The first weekend of May, I flew through the climatic refuse of the previous night’s tornadoes in Kansas to Fairfield, Iowa, to speak at that city’s Eco Fair. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but knowing that I was going to rural Iowa, I anticipated being taken out for a dinner that would include pork in some form.
I didn’t count on the Maharishi University of Management being vegetarian, nor did I know about their enormous organic greenhouses, or their vibrant sustainability program. I simply hadn’t done my homework, so I was completely surprised and utterly delighted by the beautiful green dinner I was served upon arriving.
And when I say green, I mean not just sustaining and sustainably raised, but leafy, grassy, verdant, spring-hued shades of green.
Pale green, white with green, soft leaves, dark green pesto.
Rounds of cucumbers just picked from one of the greenhouses were laid out on a bed of garlic greens, each pale round festooned with fresh, soft goat cheese flecked with herbs and capped with sprigs of miner's lettuce, a pretty wild green that grows well where there is moisture. I used lots of miner’s lettuce in salads at Greens years ago, and it’s one of my favorite wild greens.
With the cucumbers, plates of dark, earthy rye bread nurtured with wild yeasts and whole grains were passed. (The bread maker, Eric Rusch, shows how to make bread on his website, Breadtopia.) To go with the bread was a bright green pesto (made with miner’s lettuce instead of basil) and another fresh cheese.
Soft greens, with bright green basil and red-tipped lettuce leaves.
Again, just-picked spring lettuces and fresh basil were entwined in a salad that was bathed in a vinaigrette whose soft, low-acid, white balsamic vinegar sparkled. I’m not usually a fan of white balsamic vinegar, but this one was different. The two young women who had made the salad had just spent four months in Italy working with a family that produced artisanal balsamic vinegar. They also made a small amount of this white vinegar, which the girls had returned with. The dressing was as soft as the greens were tender, and so good that a parent at the table pointed out that his child, who supposedly doesn’t like salad, had gobbled up his portion and was asking for seconds.
Iron park-bench green.
Sorrel and potatoes blended into a dark green pool with snipped chives floating on the surface, this classic spring soup was warming on this blustery evening. The soup also contained a small amount of divine cream from a local dairy. It reminded me that, just feet from my desk, I’ve got bunches of sorrel and chives begging to be used.
Dark green, flecked with darker greens.
This tart had a very special ingredient: wild nettles that the two sisters had picked that morning in the woods. Nettles! What good fortune! Nettles are another one of my favorite foods, especially in spring when I crave strong, bracing foods and the leaves of this prickly green are still tender. Nettles don’t grow in the desert, but they love wet, green spots, like Iowa. Americans don’t use them very much, but I am a true fan. How amazing to see and taste them in a small Iowa town. Was I dreaming?
A dull, quiet green.
Well, not so green, maybe, but not so red, either. The rhubarb soup must have had some green stalks mixed into it. (Some varieties of rhubarb, in fact are green.) The vanilla ice cream it surrounded was “only some organic ice cream,” not the ice cream from the local dairy, alas. But later, someone gave me a taste of the cream from that dairy. It was the primordial food, especially for me since I grew up in part on a dairy farm.
Of course this meal was “green” as in local, organic, and no doubt sustainable, and boasting a minuscule carbon footprint. The vegetable ingredients came from the two organic greenhouses, which supply both the school’s dining hall and Whole Foods in Chicago. There were the wild greens. In its entirety, the meal was seasonal and incredibly local. Best of all, it was delicious and deeply nourishing.
At one of the conference sessions, a speaker shared a list of commodity crops produced from 1920 to 2001. If we had been eating in the summer of 1920 instead of the spring of 2008, we might have enjoyed potatoes, apples, cherries, plums, grapes, strawberries, pears, peaches, honey, raspberries, melons, gooseberries, sorghum syrup, apricots, tomatoes, cabbage, popcorn, and currants. By 1978, none of these foods were listed.
Iowa today is indeed a land of soybeans and corn, hogs and cattle; there are no fruits and vegetables on the list. The only plants besides corn and soybean are oats.
I had to smile as I ate this verdant meal. I was reminded of how I struggled so many times when making spring menus at Greens to punctuate the overwhelmingly green color scheme with another hue. But in the spring, our foodscape is dominated by peas, asparagus, sorrel, spinach, green garlic, green lettuces, and green herbs both wild and domesticated.
This amazing food was brimming with flavor and local color, the color of spring, and I relished every bite.
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