Snowbound … The Poetry, The Food, The Reality

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems now here to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Snow Storm.

As the snow falls outside, I find myself dreaming of Lara and Yurii and the snow-crusted country house, ice coating the furniture as phantoms dance in the mist-filled, almost crystalline, sunlight trickling through the windows, the nightly howling of the starving wolves forgotten.

Ice Palace Scene from the film, "Dr. Zhivago"

After weeks of unrelenting cold, now we have so much snow that we are essentially snowbound for the next few days. A real Dr. Zhivago moment.*

But the conditions also call up uneasy memories of the ill-fated and unprepared Donner party. This infamous group of pioneers heading westward across the United States in 1846 ended up snowbound in what is now called Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Many only survived by turning cannibalistic.

Photo credit: Joey Yen

The people in my town don’t know this feeling much, that of being snowbound, if only temporarily, that is. Because of that innocence, the day before the snow fell hard, like lemmings to the cliff, they congregated at one of four nearby grocery stores. As I pulled into the parking lot, no empty spaces beckoned, except for a few at the very far edge of the lot. And when I walked into the store, no carts stood in the entryway, none at all. When a frazzled employee thrust a cart at me, I saw that shelves normally bulging with boxes and bottles now resembled those of a Third-World dry-goods shop during times of food shortages.

This relative scarcity throws something new at us, making me think about how dependent we are on trucks, clear roads, and people able to get to work to sort through everything and shelve it all.

Cart after cart left the store, laden like small burros edging their way over impassable terrain to isolated outposts.

When my car slipped and safely slid up my driveway — still slick and nasty from last week’s storm — I breathed more deeply, the tightness around my chest deflating. Home!

“Bring it on,” I said out loud, as I put away the large plastic containers of water, cans of beans and tomato sauce, greens for soup, and an extra ration of chocolate.

Two Days Later (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And then it came, barreling out of the heavens like a salt shaker gone berserk. White, white flakes of geometrical perfection. Recall the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote in his poem, “Snowbound“:

And, when the second morning shone,
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below, —
A universe of sky and snow!

As I look at the pillowy snow drifts cuddling up against the picnic table and Adirondack chairs huddling on the back porch, I can’t help but reflect on people in the past, many of whom who knew a great deal about being snowbound. In fact, because they more or less devoted their entire lives to stockpiling food for winter, these folks invented dishes that ensured that life would go on until spring, when the first green shoots poked out from their fluffy white blanket.

Nowadays these dishes elicit rapturous sighs from diners in upscale restaurants.

Beans, root vegetables, cured pork of every imaginable type, cheeses, heavy spiced cakes made with dried fruits, and bread — all these formed the core of many meals in the past.

This my mind knows.

Boeuf Daube a la Provencal
Ingredients for Beef Stew (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And as for my stomach?

Somehow the idea of eating of raw green salad in the middle of winter seems like a sacrilege, a thumbing of the nose at the natural cycles of the year.**

Winter food by its nature banishes greens and fresh fruit. Yes, winter food sustains a soul in ways that summer foods do not. Take M. F. K. Fisher’s word for it, from a short piece she wrote, “Savoring Winter” (in A Stew or a Story, published posthumously, 2006):

But in winter one thinks a bit more about where and what and how to eat.

The ease of slipping a fresh fig from the tree is a joy of summer, but never an option on a snowy winter day.

Sitting Ducks? No. A Deer and a Rabbit Snowbound (Photo credit: Phineas Jones)

Madeleine Kamman, in her stellar book, Madeleine Kamman’s Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps (1989), says:

In winter the quality of the bread was poor; the loaves became so hard waiting to be used that they had to be rehydrated in wet towels before they could be sliced with the copa pan. The copa pan was a thick wooden board to which was permanently affixed a strong and heavy knife blade, always handmade by the head of the household or the village magnin.

