Foodventurous: Wallace Country Life Center
If you grew up on a farm in the midwest, chances are one of the publications prominently displayed in your home was Wallaces’ Farmer. If you are a history buff, the name “Wallace” triggers thoughts of Vice Presidents and Secretaries of Agriculture. Go to college in the late 70’s or early 80’s? Remember punch cards for data analysis?
None of the above? Let me try again …
Do you like fresh fruits and vegetables? Do you like farm-to-table dinners? Educational luncheons? Cooking classes? Gardening? Letting your kids run through a restored prairie while you admire beautiful sculptures?
If your head nodded to even one of these statements/questions, I have a foodventure for you. Let me introduce you to The Wallace Country Life Center! The Wallace family has been credited as “America’s First Family of Agriculture” due to the considerable contributions of at least four generations of Henry Wallace’s to the advancement of agriculture and food science. Some of the credentials of the family members include: creator and editors of Wallaces’ Farmer, Iowa State College professor, cofounder of the American Farm Bureau Association, Secretary of Agriculture, founder of what is now Dupont Pioneer, conservationist, architect of agricultural statistical methods, and Vice President of the United States.
Pretty impressive family tree, huh? And it started on a small farm outside the small southwest Iowa town of Orient. This is now The Country Life Center and location of my recent foodventure. This place entered my foodie radar about a year and a half ago when a good friend was going to be visiting family in southwest Iowa and we wanted to meet somewhere for lunch. Since we both have strong interests in gardening, antiques, and food, this little spot in the middle of the country seemed like a perfect choice. So much so that I’ve visited the farm three times!
The Gathering Table, found inside a beautiful replica barn, is open for lunch and dinner on Fridays for walk-ins or reservations. The menu changes each week in order to best feature the vegetables and fruits that are available from the on-site gardens. It is a simple menu with sophisticated flavors. My husband can attest that, when ordering in a restaurant, I narrow my choices down to three and then make a last-minute decision when the waiter arrives and everyone else has ordered. This menu generally has three main dish choices and I still can’t narrow things down until it’s time to choose!
On my recent visit, I was lucky enough to be dining with a friend who was willing to share so we could both try as much from the menu as possible. On this particular day, we shared/sampled/devoured:
fresh radishes and turnips with homemade bread
asparagus with Parmesan cheese
BBQ chicken flatbread
Asian beef lettuce wraps
caramel apple bread pudding
vanilla ice cream with strawberry-rhubarb sauce
My only regret during this meal was that I didn’t take my eyes, or my camera, off the food long enough to take a picture of the bright and beautiful dining room inside the barn. It has indoor and outdoor seating and a stunning view of the prairie and pond. The barn also has a meeting room and can be reserved for special events and parties.
Follow them on Facebook to see the weekly menu. Occasionally they may have a special event on a Friday and are not open to the public so call ahead before you make a special trip.
community supported agriculture
CSA’s are a wonderful way to enjoy locally produced, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Each week the Prairie Harvest CSA at the Country Life Center delivers boxes of produce from the farm to Greenfield, Des Moines and Johnston for pick up by subscribers. Tips, recipes and special event invitations are provided to subscribers via a weekly newsletter.
I think the word foodventurous perfectly describes the person who joins a CSA. As with any farming enterprise, there is risk involved in gardening. Weather, insects and animals, and mechanical failures all factor in to the success of what is planted. One deer or ground squirrel finds its way into the hoop barn or vegetable patch and in a matter of hours, the lettuce or radishes intended for the next day’s boxes are gone. Extreme temperature changes, hail, or insects can completely change the course of a garden, orchard or field. Learning to adapt and plan for a successful CSA (i.e. happy subscribers) requires a terrific knowledge base. The happy subscriber must also accept, and even appreciate, the fact that there is no guarantee of what specific items will be in their box. The guarantee is that it will be fresh, sustainable and nutritious. Learning about new foods, trying new recipes and sharing the responsibility and risk are part of the foodventure!
Do I belong to a CSA? No. Why? Because I have my own garden and I am lucky enough to belong to a farming family who provide me with all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the year. If that weren’t the case, I would be a happy subscriber.
