I am a city transplant living in the rural upper Midwest and trying to find my way. The way that I feel out the world is with food and while it isn’t necessarily practical it works for me. I figure that we might as well eat well. If nothing else is going right, I got a legit recipe for sharp cheddar pâte àu choux that will cure what ails you. If I need to pull out the big guns, you will see me in the kitchen merciless attacking lemons for homemade curd that I will eat right off the spoon. Because reasons. One of the salient characteristics of my personality is how I love food. I love everything about it. I love shopping for food, cooking food, serving food, eating food, writing about food, and I frequently annoy people with what might actually be an unhealthy commitment to food. That said, people who might suggest it is unhealthy also readily accept dinner party invitations so, there's that. My freaky little obsession works out well for them. I used to tell people it was because of my country childhood, which is why I could never bring myself to make or eat what I have unkindly called “cream of barf and potato pellet casserole”. Not a good side of me and I totally regret it. Let me tell you more about that.
My mother and father both had rural roots with farms and horses figuring prominently in their childhoods and since neither set of grandparents headed the siren song to move to the city, these were also a part of my childhood. The difference is that it wasn’t actually my childhood, just a part of it. I lived in the city. As a teen and young adult, I moved around the city in trains and buses and cabs and hung out in chic late night coffee shops listening to poetry recitation. That is how I met the man who is now my husband, a man who had a similar city childhood with farm country summers. As grownups and married with a slew of children, we moved out of our lower downtown row house and out to the place where the city meets the suburbs. We were looking for the best of both worlds: bigger houses and actual yards but the city limits literally a half a mile away. We had a cute tri-level with a decent yard but my husband could still take the train to work and on the occasional Friday night I could meet him downtown for drinks, dinner, and the symphony.
As they say: that was then, this is now.
A few years ago there was a bit of a quandary with what to do with my husband’s family’s farm. No one really wanted to live out there and no one wanted to pay the bills and someone needed to do both. We made the seriously crazy decision for my husband to quit his white collar job in finance and sell that lovely tri-level with the newly and perfectly remodeled kitchen, the one designed to accommodate my freaky food obsession. That one. You’re welcome, new owners. Then we moved our children to a house half the size with no garage but with an aging grandfathered septic system and patchy electrical service. Clearly, I love my husband more than I love food, which is as it should be. We are now almost a mile from the closest neighbor, two miles from a paved road, seven from the highway, seventeen from the closest gas station, and twenty-one miles from the closest grocery. That one is a unique one. It is an IGA (Independent Grocers of America) slash gas station slash hardware store because when you are out getting Stihl chainsaw parts, you might want to pick up some milk and bread along with diesel. Because reasons, though different ones.
Here I am, in prime casserole country though sometimes they call it hot dish. That’s a word I had to learn, not one that you hear too often back in Colorado. The country world doesn’t feel like I thought it would. Read between the lines on this one: this means it doesn’t taste like I thought it would. There is this city idea that in the country everyone is getting all of their veggies at farm stands run by children in overalls for salads to eat alongside their pastured raised beef steak and farm fresh milk. In reality, it’s a lot of Walmart ingredients. I think there are a lot of reasons for this but in the end, I am no social scientist and if I start up on my soapbox, someone is going to come along and push me off. So let me say this: the food priorities are different and lean towards stability, economy, and ease of preparation before quality and nutrition which are in a dead heat for last place. I have some idea of what people are thinking, they need food stuffs that don’t need to be replenished often and can be easily transported to a place hundreds of miles from an interstate. They want it to be fast and easy because there aren’t the same resources like cafés, bistros, delis, and food delivery. They don’t have a dinner backup, particularly when in the outlying areas like I live. They also need cheap because financial stability is hard fought for in the small economic markets like this. Hello, casserole. Or hot dish. Call it what you want just don’t notice that I was able to sneak in sociological analysis.
This makes things hard for someone who is hyper-dedicated to food and who might be a lot irrational and perhaps even a little neurotic. I am talking about me. It is hard for me. We had someone over for dinner not too long after we moved. He asked what I was making and I told him where I got the beef and that it was pastured raised and had a nice life and that I had made the chèvre cheese and bread myself from a sourdough starter I had made and then I saw his face.
“It’s beef stew,” I said.
He smiled at me and replied, “Hey. Have you guys ever seen the show Portlandia?”
I am not even kidding. I am now a figure from Portlandia. This actually happened and maybe it is not a bad thing because it made me realize something. I realized that there is a difference between being someone who really appreciates good food and a jerk face food snob. I don’t want to be a mean person. Mean people don’t cook for others and if they do, who comes to sit at their table? Other mean people? That sounds like a lousy evening. I want to be someone who is gracious and that means not equating ingredients with moral superiority. It means remembering that people come first and it means that sometimes I will eat canned soup and tot casserole because the most important ingredient in that dish is the love that someone else put into it. I know what it means to feed people and how much of my heart goes into a meal and it isn’t different for others. It’s real.
Several years ago someone told me that she suffered from terrible anxiety at church potlucks because she was afraid I would eat her food and not like it. I was taken aback and told that her if I had ever said anything unkind, I deeply regretted it. Fortunately I hadn't but in the end, it didn't matter. Knowing I was a recipe developer and catered local events made her all kinds of nervous that I would hate her food. She is an incredible woman, someone who is giving and kind and raised kids who could shake hands and smile at adults. I don’t want to think that I am that kind of woman. You know, one who crushes another one because I am not into crushing people unless it is under the weight of pâte àu choux because that is the way to go, guys. Seriously. Bring on the pastry cream, I am ready.
I want to be nice but I am also the kind of person who is unreasonably attached food which is only becoming increasingly obvious to people who live here. The question is what to do about it? I am me and I am here and here is different than where I came from so what now? More food. Pretty much my solution to all the problems is to have more food. I decided that the absence of a food culture here just means that there is a void that I need to fill and I will fill it with food. The best thing I can do invite all the people to dinner and bring food to all the places. See? More food. If I want to find a home here, I can’t be said jerk face food snob. Of course part of my plan is to then lure them into my crazy with homemade sour cream donuts and chicken Provençal which, by the way, can win over the heart of even the most resistant lumberjack. Ask me how I know. Okay, I will tell you without you even asking: harvest party potluck slash game night at the rec building slash ice rink. This one is cooled by winter and not expensive machines so, thank you, Mother Nature.
In the end, I am just a girl who is actually a middle aged mother with a heap of kids and a husband who knows on which side his brioche is buttered. We have moved out to the country and we are building a life here with a dairy cow and her sweet calf, sheep, turkeys, and ducks and I am learning a lot along the way. I am learning to be a better version of me without sacrificing who I am. I am learning how to eat what I am offered and truly enjoy it. I am learning to gently introduce people to my crazy food obsessions like cheese making. I have also learned how to butcher a steer, like actually butcher it in the yard. I can do that, too. If I can do that, I can do pretty much anything. And really, if I can do that, anyone can do pretty much anything. So, let’s start by eating together. The answer to life’s troubles is more food, always more food.