don’t miss out on any special seasonal opportunities.

The Minnesota Table also shines in telling the stories of food producers who don’t always get much attention in the foodie world: a Hmong farmer who sells at Twin Cities farmers markets, Native Americans who hand-harvest wild rice and tap maple trees on White Earth Reservation, and fruit-breeders at the University of Minnesota. If you’re a frequent shopper of the markets and co-ops you’ll likely recognize some of the farmers profiled as well, and it’s great fun to read details of their operations you might not know about otherwise.

I would say The Minnesota Table is required reading for anyone with an interest in the local and seasonal foods of the Upper Midwest. At the very least you’ll get 70 or so solid recipes to work from; you’ll likely also find inspiration to embark on a new agricultural (or foraging) adventure. As for Eating Local, it would make a beautiful coffee table book, but I’m not sure how much play it will get in my kitchen. As both books suggest: you can’t beat local, whether is comes to food or guides on how to find and prepare it.



Leslie Kruempel likes bringing people together to talk about real food, whether it's through the Real Food Minnesota gathering, Twin Cities Crop Mob, or on Twitter. Follow her at @realfoodmn.