A Very Prairie Cuisine

With the morning temperatures hovering in the mid-30s and a possibility of snow looming in the dreary sky, Susan Dietrich tried to keep her hands warm and her mood light as she set up her booth on the first day of the Mill City Farmers’ Market season. Up went the oversized chalkboard listing the artisanal fare handcrafted by Dietrich for Very Prairie, her nearly four-year-old local food company, while jars of specialty mustards, bottles of rhubarb ketchup and bags of granola were carefully arranged among rustic crates, sheaves of wheat and labels made to look like the slate tablets once found in old prairie schoolhouses. As she and her assistant Kristen Ophaug prepared for the start of the market, Dietrich couldn’t help but wonder: Was it worth the effort?

Judging by the flow of customers who didn’t seem to mind either the chill in the air or the tight squeeze in the booth, the answer was an emphatic "yes."

“It was like homecoming – all the regulars came out even though it was pretty cold,” she marveled.

While both Dietrich and her customers undoubtedly relished the chance to catch up after a long winter, what will keep bringing them back throughout the season is the food. From freshly baked pies and whole-grain crackers to sweet marshmallows and savory condiments, Very Prairie products are finding dedicated fans among food-savvy shoppers who know a good thing when they taste it.

Complementary Food

The wonderful flavors of Very Prairie come from what Dietrich calls "prairie cuisine." She explained: “We are on the edge of the prairie, the boreal forest, and the deciduous woods – all different landscapes or biomes, which contribute to a cuisine of sort.,” Dietrich believes that the whole grains from the grassland, fruit and syrup from trees, and wild rice from lakes and rivers fit naturally together as ingredients. So, while she sources most of them from local producers, she is open to including foods that share the same climate and geography to achieve a synergy of flavor and quality.

Her Prairievore Granola is an excellent example: its organic thick-rolled oats and whole rye come from Natural Way Mills Trust in northeastern Minnesota, complemented by Michigan "craisins" and hazelnuts, and glazed with Hope Creamery butter and organic maple syrup from Maple Leaf Orchard in Wisconsin. It is prairie cuisine in a bag.

The theme of complementary elements coming together to form a whole is found throughout Dietrich’s business and home life. A source of inspiration for much of Very Prairie’s product line is the idea of a cheese platter, stemming from her relationships with other specialty food producers such as Brad Donnay of Donnay Dairy, whose goat cheese she carries in her booth. “Our flax meal cracker bread and Brad’s cheese just sing together,” she enthused, before adding that she would eventually like to offer a complete cheese board featuring not only Very Prairie fare but also the work of local artisans like woodcrafter Scott McGlasson. For Dietrich, the various products available at Mill City Farmer’s Market are complementary, not competitive, and putting them together forms “a complete picture of how we are a family at the market,” she said.

Speaking of family, Dietrich makes it clear that a large part of Very Prairie’s growing success is due to her business and life partner Gary Robertson, a pastry chef and lead baker at the Wedge Co-op’s deli, whom she met when she answered an ad for a weekend helper at a local restaurant. With no previous experience in pastry arts, Dietrich might not have gotten the job, except that she was the only applicant. “They finally hired me because they were desperate!” she recalled with a laugh. And that wasn’t the only stroke of good fortune for the couple: a couple of years ago, just before Dietrich was to start selling at Mill City for the first time, Robertson announced that he would bake some pies. “This was just three days before market opening,” she remembered. “You have to submit your products for approval. You can’t just say, ‘I want to make pies’ and show up with pies.” To her surprise (and the delight of pie-lovers everywhere), the market’s management gave them the go-ahead.

The Power of Pie

Robertson’s baked masterpieces have since become some of the most coveted food at Very Prairie, if not the whole market: on opening day last weekend, the booth’s entire inventory of pie sold out before 11 a.m. In a script-worthy scene witnessed by yours truly, two shoppers asked Dietrich and Ophaug separately yet simultaneously for the last box, before one generously ceded his claim. Another customer, whose wife is a huge fan of Robertson’s pies, even made special arrangements to have one baked for her birthday during the winter season when Very Prairie is not operating.

Perhaps more than any other product, Very Prairie pies are completely seasonal and reflect Dietrich’s dedication to using what nature offers, when it is offered. “Just when you’re so sick of rhubarb, the strawberries come along and then the mixed berries, then the plums and cherries . . ." she said, continuing to list the seasonal fruits that go into Robertson’s pastries. “It’s just a wonderful theater of the seasons in a pan.”

‘Tis the Season

Local and seasonal are the key themes in Very Prairie products and Dietrich is constantly thinking up new ways to incorporate them into her fare. At the moment, organic rhubarb rules the inventory, featuring prominently in ketchup and pie, while custom-milled organic whole grains from Natural Way Mills can be found in fruit and nut crostini, various savory cracker breads, and Dietrich’s special graham crackers to go with her homemade marshmallows. But there is even more to come: this weekend, she expects to have Smoked Maple Mustard and Maplesamic Vinegar, followed soon by another mustard made with Surly Brewery’s Bender Beer and an heirloom tomato ketchup infused with organic Prairie Vodka.

Finally, Angelica Hollstadt of Angelica’s Garden, who provides Dietrich with her rhubarb, is growing a unique ruby red corn especially for her friend, who plans to make a relish with the vibrantly hued kernels just in time for the winter holidays. Having tried twice before to grow this variety of corn, Dietrich is hoping the third time’s the charm. “We’re at the mercy of the crop,” she said. “But we’re not going to give up until we get something!” She may have been referring to corn, but these words reflect Dietrich’s determination to nurture her business and offer her customers the absolute best quality.

They also make a great mantra for anyone hoping to score a Very Prairie pie.

Very Prairie products are currently available only at the Mill City Farmer’s Market (though Very Prairie marshmallows are carried by Sugar Sugar candy shop in Minneapolis). Please e-mail Susan Dietrich to inquire about product availability.

Tracey Paska, a student at the University of Minnesota, is pursuing a self-designed degree in food studies, which combines coursework in anthropology, history and sociology as they pertain to the foods we eat. She was born in the Philippines, but now lives in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. When she's not composing research papers, she writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Blue Gentian Farms is a Midwest Refuge for Heritage Breeds.