by Shauna Lawyer Struby
The ribbon of highway stretched before us, the corn was as tall as an elephant’s eye, and the hawks were definitely making lazy circles in the sky. While strains of the famous lyrical creations of Woody Guthrie and Rodgers and Hammerstein were making busy circles in my head, my family and I weren’t in Oklahoma or Kansas. We were actually in Iowa City, Iowa, a happening little burg, home to the University of Iowa, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I’d just completed a heady week-long workshop on novel writing held the last week in July, and my family and I were heading out in our gas miserly Toyota Prius to explore Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Black Hills of South Dakota for our summer vacation.
As avid locavores (a snappy word two ladies out in California came up with for those choosing to eat locally grown or produced food), we prefer whenever possible to cook or dine on locally produced food at locally owned establishments. At home here in Oklahoma City, we eat as much as possible from the OSU/OKC Farmers Market, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, and our own garden and seldom eat at chain restaurants, believing we build stronger, more self-sufficient communities by keeping it local.
Given typical American road fare consists of wave after wave of McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and gigantic truck stops with rows of empty calories ripe for the picking, we knew doing the locavore thing on the road could well prove to be an order taller than the proverbial corn in Kansas in August. But during my week in Iowa City I’d already dined on several delicious meals made from wonderfully fresh ingredients sourced from local farms, scarfed down some fabulous pastries and cookies from the weekly farmers market, and there were plenty of Buy fresh, buy local signs scattered throughout the town. The luck I’d had so far with chowing local goodness made me think perhaps my family and I could tackle the rest of the trip with the locavore principle.
First night out in Madison, Wisconsin, we tracked down a restaurant called Harvest using a Wisconsin culinary guide. Later we found out Harvest was named by Organic Style magazine as one of the top 20 restaurants in America, and most recently named one of America's top Farm-to-Table restaurants by Gourmet Magazine.
While Harvest was a little pricey for our budget, since we’d been saving for the vacation, we decided to splurge. I’m happy to say it was worth every penny. From delicate slow-roasted beets, to the succulent Lange Family Farm pork loin, to the artisan cheese tray, this stumbled upon dining experience was total flavor-filled pleasure, a sensational treat for the taste buds.
The next day we headed to Eau Claire and happened upon a roadside farmer’s stand where we picked up beautiful fresh cherries, blueberries, a couple of creamy Wisconsin cheeses, a fresh-baked crusty baguette, and spicy salami. Picnicking like this from farmer’s stands, cheese shops, and small retail food cooperatives was budget friendly, and turned out to be our lunch strategy for the rest of the trip.
After the luck we had in Iowa City and Madison, we went on to sample similar tasty local dinner fare at The Deep Water Grille in Ashland, Wis., and The Craftsman Restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn., cooked a dinner ourselves one night from a bevy of fresh stuffs picked up at the Chequamegon Food Co-op in Ashland, Wis., and later the Saint Peter Food Cooperative and Deli in Saint Peter, Minn. became yet another local food oasis on our journey.
We didn’t quite manage to source every meal locally on our vacation, but in the end we came a lot closer to solving the travelling locavore’s dilemma than I’d ever dreamed possible, all of which seems to prove the sustainable food movement is not only very much alive, but thriving and growing. I can even imagine a day when we’ll be able to make a trip in our plug-in hybrid cars or onboard a roomy train, when every meal means dining on fresh, healthy, local and sustainable food. Wouldn’t that be a trip?
What about your summer vacation? Have any recent experiences or tips for solving the travelling locavore’s dilemma you’d care to share?
Tips for eating locally on the road:
• Check out localharvest.org for grocery stores, farmers markets, farms and restaurants.
• Before travelling, browse your destination state’s tourism Web site for dining recommendations. Most offer a searchable dining database, free travel guides, and many now feature agritourism destinations like u-pick farms, farmer’s markets and other local harvest destinations.
• Wherever you travel, take time to chat with the locals. Employees at independent bookstores, locally owned gift shops, and food cooperatives are a great source of local food and dining knowledge.
• If at all possible when road tripping, take the back roads. Not only do you avoid the unpleasant truck juggernaut and concrete jungle of interstate travelling, but you’re much more likely to find farmer’s stands and locally owned restaurants with delicious homemade fare.