By Mark Bittman
I was in Des Moines this past weekend (wasn’t everyone?), in part for the Niman Ranch “farmer appreciation dinner” as, more or less, an observer. The weekend was interesting not only for that but for a number of other reasons.
We visited with Matt Liebman (above), who has done important work at Iowa State for years, and about whom I wrote almost four years ago, in a piece that is still relevant but that I won’t rehash here. Basically, Matt’s approach is, if you have 30 million acres of Iowa land that’s in corn and soybeans, what are the ways that can make that kind of farming less harmful to the environment? He and his team have made real inroads on that, in part by reinstituting some of the state’s beautiful prairie (first photo). The logic of it all is indisputable, but it’s tricky to get farmers to adapt to the new methods. That’s the issue: we know how to make things better (while we’re actually making them good); what we don’t know is how to help farmers make the changes.
Anyway: Matt showed us around, and then he and his wife, Laura, fed us an awesome straight-from-the-garden lunch.
The weekend’s pleasant surprise (there was an unpleasant one: the worst meal I’ve eaten in months, at a place that might as well remain unnamed) was the Saturday farmers’ market: it’s huge, probably four or five long blocks and several short ones as well. And it was packed with (as far as I could tell) both natives and tourists—the only place in town with any real energy through the weekend. (My hotel window faced a main street, on which some days I observed as many as two pedestrians.)
– There were both producer stands and non-producer ones. (There’s no reason to buy from a non-farmer at a farmers’ market; you might as well go to the supermarket.) But the producers’ stands—which seemed to be mostly run by local Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese farmers—had beautiful vegetables, some exotic, including these wacky little bitter melons (below), eggplants of all shapes and sizes, greens that have no name in English. Much of this was organic and most of it was gorgeous and not expensive.
- The shoppers—not quite lily-white, but close—did, as you might expect, crowd around the stands selling the most familiar food (and coffee, of course) but there was a line for the good-looking papusas and for Bosnian foods. The fact that Des Moines has a big Hmong population didn’t surprise me (I’ve visited with Hmong farmers in Fresno and Minnesota, and know that they have pockets everywhere), but I was a little surprised to see borek and stuffed cabbage (first picture below) sold here. Needless to say, there were tamales (second picture below) and tacos as well, and people were eagerly buying all of this.
– Finally, there were these highly unusual plobanos, undoubtedly a version of the standard poblano.
All in all, a blast. The last time I was in Des Moines it was the dead of winter—just six months ago—and I couldn’t wait to get out. This time, I hated to leave, and I’m not kidding.