Iowa: A Taste of America’s Heartland

August 18, 2016 3:07 pm Last Updated: August 18, 2016 3:07 pm

DES MOINES, Iowa—A rainbow sits on the plate before me. There’s fresh heirloom tomato, sliced in glistening half-moons, next to a pile of lightly blanched green beans, emerald-bright. Sautéed eggplant gleams lush and dark, and thick-cut pattypan squash and zucchini flaunt vibrant skins and caramelized tops. On the next plate lies a row of pale orange cantaloupe, creamy flesh dotted with basil and black pepper.

It’s a radiant spread, and here’s the best part: Everything on the table was grown less than an hour away.

Here at the Wallace House, in Des Moines, Iowa, chef Katie Porter works magic with produce grown on the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center farm in the small city of Orient. The two locations, just 60 miles apart, make up the Wallace Centers of Iowa.

The Wallace House in Des Moines. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)
The Wallace House in Des Moines. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)

Carrying on the legacy of the Wallace family, who were leaders in American agricultural reform in their time, the Wallace Centers work to raise people’s awareness of local food and sustainable farming. Alongside cooking classes and educational tours, they serve weekly meals—lunch on-site at the farm and dinner at the Wallace House—showcasing seasonal produce straight from the farm.

Every bite is a burst of summer—fresh, clean, and unbelievably delicious. Each component is simple. With fruits and veggies this fresh, harvested at the peak of their ripeness, little doctoring is needed—they shine on their own.

Porter’s cooking is a celebration of Iowa’s incredible bounty, visible at every turn. Take a drive along any highway, and you’ll find yourself flanked by miles and miles of cornfields, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Follow a wooden sign pointing down a gravel driveway off the county road, and you’ll stumble upon a family farm and its crinkly-eyed farmer, eager to tell you everything he knows about arugula.

Cornfields in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)
Cornfields in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)

Drop by the Downtown Farmers Market on a summer morning, and you’ll be faced with a dizzying display of fruit and veggies, from towering stacks of sweet corn to rainbow-streaked piles of silky tomatoes, right alongside farmstead cheeses, handcrafted birdhouses, and everything in between.

It’s a bounty that’s gradually making its way into Iowa’s restaurants. Despite the abundance of fresh produce right at its fingertips, much of the local dining scene is filled with chain restaurants and commodity products, while industrial agriculture takes up large swaths of land.

But now, things are changing. Within the last five years, more and more places have been returning to the farming state’s roots—quite literally.

In Des Moines, I found a vibrant local food scene helmed by a group of passionate restaurant owners, chefs, and producers dedicated to bringing Iowa’s bounty to its own people. And for many of these owners and chefs, eating “farm-to-table” is simply a way of life—something that’s always been embedded in their upbringing and culture.

“We just call it food,” said Brett McClavy, chef at The Cheese Shop of Des Moines. The Cheese Shop, owned by husband-and-wife team C.J. and Kari Bienert, works with a number of Iowa farmers and suppliers for their fresh produce, cheese, and charcuterie.

The cheese display at The Cheese Shop in Des Moines. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)
The cheese display at The Cheese Shop in Des Moines. (Crystal Shi/Epoch Times)

They’re good friends with many of their partners—a testament to the warm collaboration and mutual support within the community. Chefs often go directly to the farms to pick up produce, check on the livestock, meet with the farmers, and even help out in the fields.

Every Tuesday, McClavy heads to Grade A Gardens, one of The Cheese Shop’s main suppliers, to work on the farm for five hours. “It’s a great change of pace for us,” he said, “to get out in the sun, or the rain, in the mud, and just be vegetable farmers for a day.”

Herb Eckhouse, co-founder of La Quercia, works closely with pig farmers and visits them on their properties.

La Quercia’s award-winning cured meats, which now grace both restaurant menus and grocery shelves nationwide, start with Iowa- and Missouri-raised pigs. At the company plant in Norwalk, Eckhouse—wearing a shirt that reads “Life, liberty, and the prosciutto of happiness”—walks me between racks and racks of curing meat and talks at length about the farms and farmers behind each hanging ham.

Community support keeps Eckhouse going, but his inspiration from the start was the land itself. “We have one of the most fertile places on the globe,” he said. “So we thought we should make something great here. We should show that we honor this resource.”

He and his wife, Kathy, started La Quercia as a way of sharing their appreciation for Iowa and its incredible land.

“When you eat something delicious, you feel connected to where it came from, and you feel grateful,” Eckhouse said. “That became our purpose: how we were going to achieve this mission of connecting people back to this beauty and bounty that we have here.”

In the end, much of it comes down to this immense pride in Iowa and what it has to offer.

Back at The Cheese Shop, McClavy’s philosophy is simple. “We have what we think is some of the best cheese in the world and some of the best wine in the world,” he said. “Why would we want to serve not the best food in the world?”

Click here for our top picks on where to eat in Iowa.