Life in a Northern Town by Mary Dougherty

IMG_0185Having lived my entire life on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, I was drawn to this lovely book about Great Lakes life on the shores of Lake Superior. I was curious to see if there were similarities, despite the distance between western New York and the upper peninsula of Wisconsin. In many ways, this was like reading my own life, and I finished this exquisite book feeling as though Mary Dougherty and I are old friends.

Dougherty – a former restaurant owner, blogger, Mom to 5, and activist – has written a sumptuous, supremely readable cookbook/memoir that is organized by seasons. It has been a very long time since I’ve read a cookbook that better reflects the life lived by the author, and Dougherty has done a remarkable job of connecting the food and the people of Bayfield, Wisconsin to the land and the Lake.

While living in a remote, small town of less than 500 people, Dougherty has managed to stock her pantry with exotic spices and fill her kitchen with adventurous cooking, blending local with global in an appealing, delicious melange of meals ranging from Thai Corn Chowder to Whitefish in Foil. Enhanced by gorgeous photography and a chatty style, this book takes you deep into the forest and then out on the blue water of Lake Superior, through all four seasons. Dougherty is my kind of cook – while all the recipes are detailed enough for a beginning cook, she makes a point of encouraging the reader to experiment, taste, and adjust as necessary. Some of the recipes are familiar (Nicoise Salad in a Jar), but the stories accompanying nearly every recipe create a moment that makes each special.

I was pleasantly surprised at the commonalities I found between Bayfield, Wisconsin and western NY. I know that many early settlers in the western NY region eventually migrated west, and I’m betting that some of them ended up in Wisconsin. Here are just a few of the familiar things I discovered here:

  • Canned potatoes – this story could have been told by my kids, who ate canned potatoes at their Grandmother’s house every Tuesday night for years when they were little. Nothing matches that consistency and taste!
  • Penzey’s Spices – my sister gives me a box of Penzey’s for Christmas every year!
  • Parades – community parades are a Big Deal where I live, where pretty much any group who wants to participate can walk the route, tossing candy into the crowd. Here’s a photo of the Lawn Chair Ladies taken at the Hilton Firemen’s Parade a couple weeks ago.IMG_1954
  • Chautauqua – The settlers in Wisconsin HAD to pass through New York. This name is just too unusual. Chautauqua County NY is home to the Chautauqua Institute, which hosts amazing concerts and other events.
  • Salt potatoes – totally a Central/Western NY thing! No BBQ is complete without salt potatoes and sweet corn!
  • AppleFest – My favorite event of the year is the Hilton Apple Fest. One year, they set the world’s record for largest baked apple crisp. I bet Bayfield’s Fest has done something similar!
  • And finally, I could not believe it when I turned the page to find my mother’s recipe for Angel Pie! I have never encountered this recipe outside of my family!

It’s rare that I highlight the text in a cookbook, but Dougherty’s witty prose is as good as her recipes. Here are a few gems that I enjoyed:

  • It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.
  • Maple syrup: capturing spring awakenings in a bottle, one year at a time.
  • Think of it at the little black dress of appetizers: always appropriate and never over done.
  • Fall is a pause between the riotous abundance of summer and the muffled repose of winter.

Mary Dougherty has produced a fabulous, readable cookbook/memoir that I will go back to again and again. Her sense of family and community is refreshing, and her creative approach to cooking is totally authentic. The recipes are interesting and delicious, and mostly suitable for beginning cooks. I used a digital advanced copy for this review, but will be buying this book in hardcover and probably giving a couple as Christmas gifts this year. I’ll end with a lovely quote that touched my heart:

I never expected quiet perfection because I knew the good stuff always comes from the messy and brilliant business of living a life in a way that brings you to your knees in gratitude every now and then.

Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “Life in a Northern Town by Mary Dougherty”

  1. You have no idea how thrilling it was to get an email from my editor that said, ‘have you seen this??’ and then read my very first review on your web site. I’m really good at tequila and I’m perfecting my tamale skills — come to northern WI and I’ll m make you dinner!


  2. Wow! You kind words are so appreciated — writing a book turned out to be about as anxiety-inducing as anything I’ve ever done (and that’s saying a lot since I have five kids)! I’m really glad you liked it and the connection with the canned potatoes, angel pie, and salted potatoes is too weird…maybe we were separated at birth??


    1. Mary! I never expected you’d comment here. Thank you for writing this book. It is now a favorite. I made the Tuscan Salt last week and promptly fell in love. If I ever make to upper Wisconsin, I’ll look you up and we can have coffee…or some tequila!


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