Saturday, January 30, 2016

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Iowa

Cheesy Iowa farm postcard
A little Iowa humor 
When you live in Iowa, it’s as common to see presidential hopefuls around the area as it is to see tractors in cornfields. While the Iowa Caucus has become a key event in the U.S. presidential election process, I’m always amazed at how little some of the candidates and national media know about Iowa.
Iowa is so much more than flyover country, as I detail in my new book from Arcadia Publishing, Calhoun County, which showcases the stories of small-town and rural Iowa life through the eyes of those who lived it. 
Here are top 10 things you didn’t know about Iowa:
  1. The real Iowa is off the beaten path. Located at the crossroads of two major interstate highways (80 and 35), Iowa is truly the heart of America. As you explore the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties, you discover a mix of modern cities, unique small towns and thousands of farms like my family’s Century Farm in Calhoun County, which has been owned by our family for more than 100 years. Think Iowa is flat? Think again. Anyone who has ever experienced RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) can tell you Iowa’s landscape features streams, river valleys and
    RAGBRAI bicyclists in rural Iowa
    RAGBRAI rolled through Lake City in 2012 
    hills from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River.
  2. “Iowa Nice” is real. Iowans may be the friendliest people in America. In 2015, Governor Terry Branstad (the longest-serving governor of any state in America's history) proclaimed Nov. 2-8 as the second annual Farmer Wave Week in Iowa. This honors the one-finger wave (with the index finger, not the middle finger!) that Iowans use to greet neighbors and strangers as they drive by.
  3. We’re farm strong. While fewer than five percent of Iowans farm, Iowa’s status as an agriculture powerhouse is known worldwide. Iowa has 88,500 farms (of which 97 percent are family-owned) where families produce corn, soybeans, pigs, cattle, dairy, eggs and more. Not only does the average American farmer feed about 154 people worldwide, but one in five Iowans go to work because of agriculture. Also, agriculture accounts for about one third of the dollars driving Iowa’s economy.
    Iowa Farm Strong logo America Needs Farmers
    Iowa is Farm Strong 
  4. It’s all about the Cyclones and Hawkeyes. We don’t have an NFL or NBA team, but we’ve got the Iowa State University Cyclones and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes—and we’re fiercely devoted to our favorite team. If a Hawkeye marries a Cyclone, it’s a house divided.
  5. We’re a provincial/progressive mix. Iowans are known for traditional values, and we’re also leaders in civil rights. Examples range from Jack Trice, an African-American football player who helped break the color barrier in the early 1920s at Iowa State (where the university’s football stadium now bears his name) to Edna Griffin, a civil rights pioneer from Des Moines who was known as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.”
  6. Conversations revolve around the weather. From blizzards to tornadoes, we have it all. Temperature swings of 30 or 40 degrees in a matter of hours aren’t uncommon. Don’t like the weather here? Wait 10 minutes, and it will probably change.
  7. We speak our own language. Don’t call it soda. Around here, it’s pop. Also, if you hear us talking about the crick, we’re referring to the creek.
  8. Iowans embrace unique food traditions. We love serving chili with a homemade cinnamon roll or caramel roll on the side (a throwback to our school lunch days).
    Famous Iowa Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
    A huge breaded pork tenderloin from The Lucky Pig 
    We’re also sweet corn connoisseurs, we love to celebrate the best breaded pork tenderloins in Iowa (preferably ones that are the size of dinner plates), our moms and grandmas know at least 47 different ways to make Jell-O salads, and we’re adamant that loose-meat Maid Rite sandwiches are much different—and vastly superior—to sloppy joes.
  9. Nothing compares to the Iowa State Fair. Since 1854, the Iowa State Fair has been a highlight of the summer. In 2015, more than 1 million people attended the state fair in Des Moines to see the famous Butter Cow, sample pork chops on a stick and celebrate all things Iowa.
  10. Once an Iowan, always an Iowan. Iowans are immensely fond of their state. Even people who moved away years ago are quick to note that Iowa will always be home.

Map of Iowa on a postcard
Iowa at a glance 

 Oh--just a few more things: This blog post also appeared at Arcadia Publishing, just in time for the Iowa Caucus. 
My ancestors came to Calhoun County, Iowa, in 1889. Five generations of my family, including my brother and I, have carried on a heritage of farming, caring for the land, and supporting the local community. Along with running my marketing and communications company, I serve on the board of various Iowa agriculture groups and Central School Preservation. You can check out more about my book, Calhoun County, and also get the scoop on my upcoming book, "The Culinary History of Iowa," which will be released in the summer of 2016. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Magnificent Molasses Cookies

Making a batch of molasses cookies
 Think of the best cookie you've ever eaten. For me, it's got to be a molasses cookie.

