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The various riches of today’s Iowa dining table are unique to this time and place. 

By Jim Duncan

The term “a moveable feast” is used a lot these days, usually in contexts that have little or nothing to do with the original meaning or the famous meaning that Ernest Hemingway gave it. Before Hemingway, the term was used for festivals that were held on different dates each year — Easter, Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Diwali, Lunar New Year, etc.

Hemingway, whose wife, Mary, gave his book its title, invented a new meaning. For him it was a zeitgeist that never leaves the warmer chambers of one’s heart and memory. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go, it stays with you the rest of your life.” This tale is a contemporary suggestion of an ultimate Iowa moveable feast in the Hemingway definition. The various riches of today’s Iowa dining table are unique to this time and place.

Pre-dinner charcuterie 

Metro Des Moines rivals San Francisco Bay as America’s best purveyor of charcuterie. That probably happened because the great seed company formerly known as Pioneer was attracted to Parma, the heart of Italy’s greatest food region. Parma is home to D.O.P., which stands for protected designation of origin. Its unique prosciutto and cheese are protected from cheap copies by international law. Scientist Herb Eckhouse was sent to Parma for several years when working for Pioneer. He and wife Kathy fell hard as a young Hemingway for the charcuterie.

When they retired from Pioneer, the couple created an Iowa version of the great cured meats and salamis of Emilia-Romagna, the breadbasket of Italy which extends from Parma to Bologna. They named their company La Quercia, which translates to “the oak,” which is the symbol of Parma and should be of Des Moines. They persuaded Iowa farmers to feed their hogs a diet that includes acorns, like the hogs of pre-World-War-II Parma ate.

They are now America’s top producer of quality cured meats, salamis and bacons. They support heritage breeds of pigs — acorn eating Tamworth, Iowa Cinta Sinese, and Iberico Americano. They support the highest standards of husbandry. They currently produce nine kinds of prosciutto, eight salamis, three bacon/sausages, three pancetta, and five specialty products from cuts of the pig north of the hams.

Add some great Iowa cheeses, like legendary Maytag blue and those of cheese makers who use the organic milks of the Kalona area, and you can enjoy a charcuterie platter in Des Moines that you won’t likely find west of Emilia-Romagna.

Some of the best charcuterie platters in the metro can be enjoyed at Django (where you can build your own), Centro, Eatery A, Cheese Shop, Cheese Bar, Anna Dolce, Harbinger, Mulberry Street Tavern, CharcuterMe, Purveyor, The Republic on Grand, WineStyles, and Proof.

Sandwich course

Iowa is gifted with the bacon makers, black dirt tomatoes and bread makers to make it the best place in the world to indulge in the BLT, at least between July and October. Iowa is home to Niman Ranch Pork, the free-range pig farmers alliance that produces only heritage breeds like Duroc and Berkshire. Their bacon is renowned nationwide. So is that of Oskaloosa’s DeBruin, Wacoma’s Vande Rose, Webster City’s custom meats, Adel’s Des Moines Bacon, Des Moines’ Berkwood and Sioux City’s Bacon Creek.

If Mike Dukakis was running for President now, rather than in 1988, he might fare much better in Iowa. He was derided here during his campaign for suggesting that Iowa farmers give up corn for arugula. Arugula was rare back then; now it’s a rival to all lettuces on the contemporary BLT. Farmers markets have it and so do supermarkets.

Bread is something for Des Moines to take pride in, too. Before South Union and La Mie, Iowans would carry bread home from New York or San Francisco. Fancy Bread, the preferred BLT bread of delis like Graziano’s and B&B, Mexican tortas, Vietnamese banh mis and Jewish challah give Des Moines the kind of bread diversity a great BLT needs.

Tomatoes, though, are the key. Nowhere do better tomatoes grow than in our famous black dirt. Being home to the Seed Savers Exchange, the world’s great co-op for heritage and heirloom seeds, means Iowans can find almost any type of tomato still in existence. And the metro has its own mayonnaise, the mustard-seeded tangy Mrs. Clark’s.

In addition to the delis mentioned above, great BLTs turn up in season just about anywhere sandwiches matter. Gateway Market Café, The Station on Ingersoll, South Union Bread Café, La Mie, Paula’s, High Life Lounge, Royal Mile, Iowa Taproom and Manhattan Deli all make a great BLT.

Because Maid Rite has always been an Iowa company, loose meat sandwiches are a state icon. Paula’s and Brick Street make the most generous ones in the area.

Iowa’s other local celebrity sandwich is the breaded pork tenderloin. B&B makes theirs with real pork tenderloin. Most everyone else uses tenderized pork from lower portions of the hog. You can find them at almost all diners and also in some fine dining places. Thick, thin, huge, small, with or without mustard, or ketchup, every meat-eating Iowan has a favorite. Japanese places call them tonkatsu.

Indiana has a restaurant that claims to have invented the sandwich, but Cedar Rapids’ Bohemians were using pork instead of veal in Iowa to make wiener schnitzel back in the 19th century. So, Iowa can argue to be its inventor, too.

