At the beginning of the year, the Food Network, the Food Channel, NPR, Whole Foods, Restaurant Hospitality Magazine and newspapers from San Francisco to New York announced the “Midwestern food movement” as one of the top five at-home and in-restaurant culinary trends of the year.
“Midwestern food” is defined by these sources as “earthy” or “hearty” foods — meat, potatoes, root vegetables, farm-fresh and local produce, casseroles, stews, soups and pickled, canned and slow-cooked foods and meals. It’s an extension of the already trending “New Nordic” food movement — Scandinavian-influenced cooking techniques and ingredients and the “back to the farm” movement. Both movements work together to emphasize the national pull toward local organic produce and more sustainable cooking and food options that eliminate unnecessary waste or ingredients.
The correlation between the Midwestern trend and what’s already happening in the food industry isn’t lost on local chef Chris Kidd, the chef de cuisine at Rustica, 236 S. Kalamazoo Mall, who points out that, whether in the Midwest or out of it, “back to the farm” is an old trend that keeps picking up steam.
“This is something that’s been going on for the past 40 years,” he says. “The trend is basically citing the Slow Food movement, which started in Berkeley (Calif.), and then saying that it’s moved to the Midwest, even though it’s been here for a long time. A lot of restaurants and chefs in the area have been using local products and keeping everything fresh and small for quite a while now.”
The supposedly new Midwestern food movement is not going to change what Kidd does regularly at Rustica, he says.
“Our food is seasonal, and it changes with what’s available,” Kidd says. “We purposefully change our menu every three months to stay current with the season and what’s growing, and 80 to 90 percent of our products that we use in-house all come from within 50 miles of the restaurant.”
John Korycki, head chef at Zazios, 100 W. Michigan Ave., says Zazios has also been focused on using local food options and that while media discussion of a Midwestern food movement highlights an often-overlooked region, it also might boost the “back to the farm” offerings at small grocers.
“If anything changes with the trend, it might be the variety of local produce and local meats just becomes larger as more of the smaller farms come into the picture,” he says. “Some of the smaller shops and independent grocery stores could continue to showcase produce from local farms because you can’t go to the big supermarket and see a lot of things from local farms — it just doesn’t happen. For example, our chicken comes from a farm about 45 minutes away, and there’s only one supermarket in town that carries that same chicken.”
Korycki seconds Kidd’s assertion that the notion of a Midwestern food movement doesn’t influence his cooking so much as encompass what he already does.
“What we’ve been doing at Zazios for nearly 10 years is using as much local produce and meats and cheeses throughout the seasons as possible,” he says.
But both chefs say the media attention has one huge upside.
“Any publicity or hype for the Midwest is great because there are some fantastic chefs here,” Kidd says. “A lot of people skip over this area for the coast and so it’s always a plus to be getting more attention.”
Farmers’ markets in Kalamazoo offer a great way to take advantage of the fresh-food movement and to take part in the “Midwestern food movement” at home. Lucy Dilley, program manager at Fair Food Matters’ Can-Do Kitchen, says that there are a lot of local fresh-food options.
“Fair Food Matters operates the Douglass Farmers’ Market, the Can-Do Kitchen and the Growing Matters Garden, which, in different ways, make local foods available to community members, including students of Woodward Elementary and residents of the North Side neighborhood,” Dilley says. “However, there are also a lot of options that exist independently of Fair Food Matters.”
Those options include a plethora of farmers’ markets (many allowing use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Double Up Food Bucks to help with affordability), independent grocers who offer local fresh food, and Community Supported Agricultural programs that help make local farm produce obtainable at a local level.
Dilley says that the local food movement gains momentum as more people become educated about healthful food options and nutrition and that Fair Food Matters works to ensure that local, healthy foods outlast trends and progress into economic and cultural pockets where they aren’t readily available.
“As we’re talking about local foods and the ‘local food movement,’ it’s important for us to challenge the assumption that only white, wealthy people care about eating healthfully,” she says. “The reality is that healthful, local foods are not always easily accessible to lower-income families. There are many complicated reasons for this. This is the work we must engage in and what keeps us all moving forward together.”
Local food, Dilley says, is an important component of making sure communities have fresh eating options available. Her definition of Midwestern, and specifically Michigan, food is a bit different from the Food Network’s.
“I see ‘Michigan food’ as true food — food built around relationships and trust,” she says, “communities built around the commitment to making healthy, green, fair and affordable foods available to every single Michigander.”