Archive for the 'Iowa' Category

The great ice cream caper

In the carpool on the way home from work on a sunny and warm Wednesday back in April, my friends Betsy and Dan and I decided to go out for burgers. Snow had crept back in the forecast for early the next week, and we needed some ground beef and some sunshine to make ourselves feel better about the impending weather.

Mint chocolate chip

Mint chocolate chip

Over dinner, Dan and I fell back into our running argument about regionally- and locally-made ice cream: I maintain that Heyn’s is better than Whitey’s, and Dan is a Whitey’s guy through and through. We’d been fighting about this for weeks (because, really, what else would a couple of foodies fight about?), and finally Betsy called us on it.

“Why don’t you do a taste test tonight?” she said. “I’ll be the impartial observer.”

“It’s on,” I said.

We agreed to the terms: mint chocolate chip and chocolate chip cookie dough from Heyn’s, Whitey’s and Blue Bunny, a more commercial brand, yes, but still an Iowa-made product. (I should note, here, that when I wrote about locally-made ice cream for Edible Iowa River Valley, we left Whitey’s off the list—it is actually made in Illinois…) Dan and I would sample each flavor and try to identify which sample belonged to which ice cream maker, and then we would also rate which one we thought was the best.

The rating was less the issue, in this contest, than the fact that we both swore we could pick our favorites out of the line-up.

Ice cream acquired, Betsy readied our samples.

“Are you guys going to have a full scoop or just a bite?” Betsy asked.

“Scoop,” I said, and I thought, what else would we eat in a freaking ice cream taste test Imeancomeon.

“Uh, scoop,” Dan said. (I remember this because I wrote it down at the time. I am all about recording intelligent conversation for future blog purposes.)

“What’s the winner going to get?” I asked, very focused on my impending victory over Dan and his assertions.

“I think it’s really what the loser should have to do,” Dan said. “Maybe the loser should have to pay for all the ice cream. Or wear a sign at work tomorrow that says, ‘I lost the ice cream taste test. Ask me how.’”

“Maybe they should have to run outside and run around the house naked,” I said. “Or go to work … NAKED.” Again, I say: I was focused on victory, people. Victory.

Contemplating the chocolate cookie dough

Contemplating the chocolate cookie dough

But it turns out that was not the case. “You’re going to be very disappointed with my picture-taking abilities,” Betsy said when she returned from the kitchen with the first round: mint chocolate chip.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I’ll just tell everyone that the pictures were taken by a” (and here, I used finger-quotes) “Masters-degreed artiste.”

And so the tasting began. Cold stares flew across the living room. There were more cackles than talking. And, to be honest, after we tried the chocolate chip cookie dough and I decided that not only was I sure which one was Blue Bunny, but that I liked it the best, as well, I had lost a lot of confidence in my ability to pick out good ice cream. I could smell a loss, so I tried to cut back—a little—on the trash-talking.

When all was said and done, we both correctly identified who made each of the chocolate chip cookie dough variations, but I misidentified the mint chocolate chips. Dan, however, got that one right as well, garnering himself a win. He also took great glee in knowing that I chose a Blue Bunny flavor over two more locally-made options.

Evidence of my favorite...

Evidence of my favorite...

“Sometimes the best cook doesn’t have the best palate,” said Dan.

“Being a winner doesn’t mean you get to be mean,” said Betsy.

I sat there quietly, hoping they had forgotten my suggestion that the winner go to work naked.

Then they both turned to me with expectant looks on their faces. My stomach sank. Were they going to ask me to strip down and run around the house?

No. Much worse. They were expecting me to expose this loss to the world.

“What are you going to write when you put this on the blog, Genie?” Betsy asked. “That you failed? That you chose Blue Bunny?”

So yes, World. I failed. I chose Blue Bunny. And Dan never really got a trophy out of the deal, so today, his 30th birthday, seems like the appropriate day to mark his domination as an ice cream taste tester. Dan, I hope you’re able to put that skill to good use in future endeavors. And happy birthday, dude. Wish I was there to raise a glass—and an ice cream bowl—in your honor.

Dan, enjoying this

How you can help Midwestern farmers

Back in the 1980s, when the farm crisis was breaking America’s heartland, my Uncle Charlie got involved. He was an economics professor at Iowa State University, and he focused on Extension and public policy issues. He, along with my Dad and their four other siblings, grew up on a small dairy farm in Upstate New York, and they knew what it meant to be farmers and to be poor.

In 1988, my Uncle Charlie sat down with the good people of Ottumwa, Iowa, and started a strategic planning process to help them recover from the devastation the crisis had wreaked on the community. He stepped up. He used everything in his toolkit to do what he could for the state he had adopted as his own.

My Uncle Charlie died in December 2006, so he’s missing the mess left behind by the Flood of 2008. I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m glad he’s not seeing the water pull back slowly—the effects of the flood are just beginning. From the towns that were underwater to formerly-submerged farmland, word from there is that now the problem is clean-up and recovery.

As I said earlier this week, the team at Edible Iowa River Valley and other organizations like Local Foods Connection are doing everything they can to help out the farmers affected by this flood. On Wednesday, they worked with Farm Aid to get a donation program off the ground. Farm Aid has done so much, starting with that farm crisis of the 1980s, to help American family farmers get on—and stay on—their feet, so it makes perfect sense that they’re involved again this time.

