Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen at Zanzibar8/31/2022
Bill Luchsinger and Karen Strohbeen have probably sold more art than any other Iowa artists. They are equally well known for their TV show “The Perennial Gardener with Karen Strohbeen,” which Luchsinger produced and directed. That show played several years on national PBS stations. Since this is the height of garden season in Iowa, we asked the couple from rural Macksburg to lunch. They selected Zanzibar, Julie McGuire’s coffeehouse that predates any coffee chain in Des Moines.
Over bagels with cream cheese, cherry pie and coffee, we talked about beans, beets, digital art, tomatoes and nomadic gardening. The couple brought garlic and flowers for McGuire, and other gardeners stopped by to talk to them. One of them, Diane Pastor, offered bumblebee and orange paruche tomatoes from her three-acre garden by Drake stadium. The latter register 9.7 on the Brix scale, making them one of the sweetest cherry tomatoes.
We talked about “Iowa nice” and how gardening season brings that out. We recalled a Tom Arnold joke from his standup days. In Iowa, you have to lock your car at the mall in the summer. Otherwise, someone will break in and dump bushels of overgrown zucchini on your back seat.
“We grow trombonini Italian squash now. They are a delicious form of zucchini that is vining, so you can watch them grow up a trellis. I like to leave the flowers on when I prepare them,” Karen said.
What is going on with their tomatoes?
“They are doing well this year. We late feed them molasses. It adds a good carb source and makes them sweeter,” added Bill.
When Bill was recovering from a surgery, he had no appetite. Karen said she tried all kinds of new and old foods and finally found success with beets stimulating his appetite. Are they still beet fans?
“Oh, yes, and we eat them raw now. The restaurant at the Rockefeller estate, Stone Barns in the Hudson Valley, prepares beets you eat raw. Dan Barber (famous New York City chef and writer) runs the restaurant there and has amassed a bank of food knowledge. In Des Moines, Jordan (Clasen of Grade A farms) is a good source for organic foods,” the couple said.
“Earlham is amazing. It’s not just Jordan; there is growing going on there that is Holland level. (The couple spent lots of time in Holland designing art for factories.) The café Beans & Beignets is fabulous. The owner is a former Hubbell family housekeeper. Many houses are English cottage style. Other stores are cool. It’s an amazing small town,” Karen said.
Beans & Beignets is more than a coffeehouse. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a full ice cream shop. The beignets (four kinds) come from an old family recipe. The coffee comes from the roasters at century farm Pammel Park Coffee Company in Winterset.
“There is an amazing new house going up in Winterset, just a block south and west of the square; it’s Deco style,” Karen added.
Beans are a new favorite vegetable both in the garden and on the table for the couple. What have they learned about them?
“Here are a couple ideas about beans we’ve discovered in the past few years. Fortex is the bean we like best. We let it get large (7 to 8 inches) but treat it like a fresh green bean. We get the water boiling, pick the beans, cook in boiling water for 6 minutes, drain and eat with salt and butter. Like sweet corn, they are best cooked immediately, sweet and ‘solid/firm’ like a kernel of corn.
“ ‘Bean on Bean’ is a book by Crystal Dragonwagon. Remarkable recipes. Mention it to your bean expert (Bill Best of Berea College). Bet he knows it. I just put on her Greek beans — olive oil, a head of garlic, blanched fresh beans, tomatoes. It is cooked on the lowest possible flame for 40 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. It results in beans in garlic and tomato jam. She writes, ‘You don’t have to thank me.’ If you like beans, this is amazingly useful. We eat little meat, so these are welcome recipes for delicious food. We started making her mole-type chile with at least 30 ingredients and cannot go back,” the couple explained.
“ ‘The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food’ is another good book, by Dan Barber. It talks about growing and eating more different foods that better support the earth,” Karen added.
The couple splits time now between Madison County and Tarpon Springs, an old community north of Tampa that was a great sponge center when sponge diving was a thing in America. How is the snowbird lifestyle going?
“We like it there. The St. Petersburg organic farmers market has six times the natural organic vendors as Des Moines. You can’t really grow edibles in the summer there, so we converted our property to silver palm trees and tropical ornamentation. We have no more grass.
“We have live oak and long leaf pines, and we put the silver palms in the back yard. Our front yard is all annual flowers, and neighbors love it. We met more than locals who appreciate it, too. During COVID, we started soup-sharing for shut-ins, and now we have weekly potlucks. We bring lots of raw beet salads to those. It’s been good for community building. Tulips and poppies are really hard to grow in Florida, so we plant more tropical flowers. Nomadic farmers must adapt,” they said.
They are active now with The Avenues’ bus shelter art commission.
“Yes, had to learn new software for the vector files. These pieces are 7 by 12 feet and are printed in five colors instead of four. But they are looking good. It’s the most fun I ever saw Karen have,” said Bill.
“We have come a long way technologically. We started making prints out of linoleum and potato blocks,” said Karen. ♦