This week I'm thinking a lot about the idea of farming and the community that builds up around farms. I talked yesterday with Lisa Hamilton, author of Deeply Rooted, and I remembered some things I wrote but didn't post yet about the farmland that my husband and I come from. We recently went back to visit family and I got to thinking about how farmers and community intersect, rely on each other, and help a community grow.
A few weeks ago we went to a sweet country wedding in northern Indiana. Everyone pitched in a little bit here and there to carry mason jars of flowers to the tables, make lemonade, or decorate cupcakes while laughing at someone's funny stories. Super added bonus beyond the wonderful bride and groom? The food at the wedding was delicious. (As so many of us know, wedding food isn't automatically blissful, even if the marriage is.)
My husband's aunt and uncle hosted this wedding, and their family thinks about food—where it's from, how it's raised, what it does to your body and to the planet. We knew ahead of time that the food was going to be a focus, and a tasty one at that. Not only was it flavorful and fresh—with fresh-made breads that had the bride's and groom's initials baked on in poppyseed (sweet!)—but it also featured a plethora of other fresh foods like homemade mozzarella, vibrant radishes, sweet carrots, quinoa apple curry salads, rhubarb chutney, turkey salad, cakes and so much more—all made from scratch. I'm getting hungry just remembering it all. The wedding banquet was free of additives, artificial flavors and hydrogenated oil, among other processed no-nos that they wanted to avoid. It was also sourced locally, from a handful of farms that their caterer, Katie Van, works with.
It was straight up abundance and deliciousness that added to the celebration at hand. To my husband, Matt, and me, though, it was even more amazing because it was in the middle of northern Indiana, near where he grew up. This food is what we can never find when we travel in Indiana and we have been waiting for it.
Some of it has to do with the town. North Manchester, Indiana, is one of our favorite little Indiana towns, where the wedding was. It is also the town where Matt's family tree is deeply rooted. Grandparents, great-grandparents, and before them probably a couple of generations more all lived in the area, farming and milling. Nearly every trip back, we go to North Manchester so we can drive past the farm where his grandparents lived, to see the other grandparents' grain mill nearby on the Eel River (now a museum), and drop in for a visit to Matt's aunt and uncle (who are so fun and make me hope that our own nieces and nephews might like popping by to visit us when they're grown ups). There's something cool about North Manchester, and I don't think it's just the family there. Perhaps it's thanks to Manchester College—there's enough influx of new people that the community is interesting and stands out among its fellow small towns, even though it's not shining or touristy at all.
Indiana may be the "Crossroads of America" but it isn't exactly a hotbed of food culture. It should be, with all the lush farmland, but those green fields are mostly corn and soy...and some wheat. Farmers tend to "specialize" on certain crops, making the most of economies of scale, but just try to make three meals a day, seven days a week out of corn and soy and some wheat. We drove around Indiana, remarking on the movies Fresh and Food Inc., which address issues like farming practices and monoculture. As a balance to the endless corn and soy, we saw plenty of pasture-raised livestock, though, which was a nice thing. Indiana has more farmland than we have around Boston, but it appears that Boston has a greater concentration of food farmers who grow produce and food that can be made directly into dinner. The distance between the field and the plate can be quite short in Boston, and it has been very long in Indiana unless you have your own garden. A visit "back home" makes us think about food and where it comes from...and why the region that grows so many crops isn't also flooded with amazing food for dinner.
But food in the Indiana we know hasn't been part of the culture or a common priority, so we sometimes feel lost. Perhaps that's why we love North Manchester. It always makes us think of my husband's wonderful Grandma Helen and her handmade noodles and mashed potatoes...and fruit slush (yum!). And the cool aunt and uncle (who hosted the wedding) who welcome us to dinner that is simple and delicious, and we sit and catch up over a meal that's not a major event—just good food and good conversation.
Those things make the town wonderful for us.
