Picnic at Minneopa State Park

Foodventurous: Mankato

If I invited you to share a picnic with me and gave you the opportunity to choose one of the following settings, which would you choose?

  1. Wine & Live Music
  2. Waterfalls & Pie
  3. Military Tanks & Beef Jerky

Did you think I was going to make it easy for you to choose?

What if I told you all of these options are available in one midwest city and that my husband, Marty, and I enjoyed all three picnics … and so much more … in one weekend?

Welcome to Mankato, Minnesota!

Mankato, MN

Mankato is located 90 minutes southwest of Minneapolis, Minnesota and has a population of about 42,000 … big enough to have the advantages of a larger city but small enough to foster the hospitality of a small town. The key to having a true Mankato experience is to talk to the people.

Erin and Tammey. Jane and Kent. Jim, David and Jenny. Angie. Karla.

In 48 hours, these people … and many more but I apologize for the limits of my ability to retain names … transformed our trip from a bunch of awesome stops to a place we want to visit again. Here’s the scoop …

Mom & Pops Ice Cream Mankato

You must understand. My husband is my camera-holding, make-a-u-turn, lets-stop-here, patient-beyond-reasonable, designated driver on these foodventures. I know how to get a trip off to a great start for him … ice cream! Add to that the warmth and conversation of Erin and Tammey, owners of Mom & Pop’s Ice Cream, and a beautifully restored 1856 building (complete with artifacts found in the renovation), and we were truly impressed. For the purpose of quality research we felt obligated to try several different flavors: (left to right) This $&@! Just Got Serious, Chocolate-Cherry Bomb, Exhausted Parent, and Carrot-Mango Italian Ice. Ice cream AND a sense of humor … go get some soon! Watch for that carrot-mango combination in upcoming PLF recipes.

His weakness is ice cream … mine is wine.


wine & live music picnic

Chankaska Creek Winery

There were several wineries in the Mankato area and, someday, I hope to visit each and every one. For this trip, we were lucky enough to experience Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery and meet Jane and Kent Schwickert. The Dakota Indian word “Chankaska” means “forest enclosed” … perfect word for this private, gorgeous setting just north of Mankato and outside the town of Kasota.

Chankaska Creek Winery Property

Jane and Kent clearly understand what it takes to make people feel comfortable and relaxed. The ambition, hard work and commitment that it takes to create wine, hospitality and a retreat like this is remarkable. Did I mention food and live music?

Chankaska Creek Winery Food

 

Chankaska Creek Winery Music

After completing a wine tasting, I found my personal favorite: the Creekside Red. Two things I can guarantee:

  1. I will be toasting Jane and Kent as I enjoy the bottle I brought home, and
  2. We will return for an outdoor picnic on their amazing property in warmer weather!

Cheers Chankaska Creek!


Returning to Mankato to call it a day, we checked in to the Motel 6.

You heard me … Motel 6. You know … “We’ll leave the light on for you!”

Motel 6 Mankato

Let me convince you to think about Motel 6 in a new way:

  1. New.
  2. Saving money for things like food and wine.
  3. No more carpet.
  4. Simple, bright and clean.
  5. Friendly.

Perfect for our trip. We were out and about so much, we didn’t need breakfast (but the coffee sure helped) or a pool. We just needed a quiet, convenient, clean, comfortable place. If you want more amenities, there are lots of other options around Mankato.


Waterfalls & Pie picnic

I said before that wine was my weakness. I didn’t say it was my ONLY weakness.

Rapidan Dam Store Pie
Banana Cream & Rhubarb-Sour Cream

About 15 miles southwest of Mankato is a beautiful spot. It’s called the Rapidan Dam on the Blue Earth river. Mother Nature is working overtime in this area and so are Jim, David and Jenny. What’s not working overtime? Cell and internet reception.

Rapidan Dam Store Mankato Minnesota

Go back in time to the Rapidan Dam Store … where the water, conversation and jokes center around the dam. Play the Wurlitzer jukebox … no coins needed … it’s part of the ambiance. Dance in the isle if you like. Watch the milk shakes blend in the coolest, mint green, Hamilton Beach antique malt machine. Listen to the tables of friends and family laughing and talking without a cell phone in sight. Ask Jim, David and Jenny about their history and the area. Be prepared to be amazed and entertained. Sign the guest book and read the quotes from those who came before you. Eat pie.

Paraphrased telephone (attached to the wall with a cord) conversation heard:

Jenny: Yes, we have the rhubarb-sour cream pie today … no, we don’t sell whole pies … seven pieces is a whole pie … all right, I’ll hold seven pieces of the rhubarb-sour cream pie for you … see you then. (She hangs up the phone and walks to kitchen.) Sorry David … just sold one of your favorites again.

