by Malcolm Jolley
Not that long ago I received a list of titles being published for the summer of 2010, as invitation to review any I thought would match Good Food Revolution’s modus operandi and general mission. Most of the books on the publicist’s list were straight forward cookbooks; some more of interest, some less. But one title jumped out. One book gave me pause. One book made me think, I want to know more about this, right now: Steve Maxwell and Jennifer MacKenzie’s The Complete Root Cellar Book: Building Plans, Uses and 100 Recipes
After all, the title provoked the question: are there incomplete root cellar books? Have these two found things out, that heretofore had eluded other root cellar authors? How wonderfully absurd and obscure, I smugly thought. Then, I thought, is it, really? Granted it’s unlikely that I will be building, refurbishing, stocking or be involved in any activity remotely related to a root cellar – or at least a root cellar I own or otherwise have dominion over. On the other hand, I can think of more than a few friends who may well be deep into the planning stages of near-future root-cellaring and/or could be tipped into the demimonde of cool, humid, naturally powered vegetable storers at the merest suggestion. And I planted a herb garden this summer, which seems to me to be pretty much a gateway activity. So, I replied: yes, please do send me a review copy of The Complete Root Cellar Book
And glad I was to get it. This root cellaring business is pretty cool (0 to 5 degrees Celsius, in fact), and so is the book, which I read with enough interest that I was very pleased to meet Maxwell and Mackenzie for lunch this week to talk about it. Around the table at Pangaea, over beet salad (of course!) and a glass of wine (which was not only cellared in Canada, but grown and made in it, too) I found out the story behind the book.
Robert Rose Inc. is an innovative Canadian niche publisher who connected Maxwell and MacKenzie for the book. Jennifer MacKenzie is a long-time recipe developer who created the 100 recipes included in the book. She lives near Buckhorn, Ontario and she and her husband, Jay, own and operate the Nuttshell Nextdoor café in Lakefield, where they try and source as much local ingredients as possible. Steve MacKenzie, it turns out is the real root cellar master.
MacKenzie fell in love with rough Arcadian beauty of Manitoulan Island when he was a university student in the 1980s. His other great love was woodworking – he built and sold furniture to help get him through school, in Toronto. When he graduated, he headed up to Manitoulan and bought a property, which he more or less homesteaded. He explained, “At first, I spent the summers building my house and the winters doing woodworking or taking construction jobs to pay for it.” As he set himself up, he met and married his wife, Mary, and planted crops. Because his house was handmade of stones and timber, he explained, “My entire basement is a root cellar.” With the help of their cellar, the Maxwells managed to feed themselves and their five kids from their own fields through the long Northern Ontario winters. In other words, the man walks the walk.
The Complete Root Cellar Book explains, with illustrations, how to build a root cellar in just about any location – even a city condo, although that involves an air conditioning unit, which strikes me as cheating. Still, Maxwell shows us how to build outdoor cellars, if the basement isn’t an option, and he is nothing if not thorough. He also tells us how to keep things in the cellar, and to do fancy tricks like forcing rhubarb. This is serious slow food technique and has all the elements of natural science (biology, physics, chemistry) that (we) food geeks love.
Over lunch, the conversation moved to the question of whether the Canadian pioneers ate better than we do, since they knew how to store and preserve real foods over the winter. “Absolutely,” offered MacKenzie, “they had no option of going to the grocery store, they knew exactly where their food came from and learned to keep it year-round.” She makes the great point that our foremothers and fathers were pretty much 99% food self-sufficient.
I hope The Complete Root Cellar Book becomes a runaway best seller. I really do, because I’d like to eat more pioneer-style local veggies all year round. And there’s something wonderfully comforting about imagining a nation tucking away a bushel of apples each fall in anticipation of winter. This summer, I shall be looking for evidence of digging.
Malcolm Jolley is the Managing Editor of Good Food Revolution. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley.