In the dead of winter, a Minnesota apple orchard is not a place for humans. The day I visit Sweetland Orchard, just south of the Twin Cities, the snow is knee-high, trackless except for the whisk of a bunny trail. Wading through the orchard, I follow grower and cider maker Gretchen Merryweather to the top of a rise to view apple trees pushing through the drifts like gray-green twigs. Above us, chickadees peep-peep.
“Is this what you wanted to see?” asks Merryweather, as we stand upon the white, twig-bristling hill, above a pocket of pines tucked in a hollow below. I am trying to see this frozen expanse as if it were my first winter. “How do you know everything isn’t dead?” I ask. Not a real question, but a continuation of an earlier fireside conversation we had inside her warm home, where the air was rich with the scent of fresh-baked fruitcake muffins. We talked about how trees and birds are an ecosystem, with birds fertilizing trees after converting bugs and seeds to bioavailable nitrogen.
I arrived at this orchard after a year of reading about the latest science around trees and was mindful of so many bits of wonder, such as how pines are forever emitting natural fungicides to protect themselves and, by grace or accident, everyone, plant and animal, around. All of this reading had opened up new questions in my mind about northern food.
I study the scene and ask, “If you were a space alien, how would you know that the apple trees were alive?”
“That’s why spring is so amazing,” Merryweather replies, as a blast of wind pelts us with fresh snow. “Should we go inside?”
This is not a climate change story, though our Minnesota winters are changing fast, now weeks shorter and warmer than they used to be. Instead, this is a story about northern food. Specifically, this is a story to answer the question that’s never had a full answer: What is northern food?
I’ve been staring at this question for decades now, and so far every answer has been only partial. When Lucia Watson and Beth Dooley’s foundational 1994 book Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland initiated our regional conversation, we considered northern food as the farm food of European immigrants—Iron Range pasties, good butter, and rhubarb pie. In the Heartland restaurant era, 2002–2016, we shifted the conversation to consider that northern food was that which was born from land within 150 miles—cookies made with ground sunflower seeds and honey, on a table with sauerkraut and fried crappies. Yes, but it never felt like a cuisine.
The restaurant Owamni, which was opened in 2021 by Heartland alum chef Sean Sherman, came with the best, newest answer: Northern food is Indigenous food—wild rice and bison. Yes, absolutely. And yet, northern food has struggled throughout my whole career for a clear identity because of one unavoidable and gargantuan fact: our equal and opposite cuisine, southern food. There were and are Indigenous people in the South. Pecans, squash, cornbread, crawdads—those are all Indigenous foods that became part of the warp and woof of the cloth we now recognize as southern food.
Everyone knows southern food. Barbecue and jambalaya, peaches and pecans. Biscuits made from the super fluffy, high-starch, low-protein flour grown down where they don’t know how to drive in the snow.
The snow…the snow!
What if the very thing defining this elusive idea of northern food is the most obvious thing: the snow, the cold, the winter?
Everyone here knows that when you meet someone not-from-here, they say, Where you live, it’s so cold! There’s so much snow. And their minds and faces clamp down in fear and disbelief. Some people here live like that, too. To them, winter is to be endured—via heated house to heated garage to heated car to heated office to heated house—like a painfully slow elevator ride from good place to good place: The good place of fall, which delivers the best apples in the world, Prairie Spy and First Kiss! The good place of spring and summer, bringing forth the best cheese in the world, the best rye bread and rye whiskey, to be enjoyed on a patio beneath warm breezes! To some, winter is nothing but a void landscape, culinarily and otherwise.
But hear me out: What if that four-to-five-month spread of winter, when the earth seems to sleep under a thick blanket of white, is far beyond nothing, culinarily speaking? What if winter is, of all things, generative? Even, dare I say, fertile? What if the winter that haunts us and kills a few of us every year—what if it is the essential, vital key to northern food itself?
Of course, there are iconic northern foods that require winter. The sap used to make maple syrup only flows with the right sort of spring weather conditions, when days bring freezing nights and warmer temps. A straight shot of warm spring? Not good. In 2021, Canada had to tap its strategic syrup reserve due to a warm spring.
