Saturday, July 15, 2017

Winter Wheat

new treasure
Back to my sweet California home, where the heat is dry, the pot legal, and all the young men have beards. 

Quick report on Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, which I finished just now.

This 1944 novel is narrated by a young woman named Ellen who lives with her parents on a Montana wheat farm. She goes off to college in Minnesota, falls in love with a city boy, and has to drop out of college after a bad harvest. She milks the cows. She runs the combine. She goes to teach at an isolated rural school. It hails. It snows. It gets hot. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Throughout, Ellen attempts to understand her parents’ mysterious marriage and make sense of her own passionate attachment to the land.

I haven’t read a novel this straightforward in a long time. It’s not a children’s book — and it’s not flat or simplistic — but there’s nothing fancy going on with the writing here. I didn’t copy out any dazzling passages because there weren’t any. By contrast, 10 pages of my notebook are filled with passages from Rachel Cusk’s (amazing) Transit, which is the last novel I finished before this one.

Yet I suspect I’ll remember Ellen’s story long after I’ve forgotten what happened in Transit. This novel is what I think critics mean when they use the words “deeply felt.” I ordinarily dislike the term “deeply felt,” but it captures the emotional purity and intensity of Winter Wheat. It was a very clean and vivid reading experience. I loved it.

This isn’t a blanket recommendation. Not everyone will enjoy Winter Wheat. I read somewhere once that there are two types of readers, those who liked the Narnia books when they were children and those who liked the Little House series. I was a Little House kid. Winter Wheat is for us. 

There’s a lot of food in Winter Wheat, as there always is in novels set on farms, which may be one reason why I like them so much.  You’re treated to images like: “The bulb in its green paper shade shone down on chicken pie and candied sweet potatoes and Mom’s rolls.” A plot twist turns on a glass of homemade dandelion wine. 

I thought as I always do when reminded of the existence of dandelion wine that I would like to taste it one day.  I looked up a recipe. To get started, you collect three quarts of dandelion blossoms — and not the whole flower, just the fluffy, weightless yellow petals you’ve stripped off the green head. Three quarts!

Nope. Not today. Sadly, probably never.


40 comments:

  1. Once upon a time: 2 small children (bored) + 1 summer vacation (long) = 3 qts. dandelion blossom.

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  2. I too was a Little House girl, in part because the stories reflected my mothers family stories. And the food, what can you do besides cook homemade rolls and eat them fresh from the oven, with dripping butter?

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    1. I longed to live in the Little House world full-time. I was especially keen to have dinner at Almanzo's house. That was the book where the cooking was really nuts.

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    2. I still remember him eating pie at the county fair. "Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie." Then there's a description of all the pies he ate. I probably haven't read that book in 30 years and I still remember it.

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  3. Little House all the way.

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  4. When I lived in Montana and was in a book club, we usually read a book each year by a Montana author which is how I was introduced to Winter Wheat. It is a quiet and lovely book. Plus, the main character shares my name which doesn't happen very often.

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    1. Ellen. You're right. There aren't a lot of Ellens in literature. But now I'll be trying to think of some all morning!

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    2. Ellen Olenska in the Age of Innocence and ... hmmm.

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  5. I loved Outline so I will put Transit in my book pile. I will also add Winter Wheat even though I was not a Little House girl. I am a Jennifer Reese girl though. Please keep up the book recs. I thoroughly enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow and am now enjoying listening to The Essex Serpent, which I find very engaging. This past year I liked the Audible version of John Le Carre's The Pigeon Tunnel, the memoir he so splendidly read. If you're into that sort of thing, I think you will like it.

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    1. I have Gentleman in Moscow on my stack and Essex Serpent on hold at the library, though I'm pretty far down the list. I love John Le Carre so I'll put that on the list. Thank you! Seriously, if you didn't like Little House you should not try Winter Wheat. There are crossover books, but this isn't one of them.

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  6. I've toyed with the idea of dandelion wine as well. Now that you have informed me that it would take 3 quarts, I can mark it off my list! I didn't read the Little House books, but I like the kind of books that are "deeply felt", so I get that description. I will have to put Winter Wheat and Transit on my to-read list. Yes, as Victoria says above, please do keep up the book recommendations!

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    1. I didn't read anything about Mildred Walker, but I suspect that the story in Winter Wheat closely tracks her own. It's not a masterpiece, but I really enjoyed it. A change of pace from my usual reading.

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  7. My experience with dandelion wine was when I was young - probably around 10 years old. Our family drove to the Amana Colonies in eastern-ish Iowa. They gave out shot-glass sized samples and mom let us have a taste when the employee was not looking. It was sweet and syrupy and a treat for a kid. Maybe they have drier versions now, but not something I would drink as an adult. Luckily Iowa's wine selections have improved greatly!

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    1. Donna, that is just Amana wine in general. All the flavors are syrupy like that.

      My family and I made dandelion wine once when I was a little kid, but I was too small to try any. My mom seems to remember it as having been a big production, though.

      I liked both the Narnia and the Little House books. I guess there are more than two kinds of people.

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    2. I saw a huge patch of dandelions yesterday when I was driving. I might have to go ahead with this.

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  8. I read this book in my 20s and again in my 40s. I loved it both times, but for different reasons. I was a little house gal all the way, as were my daughters.

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    1. I love how books change depending on the age when you read them.

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  9. I'm so glad you enjoyed Winter Wheat. I read it on a long,long solo backpacking trip through Europe during the early 90's when one of the continual stresses, along with finding a hotel I could afford and fending off overly amorous men on the trains, was getting my hands on sufficient reading material. I found Winter Wheat in a second hand store in Spain and bought it mainly because it was in English. I discovered a lot of wonderful writers on that trip.
    I did enjoy those Little House books and had no use for the Narnia ones!




