Summer Miller's New Prairie Kitchen
Finding Meaning at the Table
by Leo A, Biga
Omaha author Summer Miller came to write her Gourmand World Cookbook Awards finalist New Prairie Kitchen in the midst of a life reset.
More than a recipe book, Miller profiled 25 chefs, growers and artisans involved in creating "the new Midwestern table" and its clean-healthy-fresh food credo. Each subject is represented by signature seasonal dishes they provided and by photo portraits by Dana Damewood made.
"I knew I wanted to tell stories," Miller said.
She specifically wanted to share stories of this loose community of creatives she met while researching the book.
"I was passionate about this. I really believed in showcasing Nebraska and these people. I felt it was an act of service to them and to the region and to the whole idea of it. This book for me was always about promoting the people. What I find inspiring about them is their willingness to work against the grain and twice as hard because they believe in what they're doing. They just don't do it easy, they do it right. That reinsured me to do that with my own craft.
"I learned so much from the people in it. It was such a growth experience – both the writing process and the human connections."
She views the project as a collaborative. Her "thorough' process entailed multiple interviews. When it came to recipes, there was "back and forth – tweaking, changing, conversation. My name is on the book but it was a major collective effort."
Miller chose profile subjects – from Omaha Grey Plum chef-owner Clayton Chapman to Hastings Back Alley Bakery owners John and Charlotte Hamburger – who represent "people coming together to try and elevate our food culture. You didn't have to be a James Beard-nominated chef to be in the book. I didn't care if you had training or not. I cared that you used local products. That was the only filter. If we do something well here, we should use it and support it. They're our neighbors." Her subjects extend into Iowa and South Dakota.
Damewood's photographic approach fit Miller's vision.
"I needed somebody who could let people be who they were, who could work as a photojournalist and not have to have a studio set for everything, who would handle whatever came to us in the field."
Miller worked closely with chefs "simplifying and making recipes more functional for the home cook," adding, "I didn't expect to become as involved in the food as I did."
The project came into focus for the veteran Omaha journalist only after she left reporting-editing for a corporate job and then got accepted to graduate school, When a chronic back problem required surgery and Miller found herself pregnant, grad school got scuttled. Between post-op recovery, new motherhood and unemployment – she'd quit her job – her old identity no longer fit. The book transformed her. It began with this avid gardener and home cook meshing her food interest with her storytelling instinct. She filed freelance food articles and penned a weekly seasonal eating column. All informed by the emerging farm-to-table movement she felt drawn to. Through Emerging Terrain dinners and other collaboratives, she saw chefs and growers partnering.
"We have this amazing pool of chefs and when they work with producers who understand how to grow something beautifully and at what point the sugar content of this vegetable is just perfect and at what point these greens reach their spiciest peak and the best time to pick them, that really excites these talented people to be creative. That in turn provides us as consumers with really good food."
The more she surveyed the scene, the more of a local whole foods activist she became. "Being able to eat well and to eat good food," she said, "can come at the fine dining level and it can also come at the casual level." Even living in the country and knowing growers, she said "it's still hard for me to source local food." That's why the back of her book includes a directory of local whole food chefs and growers.
Thus, the book and its themes grew out of Miller's own life.
"I grew up working in gardens. Once I had a family food became even more of a counterpoint in my own personal life. I think the rest of the world is kind of coming along to that, too. This has been going on for years, but it's just really now hitting the new wave of local food. I really care about home cooking, I care that people do it and I care that people understand you can do it and it doesn't have to kill you. I really believe families want to eat better," said Miller, who also teaches cooking classes.
Then there are food's social-emotional dynamics.
"Feeding people has always been a way to comfort others. It lets them know they're tended to. It's not new to show people you love them through food. That's what we do when we don't know what else to do."
She rues that family dinner has become "vilified" in a foodie culture that makes chefs celebrities and eating out the norm.
"I think it's too bad food today has become elitist. That's so sad. I don't think food is an art. It's a medium and a vehicle and like any medium you need to respect it but you also don't make it more than what it is. It's a way to feed people, it's a way to connect people, it's a way to nourish ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our families, our relationships, and we need to find our way back to that. I'm a home cook advocate – I'm like a defender of dinner.
"I don't honestly like the word foodie because it puts the emphasis on the food and I believe the emphasis should be on how food brings us together. These things are big to me. Being able to make something nice and to serve my family a meaningful, memorable meal, especially around the holidays, is how I show love."
She said the pendulum has swung too far.
"I think it's great we know what arugula is now, but I think we have to be careful not to elevate food above the people eating it because it's a means with which to share our humanity with one another and to show love and compassion."
The New Prairie Kitchen message has resonated enough that the book went into a second printing within months of its May 2015 release by Chicago-based publisher Agate.
Miller did an extensive book tour last summer. People came out "in droves" to see her and some of the chefs, growers, artisans she had appear with her at several stops.
"I was gone almost every weekend. I was pretty drained by the end of that. I was definitely ready to be home with my family."
The book brought her to the attention of EatingWell magazine, whom she now contributes to.
She's delighted that some fans use the book as a travel guide to visit featured venues.
This expert author likens the local food culture to where recycling was decades ago. "It wasn't yet integrated into life, but now we all do it. I think whole food will become that as well – it will become what we do."
"The best thing coming out of this is people learning what food should taste like after decades of having flavors dumbed down. Once you have a truly well-made hamburger and you learn just enough to do it better yourself at home, then you will not waste the time, energy and environmental resources to go spend $8 on a combo meal.
"Learning what food is supposed to taste like in its most unadulterated form is the first step in healing ourselves and our families. You have to be able to eat well every day, and you can."
Follow her at scaldedmilk.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.