Chewy, spicy, and sweet, there's nothing like an old-fashioned molasses cookie. Always a farm kitchen classic, molasses cookies have long been my dad's favorite cookie, and they are one of my favorite treats, too.

Blue-ribbon winners at the 2015 Clay County Fair

It's a plus that molasses cookies are also simple to make, complete with the crackly tops. I like to roll the dough in turbinado (raw) sugar to add a sweet crunch that makes these cookies unforgettable.

Great snack to take to the field!
 Here's my not-so-secret recipe, which one blue-ribbon honors at the 2015 Clay County Fair here in Iowa this weekend. I also shared this recipe earlier this year when I was the Cook of the Month in the local Graphic-Advocate newspaper. I was a little nervous sharing the recipe, simply because I didn't know if there were many molasses cookie fans out there. Turns out the answer is yes, there are!

Darcy's Magnificent Molasses Cookies
 1-1/2 cups butter, softened
 2 cups sugar (maybe mix brown and white sugar)
 2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
4-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup coarse (turbinado) sugar

Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and molasses. Combine the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.

 Shape into 2-in. balls and roll in coarse sugar. Place 2-1/2-in. apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake 13-15 minutes or until tops are cracked. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield: 2 dozen.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Get Yourself in a Jam--in a Good Way!

Got 30 minutes? You’ve got enough time to make freezer jam. Once you’ve tried this amazing spread, you may never buy the jarred stuff from the store again.

Triple Berry Freezer Jam
I can speak from experience, because I got hooked on home canning nearly a decade ago. During my class at the recent Women in Denim seminar in Storm Lake, I showed how making a simple, homemade freezer jam is the best way to break into canning. It’s easy, delicious and will make you feel like a major-league home cook.

Jam isn’t just for toast, however. I use it for all sorts of recipes, from sweet to savory. In case you’d like to know what defines a jam, jelly or preserve, here’s the scoop:
  • In jelly, the fruit comes in the form of fruit juice.
  • In jam, the fruit comes in the form of fruit pulp or crushed fruit (and is less stiff than jelly).
  • In preserves, the fruit comes in the form of chunks in a thick syrup.
Summer and the amazing array of fresh fruits available always inspire me to make a batch of jam. I couldn't resist using red raspberries, blackberries and blueberries in my latest batch of freezer jam. Soooo good! (Hint--if you get tired of jam, you can microwave the jam a bit and make a fabulous ice cream topping. Sublime!)

Here's one of my favorite recipes to get you started:

30-Minute Raspberry Freezer Jam
You can use red raspberries, blackberries or blueberries (or mix-and-match) with this recipe, which is fast, fun, and fabulous!

3 cups prepared fruit (about 6 cups fully ripe red raspberries)—can also use frozen berries
5 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl
¾ cup water
1 box powdered fruit pectin (I use the regular kind, not freezer pectin)
Canning jars (glass or plastic works)

Crush raspberries thoroughly, one layer at a time. Press half the pulp through sieve to remove seeds, if desired. Measure exactly 3 cups crushed raspberries into large bowl. (If using frozen berries, drain off much of the liquid, and save for jelly making). Stir in sugar. Let stand 10 min., stirring occasionally.

Mix water and pectin in small saucepan. Bring to boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Continue boiling and stirring 1 min. Add to fruit mixture; stir 3 min. or until sugar is almost dissolved and no longer grainy. (A few sugar crystals may remain.)

Fill containers immediately to within 1/2 inch of tops. Wipe off top edges of containers; immediately cover with lids. Let stand at room temperature 24 hours. Jam is now ready to use. Store in refrigerator up to 3 weeks, or freeze extra containers up to 1 year. If frozen, thaw in refrigerator before using.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Savoring the Memories:
Van’s Café Served Up Comfort Food for Six Decades
Auburn—There’s basic, small-town café food, and then there’s home-cooked café food that’s so good people come back for generations. That’s how it was at Van’s Café in Auburn.

Richard Vanderheiden gives a
thumbs-up outside Van's Café.
While everyone seemed to have their favorite breakfast and lunch items at Van’s Café, the Smothered Hash Browns were always a best seller. Topped with sausage, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and cheese (along with two fried eggs on top, if desired), this perennially popular dish sold out during the last weekend in March before Van’s Café closed permanently after 61 years.