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    1. Winter Wheat would be the perfect escape when traveling alone through Europe.

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  10. Your July 9th post helped me to remember and inspired me to re-read Giants in the Earth (Rolvaag). I needed to perk up after that, and pulled Edna Ferber's So Big only because I wanted to continue farming in the Upper Midwest/ Great Plains. Looks as though I'm headed to the library this week for Winter Wheat. Thank you!

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    1. "So Big!" I haven't heard anyone mention that in years. I never read it, but my mother kept trying to push it on me when I was young. Should I read it?

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    2. You mother was a wise woman. I think you will love it :)

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    3. YES YES YES!!!!!! I loved So Big!

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    4. I'm a sucker for almost anything Edna Ferber, or at least I was in my teens and 20's, when I found a book of her short stories in a thrift store for fifty cents. Loved So Big, loved Giant, loved Saratoga Trunk, loved Ice Palace!

      PS lots of fun food descriptions in Saratoga Trunk, which takes place in New Orleans.

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  11. Will you ever divulge in this blog what strange behavior your ancestors exhibited that sparked such curiosity in you? I'm dying to know. Gosh I love your posts!

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    1. I feel like a jerk talking about shocking stories and then not sharing them. I have to put all the pieces together. . .

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  12. I loved Little House AND Narnia! What does that say about me?

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    1. Me too! Both series were central to my childhood. Although I'd much rather eat pie with Almanzo than Turkish delight with Edmund.

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  13. Loved the Narnia books and The Little House books. Tried making dandelion wine but it fermented beyond the confines of the bottle and made a huge mess. Was enticed by Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

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  14. Back in the late 80s I was a waitress, and befriended a lot of the older gentlemen who came into our restaurant. One of them had a sister who made dandelion wine, and he brought me a few jars (yes, it was kept in old jars). I'm sorry to say that I didn't like it very much. The only thing I can compare it to is some really bad grappa I've had.

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    1. Sure it wasn't moonshine? That is some of the nastiest stuff that exists in this world.

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  15. Want some dandelion wine? I've got a two year old gallon batch in the basement, I make it about every year. Three quarts of flowers is totally unnecessary. You can make it with three cups of dandelion flowers, some years I've just made a pint. Finding that many organic flowers not next to a road is usually my challenge but I have an agreement with the lawn crew at my school (I'm a teacher) that they don't mow until I've picked the flowers for this year's batch- and they never treat the grass. Dandelion wine is a delicious aperitif, golden yellow with a sweet, complex flavor -Alice

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    1. So would you consider sharing your process with us? When you say you only need 3 cups of flowers, how much wine does that make?

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    2. 3 cups of flowers would make a bit more than a pint I should think? Bearing in mind that because it is a sweet and rich taste, I serve it in stemmed glass shot glasses, so that pint can last a while.

      My recipe is as follows, and can be scaled up or down, this is for making a quart.

      Active time:
      Initially, a few hours, combined between picking the flowers, cleaning them, and then processing them. Then there is a several day period where you aren't doing anything but the wine is sitting and fermenting on your kitchen counter.
      The wine needs to age 3-4 months at least afterwards, I usually make it in the spring and break it out around the winter holidays.

      You will need:
      Plenty of dandelion flowers, ideally picked in an area that is not near a road or a sprayed field. The quantity depends on the size of the flowers, the availability, and your patience with collecting. I tend to quit when there are about two baseball caps full in my bag, or when I run out of flowers. Some years I've scaled the recipe down and only made a cup of wine, some years I've made a gallon.

      A canning jar (I usually make it in a quart jar) with band and lid
      small pairing knife
      A loose weave cloth napkin or some cheese cloth to cover jar,
      with additional cheese cloth for straining.
      granulated sugar
      Juice of 1/2 a lemon and 1/2 and orange. (or meyer lemon juice should you be lucky)
      bread yeast
      boiling water

      Directions:
      Pick a Lot of dandelion flowers- your goal is to pack a jar with just the blossoms) then within an hour or so, as the flowers wilt quickly, with a pairing knife slice off the base of the flower, and unwrap the golden fluff from the green crown of petals. You only want the golden fluff. This will take a while and is a finicky pain, so do it with friends or while listening to Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, or something similarly entertaining.

      Pack jar full of picked blossoms to just below shoulder of jar, cover with granulated sugar (I don't have a proper measurement here, I pour it in until there is sugar around each blossom- somewhere between half a cup and a cup? Add boiling water to cover, not to shoulder as you need plenty of headspace.
      When water is lukewarm, add juice of 1/2 lemon & 1/2 orange per quart. Add scant tsp yeast and stir. Cover jar with napkin or cheese cloth and lightly screw on the band to keep it secure.
      Let stand 24 hours on the kitchen counter.
      Strain and discard solids.
      Let stand for 3 days, lightly covered.
      Strain again, through several layers of cheese cloth. (It works well to line a colander with cheese cloth and put the colander over a bowl here.
      Clean your jar, pour in the wine (It will need headspace), screw the lid on snugly. It will be a molten golden yellow color.
      Let age in the dark for a good 3-4 months before drinking. This stuff is something you sip as an aperitif or add to cocktails, so a little goes a long way, though you might find your friends angling for extras. It's a fun thing to break out as part of a celebration. -Alice

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  16. I loved both the Narnia and the Little House books also, though I read them at different times in my childhood. Lots of great food descriptions in the Narnia as well, especially The Horse and His Boy. There's a scene where Shasta eats breakfast with dwarves and another when he's mistaken for a prince and eats the prince's elaborate dinner.

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