If you are looking for a fishing/camping spot, pie, a break from your cell phone or laptop, or the epitome of “Minnesota Nice”, Rapidan Dam is your destination. Still not convinced? Maybe you should ask the people at Food and Wine Magazine.


So we have the pie … where are the waterfalls?

Minneopa State Park

Minneopa State Park

Waterfalls in Minnesota? Absolutely! Minneopa State Park is not only a perfect spot for a picnic but also the much-needed hike and fresh air following the overindulgence of pie. A lingering winter here in the midwest has provided plenty of water for the thundering of the falls. Despite the snow on the ground and the lack of green grass often associated with picnics, the beauty of a park like this is evident all year. After a stop at the visitor’s center and a chat with Angie, we knew what our options were for hiking and setting up our picnic photos. According to the website, “GPS units, kids’ activity bags, birding kits, fishing rods and tackle, volleyball, soccer ball and horseshoes” are available on loan from the park office.

You have to bring your own pie though.

Minneopa State Park Picnic


We’ve covered ice cream, wine, pie … what other Mankato cuisines shouldn’t be missed?

Oh that’s right … Lebanese food.

Huh?

Welcome to Olive’s!

Olive's Mankato

Shawarma … hummus … tabbouleh … baba ghanoush …

Even if … especially if … you’ve never tried Lebanese food, let the Massad family expand your horizons. Owners John (also head chef) and Najwa Massad, along with their daughters, Meray and Karla, will make sure you enjoy every bite! Trust me … I’ve been trying for years to get my husband to share my love of hummus (hum-us). After a few minutes talking to Karla and learning about the restaurant, the family, and her menu recommendations, he was willing to try it again. Karla pronounces it “hoo-mus”.  On her next visit to our table, he tells her that he doesn’t like “hum-us” but he does like “hoo-mus”.

Funny guy.

Olive's Mankato Mezze
Mediterranean Mezze – Tabouleh, Hummus, Baba Ghanoush, Marinated Olives with Feta Cheese and Pocket Bread

Seriously though … the food was amazing!

Olive's Mankato Kabobs
Beef & Chicken Kabobs with Mediterranean Couscous

Olive's Dessert Mankato

It’s not just the food that’s amazing here. There’s a strong family feeling throughout the restaurant. Our waitress, Annie (hope I used the correct spelling), was incredibly attentive and patiently answered our many questions even though it was clearly a busy night. There were two gals eating at the bar that seemed to know everyone … Karla pointed out that they were former restaurant staff who came back for visits. Karla’s eyes sparkled as she talked about them and called them “a couple of her kids”.

Family.

Unfortunately, we missed what has become a cornerstone event for the restaurant … the gathering of the Massad family at the corner table. The family has two other restaurants as well as a flourishing catering business and this was one of those nights when they were needed elsewhere. Pictures of Meray’s son donning a chef’s hat are on display as are many other pictures of the family. A small statue of a family of 4, seated at the dinner table, is on display at the entrance to the restaurant. The Lord’s Prayer is engraved on it. It was a gift from a customer.

Faith. Family. Food.

Oh yeah … we’ll be back.


military tanks & beef jerky picnic

If you type “Mankato” in the search bar of Pinterest, you will get a plethora of fun things to do in the area. Now type in “kasota, mn” and watch the tanks appear!

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

Drive A Tank is located on the western edge of the town of Kasota. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will leave you with a greater appreciation for the conditions and danger our military personnel experience. The experience isn’t cheap but neither are the memories.

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

I booked this as a gift to my husband for an early Father’s Day and Anniversary present. We spent about 4 hours at the site, rode in a transport vehicle and a Humvee, Marty drove the tank and I rode along with a view from the top.

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

And if you’re really lucky, someone in your group will book a bigger package and you’ll get to watch them drive a tank over a car. Literally!

Drive A Tank Kasota Minnesota

Just to really cap off the experience, there’s an indoor shooting range for firing machine guns.

Where’s the beef jerky, you ask?

In Marty’s pocket. I actually had it for a picture and for once in my life was so distracted I didn’t even think about food. They even had picnic tables out by the course. Best thing about beef jerky …. it’ll keep for the next picnic.


much much more

If you still need more reasons to visit Mankato … click on pictures to learn more!

art & History

City Art Mankato
City Art Walking Sculpture Tour
Reconciliation Park Mankato
Reconciliation Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

brewery tours

Mankato Brewery

Mankato Brewery

sibley park

Sibley Park Mankato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

breakfast options

Pub 500 Bloody Mary
Pub 500 Blood Mary
Tandem Bagels Mankato
Tandem Bagels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Start planning your weekend trip or vacation now. Remember, I define a picnic as “simple food, good company and a comfortable place”. You are in good hands in Mankato, Minnesota!


