Iowa: land of cheese and wine

I'm back from my week-long trip to Iowa, to visit family, friends, and the family farm -- and to get myself away from my computer and all of the drudgery (sometimes) of too much freelance work. All work and no play make Jane a very dull girl, after all.

Most of my reflections need to simmer a bit longer, so I will highlight two of the side trips I made while visiting my dear college friends, Sara and Steve, who married shortly after we graduated from Luther about 20 years ago, and who now live on a farm outside Newton, Iowa, with their two young sons, Anders and Peder.

maytag_farm.jpgMaytag Diary Farms

maytag1.jpgOn our way back from dropping Peder off at a friend's house in town, Sara and I stopped at the Maytag Dairy -- world renowned for their amazing blue cheese. I wanted to buy one of their antique-looking glass containers, used for preserving blue cheese in your refrigerator. What trip is complete, after all, without at least one souvenir? I had bought one of these for a friend during another visit and now wanted one for myself. I don't know when this particular model was first made, but I remember my grandmother having something like this.

The lid tells you everything you need to know:

SANITARY CHEESE PRESERVER
Lift cover daily
Let air circulate

DIRECTIONS
Keep cheese in foil, parchment, or waxed paper
Put plain water in bottom
Change water twice weekly

MAYTAG DAIRY FARMS, NEWTON, IOWA

On the bottom of the container: PAT NO. 2419299

I must admit, I love retro stuff like this.

There are raised glass grooves coming up from the bottom of the container which keeps the cheese above the water line (refer to directions above). I have no idea how this works but am willing to believe the designers knew what they were doing.

About five to ten years ago, Sara and Steve were milking a herd of their own dairy cows. Their milk was picked up by a driver for Swiss Valley Farms, who then drove on over and delivered the milk to Maytag Dairy.

Unfortunately, they had to give it up... at least for now. Dairy farming is a very tough way to make a living. Not only are you usually tied to the farm with nary a chance to vacation, due to daily milkings, but like most farming, the milk supplier is not the one making the premium; it’s the middleman. At the time, Sara and Steve wisely milked their cows seasonally – or about nine months a year -- and practiced rotational grazing, which is a practice of “animals harvesting their own feed”, something Steve -- who has his master's degree in land resources from UW-Madison -- learned a great deal about on a trip to New Zealand years ago, where farmers use this technique especially with sheep.

Rotational grazing allows farmers to maximize the land required to feed their animals, by moving a transportable electric fence from one spot to another, before they’ve eaten the plant down too far for it to recover quickly. Also the natural by-product of spreading manure adds vital nutrients back into the land along the way, creating a sustainable cycle. (My father, who is a third generation farmer in Iowa, was so impressed with Steve's method that he is still practicing rotational grazing with his beef cattle.)

glass cheese containerA few years ago, I remember Sara telling me that some guy named Monte -- who had worked at Maytag for years -- had recently taken a job with a dairy out in Pt. Reyes. Looks like he's doing well. In the spirit of buying locally, when I returned from Iowa last week, I purchased Point Reyes Farmstead's "Original Blue" Blue Cheese from Farmer Joe’s -- for the place of honor in my new glass container. (By the way, see here for some intriguing blue cheese recipes).

sugar grove vineyardsSugar Grove Vineyards

Later that afternoon Sara, Steve, Chris (another college pal now living in Des Moines – by the way, the two of us stood up for Sara and Steve at their wedding), and I drove from their farm just north of town to Sugar Grove Vineyards (just west of Newton), one of a growing number of vineyards in Iowa. Believe it or not, grapes were once an abundant Iowan crop, until chemical drift from corn herbicide 2, 4-D damaged most of the vineyards across the state.

We drove up the long drive way, parked, and brought our own lawn chairs up to join the large gathering formed just outside the old grange building (which was moved to this location sometime in the last few years). We soon made our way to the wine tasting booth to select a wine to enjoy while listening to a local KUNI radio host's band -- Bob Dorr and the Blue Band -- play for well over two hours.

Once we settled in, we enjoyed unpacking our picnic basket bounty, which included thickly-sliced homegrown pork loin (believe me, there's just nothing like it – so delicious), with a thick slice of tomato and a little mayo added to it and a multigrain roll made by Schwan's.