Some guests came for the first time to try classics like the Smothered Hash Browns, while long-time customers took the opportunity to joke with Richard Vanderheiden, owner. “Hey, Richard,” said one of the old timers when Vanderheiden stepped out of the kitchen. “I thought sure after all these years you’d learn how to cook before you quit!”

Vanderheiden takes it all in stride, just as he has for decades. The story of Van’s Café began in January 1954, when his parents, George and Rose Vanderheiden, moved their eight children (including Dorothy, Donald, Larry, Karen, Richard, Michael, Patrick and Mary) from Carroll to Auburn. They opened the Maidrite Café, which was located one lot over from where Van’s Café sits today on the west side of Highway 71.

Richard prepares an omelet.
The whole family pitched in waiting tables, washing dishes, taking out the trash and handling all the other duties required to run a restaurant. Those were the days when menu items like potato soup cost 30 cents, tuna salad was 35 cents and roast beef cost $1.15.

Vanderheiden was especially interested in the family business. “I started working there at age 10,” said Vanderheiden, 70, who enjoyed growing up in Auburn and remembers when the town boasted three grocery stores, a creamery, a hatchery, a drug store, two filling stations, a bank and a hardware store. “My mother was a very good cook, and I learned a lot from her.”

People could count on Van’s

In the spring of 1967, Vanderheiden came back from school to help his mother run the restaurant after his father became ill. After his father passed away, Vanderheiden took over the family business in 1972 and bought the building (which dates to 1893) where Van’s Café would be located for the next 43 years.

Good enough to eat!
He operated Van’s Café each Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 1:30 or 2 p.m. and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “People knew they could count on Van’s being open,” said Vanderheiden, who served breakfast whenever the café was open.

Lorene Knobbe, who grew up in the area and now lives in Davenport, recalled eating at Van’s many times. She was sad to hear the café was closing for good. “My mom and dad loved that place and liked to go there on Sundays after church,” she said.

Other customers began reminiscing about the unforgettable meals they enjoyed at this iconic, small-town café. Kurt McCaulley, a Lake City native who now lives in DeWitt, recalled how he and Larry McCaulley, Lynn Dial, Mike Carisch, Gregg Gass, Ronnie McCaulley and other guys who baled hay for Marj Richardson looked forward to lunch at Van’s Café. We used to eat the hot-beef sandwiches for lunch, and lots of times we’d have two helpings.”

The café was also special to Luanne Redenius of Lake City, a former waitress who still recalls her first $5 tip. My first job with a real paycheck was waitressing at Van’s during the early morning shift,” said Redenius, who was 17 at the time and had just graduated from Lake City High School in 1974. “Richard was a hard worker and kind man who always took time to answer my questions, no matter how busy things got—and it seemed like we were always busy.”

It’s not Auburn without Van’s Café

Through the years, Van’s Café has became known for a variety of comfort foods, including the signature Van’s Potato Soup (created by Rose Vanderheiden), meatloaf, goulash and famous 3-bean salad, which is often the most popular salad bar item.

Serving up a hot breakfast at Van's Cafe
While Vanderheiden kept a low profile most of the time, he always said “yes” when people walked in the door of his restaurant and asked, “Is this the famous Van’s Café?” He knew they probably heard the 1040 WHO Radio morning show when broadcaster Van Harden came to Auburn a few years ago to help Vanderheiden celebrate 40 years in business.

            “That was a super day,” said Vanderheiden, who noted that nearly 600 customers showed up to be part of the unique event and enjoy a free breakfast.

             Customers became more like friends at Van’s Café, which also became a part of many local family’s mealtime traditions. Jim Daisy of Lake City began bringing his son to Van’s Café for breakfast on Saturday mornings starting in the early 1980s. “I started doing this when my son was about four years old, and it was a good way for us to bond through the years,” Daisy said.

Van's famous Smothered Hash Browns
Along with locals like the Daisy family, Vanderheiden served customers from each of the 50 states and many foreign countries who wanted to experience an authentic, small-town Iowa café.  “In this business, you succeed by knowing what your customers want and providing it consistently,” Vanderheiden said.

            While some people offered to buy Van’s Café after hearing that Vanderheiden planned to retire at the end of March, Vanderheiden is more focused on relaxing and spending time with family. For Beth Buelt, a waitress from Auburn, working the final weekend at Van’s Café was a bittersweet experience. “I don’t know Auburn without Van’s Café,” she said.

