"Wheat and corn and incomparable beef, wild berries baked into the most luscious desserts, crisp summer salads, and the best fried chicken and chili imaginable -- the southern Great Plains is a fantastic place to eat," writes Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine's Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl in Saveur magazine.
Appetites contributor Moskowitz Grumdahl talked about the culinary heritage of the Great Plains with Tom Crann of MPR News' All Things Considered. Here's an edited transcript:
TOM CRANN: Are the southern Great Plains really moving out of fried chicken, and turning into the new cutting edge of food?
DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Yes! this was actually a story I've been pushing on Saveur for five years, it drives me crazy that so many of the foodie elite are so much more likely to look to Sardinia or Saigon for inspiration and new ingredients, when we in the Midwest here are sitting on a treasure trove of superior ingredients.
CRANN: The vastness and flatness -- which you describe poetically -- does that contribute to the cuisine?
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: It does. I think that we need to stop thinking about the huge flatness. Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, that's the size of two Germanys. That's a lot of land. It is incredibly flat, it is the ground-down base of mountains, it is one of the most stable places on earth, and it supports the prairie. The prairie, I feel like, is really a very low-to-the-ground rain forest. We need to think of it as that diverse and that abundant in itself.
CRANN: Let's talk about some of the ingredients that come from that diversity of the southern plains that we might not be familiar with.
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Foodies here in Minnesota know a lot of them --bison, Mangalitsa wild-foraged hogs, grass-pastured cheeses. But there are a few that aren't too common even in the northern plains. Aronia berries are a peppery, tannic little berry that grows on shrubs along riversides and in wetlands in the southern plains, and I talked to Jackie Dill, an Oklahoman of Cherokee descent who lives on Iowa tribal land, and she explained to me that it's traditional on the southern plains to dry aronia berries, grind them, and use the resulting spice, which is like a tart pepper, to season bison.
CRANN: Aronia berries.... what else?
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Sand plums are another southern plains wild fruit, and wild Iowa sage is milder, bigger, and woodier than our regular garden sage, which means you can do other things with it, like smoke meat with it. Jackie Dill has been working with chefs in the Great Plains for a few years, teaching them her techniques, and today there are a number of restaurants in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma which are using these wild, native, All-American ingredients for what could be called a new prairie cuisine.
CRANN: Okay, why don't you give us a couple, for anyone traveling to that part of the world.
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: My absolute favorites: Ludivine! In Oklahoma City and The Gray Plume, in Omaha. Ludivine is run by a fantastic young chef named Jonathan Stranger, an Oklahoma native who cooked in world-class kitchens under chefs including Jean Georges Vongerichten and David Burke, and returned to Oklahoma to open his own restaurant. Now he serves very accessible but very elevated food like Oklahoma fried catfish with shishito peppers and roast corn blue cheese aioli. In Omaha, there's another young chef named Clayton Chapman, and his restaurant is the Gray Plume, he does things like local Nebraska rabbit in a mulberry sauce, and he has a full time on-staff pickler in the summer to put away the best of summer to use for winter.
CRANN: You're almost making me want to take a vacation to Omaha. But for people who are not vacationing in Omaha, is there anywhere local serving this New Prairie Cuisine?
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: Absolutely, one of the grandfathers of the movement is St. Paul's own Lenny Russo, at Heartland, he's one of the pioneers who has been saying all along: There's great food here, ingredients as great and as unusual as anything in Sardinia or Saigon. I peeked at his menu this week, very prairie cutting edge. There's a poached duck egg with smoked bison, baby kale, and peach barbecue sauce, and a golden chanterelle soup with apricot and green onion oil.
CRANN: That's a step beyond fried chicken.
MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL: There's fried chicken in there too. From Colby Garrelts, the Kansas City chef who won the best chef Midwest award last year -- beating out everyone from Minnesota! But even though he's not the hometown team, I'm still rooting for him.