Full Disclosure: Thank you to Visit Mankato and the incredibly hospitable businesses of the greater Mankato area for sponsoring a good portion of our stay. The opinions and recommendations of this post are my own. The kindness and generosity of this city are genuine and greatly appreciated.

Visit Mankato Minnesota

Foodventurous: Olive Oil in Lazio

Which travel personality are you? Are you the laid-back, we’ll-figure-it-out-as-we-go type? Or are you like me … Type A, FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), Google-obsessed planner? You can imagine then that a trip to Rome as the master-planner for 6 people might send me into overdrive. It did. Prioritization became a must … “everyone pick ONE thing you REALLY want to see/do.” Thanks to my relentless Google/Pinterest/travel guide browsing, I knew that we would be in Italy during the heart of the olive harvest and I wanted to see it.

After eliminating a few tours based on location and price, and browsing through the results of google and Pinterest searches, one name kept popping up: Johnny Madge. Phrases like “world expert”, “judge”, and “expertise” led me to google him and find his website. This Englishman lives in  Italy and judges olive oil competitions all over the world. After exchanging a few e-mails with Johnny, I knew we were in good hands. My choice for the ONE thing I REALLY wanted to see/do in Italy was booked.

We were to take a train from Rome to Fara Sabina (about 45 minutes NE of Rome) and Johnny would meet us at the station with a passenger van. After two cancelled trains and one arriving 20 minutes late, we were on our way.

NOTE: In Rome, Train and bus schedules, as well as most parking and driving “laws”,
are more like suggestions. Scheduled routes are subject to strikes and cancellation
without notice. If a smart car can fit in a spot, it will. Three lanes of traffic will likely
result in four (with a couple of vespas thrown in for good measure). Accept it. 

Worried that Johnny would be upset by our late arrival, it was instantly obvious he was quite accustomed to it. Not flustered or upset in any way, he found us quickly and with a smile said the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard …

“Ah-nee-Tah”

Am I blushing?

That English accent transformed my name from a heavy “uh-nee-duh” to a light and melodic sound. This was going to be a GREAT day! We all introduced ourselves to Johnny and in no time we were on the road to Selci to begin our lessons and tastings.

While riding in the van and taking in the gorgeous countryside, Johnny filled us in on what we could expect for the day. Because of our late start, we would begin with lunch and our lessons on tasting olive oils. We pulled up to a quiet and incredibly charming place, La Vecchia, that turns out to be the bed and breakfast of my next trip to Italy (fingers crossed).

We walked through one dining room, another small dining room, and into a private room, complete with fireplace and a family style table. Before eating, Johnny tutored us on quality olive oils and how to taste them. Here’s a YouTube video of Johnny describing differences in olive oils as well as the best way to taste test them making lots of “stupid noises”.

As we were concentrating on identifying certain nuances of the oils (aromas of tomato, citrus, pepper, etc.), this incredibly sweet man named Giuseppe showered us with bottles of wine and plates of bread and the parade of food continued for well over an hour.

Johnny continued to share stories and information about olive oils and his experiences and, as each plate arrived, we were encouraged to drizzle the food with olive oil to have the full concept of how it can brighten or highlight the flavors. After about 12 different “antipasti” plates (roasted vegetables, meats like prosciutto and head cheese, breads, etc.), the platters of crepes and ravioli and pasta arrived one after another.

For dessert, we were given a choice of Nutella panna cotta (yes, that is olive oil drizzled on my dessert) or tiramisu cake, served with a wine cookie (ciambelline al vino), espresso, and/or grappa (a wicked strong after-dinner alcoholic beverage meant to aid in digestion). Every bite and sip were amazing.

Before leaving La Torretta, we were treated to a tour of the kitchen and the biggest wood-fire oven I’ve ever seen (indoors or out). If you notice, the people who are cooking for us and serving us are well past traditional retirement age. These people move around like twenty-somethings who just want to make guests happy.

Well done, my friends … well done!

You want to give me a bottle of locally produced wine before we leave? I love these people!

Resistant to leaving this quiet, lovely place, we returned to the road and wound our way through the countryside to a local olive grove where harvest was in progress. Olive trees remind me of a crab apple tree in size and shape but the leaves are long and slender and have a silvery hue.

The olives are harvested by hand using a tool that looks like a small rake. Some producers will mechanically harvest the olives but many have found that to be much too damaging to the fruit. The rakes are drug through the branches to knock the olives to the ground which has been covered with fabric or blankets.

Once the fabric is gathered, the olives are added to large crates and taken to the processing area. They pass through several stages of sorting to remove the stems and leaves before they pass through the press. Within minutes, a gorgeous chartreuse liquid is pouring out of a spout.

