Food is a beautiful thing. It has always held a special place in my heart. Even when I was small and growing up here in South Bend, I learned to appreciate all kinds of tastes and flavors found throughout the seasons.
In fact, the most vivid memories I have of my childhood — living here, traveling around the country, attending events — are anchored in the foods associated with each experience.
Somewhere along the way I discovered farmers. They are my heroes. They do the dirty work of raising vegetables, fruits, grains and animals, and all we have to do is show up at a store or restaurant to pick out something to eat.
That’s a heck of a responsibility, feeding all of us. I am amazed at the love and passion many of them have for what they do. Why else would they bravely face all kinds of weather and risk the whims of nature to be outside battling bugs and other hungry critters ready to devour their fields and orchards just to grow food?
My first college degree introduced me to wildlife management. It was great because it got me outside, and I learned a lot about wild habitats, animals and fish. I also got to taste some game like venison, turkey, bear and pheasant.
I studied environmental science for my next college degree. I then gained an even greater understanding of how everything is connected and how we are dependent upon so many things, like the quality of our water, the fertility of the soil and the health of the landscape. It also gave me a better sense of how they all affect the production and quality of our food.
Our food. There it is again. I always come back to food. Even though my career path began outside, I ended up working as a chef after receiving my culinary arts degree. It was my ticket to get out to meet and build relationships with my heroes, the farmers, and other people who put their hearts into working with food.
I didn’t go the typical route of spending all of my time in a kitchen. I got out and walked through fields to help pick fresh greens with the farmer on a hot day. Friends in Massachusetts taught me how to dig clams and how to clean them for the steamer. I asked the people who picked the wild mushrooms and greens what was the best way to get all the bugs out and prepare them for eating.
I worked in a small and exclusive inn tucked away in the mountains where we walked outside to pick fresh herbs and garnishes for the rabbit, skatewings and other interesting dishes we served there. I listened to the plights of a small-scale organic dairy farmer whose Jersey cows gave the most amazing raw milk I have ever tasted.
I met with the master gardener of the Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center where I was the executive chef to see what they would be growing and offering the kitchen through the seasons. And I consulted with the head baker at King Arthur Flour for some guidance in developing a pizza crust recipe to bake in the mobile wood-fired trailer I would haul around Vermont, promoting local foods at farms and festivals.
I was spoiled, to say the least. And during that time I realized how much I love talking with people who have a true passion for the food they share with others. It’s this common language that brings such joy to these encounters.
Now that I am back in South Bend, I continue to find myself striking up conversations with farmers at the Farmer’s Markets, gravitating toward specialty food shops and talking with the owners, inquiring about the whims of a microbrewer’s creations, and inspired by the breadth of knowledge of a young chocolatier.
This column will share my culinary experiences of the region — through the farms, restaurants, breweries, wineries, festivals and other food havens where local people are passionate about the food they grow, catch, make, produce, cook and create.
There is so much more to food than just a fast meal on the run, or something quick and easy. There are real people out there who put their hearts and souls into making something delicious. And, if you pay close attention, you can taste it. What a gift.
I hope my discoveries will inspire you to get out there, meet and talk with the people who feed us, and appreciate their work. They have a lot to teach us in this beautiful world.