At the end of my tour of the gardens, hoop barns and orchard, I was gifted some produce. Turnips, rainbow chard, and green garlic … three things I had never cooked. For the purpose of this blog I wanted to show how gorgeous and fresh these vegetables are, how someone with no experience cooking them might start, and what I learned about each one.
Green garlic is similar in appearance and use to green onions (a.k.a. scallions) but with … you guessed it … garlic taste. It can be eaten raw, sautéed, or even pickled.
Rainbow chard is a powerhouse of nutritional value. Considered a super-food, like spinach, it is a vegetable that needs to be on more tables, including mine. It can be eaten raw in a salad but is often sautéed.
Turnips are a root vegetable with a wide range of preparation options. The white “root” part can be eaten raw or roasted like a radish and the greens can be sautéed or added to soups and stews.
Here are my experiments and results:
roast pork with sautéed tomatoes/onions/chard/green garlic over polenta
For this meal, I sautéed tomatoes and onions in olive oil and then sautéed the chard with the green garlic. The colorful chard stems were chopped and pickled with some rhubarb and green garlic. Leftover roast pork was placed with the tomatoes and chard on a bed of polenta and topped with a bit of the pickled chard/rhubarb. This meal met with a variety of reviews from my family members: one loved it, one voted that I move on to the next experiment but was willing to try the greens again, and one voted “needs improvement”. What we did decide was that the combination of the tomatoes and chard was a great pairing and should be explored further.
ham, beans and greens soup
As the tomatoes seemed to be a successful pairing with the greens, so is a salty meat like bacon or ham. After paging through turnip green recipes on Pinterest, I decided to make a soup using a smoked pork chop, white cannellini beans, some of the green garlic and the turnip greens. Delicious! I wish I had taken the tip from my mom’s Ham and Bean Soup recipe and added an apple to the broth as it simmered. My next experiment will be a turnip green sauté with Canadian bacon, onion and apples.
I also tried a recipe for roasted turnips with a Dijon mustard sauce. The flavors were good but the overall result was less than ideal (therefore, no picture). Eating them raw with a slight dusting of a flavored salt is, to this point, my favorite way to eat the turnip.
and there’s more!
As if the food and the setting aren’t enough, this farm offers so much more. The original farmhouse has been restored and serves as a gift shop, produce market and office space. The gift shop is an eclectic mix of items made by the hands of Iowans and people with historical and familial ties to Iowa. Gardening and cooking classes, tours and other educational opportunities and special events fill their calendar.
Given the family’s involvement with academics and politics, it is not surprising to know that the Wallace Centers have a presence in the urban settings of Iowa too …
In downtown Des Moines, you can find the Wallace House, a Victorian home owned by the Wallace’s from 1892-1940. After being converted to an apartment building and later vacated, it was purchased by The Wallace Foundation in 1988 and restored, guided by photographs from the family.
This beautiful home is actively sustaining the tradition of the Wallace family with farm to table dinners, educational leadership luncheons, historical teas, and special programs. I visited the house twice last year. The second visit was to enjoy a wonderful three-course, farm fresh meal with live music. Guests are seated at a variety of tables throughout the first floor of the home. My husband and I shared a table with a couple we did not know but quickly found easy conversation and common interests.
My next foodventure with the Wallace Centers will be to tour the Mickle Center Shared Use Community Kitchen. This is a large kitchen space near the Wallace House that was renovated to meet the needs of food entrepreneurs: chefs, caterers, bakers, and instructors. This space has already had a big influence of several start-ups making appearances at one of my favorite places, the Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market.
This past weekend I found Rootz Chicken, serving Afro-Caribbean cuisine, on their first public appearance because the Wallace Centers shared their information on Facebook as one of the Mickle Center clients. Don’t you just want to know the story behind this chicken? I do!
As the website says:
“Inspired by the Wallace family legacy, The Wallace Centers of Iowa provides a variety of programs and services to build awareness of local food, sustainable agriculture, and civility.”
I am always happy when I find fellow foodventurers … I don’t think there’s a better word to describe the Wallace’s and those who preserve their mission.
Disclaimer: In exchange for this post, my lunch at the Country Life Center was compensated
and I received the produce mentioned previously. All of the other visits to the farm in
Orient and the house in Des Moines were on my own. My affection for this organization
established long before this particular visit.