Winter Garden

Discussion Questions

Enhance Your Book Club Meeting for Winter Garden

If you usually go out to dinner before your meeting—or eat during it–why not prepare one of the featured recipes? Or if life is too hectic for you to spend time in the kitchen, stop by your local store and pick up some frozen pierogies. What really matters is the company and the laughter…

A huge part of the book is the apple orchard; it was really the heart of the Whitson family. Your group might like to sample a few cups of hot spiced apple cider to get you in the mood. Or maybe it’s all about the cocktails for your group. Instead of your regular white wine, try a Winterized beverage! There are lots of great White Russian recipes to be found on the Web. Just remember to stay safe if you have to drive home.

You may choose to share some of your own “fairy tales” while you’re chilling out as well. Bring photos of yourself or your family in the winter, building snowmen or sledding. Nothing makes us all laugh and smile like photos from long ago.

If someone has a computer at the meeting, check out some pictures of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) during the war. It will really bring home both the beauty of the city and the horror of the siege.


Discussion Guide

1. This novel explores a complicated and strained relationship between two sisters. Do you think Meredith is justified in being so angry with Nina? In what ways are the sisters different and in what ways are they alike?

2. Meredith and Nina are both reluctant to let the men in their lives help them through a difficult time, yet both are suffering from the grief caused by the death of their father. Do you think this is something they’ve inherited from their mother? In what other ways are they similar to their mother? Do you think it’s impossible to avoid becoming like the people who raised you?

3. Anya Whitson is color blind and cannot see the colors in her winter garden. Why do you think the author gave the character this particular trait? In what ways is it a metaphor for what Anya has gone through in her life? Do you believe it is a physiological blindness or a psychological one?

4. One of the themes in this book is female solidarity and strength during hard times. Nina witnesses women in Namibia, Africa holding hands and laughing, even though their country has been ravaged by famine and warfare. Their bond impenetrable. Why do you think she’s so interested in this theme? How else does this theme play out throughout the novel? How does understanding her mother’s life inform Nina’s view of her work?

5. Memory is an important theme in Winter Garden. Meredith often regrets–when looking at old family photos taken without her–that she was often off organizing or obsessing over details, while everyone else was living in the moment, creating memories. How common is this for women and mothers? What memories keep your family together?

6. As a child in Leningrad, Anya learned that it was dangerous to express emotions. That in doing so she would be putting what was left of her family at risk with the secret police. But now, with Meredith and Nina, her inability to express emotion is driving them apart, destroying the family she has now. How has Anya passed down this legacy to her daughters? How has it harmed their own relationships?

7. Food is an important element in this novel. Obviously, Anya loves to cook. Why doesn’t she teach this to her daughters?

8. Jeff tells Meredith that “words matter.” What are some examples of this throughout the story? How have words saved and harmed each of these characters’ lives? How has silence saved and harmed each of these characters’ lives? How do words—the telling of the fairy tale—change their individual and collective perceptions of who they are?

9. When Anya, Meredith and Nina watch the man carving the totem pole in Alaska in memory of his deceased son, Meredith realizes that Anya’s fairytale has served the same function as this man’s sculpture. It is a symbol of loss, a way to sublimate the pain of grief, to heal. In what other ways did Anya heal by telling her daughters the fairy tale? In what ways did Meredith and Anya heal?

10. Anya is an unsympathetic character throughout much of the book. How did your perception of her change as the fairy tale unfolded? Did you end up sympathizing with her, or even liking her? Or do you feel that her treatment of her daughters was inexcusable, regardless of the hardships she had faced in her life? How do you think you would have fared in Leningrad under the siege? Was Anya heroic in Leningrad, or a failure?

11. It isn’t until Nina and Meredith discover who their mother is that they are able to discover who they are. What do they find out about themselves? How do you think their perception of their own childhoods will change now that they know the truth behind their mother’s story?

12. Winter Garden teaches us that it is never too late to say “I love you.” Meredith and Nina waited all of their lives to hear it from their mother. Sasha waited until his death for Anya to return. What has this novel taught us about the bonds of family and the strength of love?

13. How did you feel about the ending? Why do you think the author chose the surprising meeting in Sitka?

Food For Thought

I have to say, writing this novel made me hungry. In a very real way, food—its abundance and its lack—was at the very heart of the story. Obviously, the historical section detailed the starvation faced by Leningraders, but food also had a starring role in the contemporary story line. Cooking was Anya’s way of reaching out to her daughters. She was constantly feeding them and cooking for them and begging them to eat. In due time, of course, we discover the truth behind Anya’s obsessions, and by the time we learn the truth, we feel a deep empathy for this woman for whom food was so important.

Before embarking on Winter Garden, I knew very little about Russian food. Oh, I’d had the occasional sip of vodka or taste of caviar, but beyond that, not much. As I wrote the scenes, however, I cooked the food for my family, and I have to say, what a treat it was. In case you’d like add a little ambiance while you’re reading the novel, I’ve included these classic Russian recipes. Enjoy!