Vanderheiden himself acknowledged it was hard at times to say goodbye after serving a final Sunday dinner of turkey, dressing, baked ham, dessert and coffee on March 29. “For decades we’ve been very blessed with wonderful employees and loyal customers,” said Vanderheiden, who offered a special thank you to the people of Lake City for their huge support through the years. “It has been a pleasure to serve everyone. I’ll miss the people, because it’s the people who make the café.”



Monday, November 3, 2014

Soup and Small-Town Iowa Spirit

As the days grow colder, there’s just something comforting about a big old kettle of soup. Comfort food took on a whole new meaning this fall in Lake City when our community came together in October to raise money for the Alcox family.

Lake City’s fire chief, Mel Alcox, was partially paralyzed by a severe spinal cord injury sustained during an accident at his home in September. Volunteer fire fighters and friends hosted a fundraiser to help the Alcox family with medical expenses for Mel, who has been receiving treatment at a hospital in Des Moines—more than 100 miles away from Lake City.

On a cold, rainy Monday night, farmers took time out from harvest, business owners stopped by after work, and families gathered at the Lake City fire station to put money in the donation box and enjoy hot bowls of homemade soup, ham and cheese sandwiches, and an array of homemade bars—all prepared and donated by community members. Tables throughout the truck bays were filled as p
eople of all ages gathered to show their support for Mel and Phyllis. The kids also enjoyed signing the big, bright get-well cards to Mel, which were displayed in front of one of the fire trucks.

Remember the G-Words
I was happy to share a kettle of my homemade Beef and Barley Soup, which I modified slightly to fit the menu of three soups, including Beef Vegetable Soup, Chili and Chicken Noodle Soup. I’ve included my Beef and Barley Soup recipe below.

While this event raised thousands of dollars for the Alcox family (pretty impressive for a town of 1,800 people and other little towns nearby), it showed how small towns turn kindness and generosity into an art form. It’s also a reminder about how every day is a good day to think about the “G words” of generosity and gratitude.
I think Phyllis Alcox said it best in this Facebook post:

“There are times when we think that small towns don’t have all that we need, but when there is a tragic event in a family’s life, the support and concern for their well-being are overwhelming. And for this we are so very thankful.”

Hearty Beef and Barley Soup

1 pound beef roast, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 tablespoon canola oil

3 cans (14-1/2 ounces each) beef broth

2 cups water

1 cup medium pearl barley 

1 tablespoon seasoning salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, or 1 teaspoon bouquet garni seasoning

4 bay leaves

3 tablespoons dried parsley

Garlic (either 1 teaspoon dried, minced garlic, 4 cloves fresh garlic to taste or 1 teaspoon garlic salt)

1 can mushrooms (or use 1 to 2 cups fresh mushrooms)

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

1 cup sliced carrots

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup frozen or canned corn

1 cup frozen green beans

1 cup potatoes, cubed

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 tablespoon BBQ sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon steak sauce

1 teaspoon horseradish (don’t leave this out—it’s the secret ingredient that makes this soup memorable in a good way!)

In a pan, brown beef in oil; drain. Transfer meat to slow cooker. Add all remaining ingredients. Cook on low for 8 to 10 hours. Remove bay leaves before serving. Enjoy!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Darcy's Top 10 Tips for Better Photos

Working with my camera in the field, literally
You know a great photograph offers a priceless way to capture a moment in time. Did you consider that skilled photographers don't take photos--they make them?

To improve my ability to create unforgettable photos, I've been taking various classes this summer from a professional photographer in central Iowa. Here are some top tips I've learned that may help you, too:

1.      Stay focused. When photographing a person, always make sure his or her eyes are in focus. When photographing a group of people, especially groups of two to three rows of people, focus on the eyes of the person in the middle of the group towards the front. 

2.      Use a telephoto. Ideally, do not shoot at 50 mm. It “swells” your subject’s head and makes people look a litter wider than they really are. A better choice is 70 mm. Best yet? 120 to 200 mm. Also, I have found that the further back you are from the subject (it’s easy when using  a telephoto lens), the more relaxed and comfortable the subject will be.

3.      If it bends, bend it. (Have a person tilt their head slightly, or bend their arm by putting their hand on their hip, for example.)

4.      Follow my hand. Rather than try to verbally direct the subject on how to turn (do you mean your left or my left?), hold up your hand vertically and move it the direction you want the subject to turn.

5.      Hold that pose. Always position women at a 45-degree angle for the most flattering look. Men can be posed within the 45-degree range, left or right, with good results. Also, if your subjects are standing, have them shift their weight to their back foot for a more natural, relaxed look.

