Ten Minutes With Darra Goldstein
The explorer of nordic cuisine and culture
Photo by Gregory Cherin
Darra Goldstein’s last non-commissioned cookbook was published nearly 20 years ago. But the longtime professor of Russian at Williams College and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, a ground-breaking magazine “without a single recipe in it,” finally rolled up her sleeves and got back in the kitchen. The result is Fire + Ice: Classic Nordic Cooking, a richly illustrated cookbook—due out mid-October—that pays homage to the food traditions from the Land of the Midnight Sun.
The feel of this book is very nostalgic. What do you think sets it apart from your other cookbooks?
My other books are all very connected to my academic life, to what I was researching at the time. But this book was built on the arc of my life over the past 40 years, from the moment I landed in Finland as a college student in 1972. One of the beautiful things about Fire + Ice is that it gave me an opportunity to think back over the years, to when my husband and I were first married and living in Sweden. It also gave me the chance to get back into the kitchen, to return to the sensual side of food—the sharp tang of vinegar, the smokiness of ash—all of that was very stirring. And it gave me space to reflect on the paradox of abundance in cold climates, to help people discover the riches that are actually there.
Would you say that paradox can be applied to rural New England life?
With the winters we’ve been having lately, definitely! We moved to Williamstown from San Francisco, and that first winter was hard, to say the least. My friends in the Nordic countries love summer, of course, especially since it’s cold there for eight or more months of the year. But they also look forward to winter, to the silence, to strapping on cross-country skis. There’s incredible beauty in winter. If you look closely at snow, you’ll find a whole spectrum of colors and light.
There is something unfussy about the recipes here. Is that deliberate?
Yes. With my first cookbooks, I was concerned with being authentic. But when you think about it, authentic is a pretty meaningless word. My early recipes were belabored. I’m very busy these days—we’re all very busy. So I no longer want to spend days making complex dishes.
Were the food pictures taken on location in the four countries highlighted?
All of the food pictures were shot at our house. At first I was hoping that we would travel to do the food shots, but my editor wanted to use my kitchen, my pots and pans. When the food stylist came, she started rooting through my drawers, just picking stuff out. In one of the shots, you can see my daughter’s baby spoon. In another, there’s a skillet on a tree stump—my husband cut that tree down in our yard. It’s lovely that we all ended up as part of the book.
What is your absolute favorite thing to eat?
Good bread. On the whole spectrum. Whether it’s an egg-enriched, soft Challah to a really sour, doughy rye.
What is your most favorite Berkshire food tradition?
Making apple cider in the fall has to be my favorite local food activity. I love the smell of freshly pressed apples! When our daughter was turning eight, we borrowed an old-fashioned cider press for her party, and the kids had great fun cranking it and watching apples transform into juice. And, of course, with apple cider season come cider doughnuts, an additional delight.
What is your food background? Does your recent Nordic endeavor reflect that?
Not at all. I grew up in a very Jewish family in Pittsburgh. The only Nordic connection would be the cold winters. But my mother was a wonderful cook, and she loved trying new foods. Every year at Christmas we’d visit the nationality rooms at the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt to sample the holiday specialties. But that was about it. It was the 1950s. Eating food from different places seemed exotic then.
Do you consider some foods in the book exotic?
Apart from the Swedish anchovies, fresh herring, and whitefish, I could find everything I needed in the Berkshires. I don’t think the recipes are too adventurous—few of the ingredients are unfamiliar to us, yet the flavor combinations are new; that’s what makes the recipes exciting. They’re really easy, they appeal in new ways to our senses, and most are highly nourishing, too.
Everybody is talking about how food is bad. What do you think?
Food is fraught in this country. It’s become the enemy. We overthink every bite. Is it GMO free? Is it going to make me fat? The joy of food has been lost. But I think that joy is still intrinsic to the Nordic countries and other parts of the world. There is still that sense of anticipation of fresh food. That’s the fire part. The word focus comes from the Latin word meaning hearth. The idea of gathering around a fire, or a table, together.