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Taste of Place: Iowa's Food Culture and Heritage


Photo: Phin Vivanh preparing Tai Dam egg rolls, Des Moines (RH Saltzman, 2005)

By Rachelle H. Saltzman, Iowa Arts Council, Folklife Coordinator, Grants Coordinator


Oregon Pinots, Wisconsin cheese curds, Chesapeake Bay blue crabs-these are all foods that evoke a "taste of place." Whether you feel the actual squeak of that cheese against your teeth or suck the sweet, spicy crab from its claw, these foods transport you to Wisconsin's bucolic farms or Maryland's small-town coastal crab shacks.

What Iowa foods can create comparable taste memories and place associations? A quick survey of the forums at Roadfood.com reveals the majority of "foodies" identify Iowa with pork tenderloins (www.allenbukoff.com/wildBPTiowa03/), MaidRites or loose meat sandwiches, and quality pork and beef. There is relatively little notice paid to foods my colleagues at the Department of Cultural Affairs say provide an Iowa "taste of place," such as popcorn, pie plant (rhubarb), Muscatine melons, Red Delicious apples, beef and sweet corn-or morel mushrooms and wild asparagus, which evoke childhood memories of family Sunday drives.

When I first started working in Iowa in 1995 as the state folklorist for the Iowa Arts Council, I came to realize that Iowa is about community-and Iowa is about food, but not just corn, beans and pork. At the 1996 Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife and the subsequent Sesquicentennial Festival of Iowa Folklife, vendors sold and traditional cooks demonstrated dishes representative of Iowa's largely Northern and Central European heritage.

Czech red cabbage, Swedish potato sausage and Dutch pancakes were all there, as were Jewish challah, Mexican tamales and Meskwakie fry bread. Since then, I've found that Bosnian pita (meat or cheese strudel), Vietnamese ph� and Lebanese flatbread also evoke "tastes" found in Iowa today.

Yet Iowa is better known for its agricultural commodities of corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle than for its table food. According to Rich Pirog's A Geography of Taste (2004) (www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/newsreleases/2004/taste_101304.htm
); however, prior to World War II and up until the 1950s, Iowa farms were highly diversified and relatively small. Since 1920, commodity production in Iowa has plummeted from 34 items to 10.

Although such products as Maytag Blue Cheese, Amana meats and wines, sweet corn and Muscatine melons (www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/newsreleases/2004/muscatine_111804.htm) are recognized beyond our state's borders, they are not necessarily linked to Iowa. The challenge is to let people living in Iowa and away know about, taste, and continue to consume Iowa foods-as well as visit the communities that produce them.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (www.leopold.iastate.edu/)
 recently launched a project exploring the notion of documenting and finding niche and specialty markets for "place-based foods" (www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/newsreleases/2005/food_030205.htm.


A place-based food is a food that is tied to the climate and soil of a region as well as to the culture and traditions of its inhabitants. The goal is to identify those foods that can be distinguished as uniquely Iowan, and then to tell their stories. The resulting report will include a selection of narratives from the state's major ecological regions regarding place-based Iowa foods with the potential to be used for marketing those foods, encouraging their production, and attracting visitors to the communities and cultures that nurture them.

This project is looking for Iowans to tell their stories about the fruits, vegetables and meats grown in Iowa, or items that have been processed or prepared here. The place-based food should have some heritage basis, whether historical, ethnic, ecological or geographic, and a related story that makes its Iowa connection clear. If that connection entices visitors to a town or region to taste the food as well as the culture, so much the better.

Culinary tourism is an increasingly popular way people "visit" different cultures. We go to restaurants, food markets, read food magazines and cookbooks, and watch food-oriented films and the Food Network. Eating, like listening to music or going to museums, provides a window into other cultures. But with food, we aren't restricted to just listening or seeing. We can use all of our senses-and even bring home a souvenir such as a special jam, a bag of pastries or a cookbook to recreate our travels.

But culinary tourism is not just about eating; it's about exploring the places where food is grown, made and processed, about experiencing a taste of local life. Designated food heritage areas are attractive to destination travelers, stimulating business and government investments in locally grown and produced foods.

Iowans are increasingly interested in the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" movement, heralding a return to our rural past. We go to three-season farmers markets or rely on CSAs to get fresh and natural Iowa rhubarb, berries, meats and eggs-as well as to know the people who produce our food. Tours of Iowa's wineries near Dubuque, Des Moines and Council Bluffs are already in the works. According to Golden Hills RC&D Viticulture Technician, Eli Bergmeier, promising wines include St. Croix (a syrah-like red dinner wine) and Edelweiss (a fruity, semi-sweet to off-dry white similar to a Riesling).

The flavors of Iowa also derive from a variety of regional and ethnic traditions of those groups that have made Iowa their home over the years. Each has added its own distinct contribution to Iowa's cultural heritage-from Native Americans to Europeans, from Asians to Africans, from South and Central Americans to Middle Easterners. No matter the group, its culture and its food are inextricably intertwined.

Visitors and residents travel to the Amana Colonies to experience the past via the home-cooked German-style meals and fresh-baked breads and pies. Those who gain entr�e into the Amana Church Society community can further experience rhubarb wine, potato dumplings and what I suspect may be the prototype for that all-American green bean casserole-but the cream is not from canned soup, and the string beans and the onions don't come out of a can.


Throughout the spring, fall and summer, there are food, ethnic and regional festivals in Iowa. You can visit Adel, West Point and Gladbrook for sweet corn festivals or drive over to Donnellson for Apple Daze or to Long Grove and Farmington to celebrate the strawberry crop. And make sure to stop in Cedar Rapids for the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library's Houby Days-in honor of those wonderful morel mushrooms that grow wild in Iowa in the late spring.