This might be my favorite (non-family) picture of our trip.

Our final stop on this trip was to see an olive tree that is nearly 2000 years old. 

This is the tree in the picture at the beginning of the post. We were surrounded by history all through our trip but there was something about walking around a tree that was beginning its life about the same time Jesus was teaching about peace and harmony on earth. What a wonderful way to end our day.

I cannot say enough about the quality and value of this tour. Johnny is the ideal guide: accommodating, patient, attentive, and funny. He will be the first to admit web design is not his forte but to his credit, he is on top of his e-mail and will make the process easy.

For more of our food experiences in Rome, check out my first post here.
To find out more about Johnny’s tours, click here.
Want to try some truly high quality Italian olive oil? Click here.

All this talk has made me hungry … Mangia!

Note: I am not receiving payment of any kind for this post. My family lists this tour
as one of the best things we did during our week in/around Rome. 


Join me as I relive our tour from Rome into the countryside of the Lazio region to see the olive harvest and pressing, to sample some of the finest olive oils, to eat traditional Italian food, and to learn from an olive oil expert and genuine great guy, Johnny Madge!

Foodventurous: Rome

Just how exactly does one put Rome into words?

Even if I narrow it down to “food in Rome”, it is still an overwhelming task.

Having just returned from a week in Italy and placing a magnificent check-mark next to one of my upper-tier bucket list items, I find myself trying to pick just the perfect pictures and words to do it justice. The story could be told chronologically, or by food type, or even through recommendations and reviews. But it has to be so much more than just a retelling of what we did … it needs to be a collection of food related experiences and lessons. I have more than enough material because I took advantage of every opportunity to ask questions, sample the unfamiliar, and learn from “mistakes” made along the way.

The first thing you need to know is my new favorite word: Mangia!

It means, “Let’s Eat!” 

 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

pasta

LESSON: Carbonara is the new pasta dish-of-choice in our family.

Our youngest son has been in Rome since August, spending a semester studying Graphic Design. He “discovered” carbonara soon after the semester began and quickly started making it for himself. Wanting to try something new but not taking too much of a risk, four out of six of us followed him in ordering it and the two of us that didn’t, wished we had. What we ordered was delicious, but the carbonara was just that good! It’s a simple dish made with pasta similar (and yet not) to spaghetti, guanciale (pork cheek), eggs, Romano and Parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Simple … but impressive.

I’m not sure if it was the third or fourth time we had carbonara on the trip when an important tip was revealed to us: more egg yolk (4) than egg white (1). If the recipe you decide to try doesn’t follow this tip, look for another one.

We left our son at the end of the week and that very night he made … you guessed it … carbonara with the egg adjustment.

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

If you are lucky enough to be invited to the kitchen to see a wood-fire oven and pasta being made by hand, you have found authenticity.

 


pizza

Chicago has deep dish. New York has giant, thin slices you fold in half lengthwise. Pepperoni is a staple for pizza everywhere … well, not EVERYwhere. Certainly not in Rome … blew my husband’s pepperoni-with-tomato-sauce-and-mozzarella-lovin’-mind. If you ask for pepperoni pizza in Italy, do not be surprised when you get a pizza LOADED with peppers … like bell peppers. So what is pizza like in Rome?

I am a researcher at heart and I know that the results are only as good as the sample size. I couldn’t come back and report to you on pizza after only trying one or two slices … or one or two pizzerias. I’m devoted like that.

We ate pizza all week … breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert … by the slice and whole pizzas … square, round, “sandwiched”. In my extensive research, I found two types of crust: thin, crispy, wood-fired and a slightly thicker, but not dense, focaccia-style. Toppings are kept simple and feature a lot of vegetables (zucchini, mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, fennel, and potatoes). Sauce and cheese are minimal but of high quality and flavor.

My personal favorite was tomato and green olive pizza on the focaccia-style crust. I should say that was my favorite non-dessert pizza. You can’t put dessert pizza in the same competition with non-dessert pizza … especially when that dessert pizza involves gooey Nutella and powdered sugar!

 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

ANTIPASTi

Technically, this section should have been placed before the PASTA section as that is what antipasti means: before the pasta. The best way I can describe this is to ask you to imagine an appetizer party: a party where everyone brings one appetizer and you put them all together and graze on the variety instead of having a meal. But that doesn’t work either because antipasti is just what’s before the meal.

We experienced this phenomenon twice on our trip: a parade of small plates filled with marinated and/or roasted vegetables, cheeses, prosciutto and salumi, meatballs, beans, breads, and olives. I appropriately call it a “phenomenon” because they actually expect you to eat a main course (or two) and dessert afterwards.

