The worst part of caucus season is the pandering to outdated rural stereotypes. Event planners import bales of hay, fiddlers and square dance callers to modern Des Moines corporations. That encourages candidates and national media to mock contemporary Iowa. Agriculture built the state and made it rich and powerful, but that was more than 100 years ago, when more than 80 percent of the state’s counties peaked in population. Today, most Iowans live in cities and suburbs.
Dinner at Wallace House is the antidote to the campaign nonsense. This 132-year-old Italianate Victorian mansion honors the greatest family in American agricultural history. Four generations of Wallaces named Henry founded Wallace Farmer magazine, the Iowa State University Agricultural Extension Service, The American Farm Bureau Federation and the companies that would become Pioneer Hi-bred and Hy-line International. One was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, another Vice President and Secretary of Commerce. When agriculture was king of American commerce, they were kings of American agriculture. A house in Sherman Hill and a farm in Orient honor their legacy with elegance and thoughtfulness.
From March through mid-December, the Des Moines house hosts “Food for Thought” dinners on Thursday nights. Diners are encouraged to discuss topics that would likely have interested all the Henrys. This week’s dinner topic will be “The Future of Iowa’s Water.” Sadly, today’s American Farm Bureau is most often in the news for fighting against cleaner water initiatives and GMO labeling bills in Congress.
All produce served is grown naturally on the Orient farm. Most is harvested within 24 hours of the dinners. Chef/gardener Katie Porter is a young rising star. One night she presented a “farm-fresh platter” that included Milton Creamery cheese, pickled okra, hakeuri turnips, radishes, slaw and crosnes. That latter food is extremely rare in the U.S., a root that looks a bit like snail. Another night the platter was composed of broccoli, green beans, traditional cauliflower, graffiti cauliflower, eggplant caponata, yogurt pesto, flatbread and a choice among three kinds of favored crickets. Our discussion topic that night was “Edible Insects.” The crickets tasted mostly like salt. I also tried wonderful salads of young greens in a ginger vinaigrette and roasted baby beets with Maytag blue, arugula, chard and toasted pecans.
Polenta was featured on both my visits but in different presentations — one crispy on arugula, one creamy with braised collards and tomatoes. Chicken breasts were served with chard, cherry tomatoes, garbanzos, onions and micro greens. Lamb from Cory Farms was served with tomatoes, garbanzos, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli and onions in a lemon pea sauce. The best meat, seared pork loin from Boyer Farms, was served in spring with rhubarb jus, wilted greens, asparagus and croutons. Last week it was served with potatoes, carrots, wilted chard and cabbage in a pork jus.
Twice I tried Porter’s melon sorbet. The texture recently was not as I remembered it. She said she makes it with honey sometimes instead of sugar and flavors it with fresh basil only when she has some. One time it was paired with fresh rhubarb ice cream and another with lemon basil ice cream. On “insects night,” the duo was served with some of the best cookies I have ever tasted, made with cricket flour. The chef has a way with fruit crisps such as blueberry-strawberry with freshly whipped cream. An olive parfait cake was topped with fresh strawberries and more whipped creams.
Dining at Wallace House is farmhouse elegance. Guest attire is casual, but tables are dressed up in real linen tablecloths, real flowers and real candles. A three-course dinner costs about $30.
Side Dish: Tony Lemmo announced he will close Café di Scala after New Year’s and reopen under a new name with a concentration on special events and a more pan-Mediterranean menu. Chef Phil Shires will stay on. CV
756 16th St., 243-7063
Thurs. 5:30–8 p.m.
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.