Makes 65 to 70 pierogi; 8 to 10 servings

This recipe…yields a large amount. You could halve the recipe, but instead I recommend making the full amount and freezing half. Frozen pierogi can be dropped directly into boiling water for cooking; there’s no thawing required. You can also refrigerate the dough for a day or two, so you can make the pierogi in a couple batches…


  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 1⁄4 cups all-purpose flour


    4 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 5 cups finely chopped onion
  • 4 cups mashed potatoes (leftovers are fine)
  • 4 ounces farmer’s cheese
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


  • 2 large egg whites
  • All-purpose flour, as needed
  • Sour cream, for serving
  1. To make the wrappers, in a small bowl, combine the egg yolk, milk, 1 ⁄2 cup water, and the vegetable oil. Whip with a fork for 1 minute. Place the flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the wet ingredients, about one- third at a time, using your fingers or a fork to incorporate the wet ingredients between additions.
  2. When you have added all the wet ingredients, use your hands to fold the dough together. If it seems too sticky, add a little more flour, about 1 teaspoon at a time to avoid making it too dry.
  3. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and knead for 3 minutes. Again, add very small amounts of flour if the dough is too sticky to knead. When the dough is smooth and thoroughly amalgamated, form it into a ball, transfer it to a small bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Clean and dry your work surface.
  4. While the dough is chilling, prepare the topping and filling. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan, then add the onions and sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 10 minutes.
  5. In a large bowl, combine 3⁄4 cup of the cooked onions, the mashed potatoes, farmer’s cheese, salt, and pepper. Set aside at room temperature. Reserve the remaining onions for the topping.
  6. When you are ready to roll the dough, in a small bowl combine the 2 egg whites with 2 tablespoons water and set it to the side of your work surface. You will also need a pastry brush, a rolling pin, a teaspoon (the table kind, not a measuring spoon), a fork, and a round cookie cutter about 2 3⁄4 inches in diameter (a jar lid or juice glass will also work). Set aside a floured jelly- roll pan, platter, or cutting board for the finished pierogi as well.
  7. Divide the dough into 3 sections. Place 1 section on the work surface, well floured, and roll out to 1 ⁄16 inch. Cut circles of dough with the cookie cutter. Place a heaping teaspoon of the filling in the center of each circle, leaving an empty margin. Brush some of the egg white mixture on half of the outer edge of the circle, and then fold the dough over into a half- moon shape. Crimp the edges with your fingers or with a small fork.
  8. As you finish, transfer each pierogi to the floured board or platter. Do not stack them. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
  9. Fill a large stockpot about three- quarters full with salted water and bring to a rolling boil. Using a slotted spoon or skimmer, lower the pierogi, three or four at a time, into the boiling water and cook for 4 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain, and transfer to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining pierogi, allowing the water to return to a full boil each time.
  10. When you have cooked all the pierogi, serve them topped with the reserved sautéed onion and as much sour cream as you like.
Variation: For Fried Pierogi, cook them in boiling water as above but for 2 minutes rather than 4, then sauté them in butter until they are golden brown. When making Potato Pierogi for Christmas, leave out the farmer’s cheese in the filling and add a little extra mashed potato.



Serves 6 to 8

Like Veal Goulash, this is a belly filling meal- in- a-bowl, perfect for cold weather. Serve it

with egg noodles or rice. Also like Ola’s Veal Goulash*, this recipe includes some ketchup. Interestingly, our Eastern European cooks don’t see ketchup as a condiment— for them it’s interchangeable with tomato paste, probably because they didn’t have it on their tables when they were growing up. You can substitute tomato paste for the ketchup without any loss of flavor…

  • 5 pounds pepper steak strips
  • 1 cup all- purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups Chicken Stock (page 35)
  • 4 tablespoons ketchup
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 whole allspice berries
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 2 yellow onions, sliced (about 11⁄2 cups)
  • 4 large portobello mushrooms, sliced
  • 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced
  • 8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. Rinse the meat and pat dry. Dredge the meat in the flour.
  2. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and pan fry the meat until completely browned on all sides. (Cook in batches if necessary.)
  3. Meanwhile, combine the chicken stock and ketchup in a large stockpot or Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Remove the cooked meat from the skillet with tongs or a slotted spoon (let any excess fat drip back into the skillet) and place the meat in the pot with the stock. (Pour off excess fat and set the skillet aside for step 5.) The stock should just cover the meat in the pot. If necessary, add a small amount of additional stock or some water.
  4. Add the bay leaves and whole allspice berries to the pot. Simmer the beef until very tender, about 1 and 1 ⁄2 hours, skimming occasionally.
  5. In the same cast-iron skillet you used to cook the meat, melt the butter. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a deep rich brown, about 11 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they are fully cooked, 10 to 15 additional minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  6. When the meat is cooked, remove about 2 cups of cooking liquid from the pot and transfer to a medium bowl. Stir the sour cream into the hot liquid. Add the cornstarch to the sour cream and whisk vigorously to remove any lumps. This mixture should be very creamy and somewhat thick. Return the sour cream mixture to the pot, stir to combine with the meat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
  7. Stir in the mushrooms and onions and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.
Variations: To make Chicken Stroganoff , replace the pepper steak with boneless, skinless chicken breasts cut into strips and decrease the stock to 21⁄2 cups. In step 4, simmer the chicken for only 15 to 20 minutes, and in step 6, stir only 1 cup of cooking liquid into the sour cream. Omit the ketchup or reduce to 2 tablespoons.


Find this and many other delicious recipes in The Veselka Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Landmark Restaurant in New York’s East Village by Tom Birchard with Natalie Danford. To learn more or to buy the book, visit