Something is happening in North Manchester, that we can see by virtue of being occasional visitors. There are more options, more awareness of quality food and where it comes from. In fact, there's even a farmers' market there, now. It sets up every week in the parking lot of Matt's uncle's business (of course...told you they were cool). The people who have been craving amazing and local food are slowly making headway. Is it just natural cycles, or is it part of a larger, national movement to know what you're eating? Is there enough momentum everywhere to support local movements by dedicated farmers and foodies? Matt and I were so happy to see something happening in North Manchester. I hope that it draws in people from surrounding towns so that the farm-to-plate awareness flourishes and people find they are eating healthier and tastier.
One of the best finds on our Indiana trip was KenapocoMocha, a
wonderful coffeehouse in a big brick Victorian just off the main drag
in North Manchester. The wedding caterer, Katie, and her cohorts Julie
and Sarah work with KenapocoMocha. (What's with the name, you ask?
Well, Kenapocomoco is the Native American Miami name for the Eel River
that wends through town...and the derivation KenapocoMocha is just too
cute to pass up. The local resonance shows that it's not a cookie
cutter café—it's part of the community.) The coffeehouse is part of the
"something" that we often felt was missing in the town: a place that
says that food is good and getting it locally can be both tasty and
important. It's what was missing—a great place to stop for a coffee, a
snack, a quick meal, and a bit of tasty community. And tasty it is.
Katie makes fresh soups every day, sandwiches, and "take-and-bake"
meals to pick up and make at home every week. Julie, who helped Katie
with the wedding banquet, bakes goodies and makes the amazing baked
oatmeal that I gushed about before.
We stopped by nearly every day for baked oatmeal and coffees and some talking with the locals. It's hard to find a coffeehouse like that, and it's so refreshing to see it in a place that we like as much as North Manchester. The town really needed a place like KenapocoMocha and we hope everyone in the area seeks them out. (Go there! Go!) In fact, most towns need a place like KenapocoMocha, where the coffee is awesome and the food is made with care from local producers. They source their food from local farmers (the same ones used for the wedding), like Hawkins Farm (KenapocoMocha worker Sarah's family farm) and Fingerle farm. Hawkins Farm has a CSA and every Friday night from June to October you can go out to the farm and get pizza baked in their outdoor oven, topped with produce from their farm and neighboring farms. What an ideal way to end a work week—dinner made for you with the freshest produce around. Grab a good local beer and either take it home or bring a picnic blanket and forge that community built on great food. Hawkins also does something I love, which is a more formal meal out in the fields called Between Heaven and Earth, their own version of Outstanding in the Field. What a fantastic way to show the breadth of what's possible when food is grown to be tasty—pizza to fine dining. It's stunning for us to see that happen, take hold and flourish. (Now I just need a farm in the Boston area to install a pizza oven and host Friday nights and we'll be all set.)
Our travels there make me see abundance as a continuum. We have so many lovely food options available in Boston. Great farms, great cheesemakers, great imports. We have a community that is passionate about food at every level and so there is a market for new discoveries and food that is grown carefully and with passion. The farmlands my husband and I each grew up in are lush and green and nearly everyone knows how to coax something out of the ground, whereas Boston people don't. When we were kids, most people had gardens and a lot of people worked on a farm of some sort, or an adjacent industry. The abundance is in the land, there, but the community hasn't been clamoring for the same things we have out East. Life as a farmer can be hard and economies of scale make it feel a bit easier and more profitable.
What's so encouraging about seeing a place we love foster locally-minded coffeehouses and embrace farmers' markets and farm CSAs where they hadn't before, is that it helps the farmers grow food. Someone needs to grow commodities, and it's not my desire to armchair any of their decisions, but it is so refreshing to see a bit of diversification that can treat the farmers well, treat the local consumers well, and change up the regular view of abundance to include a bit more community. It stirs in a bit of food passion along with the food.
It makes me think of Grandma Helen and how her food is what my husband told me about before I met her for the first time. And how Matt kept a sacred jar of Grandpa Leo's homegrown popcorn in his dorm room at college.