What is the Taste of Local

March 25, 2011 at 8:03 am

Editor’s Note: Many of you know Lee Greene, proprietress of the Scrumptious Pantry.  The Scrumptious Pantry began by importing small farm produced products from her home in Italy.  Lee’s plan, however, was to bring to market, similar products from her new terroir, the Midwest.  So, she worked on identifying local products.  In her exploration, something stymied her, inspired her, and intrigued her: what was her Midwest products supposed to taste like.  She wanted her line to express the land where it came; the question how exactly would she achieve that.  Lee took to the books.  She began researching the historical tastes of the Midwest.  She began trying to addressing the problem, food should not just be from a location, it should be of the location.  As Lee continues to explore this problem, she agreed to share her thoughts with us.  She also wants to hear your thoughts.  What is the taste of local?

Being a locavore is ll the rage – and for good reasons. Enjoying the rich bounty of the local farms and ranches has many benefits, the most important being taste. Fresh food, picked at the peak of ripeness and delivered straight to market tastes better.

So, yes, proximity matters. But is local food only defined by where it is grown?

One of the major challenges of our current food system is its past industrialization. It promoted hybrid crops, developed to yield the best results in processing. National brands spent decades and huge advertising budgets to convince us that we wanted to buy our food ready made. And as a result, tastes became homogenized.

Yes, we got Chinese dumpling soup in cans, frozen burritos and sushi in the grab & go cooler of the supermarket, but we lost the sense of place in our food. Would it not be nice if we reconnected with our regional food culture and increased the awareness of the Taste of the Midwest?

Local food to me has three components: indigenous varieties, techniques and flavor compositions. Which gives you many angles to be creative – and even innovative. Celebrating the Taste of the Midwest does not mean that we need to meticulously execute a century old recipe. But instead of using Japalenos on your taco, why not chop up the Beaver Dam Pepper? It is a mildly hot pepper an Hungarian immigrant brought to Beaver Dam, WI when he settled here in 1929. The only thing keeping the world from forgetting about it is the Slow Food Ark of Taste and a handful of curious farmers growing experimental plots. At The Scrumptious Pantry, we are now working on pickling this local beauty for our US-farmed product line.

Pickling is a Midwestern technique – as compared to canning or preserving food in salt or fat. As to cooking techniques, the Midwest is the capital of stewing. In a climate that favors storage crops and a poor economy that favored cheap, muscle rich cuts of meat, the long cooking process was what produced tasty results.

Flavor compositions are mainly defined by the immigrant waves. With the predominantly German and Eastern-European settlers to the Midwest traveled their seeds and their recipes. A similar climate favored the conservation of their homelands’ growing & cooking styles: storage crops and a hardy taste profile centered around spices such as cloves, bay leaves, nutmeg etc. Of course, more recent immigration as brought new influences to the flavors of the Midwest, and these influences should be celebrated as our regional cuisine evolves. But if you asked me what dish I would choose to represent the Midwest, I would choose a beef stew over a salsa.

There are many ways to incorporate the Taste of the Midwest into modern, contemporary cooking, and personally I think there is huge potential out there for a “Midwestern Cooking revisited”. Chef Paul Virant at Vie has taken in house pickling to a new level for a restaurant. The snout to tail movement in our local food community in my eyes is a natural development for the Midwest – always a meat driven food economy. The dynamics of our local food movement are impressive. We are lucky to have some of the country’s greatest chefs, being committed to local food.

I cannot wait to taste, what we are gonna get cooking!

What is your take on the Taste of the Midwest? How do you pay tribute to it in your cooking?