Brave New PrairieMay 01, 2015 11:01AM ● By Sarah Wengert
A small sign in Summer Miller’s kitchen speaks volumes about her mission: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.”
Seated in the cozy kitchen of her charming Elkhorn-area country home (formerly a one-room schoolhouse), the love is on full display as Miller flits throughout the room, doing a dance many home cooks and parents know well. She canters left, stirring a pot of homemade soup, then right, fetching milk for her daughter, Juniper. After pausing for a hug with her little "Junebug," coffee is poured for the adults; its aroma mingling with the lingering scent of fresh-baked bread.
Tasty food is also achieved as Miller, a local journalist, author, and foodie, serves up a preview of the edible delights featured in New Prairie Kitchen, her seasonally driven cookbook that connects home chefs to the local food movement by weaving together the recipes and stories of 25 chefs, farmers, and artisans from Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. In the book, nationally recognized restaurants and Beard-nominated chefs sit at the same proverbial dinner table alongside humble farmers, bakers, and artisans, all united in a passion for local food done right.
“The book celebrates our regional food community through stories, photography, and recipes,” says Miller. “I started [it] at a time in my life when I needed inspiration. From that perspective, I personally needed to find these people and places. Once I did, I was so moved by the experiences I had—the stories the farmers, chefs, and artisans shared, and the beauty of the food—that I wanted to share it with as many people as possible.”
The beauty Miller found over four years traveling and collecting stories is palpable in her preparation of Dante Ristorante Pizzeria chef Nick Strawhecker’s strawberry jam and The Grey Plume chef Clayton Chapman’s ricotta, which team up atop a honey-oat bread recipe from Hastings’ Back Alley Bakery. An earthy, savory braised chicken soup follows. It's a seasonally adjusted version of a Strawhecker dish from the book, featuring carrots from Rhizosphere Farm (located in the Loess Hills of Iowa just south of Missouri Valley) and chicken from Plum Creek Farms (Burchard, Neb.), and it’s a bowl-tipper to be sure.
George P. Johnson, owner of George Paul Vinegar, says New Prairie Kitchen offers readers "treasured recipes to hand down through generations."
The recipes and producers here are indeed treasures, and the book is the treasure map.
“I love being around creative, innovative people because they infuse everything and everyone around them with a sense of possibility,” says Miller. “When those personalities exist in the food world we benefit as home cooks and shoppers. Rather than eating food only for sustenance, we get to eat food that nourishes us, yes, but also teaches us about a certain corner of the world. The act of preparing, sharing, and eating food becomes a cultural and emotive experience. When we connect to places, and, more importantly, the people of those places, whether that place is our dinner table, the farmers market, or a restaurant, and the people, family or new friends, we build our community, making it a more enjoyable place to live. Our experiences become more profound.”
The vibrant pages of New Prairie Kitchen, which is set for release later this month, are illuminated with stunning images from the talented photographer Dana Damewood. Wide landscape shots, close-ups of chickens, vegetables, smiling chefs, a red tractor, a handful of grain, exquisitely plated meals, an old Dodge Ram van with the license plate reading “GARLIC” — all a familiar yet striking array of Midwestern artifacts representing a contemporary take on classic Americana. The book manages to simultaneously represent old and new, sophisticated and simple.
"It's difficult sometimes to get a good sense of the local food movement and what it truly looks like,” says Terra Hall of Rhizosphere Farm, “particularly the connections that make such a strong community. Telling food stories from a particular region, you can really see how everything is connected and the powerful impact of keeping food and its economy local. Summer did an amazing job highlighting the people changing the foodscape in the prairie region. The food we grow and how it is prepared is a true representation of a place, a people, and a climate. Which, frankly, is what I think food should be."
And you needn't be from the area to appreciate its riches. Taryn Huebner, Oprah Winfrey's private chef, calls New Prairie Kitchen "a gift" and its recipes "mouthwatering" and "soul-quenching. This is more than a cookbook—it's a love letter to the heartland," Huebner writes.
The French Bulldog's Bryce Coulton says the book celebrates individual and shared connections to food, as well as a “back-to-basics" approach.
"More than being prideful,” Coulton says, “Midwesterners exhibit an appreciation for the sincere efforts of their neighbors, be they farmers, artisans, or cooks. And Summer has told their stories: stories of relationships, collaboration, working toward a goal outside of our immediate selves."
“I hope the book inspires people to cook at home and frequent restaurants that support our local farmers and artisans,” says Miller, “but also to explore their communities and discover the resources available to them. We are surrounded by so many wonderful people, flavors, and places. It's a shame to overlook the diamonds in our own backyard.”
Sarah Wengert, the author of the story above, will moderate a panel at Summer Miller’s reading, discussion, and book-signing event at 1 p.m. Saturday, May 9 at the Bookworm.