(As kids, my sister and I would yell "The Schwan Man! The Schwan Man is coming!" whenever we saw that distinctively-yellow truck -- about a half mile away -- turn onto our gravel road. He came about every three weeks, bringing huge two-and-a-half gallon tins of vanilla ice cream (which were recycled to contain our legos, colored blocks, etc.), as well as half-gallon-sized, waxed-paper cartons of butter brickle and chocolate chip, and, a few years later on, frozen pizza and fish. Such a treat for us, and such a welcomed convenience at the time, I must admit.)

pork loin sandwichCompleting our feast was a tasty red potato and green bean salad. I purchased the red potatoes that morning at Marshalltown’s Farmers' Market -- and discovered that, yes, potatoes can grow in Iowa, as well as that other "I" state. (Guess that's only fair, since that state is growing corn too.)

bob dorrWhile listening to the band, eating our sandwiches, and enjoying each other's company, we were then joined by soon-to-be-married Barney and Suzanne, who presented two watermelons for us to enjoy.

I had met Barney -- a friend of Sara and Steve's, as well as a very active member of Practical Farmers of Iowa -- several years ago, but just briefly. This time we talked about his farm and farming practices, which reflect the mission of PFI. (It’s my desire to tour and report on his farm next time I'm back in Iowa.) Note that Barney is wearing a PFI t-shirt which says, "Buy Fresh, Buy Local."

barney and suzanne Coincidently, Suzanne grew up in Berkeley's Elmwood District and left California to attend Grinnell College -- and ultimately stayed in Iowa and became an economics professor. I also discovered that she is very familiar with the book, Tales of the Elmwood, which was one of my first freelance projects after I left corporation book publishing. It’s definitely a small, small world.

Here’s an excerpt from the SF Chronicle’s book review in 2001:

But if the poet William Blake was right about a grain of sand reflecting the world, then the Elmwood may serve as a microcosm of what makes Berkeley Berkeley. Carefully researched, well-written and lavishly illustrated with rare photographs, [this book] serves as a small museum not only of a place that has preserved a classic small-town charm but also of the extraordinary lives who've found a haven there….

Because the commercial district [was] limited to two blocks for almost one hundred years, it has a 'cozy' feel to it: post office, movie theater, hardware, drugstore soda fountain, they're all within walking distance.

I got to thinking that maybe the Elmwood District is not too unlike the grand ol' days of the Iowan small town -- with a local grocer, drugstore soda fountain, movie theatre, hardware store, post office, and bank, ready to actively serve its entire community, all within walking distance, instead of what is often the case: people need to drive miles to get to a big enough town for such things... or such things as these are nearby but run by national corporations, not by local leadership and investment. (At some point, I may write a little about how and why a lot of little towns in the Iowa have become so bereft... of "locally-grown" businesses.)

But that night, sitting out there in the country, with Iowans of all ages, listening to an above-average local band, while eating delicious (mostly Iowan-grown) food -- and surrounded by fledgling vineyards and well established corn and soybean fields, with the sun setting to a rising nearly-full moon...

Ah, just a little bit of heaven -- and I guess “a microcosm of [just] what makes Iowa Iowa” -- for this worn out, citified, Iowa farm girl.

4 Responsesto “Iowa: land of cheese and wine”

  1. Jack says:

    So, I have one question: What's your assessment of Maytag Diary Farms - are they artisinal or industrial producer? I keep thinking the latter.

  2. Corn Maven says:

    Please forgive the delay in my response, Jack. I needed to do a little research in order to give you more than a knee-jerk answer. Actually, I was torn between the two myself: artisinal or industrial? And the question, when does artisinal become industrial?

    I believe that Maytag is still technically artisinal, even though they distribute nationally and their blue cheese is probably better known by visitors to many of the nation's finest restaurants than to most people in the far corners of Iowa. I could be wrong about this.

    Personally, I had never heard of Maytag blue cheese until after I moved to California sixteen years ago. However, it was right around this time that Maytag was helped by the "food renaissance in which Americans found an appetite for new things, such as speciality breads and imported food," and began to make a bigger name for itself.

    Maytag still makes their blue cheese by hand at the farm, where they recently expanded the number of caves for aging the cheese. They took care of their own prize-winning herd of Holsteins for many, many years, but today collect milk from a local dairy cooperative, which I believe is still Swiss Valley Farms.

    See here for more information.

  3. Corn Maven says:

    Oops! Make that, see here...

  4. Corn Maven says:

    Oh, and make that "artisanal," rather than "artisinal."