LESSON: Let’s say there are four of you at a table and you manage to order antipasti. If the waiter asks if you want antipasti for 4? Or for 2? Go with 2. If, after you have given the antipasti your best effort, he/she asks if you are ready for pasta, and you say “a little”, you will still get more than you can eat. True story.

 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

TAKE AWAY

This is a good time to introduce the equivalent of to go: “take away”. When I ordered my first morning caffe latte, it didn’t even occur to me that it might not come in a disposable cup … and it didn’t.

LESSON: The proper way to order something “to go” is to say “take away”.

Apparently the only thing more eye-roll worthy than forgetting to mention that you wanted “take away” is to then not care if they pour your latte from the ceramic cup into the disposable cup, completely disturbing the froth factor.

I would have thought it was quite apparent I just needed some caffeine!

If “to go” is replaced by “take away”, what’s the equivalent for “doggie bag”? Would you be brave/stupid enough to ask?

Awww, you know me so well!

On one of our day trips, we were treated to a private meal at a restaurant/bed and breakfast north of Rome. This beautiful place in the country is run by the most hospitable couple who happen to be in their 70’s but with energy that puts my day-to-day efforts to shame. This was the site of our first experience with the antipasti phenomenon, followed by savory crepes, ravioli, and a large platter of pasta. When we didn’t empty those plates/bowls/platters, we were asked if we were ready for the next main dish or if we wanted to move on to dessert. We opted for dessert as we were already quite satisfied (i.e. stuffed). What we didn’t know until later was that they had prepared a suckling pig for us and we were too full for it to even make an appearance. I could tell that Giuseppe (that absolutely was his name) was disappointed that we hadn’t even finished the pasta and afraid maybe we didn’t like it. The idea that we might leave this sweet couple with anything but appreciation and admiration was not something I could do.

So I asked our guide, if it was appropriate to ask for a “doggie bag”? I knew I was risking a faux pas … AGAIN … but I’m pretty sure Giuseppe understood immediately because his face brightened and his shoulders squared and off he went. We were soon on our way, after dessert and grappa (an after-dinner drink referred to as “rocket fuel”) and espresso, with a bag of “take away” containers that would serve us well back at the Airbnb later in the week.

 


Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

DESSERT

True or False: Italian Dessert = Tiramisu

Trick question. Yes it’s a traditional Italian dessert. Yes, it’s delicious. But it is far from the only option. I still had it three times in the week I was in Rome. Three times … three completely different versions … all amazing!

Let me introduce you to my new friends: gelato, chocolate salami, and ciambelline al vino.

Gelato is ice cream. It is not exactly the same as the ice cream I buy in the grocery store, just as grocery store ice cream is different from the ice cream I make at home. What I loved about gelato in Rome:

  1. Flavors: pistachio, chestnut, hazelnut, coffee, pomegranate, chocolate, dark chocolate, biscotti, mint, speculoos (ginger/cinnamon shortbread), lemon …
  2. Combinations: you can combine 2, 3 or even 4 flavors
  3. Location: you can’t walk one block without passing a Gelateria

LESSON: Be careful when choosing a Gelateria. If you look at the gelato display and you see colors not known to nature or big, billowy mounds of “gelato”, keep going. The best advice we received was to think about banana gelato: what color is an actual banana? Not the peel … the banana. Well made banana gelato should be almost white, not neon yellow.

I’m going to miss you, speculoos gelato!

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

 

Photo Credit: McVey/Reynolds

Chocolate Salami sounds like an oxymoron or an evil trick but it is not. Imagine fudge, with nuts, dried fruit, and even cookie bits, rolled into a log, dusted with powdered sugar, and tied with kitchen string to look like a salami. It is then sliced for serving with whipped cream and, if you’re lucky, drizzled with more chocolate. This picture conveys how decadent this dessert is but to get the full effect, check out this website with the recipe that I will be trying in the near future!

Ciambelline al Vino, or sweet wine pretzels, grabbed my attention (and heart) when presented to us as part of our dessert with Giuseppe (mentioned previously in the take away/doggie bag incident). Beautiful, doughnut shaped cookies sprinkled with sugar were passed around and, luckily, before I could try to take an enthusiastic bite, I was warned that these are very hard and meant to be … wait for it … dunked in your wine! Not only are they made from wine, they are to be eaten with wine!

What could be wrong with that?

Apparently, for a number of the members of my family, it is the addition of anise seed. I am not a big fan of the flavor of anise (or anything close to black licorice) but it did not bother me one bit in these cookies. It was not something that they would choose to have again. But the beauty of trying these things and liking at least part of it is that you can adjust the recipe. Instead of anise, perhaps I will use cardamom … or nutmeg … or allspice.

LESSONIf you are going to try to make a cookie that is meant to be dunked in your wine, make sure you make it small enough to fit inside the glass!

