Mention the term Hoosier cuisine and you might get a snotty sniff and the mention of fried cheeseburgers (yes, there are places in Indiana where that is a specialty but hey no one is perfect) and outlandish fair food – deep fried Twinkies anyone? But writer David Hoppe and photographer Kristin Hess believe that there’s a food renaissance taking place around the state and that Hoosier cuisine is no longer a pejorative but an honor.
“Looking down at Indiana is one of the last acceptable prejudices,” says Hoppe, an award winning journalist who frequently writes about food and is contributing editor for NUVO, an alternative weekly in Indianapolis. “And that includes our foods.”
To help dispel the idea Hoosier idea of haute cuisine is a corn dog, Hoppe and Hess hit the road, traveling back roads and highways, visiting chefs, artisan food producers, farmers, food historians, health organizations working on introducing nutrition to our daily diets, food pantries and generational farm families who continue a tradition that started over a century ago.
Collecting the stories and snapping photos of 80 Hoosiers who are impacting and energizing Indiana’s food scene, they wrote Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest (IBJ Publishing 2012; $24.95), a coffee-table sized tome with wonderful photos accompanied by first person narratives showcasing the emergence of the state’s dynamic food scene.
“Food for Thought taught us a lot about how food connects us to place and our identity as Hoosiers,” says Hess, a coordinator for Indiana Humanities. “Everyone eats. Usually several times a day. This provides many opportunities to come together and provide, create and share.”
It’s an exciting time in Indiana and there’s a regeneration of food in this state,” he says.” We have top chefs throughout the country seeking products from local producers such as Tim Burton of Maplewood Farms in Medora, Indiana who sells his maple syrup to Chicago area chefs or Bud Koeppen of Broken Wagon Bison who raises bison outside of Hobart and can’t keep up with demand for his meat.”
And though each Hoosier has a passion for food, their voices are as different as their backgrounds and the products they produce.
Bud Koeppen had a retired friend who had started a bison farm.
“First he had two and then it was six and then it was 16,” says Koeppen who with his brother was growing soy beans and corn on the family’s third generation 150-acre farm in Hobart. “He kept sending me Christmas cards with how many bison they had added. I finally said to my brother hey, we got to go see what’s going on there. We’re losing money here growing soybeans and corn, we might as well be losing money doing something interesting.”
So out went the soybeans and now they run Broken Wagon Bison with a herd of 83 and still can’t keep up with the demand for bison meat. They’re making money now with a herd count currently at 83 and such a high demand for buffalo meat they can’t keep up.
The book Food for Thought was the end product a two year program with the same name put together by Indiana Humanities. Created as a way to link all of us together through food, Food for Thought which won a national award for best humanities program in the nation, encouraged Hoosiers to think read and talk about food and its role in their lives. Using many of these stories as references, Hoppe and Hess used them as a starting point for their road trip.
“Before we went on the road, we literally had hundreds of names,” says Hoppe. “We whittled those down, wanting to represent a wide variety of vocations and also geographically so that every area of the state was represented. But in the end we were most interested in the stories themselves.”
Hoosiers from Northwest Indiana featured in the book include Carl Garwood of Garwood Orchards in LaPorte, Larry Wappel of Wappel Farms, known for its large fields of mint in between the towns of North Judson and San Pierre, Gary Corbett of Fair Oaks Farm in Fair Oaks and Billy Boy’s Blueberry Barn’s Aggie Cipolla but both found Jesús Alvarez, owner of Lynethe’s Deli and Pierogi in Whiting who hails from Mexico but was crowned the Pierogi King at the annual Pierogi Fest one of the most fascinating.
“One of my favorite memories in Northwest Indiana was an interview with Jesús,” recalls Hess. “Of course Jesús’ food was incredible, but even more outstanding was his incredible Hoosier hospitality and generosity. He truly embodies the term in its very truest sense; no one leaves his restaurant without a smile, and I feel so grateful to have experienced this Northwest Indiana treasure.”
Gary Corbett, CEO of Fair Oaks Farms, an astounding success based upon marketing cows as a family destination, says he was amazed by the diversity of all the Indiana food artisans. With 12 sites covering 27,000 acres and filled with 30,000 Holsteins who munch hay and silage three times, Fair Oaks is among the largest of the country’s farms. But this isn’t a mass agricultural nightmare. Fair Oaks is entertainment with a 600-acre Adventure Center which features a guided tour of milking and processing facilities, a chance to watch cheese being made and watch calf birthing (approximately 120 calves are born every 24 hours here so the wait usually isn’t very long).
Fair Oaks is a way of connecting generations far removed from the farm so they can see firsthand that agriculture and animal welfare are compatible. The message must be working, they currently get close to half a million people a year.
“We like to think of what’s happening here is that Indiana is putting the culture back into agriculture,” says Hoppe.