This weekend my public library hosted a culinary event, Read It and Eat. I wasn't able to attend last year, so I was excited to go hear speakers both local and National talk about the Midwestern food scene. It was wonderfully presented and very well attended and they managed to pack quite a lot in to four hours on a beautiful fall afternoon.
I tried very hard not to be tempted by the books on sale and vowed to leave with just a good experience and hopefully some new stories and interesting knowledge but as you will see below I caved in and left with a new book. A little memento and one I can enjoy now to prolong the experience, right?
I arrived late so I missed the first part of author Summer Miller's talk. She is a local food writer whose work has appeared in many national publications. If you are curious (I am and will be reading some of these later) you can check out some of her recent work. She has a new cookbook that was just released this past spring and which I will be borrowing from the library (I am an enthusiastic eater but cooking is not one of my talents alas--I have weeded so many of my old cookbooks, but I might want this one after I take a closer look), New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans from the Great Plains. If her cookbook is as good as the talk she gave, it will likely be one I will indulge in after all.
Summer Miller has children and so is very practical to her approach when it comes to food and cooking. If there is one thing I took away from the afternoon it is that each speaker noted that while the food experience is important, the whole foodie movement should be less about the meal than the fact it is food that is bringing people together--friends, families and communities. Several speakers mentioned that when it comes to cooking that failing is okay, too, and it is the idea that the less important than the conversations we have with each other over a good meal. Of course all the things you would expect--local food, good food is important.
I also found it interesting (and very true) that modern society has forgotten what real food actually tastes like. So much of what we eat is pre-packaged and doesn't always use natural ingredients. You might see picture of blueberries on a yogurt container and the color is blue, but that it isn't always actual blueberries you are eating. If you tasted it without seeing a label you might only get the sense of sweetness rather than whatever fruit it is pretending to be. We are losing something when we choose to eat at chain restaurants. It might be comforting to know you can walk into whichever fast food place you choose in any US state and the food will be uniform, but well, the food will be uniform. We have created a taste that isn't made from ingredients that are locally grown and picked in season, and I think this is very true. Of course I am not saying it anywhere near as eloquently as any of the speakers did, but I'm sure you know what I mean.
There was lots of sampling throughout the day made by local chefs. I am not much of a meat eater, but I did sample the Kolaches and, yes, they were delicious.
A local chef who is also an instructor in culinary arts at a local community college spoke about the history of Midwestern cooking, which was, of course, fascinating. It was a lively and entertaining discussion.
Another local chef gave a demonstration on how to break down a whole chicken (which I admit I have never done and may never have a chance to do). He made it look so simple, and I suspect that with a little experience it is pretty simple. Again he reiterated that it is not just the food, but that some of the most memorable meals he has had with friends were at least as much (and likely were more so) about the conversation than what they were eating. It isn't the food so much (and it is okay to have failures in the kitchen!) but the fact that it is a good meal that brings us together.
I've seen J. Ryan Stradal's Kitchens of the Great Midwest around, but I had not gotten a chance to pick it up and take a good look at it. He was such a good speaker and the reading he gave blew me away (and was so funny) that I had to buy the book. You can tell he writes from the heart. His mother, who passed away before his book was published, was such an inspiration to him that you get a real sense of what she meant to him in the excerpt he read.
Part of the book's blurb reads: "showing the ways in which food provides us with both comfort and community, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is by turns quirky, hilarious, and heartbreaking. This is a novel about one girl's extraordinary farm-to-table success story, about mothers and daughters, how food becomes the common language of our lives, and the bittersweet nature of life itself--its missed opportunities and joyful surprises."
Sounds good, doesn't it? It falls in perfectly with the day's theme. Stradal lives in LA now, but he is originally from Minnesota and I envy him the research he did while writing the book (much of it involving sampling the food landscape of the midwest). I can't wait to read it! Wouldn't it be fun to "eat along" with the book? Eat the foods the characters are eating or cooking? But I might have to give Lutefisk (the title of the book's first chapter) a pass.