 


salute

Speaking of glasses … raise yours and say “salute” (sah-loot-teh). The equivalent of our “cheers” but  I love it because it translates to English as “health”. A glass of wine, a wish of good health, and time with simple food, good company, and in a comfortable place …

… my Italian picnic!

Farm Crawl 2017

Farm Crawl 2017

Whether you consider it a “crawl” from farm to farm because of all the gravel roads and traffic, or a “crawl” because that’s all you can do at the end of the tour, it doesn’t matter. A beautiful fall day spent touring farms showcasing Iowa agriculture, arts, people and food is a good day.

I had heard of a “Pub Crawl” before (we won’t get into that here) but never a “Farm Crawl” … and I grew up on a farm. When I saw an announcement at one of the stands at the Downtown Farmers’ Market for this event, I had to ask.

And then I had to go.

The tour included seven farms, in a loop, about an hour SE of Des Moines, near Knoxville.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but when I pulled off one of the main roads onto my first stretch of gravel and saw the pretty countryside, creek beds, and fields, I was hooked. It was a perfect, fall day in Iowa and, by that, I mean cool and rainy, followed by warm and sunny, and low winds. Everyone here knows that a fall day in Iowa without snow is good weather.

Coyote Run Farm

My first stop was at Coyote Run Farm just outside of Melcher-Dallas where I was greeted with an invitation to help myself to some homemade Vegetable Beef Borscht Soup (recipe), cookies and drinks … for free! Stomach full, I walked around the farm to see the horses and chickens, high tunnel and garden, and their rehabilitated barn.

 

I left the farm with my hands full of tiny potatoes, 3 types of garlic, a few heirloom tomatoes, and a jar of local honey. Hmmm … how many more stops did they say there were?

Six …

 

Trojan Iron Works

As I pulled up to the next stop, I realized it was the parking lot of a church, filled with so many kids! And the kids weren’t just participating, they were running the show! Trojan Iron Works, I would find out, is a student-run business at Pleasantville High School making custom metal signs. They paired up with the school’s FFA chapter and provided live music and games for the younger kids including calf roping, cheese and cracker “welding”, germination necklaces, and face painting. Again … for free. They also had a concession stand, were selling beef jerky and granola made by the Home Economics class, and were taking orders for pork and beef raised at the Pleasantville FFA Teaching Farm.

I’m sure they were present, but I didn’t see a cell phone in the hands of a single kid or student.

Nice.

Heading to my car with my beef jerky, it didn’t even dawn on me that I didn’t take a single picture of the metal projects. Click on the link above to see lots of pictures of the students at work and of their art. 

White Breast Pottery and Weaving

As I get out of my car at White Breast Pottery & Weaving, I see this …

… and I hear this …

 

… which leads me to this …

 

… along with a basket weaver/maker, a group of 4-Hers selling concessions and baked goods for their club, and a rug weaving demonstration.

It just wasn’t possible for this 4-H girl to pass by the concession stand, so a hot dog in one hand and a beautiful woven rug in the other, I move on down the road toward the apples.

Schneider Orchard

Apple picking, giant slingshot apple shooting, a tree house (complete with suspended bridge and slide … sadly, no adults allowed), wagon rides, apples, and a menu of sweet treats that’s worth the long line kept Schneider Orchard buzzing with activity. (That’s a pollination joke, folks.)

Apple pie for me, and peach for my guy at home, plus a bag of Jonathan apples (my favorite baking apples), and one or two caramels rolled in pecans.

What? It’s not like I bought the fudge too!

Oh, but I wanted to!

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get full (stomach AND car)!

Blue Gate Farm

The next stop was home to the reason I was even on this tour, Blue Gate Farm. It was at their stand at the farmers’ market that I found out about the Farm Crawl. Having stopped many times before, I noticed the sign advertising the event and asked Jill about it. Her enthusiasm for the opportunity to show people their property and practices in naturally grown gardening was contagious.

I arrived too late in the day to get one of “Aunt Louise’s Cinnamon Rolls” but I was not too late to get a tour from Jill. Rotation practices, high tunnel extended seasons, 1950’s era planters and cultivators, the rabbits, alpacas, bees, and, of course, the land itself, were described with passion and pride.

Knoxville’s own Peace Tree Brewing Company was present and a “cold one” sounded really good right about then. Unfortunately, but understandably, they were sampling root beer and selling their beer (at room temperature, not cold). That “cold one” would just have to wait until I got home.

Pierce’s Pumpkin Patch

What would a Farm Crawl be without a stop at a pumpkin patch? Linus would be most content in this one. With 145 different varieties of pumpkins and gourds, your every decorating, carving, and baking need was covered. And, if feeling a little full from the other stops, the maze of giant round hay bales might just help you make room for the BBQ concessions.

