When you make the three-hour drive from Des Moines to Sioux City (pop. 100,000), the heart of Woodbury County, nothing you see raises your hopes for a good dinner.
All along the way, lush farmland lies smothered by what seems like one big blanket, alternately colored light and dark green: corn and soy. At a certain point, the monotony becomes dangerously hypnotic — and nauseating, if you know all of that bounty is destined to feed confined animals and fuel factories, not humans.
As you approach downtown Sioux City from the interstate, the first thing you see is a high, ugly wall on the right. It almost, but not quite, blots out the sight of a huge Smithfield hot-dog factory, whose odor fouls the air.
The city also houses a Tyson beef-packing facility, said by locals to kill 400 cows per hour, and the usual chain restaurants that have spread like a cancer across the U.S. landscape. These outlets promise endless variety, but really exist to peddle various forms of corn and soy — the feed that fattened your burger, the oil that fried your potatoes, the fructose that sweetened your drink.
Surveying all of this, you might be tempted to get back on the highway and get down the road, fast.
Don’t. Sioux City, it turns out, is an oasis of culinary delight in a desert of industrialized landscapes and brutalized food.
Sioux City has a thriving and attractive downtown, bolstered by a remnant of solid old brick buildings that survived the urban-removal wrecking balls of the 1970s.
Probably the biggest and most solid building of all is the town’s old firehouse — now the site of a terrific local-food restaurant known appropriately as the Firehouse Bistro.
In that cavernous space, with its exposed-brick walls and polished-concrete floors, a young chef named Marlin Simpson is turning top-quality produce from surrounding farms into simple and delicious food.
On a recent evening there, after several days of long drives, interviews, and farm visits — and not very much fresh food — I gratefully tucked into a vibrant, alive-tasting salad of peppery greens, tart apples, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese.
Then I got down with a chicken breast wrapped in fantastic prosciutto from a small artisanal producer called La Quercia, served over pasta flecked with pine nuts and chopped red pepper.
Dessert couldn’t have been simpler or better: sliced, peak-of-season strawberries, layered with cream-cheese pastry cream.
Did I mention nearly everything was grown within a hundred miles? And on Saturdays, when the Firehouse serves a great brunch, the restaurant is literally surrounded by a farmers’ market — more than a dozen vendors offering the fresh produce they grow right in the middle of corn country.
I could have been in California. Indeed, I left the Firehouse thinking of Iowa as a kind of Midwestern version of California (minus, granted, the long stretch of coast).
The analogy is less absurd than it initially seems. California’s bountiful farmland is just as dominated by chemical-dependent, factory-style agriculture as Iowa’s is. And yet the state is renowned for the produce of its small farmers — rebels against the brutal logic of industrial ag.
I predict that Iowa’s vegetable producers will eventually win similar nationwide acclaim.
Yet here is a crucial point: The Firehouse restaurant, and the farmers market that surrounds it, did not spring whole from the genius of the free market, like a demigod from Zeus’s thigh.
Rather, the restaurant and the market exist because of concerted community organizing and public investment.
The built infrastructure of Sioux City favors the kind of agriculture that serves industrial processors like Smithfield and Tyson — not people who want to eat good food or the farmers who want to grow it for them.
The story of how the Firehouse Bistro and farmers market arose, bursting through that blanket of corn and soy, will be the subject of future posts and articles.