Walleye need winter. Minnesota lakes have lost 10–14 days of ice cover on average and are warmer generally, which is a happy situation for invasive species and bass, but walleye are now naturally reproducing at rates that are half of what was recorded in our parents’ day. Wild rice is in steep decline—an unimaginable tragedy for the Ojibwe, wildlife, and all of us—because it grows in shallow water and needs both a hard winter freeze and cold temperatures in spring to germinate.
Again, this is not a climate change story, but climate change is undoubtedly changing the face of our winters, which are foundational for some of the signature flavors of northern food. No winter, no walleye shore lunch. No winter, no wild rice soup. No winter, no Minnesota maple syrup for your pancakes and more. But what about the rest of northern food?
Mike Swanson owns and operates Far North Spirits with his wife, Cheri Reese, out of the tiny town of Hallock, snug against the Canadian border and none too far from North Dakota. Far North’s signature product is Roknar Rye, a whiskey distilled from rye grown on Swanson’s family farm. It’s fat and spicy in the mouth, with that slippery slickness of a buttery chardonnay, yet smooth and prismatically rye-ish, in scent and lingering flavors of cinnamon and allspice, apricot, and plum, and it has all the grassy scent notes that make rye fans sit a little straighter and pay attention. Grassy like sage stems, sweet meadow hay, green coffee, and white pepper rubbed on tree bark. A combination of snap and smooth, grassy and gliding that I find electric.
When I phone him to talk about rye and the Minnesota winter, it has just snowed in Hallock. “I never really thought about winter all that much, to be honest,” he tells me. “It’s just our life. Of course, I know you can’t grow rye in the tropics. There is value in cold places. If you think about how oceans work, whales migrate to cold Arctic waters because they’re teeming with food, with life, while tropical areas can be food deserts for whales. People think about cold places being barren, but in the summer up here, we’re nothing short of exploding with life. The cold is an essential part of the system. It’s a period of rest, but it’s more than that. If we don’t get a hard freeze, and a good long one, my germination isn’t right.”
Here’s how rye works. In September, Swanson plants it, an inch and a half down, often in rows between canola stubble. By the time snow arrives, usually between mid-October and early December, the rye has sprouted and grown six inches or so. Next, when the snow dumps down and there’s a real freeze, the rye plant goes quiet and gets what he calls REM sleep. “It won’t seem like it’s growing, but underneath the snow, it’s definitely alive,” explains Swanson. “Whenever the soil temperature breaks 34 degrees, it starts growing again. It’ll stop and start, and by the time April or May rolls around, everything else is brown, but the rye fields are a beautiful full green. All commercial rye is winter rye.”
He’s had harsh winters produce bumper crops—but not every harsh winter produces a bumper crop—and mild winters produce average crops. “In 2015, we saw 20 below without snow cover in November. We thought, The rye won’t survive. It turned out that we had one of our best yields out of that field.” The rye is cut down in late July or August, when it turns gold. It dries in the fields, then some is set aside for planting, and the rest is brought inside to wait for real winter, when the world turns white and northern farmers have time to work on distilling.
Jodi Ohlsen Read runs Shepherd’s Way Farm with her husband, Steven Read. About an hour south of the Twin Cities near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, it’s one of the most award-winning farmstead cheese operations in the United States. She keeps a flock of around 200 East Friesian–cross dairy sheep on 43 acres of rolling green hills dotted with trees and sells most of her cheese at Mill City Farmers Market and through local markets, including Kowalski’s, Surdyk’s, and France 44. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” Ohlsen Read tells me when I reach her on the phone during a snowstorm to do an interview about the complexities of winter. “I always joke that we live here because of the cold—we don’t have spiders big enough to eat birds; the winter freezes them out.”