Can you find the people in the maze?

Also included in this stop was a sawmill demonstration … huge tree trunks being positioned and trimmed to fit through a machine that cut them into boards … and wine sampling from Nearwood Winery. Again, I was too late to sample most of their wines. One must be very strategic in planning your tour stops … or understanding … that works too!

Crooked Gap Farm

My greatest disappointment in this whole tour? That I missed out on my very last stop … Crooked Gap Farm. I had been looking forward to this one for their hand-crafted soaps made from products of their farm (or as local as possible) and their cattle, pigs, and lambs. I was driving away from the pumpkin patch, looking for the next turn on the loop, and before I knew it, I missed it.

My only defense is exhaustion. It had been six hours since I left on my foodventure. I had absorbed as much information and consumed enough food in an effort to support the farms and organizations as I could and I was tired.

I think they’ll forgive me. As long as I start on their end of the loop next year!

Advice

How’s that for some beautiful souvenirs?

Are you like me and disappointed you didn’t know about this years ago? At least now you can make plans for next year:

  1. Follow Farm Crawl on Facebook so you don’t miss out on next year’s event.
  2. Mark your calendars in advance … this event is held the first Sunday in October.
  3. Don’t wash your car … enjoy the drive.
  4. Bring cash. Some places take credit cards and some don’t. There is no admission fee for any of the farms on this day.
  5. Bring the kids … it’s an education that feels like a vacation.
  6. Practice your parallel parking …

 



 

You can take the girl out of the farm …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Picturesque …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Quiet …

Photo Credit: Joe Murphy

… Idyllic …

This is my home. This is Iowa. This is farm country.

These pictures show the beautiful scenery here. What they do not capture is the less-than-glamorous side: the hard labor, the investment of time and money, the nurturing of plants and animals (24/7/365), the fear of uncontrollable variables, and the never-ending piles of dusty, dirty laundry.

My husband and I were happy to be selected, along with about 50 other people, to go on a two-day tour of farms in SE Iowa. This trip was organized by the Iowa Food & Family Project to provide an opportunity for people to experience and learn about agriculture in Iowa. This year’s trip focused on farms near Pella, Oskaloosa, and Iowa City with stops at grain, pork, dairy, and turkey farms.

If you’ve been following along with my blogs, you know that I am a devout Iowa State Cyclone and St. Louis Cardinal fan. This portion of the state is NOT my comfort zone. This is Hawkeye and Cubs territory. You should be very impressed with my devotion to my blog …

What I learned on this tour is that farming in NW Iowa is exactly the same as farming in SE Iowa.

And it’s not.

The Same.

Faith, Family, Farming – My dad use to say that if you made these things your priority AND you kept them in order, everything would work out. It was clear that the farmers we visited on our tour agree. There was evidence of this from the signs on their walls to the prayer offered before our meal, the 91-year-old grandfather who keeps an eye on the work of his son and grandson while mowing the grass on all their farms, the four children who waited expectantly for us to arrive in our big tour bus to show us their turkeys, and the passion with which they all told their stories of fortune, famine, expansion, community and history.

The other common thread? These men and women love the land. There has been a lot of controversy and media coverage on GMO’s, water pollution, manure management, livestock practices, conservation, and food safety. Farmer’s are under a lot of pressure over these issues. Here are a few things to consider:

  1. The land and the animals are the investment and livelihood of these people. The products and machinery they use are absurdly expensive. They want to protect these things because it is the right thing to do and to not protect them is counterproductive and costly.
  2. Just because a farmer does not shout his/her case in the eye of the media or argue politics on the floor of a government assembly does not mean he/she does not have an educated, passionate answer. An intelligent and considerate question will be answered with an intelligent and considerate explanation.
  3. Technology is embraced by farmers. It is transforming the industry and allowing farmers to know their fields and animals at a much more detailed level than ever before. When a field fire is approaching a hog facility, and the manager of the facility receives notification of the fire and can control the temperature, misters, and, therefore, the comfort levels of the animals immediately through an app on his/her phone, that’s progressive farming.
  4. One bad apple spoils the barrel … and gets the attention of the world. Of course there are farmers who don’t follow the rules and abuse their land/animals. Shame on them. But that shouldn’t tarnish the reputation of the good and honest.
  5. These people invited us onto their property to ask questions. Every single one of them told us that no question was off-the-table. They encouraged us to ask so they could explain. We did and they did. What a concept …

And it’s not.

Farming in NW Iowa is as different from farming in SE Iowa as it is from farm to farm within the same county. Farmer’s are notorious for asking each other “How much rain did you get?” and then shaking their heads that just a mile or two down the road received the exact amount they needed. In the same way, they are grateful when the hail that damaged a field two miles away, didn’t touch a leaf of their crops. Of course, not all their fields are in one area so there’s the post-weather-event drive to check the conditions of the other locations. Unlike most business, farmers do not revel in the loss of their competitors. They mourn it because they are not competitors, they are friends and comrades.