Farm Aid seeded the pot with $10,000, and they’ve got the venerable Willie Nelson putting his weight behind the effort. He’s playing in Tama, Iowa, on Saturday night, kicking off a several-night stretch where he performs in Iowa and Wisconsin, raising awareness as he goes.

The money will go to help the farmers who aren’t involved in ginormous agribusiness operations—although those folks are no less affected by this natural disaster. The difference? The farmers this fundraiser will help are the small and mid-size farmers who run community-supported agriculture operations and help supply the local farmers’ markets with fresh food and generally make Iowa a better, healthier place to be. But these are the farmers who don’t have flood insurance. Or crop insurance. These are the farmers who have to have their wife or husband work an office or factory job so they can get health insurance.

These are the people working on sliver-thin margins, and those margins just drowned.

If you think you can help, please visit the flood relief donation site and give what you can. I admit I’m feeling pretty helpless from here, but in the spirit of my Uncle Charlie, I’m using what I have in my toolkit. I have some money, and I have a blog. I can use those tools to help rebuild the state that let me make it home for nearly three years.

I ask for your help and your support. If you can’t give money, help raise awareness. Pass the word about this fundraiser to your friends, neighbors, and fellow bloggers. Food bloggers, I’d love it if you’d post something in support of this.

But most of all, if you’re at a farmers’ market this weekend, stop and take a look around. Be grateful for what’s there. Imagine if it was all gone. Then decide what it’s worth to you and help out these farmers. You never know when the good people of the Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri might just need to return the favor.

Your stories and pictures can help Midwestern farmers

By now, unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware that Iowa is suffering from some of the worst floods in memory. I’ve been watching the news from Iowa City with my mouth hanging open, and have mostly relied on reports from the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Cedar Rapids Gazette to keep me in the loop on the latest news about what’s under water.

Both newspapers are keeping unbelievable photo galleries, both from the ground and the air, up to date. And I’ve been hearing from friends who are sending their own photos around. For example, check out my friend Kelly’s round-up of photos from inside the Alliant Energy Corporate Communications department offices—I worked for almost a year and a half in the cubicle right next to Kelly’s, and can’t even imagine how long it’s going to take before she and the rest of my former co-workers can return to the office. The Alliant Energy tower, for those of you not familiar with Cedar Rapids, is right downtown, about a block from the Cedar River.

But the story that has not been told, that I have not seen reported, is the story about the small, local farmers that provide all the food I wasn’t able to grow in my own garden. These are the farmers that rely on the summer farmers’ markets to keep them going, the ones who aren’t involved in big, commercial agribusiness, the ones who don’t get a bunch of government subsidies or crop insurance to cover their flood-damaged produce.

They are not forgotten. There is a movement afoot to raise money for these folks, and for anyone in the Iowa farming community affected by the flooding. I’ll have more information on how you can help, from wherever you may be, as soon as there’s information to share. In the meantime, though, I’d like to put out a call for photos, videos and stories about farms and farmers in Iowa and Wisconsin affected by the flood.

I’ve volunteered to be one of the collection points for this material, which will be used only for purposes of fundraising and possibly in an upcoming issue of Edible Iowa River Valley. There is no compensation available in return, but your contribution of your material will help raise awareness on behalf of these struggling farmers and those who work for them. In addition, while the details are still being worked out, any material submitted will be forwarded on to the appropriate organization for archival and historical purposes.

Please email anything you have (or links to where the material is located online) to genie (at) theinadvertentgardener (dot) com. Please include in your email a statement that notes you give your permission for the material to be republished without financial compensation.

More information will come as soon as I have it. Thanks so much, in advance, for your help with this project. And please feel free to forward this to anyone you know in the Midwest. The more stories and pictures we have to illustrate the devastation as it has affected farms, the better we can tell the story and, in turn, help the folks who have nowhere else to turn.

Green Thumb Sunday: My last look at the Iowa garden

One last look at my Iowa garden

Gardeners, plant and nature lovers can join in Green Thumb Sunday every week. Visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Harvest preserved: The I.G. learns about root cellars

I have not been very good at storing garden food. I did a better job with freezing things this year, sure. But storing food in such a way that it hangs out and survives for a whole winter? Not so much.

That’s not the case, though, for California native David Cavagnaro, a Decorah-area photographer who, with his wife, spend much of the winter eating out of the root cellar they built 17 years ago on their property. “We have almost as much fresh food here year-round as we did in California,” he told me.

Winter ‘08 CoverCavagnaro’s root cellar is one of the ones I profiled in my latest article for Edible Iowa River Valley. The winter 2008 issue, which features my piece, as well as features on locally-made maple syrup (including an amazing-looking recipe for Squash Bisque with Maple and Templeton Rye), a tour across the Iowa Wine Trail, and a profile of Jude Becker, who raises organic pigs outside Dyersville.

The magazine just hit the streets here in Iowa City—even the never-ending snow hasn’t kept it away. You can find a free copy in the usual locations, or pony up and order a subscription to have it delivered to your home. And if you aren’t local and don’t want to subscribe, just be patient—the article will be up on the Edible site once all the current issues are distributed.


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All words and images (unless otherwise credited) on The Inadvertent Gardener are © 2006-2008 Eugenia E. Gratto. All rights reserved.

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