We fell in love with Iowa last week.
Danny had already been there, to visit his sister, who lives in Iowa City. (We visited her last week too.) He already knew how lush and fertile the land is, how soybean and corn fields sprout everywhere, how wide open the sky is.
But me? I had never been to Iowa before. Before I went, my only real associations with Iowa were The Music Man and Field of Dreams. There's a great line in Field of Dreams that has been going through my mind since we were there:
“Is this heaven?”
“No, it's Iowa.”
Iowa felt like a little bit of heaven to us last week. After all, we had a series of extraordinary experiences, which we will be sharing with you here over the next week or so. I didn't realize how beautiful Iowa could be, or how good and fundamentally decent people are in that state.
We were flown to Iowa by the National Pork Board, who, as you know, sponsor this site. We've met some of the folks from the Pork Board before, in San Francisco during the Blogher Food conference. They were smart, funny, keyed into every issue about food which we think about too, interesting, and compassionate. We dug them.
However, I'll say honestly that, before this trip, I always wondered. Could the cool people we had met be representative of the entire Pork Board? Were they really as interested in the safety of the animals, the environment on the farms, the best-tasting meat, and the food politics that intrigue us?
Yes. Yes, they are. This is what we found, over and over again on our trip to Iowa.
The National Pork Board sounds impressive, doesn't it? Sounds like a mega corporation, somehow? Did you know it's a non-profit organization? Or that it's a council to oversee every person and place that grows pork in the US? That they have a huge job and are working hard to make sure that farmers are educated about how most humanely to raise their pigs?
Or that the building which houses the National Pork Board is actually a dinky brick building on the west part of Des Moines, where the chairs in the conference room have not been updated since 1979?
They threw us an ice cream social the day we were there. We got a chance to meet everyone who worked at the Pork Board that day. We were so grateful to put faces to names, to see real people at work instead of stereotypes. Everyone we met was passionate about his or her job and grateful to us for writing this site. As I said to everyone gathered, “Now that we have met you, we see that you are a bunch of good-hearted people who are trying to feed this country.”
So many of them smiled that I lost count.
We had the chance to visit a pig farm on this trip. It's the first time I had seen a big pig farm, where pigs are kept in buildings instead of roaming free.
That's the farmer there. His name is Craig Christensen. He's a fourth-generation pig farmer on this spot of land and he is deeply passionate about his pigs, his business, and his family.
We were honored to be on his land.
(On either side of him in this photos are chefs Jose Garces and Paul Kahan.) They were with us on the tour of the pig farm, as they are part of the Pork Board's Celebrated Chefs program. That was pretty interesting.)
We were asked to put on these protective white suits, with plastic booties over our shoes, for biosecurity. They didn't want any of our germs getting to the pigs.
In this moment, we felt like we were walking on the moon.
This is the most incredible prosciutto that Danny or I have ever eaten. We took our honeymoon in Italy.
This prosciutto is made in Iowa.
Here's one of the many rooms at La Quercia, where they make the best prosciutto we have ever eaten.
Ham upon ham upon ham. It's curing here, turning from legs of pigs to amazing prosciutto.
I could have stared all day.
This is Herb Eckhouse, one of the founders of La Quercia. He truly is one of the most passionate, soft-spoken, and knowledgeable people we have ever met in our lives. Danny and I both felt a little teary while we talked to him. It was an honor to spend time with someone this deeply rooted in the joy of his life.
And he makes that prosciutto. He and his wife started creating it in their garage 10 years ago. Now it is served in some of the finest restaurants across the country.
Herb makes some damned fine pork.
We even had the chance to visit the Better Homes and Gardens test kitchens in Des Moines, seeing how they work. (Look how small these kitchens are! That's deliberate, an attempt to replicate the experience people have in typical homes.) We saw their amazing prop closet, photographers at work, and spoke with editors and food stylists about what they do. Fascinating.
I know they make some amazing pork dishes here too.
Of course, we ate great pork while we were in Iowa, too.
This was the smoked pork sandwich (minus the bread) I had at Hickory Park, a throw-back nostalgia of a place. If you grew up in California, you'll understand what I mean when I say: think Farrells.
We'll tell you more about the place soon.
This is Cathy Lee Fredrickson, one of our favorite people. (Oh, and that's us on either side of her, too.)
This woman has more energy and kindness, insight and humor than she should have at her young age. Not only did she organize this tour for us, but she drove us everywhere, found restaurants with great pork and gluten-free menus for me, arranged for her patient cousin to babysit our toddler while we were visiting the pig farm and other places, and amazed us with her smarts.
She's the daughter of a soybean farmer, with definite opinions about growing food and people's wrong-headed perceptions about the Midwest and pork. She gave us an incredible experience.
Cathy Lee, we adore you.
And we adored Iowa.
I learned a lot on this trip, far more than facts, feelings and shifts in perception I'm still trying to put into words.
I can say this. If you grow up on either coast of this country, you probably have some feelings about the middle of the country being boring or cowpoke or behind the times. I think I did.
Let me tell you, give me the Midwest every time. This is beautiful country, filled with people devoted to feeding their fellow humans.
And since there are 6 pigs to every person in Iowa, this is also the land of pork.
How could we not love it there?