Variability is magnified when you talk about different parts of the state. Soil types, pest problems, flat verses hilly land (no, Iowa is NOT all flat), and climate zones contribute to the science of farming. It is impossible to say that farming is the same all over the state.

And, yet, it felt like home.

After all, when it comes to farmers, it’s a tight community. At our first stop, one of our hosts asked me where I was from.

Me: Near Storm Lake
Tom: Oh yeah? Which town?
Me: Alta?
Tom: Really! Do you happen to know Ernie Glienke?
Me: Yep! He’s my uncle and Godfather!

That’s how it works around here.

Faith, Family, Farming … and FOOD!

As would be expected from a group with the word “food” in their name, we were fed well! Our trip started with a breakfast of yogurt parfait, hard-boiled eggs, and muffins. The parfait were compliments of Anderson-Erickson Dairy, a third-generation, family operated Iowa dairy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Along the way, local favorites were brought to us … you know, to tide us over! Homemade S’more Ice Cream bars from the Kalona Creamery and kolaches from the Golden Delight Bakery in Kalona.

Blessed with beautiful weather, we were treated to a wood-fire pizza dinner on a farm near Wellman, Iowa. This pretty farm is home to the brick pizza oven of my dreams. Stonewall Pizza fires up the oven … literally … on Friday nights and people come from all around to enjoy their pizzas, yard games, live music, and the peace and quiet of farm life.

I even came home from this trip with a new favorite summer pizza combination: sweet corn, tomato, and bacon! Seriously … is there anything that says “Iowa Farm Country” than that???

… but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.

A recurring theme throughout our tour was established by the “younger” generation who were establishing themselves. I think I heard three different 30-somethings say “When I graduated high school, I was never going to live on a farm again!” They practically blush (men and women) when they say this because obviously the pull of farm life got to them.

As it does me.

I do live in a suburb. When the seasons change, I need a drive in the country to see the crops. I crave a trip back to the family farm to ride in the combine or just eat a meal to the field. I don’t miss the hog production side of things as much, but I sure do miss the bacon … and ham … and chops.

I’m not back on the farm … yet.

Thanks, Iowa Food & Family Project, for giving me a taste of what I miss.


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Foodventurous: Magnolia Market

After a few days of near perfect weather, crazy amounts of food, a headful of blogging information, and making friends with a bunch of lovely ladies from around the country (Foodventurous: Austin), I was not quite ready to go home. There was one more foodventure to take: MAGNOLIA! A bus trip up to Waco, Texas, was offered by the conference organizers and my husband and I are big followers of Chip & Joanna:

IMG_6484a

The only disappointment of the day was that this was as close as we would come to getting our picture with them!

The words that would best describe this place are “Chip and Joanna”. If you’ve ever watched their show, or read their book, or had any glimpse of these two together, that is the feeling you get on every square inch of this property. The staff is constantly on the move to make the experience as close to perfect and pleasant as possible. The grounds are immaculate. There’s a wide-open play area for kids (of all ages). It is a light-hearted, honest, clean, joyful place. It’s like everyone there was as happy as Joanna when she says “shiplap”!

The property consists of the market, bakery (highly recommend the lemon-lavender cupcake), garden shed, silos, food trucks, and the open-air play area. This is the perfect place for a picnic!

 

And that brings me around to the picture of the empty picnic table:

IMG_6550-Cover

These tables lined the area right outside the silos. There were plenty of other tables too, but I kept thinking: “You are Picnic Life Foodie! Take pictures of picnic tables!”

When I looked at my pictures later, I was so disappointed that I didn’t take a few minutes to stage a full picnic on these tables for the pictures. Why hadn’t I implemented some of the things I had learned at the conference?

But the more I looked at this picture, the more I liked it. It represents everything I try to bring to my blog: simple, relaxed, comfortable, open, inviting, innovative.

I like the idea that when you look at this picture, you can imagine YOUR ideal picnic:

  • linen, candles, wine and charcuterie,
  • red gingham, daisies, fried chicken and pasta salad,
  • paper bags, balloons, sandwiches and chips, or
  • live music, a blanket from the car, pizza and beer.

Whatever your preferences, the tables are waiting.

Fill ’em up!


If you enjoyed this post, be sure to share it on social media using the buttons below. Like what you see? You can become an email or wordpress subscriber at the top left of this page. Please do not hesitate to contact us with thoughts and questions, and if you would like us to try out a recipe or test a product, drop us a line at picniclifefoodie@gmail.com!