Visitors from near and far descend upon Decorah in early July each year for Nordic Fest, which provides such Norwegian delicacies as krumkake (thin, rolled waffle cookies), as well as locally grown organic food at town restaurants and Scandinavian music, dance and crafts. Locals in Story City and other towns with Norwegian populations also have lutefisk suppers, usually the week or so before Thanksgiving, to raise funds and honor their ethnic heritage.

Des Moines locals visit the Greek Food Fair (always the first weekend in June) as well as the Jewish Food Festival a few weeks before to fill up on both food and a variety of cultural offerings. And each year for Tai Dam New Year (celebrated the same time as Chinese and Vietnamese New Year in January or February) as well as for Lao New Year in mid-April, community members gather to eat huge quantities of traditional homemade dishes now made from a combination of imported and Iowa-grown ingredients.

In the small town of Mineola in southwest Iowa, the Platte German community there celebrates its annual founders day with the local production of mettwurst-not bratwurst, which is not part of the community's heritage. Gary Schoening, whose family first came to the region in the 1870s, still gets together with friends and relatives every year to make mettwurst. Typically and traditionally produced during the wintertime, mettwurst is a cold-smoked sausage prepared for home or church-consumption only, since cold smoking of pork is not a commercially sanctioned process. If you want to try some, visit Mineola in February for St. John's Lutheran annual church supper, which includes boiled or grilled mettwurst, sauerkraut, green beans, rye bread, fried potatoes, and banana cream pie-all homemade. Or come out for the town's 125th anniversary this Labor Day weekend to see some mettwurst making demonstrations.

It's impossible to think of any regionally or ethnically based event that does not include food processed if not always grown locally. Food is the focus or at least a significant part of the reason tourists want to visit and learn about different cultures.

Although there are many more foods rooted in Iowa's heritage and soils, there are challenges to overcome to transform them from eclectic bits of travel trivia to specialty products. Some Iowans are already beginning this process, starting with marketing approaches and accessibility options.

For example, Uncle Jack's popcorn comes from north central Iowa and involves at least a fourth-generation, possibly heirloom, three-color corn variety. Steve McLaughlin relates that his father and his grandfather before him would gift newly married children with one ear each of brown, white and red popcorn. Steve continues the tradition, supplying his own children with family popcorn in locally packaged microwavable bags, which are occasionally available for local sale. According to McLaughlin, Uncle Jack's popcorn is smaller than and not quite as fluffy as the leading national brand, but it is reputed to be much tastier!

Nut tree farmer and contact for the Southeast Iowa Nut Growers (S.I.N.G), Tom Wahl of Red Fern Farm in Wapello (www.redfernfarm.com), is working to create growers for naturally certified chestnuts and pawpaws as well as heart nuts, a fast growing tree that produces a mild, sweet-flavored, easily extracted nut in a very appealing heart-shaped shell.

Native Iowa pawpaw trees produce a rich, soft, fall fruit that does not ship well and is loaded with seeds. The fruit can be frozen for use in baked goods and ice cream; however, Wahl reports that an upscale restaurant in Tennessee sells pawpaw ice cream for $10 a gallon.

But the most viable tree crop for Iowa may be Chinese chestnuts: They grow well and quickly here, require no investment in expensive agricultural machinery, do not cause soil erosion and have a proven demand as a specialty crop. According to Wahl, chestnuts are the third most popular nut worldwide, after peanuts and coconuts. Italy currently dominates the marketplace for a nut that brings an average wholesale price of $4 per pound. USDA records show the United States imports 41 million pounds of chestnuts and produces only half a million.

While chestnuts, heart nuts and pawpaws may become full-scale specialty crops, local dairy products are at the other end of the spectrum and fill more of a niche market. Francis and Susan Thicke's organic dairy farm in Fairfield produces rich milk, yoghurt, ice cream mix, cream, cheese and butter from its herd of 65 pasture-fed Jerseys to sell to local food markets and restaurants.

Francis, educated at the Universities of Minnesota and Illinois in soil science and agronomy, grew up on a family farm in Minnesota. For nine years, he managed a dairy farm with his brother, an expert in pastured dairy cattle. Prior to moving to Fairfield with his wife, Thicke worked for the USDA. Committed to producing organically certified dairy products for an exclusively local market, the Thickes took over the Radiance Dairy farm in 1992. To enjoy the tasty (translation: high butterfat!) Radiance products, however, you have to visit Fairfield, where you can see the local sites and have fresh panir (made from Radiance milk) at Gupta's Indian Restaurant on the square or Radiance ice cream at Everybody's grocery store (where the non-organic products are labeled, instead of the reverse).

The irony inherent in combining a marketing approach with one that involves food produced locally, humanely and organically, is that the former can discourage the latter-exactly what happened with Amana(r) meats. When demand outgrew supply, the label ceased to refer to pork and beef actually raised in the Amana Colonies. Instead, the challenge is to encourage geographical identification or ecolabels for Iowa heritage foods and to encourage Iowans and non-Iowans alike to appreciate the places where these foods are produced.

If you're interested in participating in this project, please go to www.iowaartscouncil.org to complete the Place-Based Food Survey (just type Place-Based Foods Survey into the browser window). There is also a recipe section for those of you with heritage recipes from your families, communities, and friends. Or feel free to contact me at riki.saltzman@iowa.gov, 515-242-6195. 




 
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