I’ve had occasion to eat supper at my favorite country-crossroad café a couple of times so far this year – the occasions were festive, the atmosphere was perfectly local and comfortable, but the food was positively industrial.
Having become accustomed to eating grassfed red meat and pastured chicken and eggs, all raised on my Osage County, Kansas, farm or by friends and neighbors, I’ve developed a difficulty finding something to order off the menu. I can’t blame it entirely on home-raised meats and eggs. My partner in culinary crime gets plenty of credit, too, because she has a knack for creating scrumptious meals from simple, high-quality ingredients. Did you know that a simple grilled cheese sandwich can be transformed from a staple comfort food into a wildly wonderful supper with the combination of homemade whole-wheat bread, fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly shaved shallots, garden-fresh basil, a touch of real mayonnaise and farm-fresh butter? It makes my mouth water just writing about it – and there’s not even a quarter-ounce of high-fructose corn syrup involved.
So there we are, ordering supper at my favorite country-crossroad café, saying hey to folks and visiting with our server when my partner in culinary crime decides on the fried chicken, then asks whether the mashed potatoes are real. Our server wrinkled her face into a grimace and just shook her head no – but the chicken was battered and fried right there. I already knew I’d have to forego the sirloin because the last piece of boxed feedlot beef I ate – though beautiful and perfectly prepared – didn’t taste right. I don’t eat poultry I haven’t raised myself if I can help it, so the fried chicken was out. I scanned the menu up, down, left, right. Aside from several mouthwatering (and oh-so-tempting) beef choices, I found shrimp (now why would I order shrimp at a country-crossroad café in Kansas?), tilapia (why on Earth should I choose a mushy, aquacultured, freshwater African fish that I used to see at the pet store?) and chicken-fried steak. The seasoned breading and thoughts of fork-tender, mechanically tenderized, white-gravy-sopped mouthfuls of that last entry called to me.
A salad bar was included with the entrees – our choices included macaroni/green pea salad from a carton, potato salad from a 5-gallon bucket, crackers from a huge multinational baking company, iceberg lettuce from Mexico, butterscotch pudding from a giant can, and several bowls of high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oil containing glop with ladles and labels that indicated “dressing.” My supper companion made a green salad, and I sampled the potato salad – with a generous sprinkle of roasted, salted sunflower seed meats. The evening was wonderful and the experience comforting, but the food was not completely satisfying.
On the way home, we concluded that going out to supper was great Friday night fun. When we passed a billboard bragging about our hard-working Kansas farmers and the fact that each feeds 126 people “plus you,” we burst out laughing at the irony. No doubt we consumed our share of commodity corn, soybeans and even a little wheat that night. Its distinction as Kansas corn, soybeans and wheat, however, is dubious. Most Kansas farmers are so far removed from the people they feed, it might be argued that they actually supply raw material for distant food factories. That’s just plain unfortunate because I can’t thank them individually for producing the satisfying food on my table, which is one of the more gratifying aspects of real local flavor.
Whether you’re bringing in your first tomato crop, or making sheep milk cheese, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. We’d especially like to know how you plan to eat local and feed your neighbors this year. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com, just let me know (hwill@Grit.com).
See you in July.