But of course, there’s a little more to winter for Ohlsen Read, who has been mentally preparing for our chat. “At first it was hard to think about, because I have lived it so many times—cars getting stuck in frost heaves, that knot between your shoulders from hunching up. But then I thought, Actually, the sheep have their big woolly coats, and we have wool to sell and dairy sheep, all because of winter. The sheep make their high-fat, high-protein milk because they’re winter creatures. If we lived in a desert, we’d have goats or camels.”
She goes on to point out, “A farmstead cheese is the product of the land. If we moved 100 miles, our cheese would be totally different. My Sogn cheese, the one that won first place at ACS [American Cheese Society] last year, it’s white and gray and blue with bright orange splotches—that’s this cheese being itself, because I created the environment for it to be itself. The rind of Sogn represents what’s happening on my farm—the orange mold isn’t common. It doesn’t occur everywhere. I don’t introduce it; it’s just here. Would this beautiful mold be here without our winter? Does it live in Florida? Probably not.”
When she thinks about what’s going on on the surface of her cheese, she likens it to a little Whoville, and it’s the same for the soil. “Whether I’m aware of all the little things I can’t see, it doesn’t matter; it still goes on. That reassures me,” she says. “I’m actually really glad you asked me what’s good about winter for the cheese, because I think as people we’re always, There’s a problem, that’s a problem, solve the problem! Now I’m thinking, in so many ways, winter is necessary for everything we do. No winter, no Shepherd’s Way.”
Matthew Smaus is the farm manager for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s organic vegetable farm, Wozupi Tribal Gardens, where he’s worked in various roles since 2014. The very fertility of our northern soil comes from the winter, he says. “We have high humus content in our soils—they don’t in the South. That’s winter. In the tropics, all embodied carbon is aboveground. Here, perennial grasses? Incredibly deep root systems. The embodied carbon is underground.”
A few scientific papers have explored this, Smaus points out: Year-round bacterial activity in a warm climate means that fallen leaves and other plant matter decay rapidly. In a world like ours, where it gets cold, however, the fallen leaves decay so slowly during the freezing times that we get humus. (Some examples: Earthworms burrow down below the frost line and hibernate in balls, and the bugs called springtails freeze like popsicles, so neither breaks down plant matter rapidly in the winter.)
But it’s not just about humus in the soil existing because of winter, explains Smaus. Snow cover is also an agricultural positive. “When we don’t have good snow cover, things die or are girdled by rabbits. Winter is incredibly important to me. When you have an input-driven ag, where everything you’re doing is centered on petroleum-based fertilizer, the soil might as well be hydroponic: Nothing is holding it together; it’s subject to erosion. But when you have a healthy soil, you’ve got all this living stuff going on—bacterial slime, fungus, beetles—all of that creates porosity, air space, root space. It doesn’t wash away in a big rain; it funnels the water down.”
And what role does snow play? “It’s an insulating blanket that allows soil life to continue underground,” he says. “Vegetables are water hogs, so I feel like after all my years of vegetable growing, I see winter as a soil and water story, and intuitively, when I see a nice blanket of snow, I think, That’s good for the soil, good for humus, good for soil capillarity, and so eventually it’s going to be good for carrots. Carrots actually get sweeter after a frost. Sugar is like a carrot’s antifreeze, so we wait to harvest carrots till it’s cold. That’s what I see about winter. A good winter and winter snow cover is what you need to feed people well next year.”
So what about the fruits of that frozen orchard where I started? Sweetland is about 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, in the rolling hills west of Elko Speedway. Merryweather has 20 acres, which host 5,000 apple trees, a few pigs (to eat the cider-press leftovers), a couple chickens, and a pole barn warmed by heat exchange and surrounded by large totes where ice cider naturally freezes and thaws in the way it did in cider-fan Ben Franklin’s time—cycles of day and night temps concentrating the flavors as the watery bits freeze and the cider marches towards its new life as ice cider.
Merryweather has been on her land since 2010, and I wanted to talk to her particularly because she thinks about the land.