Yet some writers lauded snow for its medicinal properties, as Elizabeth David recounted in Harvest of the Cold Months (1994), in a section titled “Snow for a Fever,” about Sir John Chardin, struck down by a debilitating fever while traveling in Persia. Chardin said, in his account, A Journey to Persia:

Being in the most scorching phase of my fever, I fancied, as one of the greatest delights, having some snow. I sent someone to request the Governor to give me some. He provided me with some at eleven o’clock and as I was then in the greatest possible thirst that could be endured, I drank it with as much pleasure as I have ever drunk. (page 42)

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

While I have no need of melted snow to quench my thirst, at least not yet, the creeping cabin fever (and possibly innate concern over food in the face of such bad weather and inability to forage or find food) drives me into the kitchen, where I cook up a storm of my own: chocolate chip oatmeal cookies; apple spice cake with cream-cheese frosting [RECIPE BELOW]; chicken breasts stuffed with spinach, pine nuts, raisins, and feta; omelettes plump with ham, Gruyère, and leftover fried potatoes; white bean soup heavy with sausage and spinach; roasted butternut squash; whole-wheat bread bursting with seven different grains … .

Listen to another litany of winter fare, recorded in Roy Andries de Groot’s The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth (1973):

“From morning to night,” said Mademoiselle Ray, “my largest black iron ‘witch’s cauldron’ hangs from the hook above the huge log fire. We ladle the food out of it hour after hour. One day it might be filled with our Spécialité de la Maison, Le Hochepot de Poule du Prince d’Orange, made with chicken, veal, celery, leeks, onions and so on, gently simmering in veal stock and white wine. Or it might be a Mediterranean dish from my home, Les Pieds Paquets Marsellaise, with lambs’ feet and aromatic little packages of tripe bubbling in a bouillon. Or a pot roast of Boeuf à la Mode Marsellaise with blackberry brandy and olives. Or our Grande Spécialité, La Marmite de Lesdiguières, with every kind of meat, chicken and vegetables, and the sauce laced with Cognac.” [Note: This description concerns food fed to skiers staying at the Auberge.]

The sight of all my neatly labeled dishes fortifies me, primes me against the driving winter wind and needle-like sleet hammering on my windows. Hunger shall not darken my door, not now, not this day.

Photo credit: Richard Owens

It’s hard not to feel kinship with all those others who survived brutal winters and created the food that kept the wolf away from the door. Just what does that mean, “to keep the wolf away from the door?” No doubt it stems from the inherent fear of the European forest, replete with wolves. (Recall all those childhood fairy tales!) And especially in winter, when hibernating animals and hunkered-down deer left the wolves — gnawed by hunger — lurking up close to huts perched low, down below the soaring trees. Flimsy doors and cloth-covered windows wouldn’t repel starving wolves smelling weak or dead human bodies. All the more reason to make sure the larder would hold out until spring. Or else.

Apple Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

SPICED-UP APPLE CAKE (adapted from King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion)
Makes one 9 X 13-inch cake

1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 t. baking soda
3/4 t. salt
1 1/2 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. freshly ground nutmeg
3/4 t. ground allspice
1 stick unsalted butter, softened (1/2 cup or 8 T.) and cut into chunks
3 T. chopped crystallized ginger
4 cups cored and finely chopped apples, unpeeled
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 large eggs
2 t. pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Grease and flour a 9 X 13-inch baking pan.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flours, sugars, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add the butter with ginger, chopped apples, nuts, raisins, eggs, and vanilla. Using a mixer, beat gently until all ingredients blend together. Batter will be thick.

Scrap the batter into the prepared pan; level the top with a spatula. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top springs back when you touch the center of the cake with your index finger. Remove cake from oven and and place on a rack to cool completely. Do not remove the cake from the pan. When completely cool, frost with Cream Cheese Icing (recipe below).

Makes 3 cups

3/4 stick salted butter, softened (6 T.)
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 t. pure vanilla extract
4 cups confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
2 – 4 T. milk

Beat the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla together in a medium-size bowl until light and fluffy. Slowly beat in the sugar. Thin frosting with milk if necessary to make it more spreadable.

Ice Palace from the film, "Dr. Zhivago"

*Refers to the novel, Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak (1958). Critics consider the film a classic.

**Apologies to those whose childhood and adulthood memories tend toward more beneficent climes.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen



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