6.      Avoid weird cuts. When composing the photo, don’t cut the image at the person’s joints, including their knees, wrists, elbows, or fingers, or the person will look like an amputee.

7.      Mix it up. When shooting a group, don’t have the heads lined up in a row. Mix up the height for visual interest. Also, try to move heavier people towards the inside of the group, rather than having them on the end. This will create a more flattering picture.

8.      Loosen up. To capture a more natural smile on your subjects, talk to them, and watch for facial expressions. Start with simple, basic questions about their hobby, etc. to get them to loosen up.

9.      Adjust the flash. If you have a light-colored wall behind you, try tilting the flash at a 45-degree angle and pointing it towards that back wall. This will bounce a softer light towards your subject. It also helps minimize glare if he or she is wearing eye glasses.

10.  Try some new gear. Consider an inexpensive, mini softbox to attach over your flash. (I bought my mini softbox off of The mini softbox works well if you’re shooting a subject outside around noon or mid-day, for example, when harsh shadows and harsh lighting can create challenges.

** Bonus tip: If you’re indoors, look for ways to position your subjects by a window that provides natural side lighting. This can help you create more flattering, better-lit shots without harsh, distracting shadows.  



Monday, July 21, 2014

Iowa Barn Honors Pioneer Stock Farm

historic Iowa brick barn
An remarkable Iowa barn, built to last
Seems like people just love stories about Iowa barns. While this article I wrote first appeared in Farm News in 2011, friends have asked me to reprint it on my blog. Here's a glimpse of some remarkable Iowa farm history. Enjoy!

            The Z.T. Dunham Pioneer Stock Farm barn near Dunlap has stood for well over a century as a monument to Crawford County’s early history and the golden era of agriculture. Built in 1870 by Z.T. (Zachary Taylor) Dunham, the son of the first white settler in Crawford County, the barn housed the working horses of the Dunham farm and for decades served as a landmark that guided travelers in western Iowa.
barn and horses
George Carhball & horses on the barn's south side.

Bricks for the barn, which stands on a slope up from the Boyer River, came from a kiln on the Dunham farmstead northwest of the barn. The barn’s walls are three bricks thick on the upper level and four bricks thick on the lower level. Other native materials incorporated into the historic barn include a hand-hewn, 40-foot walnut beam in the lower level, a testimony to the existence of large trees that grew along the Boyer River.  

A glimpse inside the barn
At the time the barn was built, Z.T. Dunham farmed in partnership with his brother Sam to grow crops and raise cattle and hogs. The men’s father, Cornelius, who first came to the Crawford County area in 1852, was a well-known pork producer who had been known as “Hog Dunham” in Jackson County, Iowa, where Z.T. was born. Cornelius was credited with introducing hogs to western Iowa, according to the book, “The Z.T. Dunham Pioneer Stock Farm and Late 19th Century Agriculture,” published by the Dunlap Historical Society. Z.T., who raised Poland China hogs, was also interested in shorthorn cattle and started a cattle ranch about five miles west of his home.

The Dunham barn, whose joists are secured by pegs in a mortise-and-tenon construction, included a number of unique, labor-saving features. A trap door was built in the floor above each of the 10 horse stalls so that the farmer could drop hay or grain from the upper level to the mangers below. On the lower level, a cable-and-pulley system allowed a large manure bucket to be pulled along the rear of the stalls so the manure could be transported to a wagon outside the barn.

Z.T. Dunham, builder of the barn, shown at age 85
Generations of Dunham children enjoyed playing in the barn. Carrie Dunham, who was born in 1880, recalled walking the beams of the big barn with the boys. While this placed the children 20 to 30 feet from the floor, they swung from one platform to another on the hay rope. “I was careful not to look down and was always glad when my feet settled firmly on the other side,” said Carrie, whose memories are preserved in the book from the Dunlap Historical Society.
Iowa barn and wildflowers
Wildflowers bloom near the barn
             In 1992, Virginia Dunham, along with her children, donated the Z.T. Dunham Pioneer Stock Farm barn and an acre of land to the Dunlap Historical Society. It was Virginia’s wish that the barn would be restored and used as a museum and interpretive center. Because of Virginia’s efforts, the barn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. The Dunlap Historical Society has showcased the barn in many fundraising efforts, including the sale of t-shirts, sweatshirts and commemorative Christmas ornaments.

            “The barn is a very important part of our history, and it’s worth saving,” said Jane Davie with the Dunlap Historical Society.