One of my first writing gigs was as a restaurant reviewer for The Reader – Omaha’s local hipster newspaper. It was an awesome experience. To eat, write and actually be paid to do both – it was pretty sweet. But one of the best parts of the job was meeting a woman named Summer Miller. She was a food writer for the newspaper and we instantly clicked – not just of over our love of food, but on everything – kids, life and alcohol. She’s damn funny and a killer writer – an awesome combination, if you ask me.
I remember her telling me about her book idea. That she was starting on it and what it involved. My jaw dropped. It sounded amazing.
And the coolest part – it IS amazing. And it happened. (I’m suddenly flashing back to Seinfeld when that girl talks about her boobs and says, “They are real and they’re spectacular.”)
So why did I title this blog post the cookbook that brought me to tears? Because what Summer created isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a collection of stories about farmers, chefs and artisans from all over the Great Plains. Stories that literally bring you to tears. Like the young farming couple who saved for years to buy their own land only to have it destroyed the first year from hail damage. You feel inspired by how they built themselves back up and the journey they are on to make it in the world of farming.
And the recipes. Oh the recipes! And the pictures of the recipes by Dana Damewood! Amazing. Absolutely mouth-watering.
Here’s a pic of the granola my family replicated. Easy, heavenly, and perfect for this completely and utterly cooking-challenged mom.
But I didn’t write this post just to tell you about the cookbook, I wanted to introduce you to Summer. I wanted you to see why I like her so much and why her idea was so damn cool. So I switched gears on her. Instead of her asking the questions and doing the interviews, I decided to interview her!
Summer, growing up, tell me how food affected your life. What are your memories that revolved around food?
My parents always had a large vegetable garden, but cooking was little more than just getting food on the table. I remember as a young child my brothers and I would just eat and snack right out of the garden while we were playing. It was the early 80s. Parents sent their kids outside back then and refused to let us back in until dinnertime so we had to fend for ourselves. : )
What made you first want to start writing about food?
It was practicality. I always enjoyed food. I worked as a journalist and then I had a family. When my son was born food and community mattered more to me than it ever had. I wanted to find a way to merge my passions, meet the needs of my family while continuing my work as a writer and connect more deeply with my community — food writing was how I did that. I also find food and the people involved in food fascinating. I never tire of the subject or it’s tributaries.
What was your first job in regards to food?
Well, when I was really young, maybe 6 or 7, I spent Saturday’s at my grandmother’s antique store. It was always my job to walk up the street and buy donuts from Ferd’s Bakery before they sold out. Many years later, when I was 15, I worked as a grocery sacker at Baker’s Supermarket. It was also my first writing job. At the time, Baker’s was a locally owned family supermarket. I think it’s owned by the national chain Kroger today. When I applied for the job they asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I told them I wanted to be a writer. When it was time to put together the store newsletter they let me write an article for it. I don’t think I had ever taken anything so seriously in my life, I spent a remarkable amount of time on the article. Here’s some perspective — I used a typewriter. I had to submit it at the corporate headquarters, which was in a shiny office building. They even edited it in red pen and gave it back to me. I was devastated. I had to rewrite it and submit it again. I really felt like I had made it to the big time. I was paid for it too. I remember feeling an immense sense of pride in that accomplishment and I have often looked back on the adults, whose names I have long forgotten, and wonder if they knew how meaningful that investment was to me as a 15-year-old kid. They didn’t have to do that or put in that kind of effort, but they did.
It’s a Sunday morning and the house is filled with family, what’s your favorite thing to cook/make for them?
We try to go to church on Sundays, but usually breakfast is simple — fruit and wholewheat pancakes. I always make a double batch from scratch and then freeze the leftovers between sheets of parchment paper. It makes for a quick, hot and relatively healthy weekday breakfast. I just pop them in the microwave for a minute and if I’m really feeling ambitious — the toaster. You would never know they weren’t fresh off the griddle. If we have our extended family over for brunch, I enjoy making egg strata. It’s a great way to feed a large group and there’s a simple and quick egg and ham strata recipe in New Prairie Kitchen. The recipe came from a bakery in Hastings, Nebraska. I just love it.
Who was the first farmer/local food producer that you interviewed for this book? How did that shape the feel of the book?
The first chef was Clayton Chapman of The Grey Plume in Omaha, Nebraska. The first farmers were Matt and Terra Hall of Rhizosphere Farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa. Both the farmers and the chef had compelling stories to tell. At the time Clayton was just finishing up his first year at The Grey Plume. He had a young family and they were all putting everything they had into this dream of opening a farm-to-table restaurant in a city that, at the time, had only recently embraced the concept. I found that determination, and his commitment to quality especially with a young family inspiring. Starting a business is difficult regardless of the stage of life you are in, but doing it when you have young children involves a completely different level of sacrifice and the responsibility of that success or failure and its impact on your family, I think, adds an extra level of stress to the experience. Not only for the entrepreneur but for the whole family, which is why I wrote his son and wife into the story.
As far as Rhizosphere is concerned, the Halls are favorites among the chefs and Farmer’s Market goers in Omaha. They understand the value of not only providing a good product, but also presenting it in way that is appealing to the end user. They had a tough go of it their first year on their farm in Missouri Valley because of extreme weather conditions. It was crippling for them, but through perseverance, hope, and community support they were able to overcome a terrible season and continue farming. I hope the stories add depth to the conversations taking place surrounding local food in our communities. New Prairie Kitchen includes the photography and the stories of the people in addition to the recipes because I think it’s important the we understand the human experience that goes into what we eat.
What was the process like working with a photographer for this project? How did you two collaborate?
It was great. Dana Damewood is an incredible talent and I’m fortunate to have her in Omaha with me. So much of what we did was in the field so her ability to work with natural light in various conditions and her technical aptitude with a camera was critical. I would put together shot lists for things we knew we needed then we would go on sight. The circumstances in the field would guide the rest of the photography. In many ways the book is a documentary of that moment in time on those farms. It took us 4 1/2 years to put the book together. Some years, were drought years, which you can see the spread on TD Niche Pork. You can see the this haze in the images, but it was actually dust in the air because the drought was so bad. There was a deep valley in the area and you could see mist trapped in the valley below this farm where water was desperately needed. Dana is a smart and intuitive photographer. She saw the beauty in those conditions from a photographic perspective and was able to create stunning spreads by using what was happening in the moment.
Many of my readers are writers of all kinds of genres, what was your publishing process like?
First, I looked for books similar to mine — regional, farm-to-table cookbooks. Then I sat on the floor of a bookstore and wrote down the names of the publishing houses who published those books, next I would read the acknowledgments section to see who the author thanked — specifically agents, and write those names down. I took the list, started searching websites, found proposal submission guidelines and began writing and submitting proposals. I received quite a few beautiful rejections before finding a publisher. Each letter was encouraging, so I kept at it. An agent who didn’t represent me, recommended I submit to the publisher I’m with now. You never know where your opportunities are going to come form, so my advice is to cast your net wide. I am fortunate to have an incredibly supportive publisher, who listened and received my input on selecting photos, design, and recipe formatting. It’s been a truly positive experience. I feel like we are in a partnership. I honestly couldn’t be happier.
Thanks Summer! Readers, I want you to know something. I reached out to Summer to do this. That’s how excited I was about her book. So when I tell you that I think you should buy it – it’s because I truly believe that these farmers, chefs and artisans have stories and recipes you should read. That we should support. Cause I believe that deep-down in all of us, we have a Midwesterner just screaming to come out!
(Photo credits: Summer author photo: © Alison Bickel, Recipe image: © Dana DamewoodLeave a Comment