A Weekend in Des Moines

By Mark Bittman

Photos 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.)

Some observations:

– ŸThere 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.

Ÿ- 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.

– ŸFinally, 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.

Posted in American, Behind The Scenes, Travel

11 Comments

  1. stuart itter said...

    Nice on all levels. But, what was the lunch? And, maybe a little more about the unsatisfactory meal.

  2. Beth said...

    I am a huge fan. I own many of your cookbooks and praise your desire to educate people to eat better. I loved your column in the NYT. But, why do those who live in the “big city” feel the need to insult fly over country every chance they get? I don’t live in Des Moines but I also know that one doesn’t judge the energy of an entire community by how congested the streets and sidewalks are at a given moment. The fact that you summarize a community by looking out your hotel window is sad. Perhaps if you had taken a moment to get off main street, you would have seen that the midwest is in fact full of great people with great ideas and values that maybe don’t completely match-up with yours. I may be one of those pasty white folks who goes for the familiar vegetable but I find myself less shallow and judgmental than you in this column. But what do I know, I’m just a middle-America white, rural country gal…

    • Sharon Badian said...

      I’m not a middle-America white, rural country gal. I was born in NYC and now live in fly-over country, Colorado (unless those NY’ers are heading up to our mountains for skiing). I felt exactly the same thing!

  3. Shannon Ratcliff said...

    Did you visit any livestock ranches such as Niman Ranch? Are they using livestock to improve the prairie soils that are being restored? As for a thriving farmers’ market, I strongly believe that it is a much better way to buy produce than to mail order it! All the fossil fuel that is being used by companies such as the Purple Carrot to ship produce, which is mainly water, around the country is not sustainable!!

  4. Kimberly said...

    Hello Mr. BIttman!

    Like Beth, who commented above, I’ve read your books for years, own a few of them and am a fan of your good work. I wish I’d known you were in DSM last weekend, because I could have shown you our energy, vibrancy and beauty. Look, I’m from Newport Beach, California, born and raised. I know from good food (as they say in NYC).

    Des Moines is entirely overlooked and poo-pooed by those who haven’t spent much, if any, time in DSM. As a foodie, I can say things are solidly good and have been for at least 5 years. 20 years ago when I arrived, the food scene sucked. It’s true. But not now.

    While the Des Moines Farmer’s Market is a great start, there is so much more happening. For example, I’m a volunteer board member for ArtForce Iowa, a non-profit which transforms youth in need, through art of all kinds. We were visited by the chairwoman for the National Endowment for the Arts last year — to recognize ArtForce for the amazing work it’s done in just a few short years in operation. Kids in the juvenile court system are mentored and the recidivism rate is so much lower for ArtForce kids.

    Culturally, we have some great ethnic restaurants and many well-attended festivals, from the Art Festival to Italian Fest to Greek Fest to the World Food & Music Festival and more. And perhaps you already know, but the World Food Prize is awarded here annually, in the gorgeous renovated former Des Moines Library building, overlooking the river. I attended a Downton Abbey tea and talk there last year, given by the historical consultant to the show. He remarked how stunning and lovely our capitol building is. This was high praise coming from him. (Tours available all the time, and it’s truly gorgeous, one feels like one is in France at times, looking at the architectural details. And yep, I’ve been to France, many times. I’ve also lived in Stockholm and I understand European and Scandinavian food.)

    Do you know Neil Hamilton? Larry Cleverley? George Fomaro? They have been three of the most influential people in Des Moines over the last 20+ years when it comes to food and community. When you come back (May through October, so we can get you to the DSM Farmer’s Market again!), let one of them or me know, we’ll show you even more. Who knows, maybe what happens to most of we transplants will happen to you, and you’ll never want to leave. 🙂

    Thanks for visiting and writing about the Farmer’s Market.
    Best,
    Kimberly Graham
    Native Southern Californian Foodie, Now Des Moines’s Biggest Fan

  5. Jennifer Miller said...

    Wow, supercilious much?

  6. alexa.al said...

    thank for great article

  7. Tanya Keith said...

    If you had a bad meal in Des Moines, it’s on you. Maybe if you weren’t such a snob about pedestrians and such, you’d get a local to send you to one of the many excellent options in our city. I moved here from the NYC metro 20 years ago and the food culture was a huge reason to stay. But I know from experience the east coast attitude won’t get you far here. Maybe ask David Byrne for some ideas next time.

  8. EllieB said...

    Beth, great comment. I was taken aback by the predictable sniping in this piece. I have lived in both Iowa and a large East Coast city and am quite familiar with how one views the other. It’s almost a sport to see how a New York-based writer will “subtly” denigrate the Midwest after a superficial viewing, as if the hometown crowd needs to know that the writer isn’t really taking that place seriously.

  9. Lindy said...

    I want to know about the crappy lunch!

  10. billy john said...

    thank you for posting as I found it very valuable. Is there anything cool to do in the city of Des Moines?

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