Thanking farmers through “Iowa Ingredient”
I’ve been savoring one key question lately. Can all history be explained by what’s on your plate? I think it can, especially here in Iowa.
This has been on my mind even more since I filmed an Iowa heritage foods episode in Des Moines in late September with Charity Nebbe, host of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Ingredient.” This occurred a few weeks ahead of National Farmer’s Day, which is observed annually on October 12th to pay tribute to farmers throughout American history, honoring their hard work and contributions to the economy.
During the show (which will air in early 2020), Charity and I talked about how Iowa’s settlers were drawn to the state’s fertile land, which allowed them to produce foods of all types in abundance. I shared fun stories from my “Culinary History of Iowa” book. We discussed how some Iowans still follow traditional ways of rural life, such as the Amish. The producer of “Iowa Ingredient” asked me to prepare something inspired by Amish cooking, so I went with a radish salad, which sparked an on-camera discussion about the springtime bounty produced in Iowa gardens to this day, from radishes to asparagus to rhubarb.
Next, we delved into Iowa’s famous school lunch combo of chili and cinnamon rolls. No one knows exactly where the splendid idea of eating cinnamon rolls with chili began, but it has become an obsession for generations of school kids across Iowa. (Disclaimer: not every Iowa school kid grows up with this school lunch combo, and there doesn’t seem to be a pattern of which schools serve it and which don’t.)
There are variations of this classic combination. In the Lake City School District, our talented school cooks (including many retired farm wives who were expert home cooks) started early in the morning on chili day to make their fabulous homemade caramel rolls. When I featured this recipe on “Iowa Ingredient,” I explained my theory of chili and cinnamon rolls came to be.
When those thrifty farm wives and other school cooks pondered what to make the bulk USDA commodities they had to work with (ground beef, beans, flour, etc.). I bet someone figured chili would be a healthy main dish, and then the kids could have a cinnamon roll (or caramel roll) for dessert.
After indulging in a gooey, luscious caramel roll, Charity and I moved onto the final segment featuring Ma Ingalls’ Butter Cookies. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family lived in Burr Oak in northeast Iowa for a short time in the late 1870s, when Pa Ingalls managed a hotel there. Caroline Ingalls cooked three meals a day in the hotel basement to serve the guests.
Her butter cookie recipe told a story much bigger than just the Ingalls family, though. It spoke to a rich slice of Iowa’s culinary history reflected in the Norwegians, Swedes and other Scandinavians who settled across Iowa. This led to a larger discussion about how a wide variety of ethnic groups, from Germans to the Irish to eastern Europeans, created a home in Iowa, including rural Iowa.
All this brings us to today. A decision to delve more deeply into the history of Iowa food offers a unique opportunity to get to know our state’s farmers, our remarkable communities and Iowa’s ethnic groups on a deeper level. You’ll be introduced to Iowa foods you maybe haven’t tried before. You’ll marvel at the ways something as simple as a steak or an ear of corn is part of a bigger, more compelling story. You’ll develop a new appreciation for the people, especially the farmers, who’ve made Iowa the exceptional state it is.
While it’s great to honor National Farmer’s Day once a year, don’t stop there. If you eat, you have a connection to farming every day. Celebrate the fact that Iowa history can be explained by what’s on your dinner plate. I invite you to savor it all.
Darcy Dougherty-Maulsby (a.k.a) Yetter-girl grew up on a Century Farm between Lake City and Yetter and is proud to call Calhoun County home.
Contact her at email@example.com and visit her online at www.darcymaulsby.com.
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