Jethro’s, Brick Street, Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop, Francie’s Bar & Grill, Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe, Iowa Taproom, Centro, Kelly’s Little Nipper, Mr. Bibb, Night Hawk Bar and Grill, Norwood Inn, High Life Lounge, West Side Family, Drake Diner, Paula’s,  Chicken Coop, Whiskey River, and Proudfoot & Bird all turn out a tenderloin that has devoted fans.

Earthly course

Because Iowa’s soil is the most productive in America by many measures, it figures that we grow amazing things beyond tomatoes. Iowa calls itself the corn state, and everyone seemingly loves the short-lived sweet corn of late summer. The corn does freeze well, so creative restaurants serve sweet corn dishes beyond September.

Alba, Harbinger, Proof, Table 128, The Grateful Chef, Django, and Eatery A have all come up with multiple ways to enjoy the pride of Iowa fields. Some of their creations include sweet corn potato soup, sweet corn salad, fritters, pancakes, relish, ice cream and, our personal favorite — sweet corn risotto.

More than 90% of Iowa’s corn, though, is feed corn. Humans hardly ever ate it in Iowa till recently when Latinos taught us to love tamales and corn tortillas. Southerners spread the gospel of grits (Bubba, Cracker Barrel, HoQ, Motley School Tavern, Early Bird, Star Bar, Flying Mango, Drake Diner, Cyd’s Catering), and culinary stars sold polenta (Americana and St. Kilda’s Collective) as a food for kings not peasants.  Tamale’s Industry and Reyes’ Tamales turn out their specialties in both savory and dessert versions. Taquerias like La Familia, Marianna’s and Baja Cocina have taught us to love corn tortillas for reasons beyond the fact that they are much healthier than flour tortillas, particularly if one is watching his calories.

No other vegetable represents the Iowa earth more than squash. The acorn squash, formerly known as the Des Moines squash, originated in Iowa. It’s argued that the Sibley squash did, too. Squash soup is a favorite dish on menus during the half year of the short days. Alba, Proof, Harbinger, Table 128, Lucca, Eatery A, Cheese Bar, Trellis, Tangerine at the Art Center, Aposto at Café di Scala, Scenic Route Bakery, Gazali’s, The Republic on Grand, and Clyde’s Fine Diner have all served fabulous squash soups.

The main course of Des Moines

Steak de Burgo is, without question, the tablecloth darling entrée of Iowa’s capital city. Rarely seen outside Des Moines, almost every place in the metro serves a version of this classic. Its origins are argued as they have been for more than 80 years. Some think it started with Johnny Compiano of Johnny and Kay’s. Others think Vic Talerico of Vic’s Tally Ho created it. A Better Homes and Gardens cookbook of the 1950s credited the Compiano recipe, but our research found that Vic’s was the first place to reference it on a menu.

Both Johnny and Vic were Italians who grew up, unlike most Des Moines Italians, in what was called the Francis Avenue neighborhood of Des Moines, around Broadlawns Hospital. That hood was not as insular as the southside. In Francis, immigrants from all parts of Italy, north and south, mingled with immigrants from other European countries. It has been suggested in The Iowan, without a letter of dissent, that the name of the dish originated with former Republican supporters of the Spanish Civil War. After being vanquished by the Fascist-supported Nationalists, many emigrated.

In Catalunya and Valencia, a popular upscale dish was called bistek a aioli. It consisted of grilled steak, usually tenderloin, with a sauce of olive oil immersed in garlic and herbs, usually basil. Outside Barcelona, it was called bistek Barcelona or Catalunya. When the Fascists won the war, many things that referenced Barcelona, Valencia or Catalunya were verboten, a very Fascist word.

So clever chefs changed the name to bistek de Burgos. Burgo had been the Fascist center of operations during the war and came to represent all things Fascist. Immigrants to America brought the name steak de Burgo to Francis Avenue in Des Moines where the Compianos and Talericos (both couples were a rare mix of northern and southern Italian heritage) learned it. It’s just a theory, but it’s a romantic one, and steak de Burgo deserves romance.

Originally, its sauce was olive oil, garlic and basil. Today, butter has replaced olive oil because butter has become cheaper and olive oil more expensive. Greek Americans, like those who ran Johnny’s Vets Club, added cream. Today, there are two distinct version of de Burgo, one with cream, one without it. Tally Ho on the Go, owned by Vic Talerico’s son and granddaughter, is the epitome of the original. Some places even offer it both ways. Of the three all prime steakhouses in town, only AJ’s offers it on the daily menu, with cream added to a white wine and garlic sauce. 801 has it on the Sunday menu (which is a bargain) and Fleming’s, a Florida-based chain, has none of it.

Dessert course

Iowa is apple country, the original home of what became the Johnathan. Seed Savers offers so many apples it spins your head, particularly in late autumn when visitors can harvest anything on the ground free. Pie is an English thing that reached new heights in America.

For complexing reasons, apple pie is hard to find in the metro today. Crouse’s in Indianola still offers a choice of several homemade pies daily. Paula’s has pie daily, too. But the sine qua none of Des Moines pie is the Iowa Orchards apple pie, sold on site and served anywhere a discriminating host wants to impress guests.

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