Summer food in Iowa

By Jim Duncan


Early this century, the New York Times’ peerless writer R.W. Apple wrote that Madison, Wisconsin, in late summer, represented the perfect conjunction of time and place for eating the earth’s best foods. At that time, Madison was ahead of Des Moines in providing a diversity of foods, particularly heirloom varieties. Its population of former hippies and its terroir — unsuitable for row cropping — gave it a head start in that regard. Des Moines has caught up as cutting edge cafés here have encouraged farmers to grow things that had been forgotten for decades. Another part of Des Moines’ advantage has been created by Asian gardeners who came here thanks to Gov. Robert Ray’s initiative to welcome them to Iowa four decades ago. One can try a new Asian vegetable every week during farmers market season and still have something left to sample.


Strawberries sweeten the farmers market season in Iowa.

One part of Iowa’s resurgence is filled with irony. The alluvial deposits of the last Ice Age — the same event that made Iowa the center of industrial agriculture — have also given central Iowa’s niche farmers the richest black soil in America. It’s not just for soy beans and corn anymore. It’s no surprise that Iowa the birthplace of the ubiquitous Red Delicious apple, also produces a huge array of apple species. There is no better soil on earth to grow good things to eat than that of central Iowa. In Iowa’s summer, people eat tomatoes and sweet corn that grow in black dirt rather than Floridian sand, water or a combination of the two.

Tomatoes, alone, beg one to listen to the mighty music of their names — San Marzano, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Big Rainbow, Amish Paste, Basinga, Black Tula, Eva Purple Ball and Japanese Trifele. In large part because Seed Saver’s Exchange is an Iowa organization, all those are readily available here in late summer. In a ridiculous embarrassment of riches, the tomato season in Iowa begins before the sweet corn season ends. Beans, squash, garlic, potatoes, peppers and fall greens all have similarly overlapping longevity, too.


Everything served at Wallace House is freshly harvested from its farm.

Summer also produces the best dairy and meats of the year here. Free-ranging animals fatten up. Milk at specialty Iowa farms like Picket Fence, Radiance, Cloverleaf and Kalona Super Natural are colored by the chlorophyll in their cows’ summer diets. You can taste the difference easily. World-famous charcuterie maker La Quercia of Norwalk and free range pork producer Niman Pork of Thornton have persuaded several Iowa ranchers to raise livestock to specific guidelines, such as acorn diets. Even Iowa breweries now make special ales and beers with harvests of summer.

Restaurants in Des Moines have also caught up with, or surpassed, Madison’s in exploiting the diversity. Alba, Posto, Le Jardin, HoQ, Baru 66, Blue Tomato, Eatery A, Table 128, Reed’s Hollow, Django, Bistro Montage, Centro, The Café and Proof all have hosted special dinners featuring a particular season specialty. They partner with farmer producers like Larry Cleverley, Grade A, Sunstead, Crooked Gap, etc.


This eggplant “lasagne” from Chef’s Kitchen features seven kinds of fresh grown vegetables.

Others work their own farms. Michael Bailey at Embassy Club West has a garden attached to his kitchen. His summer dishes are made with freshly picked herbs and tomatoes, etc. Cyd’s Catering has two gardens and still uses several other farmers during the season. Baru 66 has a family farm. Orlondo’s has used an attached garden for longer than anyone. Wallace House does nothing but farm-to-table service. Every meal served comes from their farm with some meats supplied by other local farmers. Local Yocals farmhouse uses ingredients from 60 small Iowa farms. That’s in a food court!

Chef George Formaro says summer is so marvelous for local produce that he changes his dining habits.

“I take a break from Des Moines’ more traditional iconic places in favor of places that use local farmers and producers for their inspiration menus. It’s really exciting when I find a place does both classical food and uses the local bounty.” RELISH



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