Saturday, 21 February 2009
We've Come a Long Way, Still Got a Long Way to Go
Iowa has been desperately seeking a unique niche in the national culture - something that attracts tourists, young professionals and investment capital. To that end, our previous governor endowed Vision Iowa and its subsidiary agencies. The good intention was to encourage farsighted thinking. But after a few years of award cycles, those agencies’ developed tunnel vision. Applicants’ stopped focussing on anything outside the periphery of previously successful grant proposals. So practically every town in Iowa queued up for state money to: 1.) develop river fronts; 2.) build sports complexes; 3.) expand their swimming pools; 4.) construct bike trails and pedestrian bridges; or 5.) to renovate libraries, museums and senior centers. Outside of a “Music Man” park in Mason City and an equestrian center at Kirkwood College, we mostly financed scores of copy cat ideas but almost nothing that was unique to Iowa.
A much better template was forged way back when we were the “It” state. In the last half of the 19th century, “Iowa” was the password to a better life. Swedes, Germans, Danes, Norwegians, English, Irish, Italians, Scots and Dutch flocked here for affordable land of unparalleled fertility. Literature of the day described “waves of people,” as “magic towns grew like mushrooms.” Iowa’s black dirt produced incredible wealth and East Coast investment capital flowed here, building banks and the high tech industries of that era.
That boom peaked with Henry Wallace, who changed agriculture much like Bill Gates would change information processing some 80 years later. But Wallace’s innovations would eventually degrade farming, from a proud self-sufficient profession to one of abject dependence. By the last quarter of the 20th century, the wealth wrought from Iowa soil had been transferred from farmers to the industrialists who supplied their dependencies - on genetically modified seed, fertilizers, insecticides, pharmaceuticals, heavy equipment and borrowed money. That’s the dark side of farm belt reality.
Still the origin of our once and future wealth remains. The black dirt of Iowa is still the richest on earth, still the source of amazing foods. Now is the time to build on this natural asset. Never have so many Americans been so interested in the culinary world. And foodies are now obsessed with simplicity, from “celebrity farmers” and “heirloom vegetables” to “minimalist chefs” and “comfort food,” Iowa should become a proud brand for the new culinary America, much like its Italian twin Parma is for the European Union. But we need to sow a few visionary seeds at the idea that we produce quality foods here, rather than huge quantities of agricultural produce.
Pieces are already in place to build. Thanks to visionary thinkers Bill Murray and Rollo Bergeson, Living History Farms is a bona fide tourist attraction. The World Food Prize is headquartered in Des Moines. Pioneer Seed, Henry Wallace’s company, is still here, with Dow‘s abundant resources behind it. Our state fair is, well, the one Rogers and Hammerstein wrote about. It draws a million visitors a year and runs the nation’s largest culinary competition. Its blue ribbons have meaning. We have excellent college culinary programs at DMACC, Kirkwood and Iowa State. Boone and Ames are the original home of Practical Farmers and the Loeb Institute. Seeds Savers in Decorah is a world bank for unique natural foods. The Des Moines Wine Fest is a totally sold out event that spot lights Iowa’s best chefs and food products. Meredith is in Des Moines, with more national food editors per capita than any city in America. Products and labels of national renown are sprouting across the state - from Niman Pork in Thornton to La Quercia in Norwalk, from Reichart’s Dairy Air in Knoxville to Becker Lane Farms in Dyersville. I could go on.
It’s time to start connecting the dots.
~First, Des Moines needs a real farmers market, not a 26 week circus with a few token farmers. The downtown market has morphed into something that disrepsects its founding farmers, who gave it both its branding identity and its reason to be. The recent flap over raising rents to farmers will drive the best farmers out of that market and open up the auctioning of their choice stalls to higher bidders. We will soon have the HyVee Outdoor Market, rather than a real market (meaning all vendors must personally be involved with producing the foods they sell) such as Madison (Wisconsin) has. That market is bigger than Des Moines' in number of participants, number of customers and total sales. It works on a smaller budget than Des Moines' Downtown Cultural Alliance says is feasible in Iowa.
To succeed year round, a real farmers market must combine warehousing and wholesaling facilities with an open air shelter for the six months when both fresh produce and customers abound. That means it must be located with easy 18 wheeler access to a main highway not on preciously cute, expensive real estate of Court Avenue.
~Iowa needs to institute food quality standards worthy of a branding designation, like Parma’s and those of other European and California towns. That will require an authority that can bestow a meaningful aegis on good food and prevent it from attaching to crap. For instance, pork that is injected with double digit percentages of chemical water cheapens the name of pig meat and spoils the name of the “Iowa chop.” No one can do such things to cheese in Wisconsin nor to fruit juice in California. So, why should we tolerate the downgrading of Iowa’s great animal asset?
~We need a September equivalence of the Wine Fest. That is the month when our best-in-the-world tomatoes are ripe and the temperatures are cool enough again for our amazing greens. So, why not a giant Bacon Festival, when our BLT‘s would blow the bibs off worldly gourmets?
~We need to build quality whiskey distilleries. Organic and heirloom grains can add value to their harvest through distillation and aging. Cedar Ridge in Cedar Rapids is doing great things with organic grains - but in Wisconsin, hello? Templeton Rye has shown that you can creat a high end brand with good marketing. Former Iowan Fritz Maytag is also in the rye whiskey game, but in California. Distilleries can start up on the budget of brew pub too.
Mainly, Iowa needs a new attitude, one that chauvinistically acclaims the quality of our best foods rather than resuscitating tired rhetoric about record-breaking harvests and largest-in-the-nation hog populations. More than ever, travel is food oriented. Yet Iowans seem ashamed of their agriculture roots and do little to promote some of the best tasting things in the world. Iowa chefs are finding respect in the culinary world by touting Iowa’s best products in their kitchens. In the last two years, five different Iowa chefs have been semifinalists for the James Beard Award as the Midwest’s best chef. Before the “Fresh & Local” revival five years ago, the state never received more than one, token semifinalist. This year, Django in Des Moines became the first Iowa place ever to make the semifinals for the Beard Award as the nation’s best new restaurant.
The seed of a bone fide food media is here now. Since Relish and The Good Steward began publishing seven years ago, Edible Iowa Valley began publishing in Eastern Iowa, food radio shows popped up on IPB and KFMG and, most significantly, talented young food bloggers like Nick Bergus of Iowa City (www.deathofapig.blogspot.com ) and Ben Gordon of Grinnell ( www.foodtourofiowa.blogspot.com ) launched sites devoted to Iowa's best foods.
There are troves of food wisdom, venerable presences and magical histories here. What’s missing is self esteem and the realization that worldly travelers are more interested in our Sibley squash than in yet another municipal aqua park.