“How is winter helpful for the orchard and your cider?” I ask her. She begins by telling me how apple trees require a certain number of “chill hours”—days at, near, or below freezing, depending on the variety. (Roughly speaking, this variability is why apples grow where there’s snow and don’t where there are coral reefs.) She’s noticed that apple crops fall apart if an early, false spring tricks the trees into blooming before the danger of a freeze has passed. She’s noticed that early, summer-ripening apples tend to be sweet and mealy, and very bad for cider, while the late-harvest apples, which ripen when it’s cold at night, have higher acid and are dense and good for cider.
So does it come down to the cold and the forced repose of winter? Does big winter make better apples? She’s never seen a direct correlation, but considering that the world’s best ciders come from winter places like eastern Canada, upstate New York, and Minnesota, it seems likely? But then again, nature—winter—has hundreds of variables, so it’s hard to tell. She cuts into a long-keeping Prairie Spy apple, and we compare notes: fresh hazelnut, peony blossom, rain.
We talk about sleep, how much of our lives we spend in that state, and how much science still doesn’t know about the various brain- and body-repair mechanisms that require that repose. But do we have language for that concept in nature, such as winter? Is this season more generative than it appears?
Merryweather admits it’s hard to imagine something productive going on in the frozen state. “Winter looks dormant, or dead,” she agrees. “But if you think about every other process in nature, when something appears to be not going on, that is actually an absolutely crucial part of the cycle.” No childbearing without the clean slate of menstruation. No rain without the dull, invisible process of evaporation.
“I know in my bones an apple tree could never go from fruiting to no rest to fruiting again,” says Merryweather. “That just seems crazy to me. It needs rest. It needs the winter. But if I needed to explain why that is to a non-apple person, I’m not sure science has published the 50,000 papers on the 50,000 variables you’d need to make that case. I know a hard, long freeze kills off the codling moth population and other pests. I know that nature is not meant to be 100 percent awake and growing; it needs periods of downtime. You would never get explosive growth in the spring without downtime in the winter; I know that. I know that if natural rhythms of life get disrupted, if your sleep gets disrupted, things get messed up. Winter is the natural rhythm here on this land. Humans, we’re on a 24-hour cycle. What if nature is on a 365-day sleep-and-go cycle? Without winter, we don’t have what we like. I know this is true.”
I look out over my last slice of apple through the window, where blue jays make splashes of color battling in the snowy landscape. “So how do I convince those who dismiss, detest, or fear this challenging season that it’s good, that it’s valuable, that it’s essential?” I ask. “Everything we like, the apples and cider, the rye bread and rye whiskey, the sheep’s milk cheese and maple syrup—you don’t get the tasty thing without the winter. The winter is fertile, the winter is generative, the winter is productive.”
Merryweather follows my gaze out the window as a puff of snow gusts out of the trees. “Tell them that winter has a purpose,” she notes. “It’s not a void, or even a dormancy. We take for granted that we sleep at night. Why is it so far-fetched to think that winter places need winter?”
Here are a few books that changed my life, in terms of seeing our magical northern world.
How about this for a northern food definition: Northern food is that rare cuisine produced only by northern lands blessed by a long, serious winter. Southerners have biscuits; northerners have rye bread. Southerners have peach pie; northerners have apple, or rhubarb, or, for that rare week or two, strawberry. It’s easy to see how a northern food scene sketches in.
The main thing we northerners haven’t had is a mental and cultural framework for northern food. But what if the core and strength of northern cuisine is winter? What if winter is our generative magic? The secret thing that makes northern food different and good? Winter is not our problem, our difficulty, our burden. It’s our strength and our gift.
Before winter retreats this year, I want you to look out your window at the snow the way you would look at a sleeping baby. Don’t look at winter and think, This is so bad. I can’t wait for spring. Try this instead, even just once: This is us. This is our necessary thing, our key thing. Northern food comes from our great frozen world of December, January, February, and March. Winter is not only chasing us indoors and trying to kill all of us; it’s also generative, productive, and, eventually, edible. Winter is northern food’s essential ingredient, definitional ingredient, the magic that fuels our harvest and makes us happy when we eat.