Summer Miller is the author of our latest Agate Midway release, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Cooks, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains. Get to know Summer and her lovely new book (photos by Dana Damewood) with this brief interview:
Why did you write New Prairie Kitchen?
I’ve said that this book is a love story, and it is. I wanted to validate living here not only to other people, but also to myself. I didn’t always, but I’ve learned to value Nebraska and its neighboring states as remarkable places. There is a softness and gentle rhythm about life here, and I find that soothing. I think the same is true of our food. It is wholesome, experimental, even artistic at times, but always deeply satisfying and without pretense. I’m also fairly utilitarian in my approach to things, even writing. The book couldn’t just be about beauty, it had to have a function beyond pleasure. In my work as a food writer, I noticed chefs had access to great local artisan foods and regional specialties, but it was incredibly time consuming for an individual to vet the sources and hunt down products. I wanted to make it easier for home cooks to find regional foods and use them in their own homes to feed their friends and families. I also hope it inspires others to seek out the gems in their own backyards, and to support the risk-takers among us. I admire the spirit of the people who start a business from a dream.
In the book you explain that you set out to learn more about what was available within a 200-mile radius of your hometown, Omaha. What was your most unexpected discovery?
Honestly, it was the generosity of the people I encountered along the way. I met most of the farmers and chefs who are featured in the book for the first time through this project. We were strangers who became great friends. Their willingness to share their stories—sometimes very intimate stories about struggle and hardship—or to stop an interview midway through and let me pick it up with them six hours later, because my newborn woke up from her nap, was inspiring. Their patience turned out to be vital because it took me four years to finish this book. I expected to write the stories of people. I didn’t expect to fall in love with them, their homes, or their families, and in many cases that’s exactly what happened. As far as the food aspect is concerned, I was shocked at the sheer volume of amazing artisanal products all within a day trip from my home. Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota have vast stretches of farmland between towns and cities, which can make the distance between one place and another seem longer than it really is. I had a goat cheese and fig turnover in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that was worth every minute of the 2 hour and 41 minute drive it took to get there, and I still daydream about some of the cheese I’ve eaten in Iowa.
What is the most common misconception about Great Plains regional cooking that you’ve heard and why is it wrong?
Steak houses. Steak houses. Steak houses. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. Meat and potatoes. In Omaha, specifically the cattle industry, the packing plants, and yes, even the steak houses are an integral part of our history, and to some extent our present, but we are more than beef eaters. That steak-and-potatoes perception overshadows the great work happening in these states on daily basis. I think it’s in the nature of the chefs who have these ground-breaking places, and the artisans like George Johnson and his daughter, Emily, who produce world-class artisanal vinegars from an isolated town of 160 people, to not expect recognition, so they are driven by an unyielding love of their craft. The result is a region filled with treasure troves.
What role does food play in your life? In your family’s life?
Food has always been a way for me to express both emotion and creativity. A long day in the office means a quiet night in the kitchen. When I can’t fix things, when the world will be what it will be, I can always cook. I can create something that, at the very least, meets the basic need of nourishment for those I hold dear. There is a rhythm to cooking that’s calming to me. Once I had a family to feed, the calming rhythm turned into orchestrated chaos, but such chaos has its own merit. Putting dinner on the table with a baby in a high chair and a toddler at your feet is an epic challenge. I probably lost as many battles as I won during those early years, but I kept at it and I’m glad I did. Now, preparing a meal has become a time where my children share their lives with me. I can ask my son a thousand times what he did at school that day, and I usually get, “I don’t know.” But while I’m chopping onions he is stirring sauce, suddenly the bits and pieces of his day come spilling out without any prompting from me.
What advice do you have for beginners who just made the commitment to eat locally and seasonally?
Eating locally and seasonally, and cooking from scratch, is an evolutionary process. Give yourself permission to fail and time to learn about cooking and your food community. Start with familiar food items and branch out from there. I’m not really “a dump out your cupboards and start new” kind of person, I’m more likely to take small steps toward change. I think it’s critical when undertaking any kind of lifestyle shift to be aware of what you can manage. If you have a house full of young children, a job, and a spouse who travels, making a sweeping commitment to learn how to cook everything from scratch, local, and in season inside of a month is probably not going to lead to success, Try starting with a focus on breakfast. Switching from high-sugar cereals to making eggs on one morning and oats on another can be mastered without much fanfare. The time commitment is still minimal and both changes are affordable. Oats can be made into granola, as it is in New Prairie Kitchen, or prepared the night before as refrigerator oats, or in the morning as a hot breakfast. Once you’ve stopped reaching for the cereal box, and cooking in the morning is second nature, move onto learning three ways to prepare a new vegetable. Oh, and to stop wasting money on boneless, skinless chicken breasts. A whole chicken is a better deal every time, and you get so much more from the bird.