Road Food Part 4: Meet the Virnigs

I’ve safely arrived in Eagle, Colorado, but before I get to the amazing food here, let me tie up the last few days of the Missouri leg. In my last post, I’d begun to wax poetic about how home cooking redeemed the area’s slew of chain restaurants.

The day after that amazing Indian meal, we found ourselves on the Virnig family farm. For the rest of our time in the Nixa area, we ate like queens around their harvest table. Healthy, organic, pasture-raised queens, that is.

Doug and Mary Virnig have eight children: Jessie, Laura, Emma, Madeleine, Tucker, Adelaide, Helen and Rachel. They live in an old farm house on the outskirts of Ozark, Missouri, where they raise beef and dairy cows, and tend an ever-expanding garden. We had dinner with them the Tuesday night before we left, and managed to squeeze ourselves into their lives for the next three days.

They won us over with their homemade burgers and fresh devilled eggs — which I had the pleasure of making, with the help of two pairs of little hands.

In the days to come, we feasted on homemade tostadas, guzzled kombucha tea (the kids were pretty excited to learn that I make it, too), munched on stovetop popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, and sipped raw milk around a fire.

The Virnigs haven’t always lived like this. Neither of the parents grew up on farms. They’ve morphed, in their life together, from town to country folks.

Their  journey toward self-sustenance is well thought out. This is no trendy organic dream. It’s a well-researched, tenderly executed dance with the earth God has set them upon.

As I lived and worked beside them for three days, the Virnig family became more than just a story.  From early-morning family time cuddled in blankets to outdoor labor to afternoon dips in the cold creek,  they refreshed me.

I know life isn’t perfect for them, but their joyful generosity imprinted itself on my heart. With grubby hands, skinned knees, and an a wide open door, I left feeling lucky to tell their story. It’s a debt not even our gifts of fresh fruit and Lola’s chocolate cake could repay.

Road Food Part 3: Coming Home

I should have known better. For all my disappointment at Missouri’s impoverished restaurant landscape, all I had to do was go home. In our last few days in the area, we found our appetites again— simply by following our noses down driveways and through front doors.

This week made up for all the bland burritos, dishwater coffee, faux-italian and “fusion sushi” (drenched in cloyingly sweet chili sauce). And thanks to my photojournalist colleague Mary, every precious bite was beautifully documented.  So beautifully, in fact, they deserve two posts. (I chipped in a few pictures, too).

My lesson for News21 summer trip #1: Real food in this part of the country isn’t broadcast on interstate signs. It’s strewn across scratched harvest tables and served up in suburban kitchens.

Our last Monday in Nixa, the family of a boy we’re profiling invited us for dinner. The spread included everything the Indian family calls everyday, and everything we call special.

There was pre-feast chai, homemade, with a thick sweetness that lingered through the afternoon. It was accompanied by cookies with the odd flavour of mango. Girl Scouts meets tropical lands.

And then there was one of my favorite snacks: the addictive mixture of chickpea-flour crunchy bits mixed with dried lentils, peanuts, and spices. Served up in a classic steel thali plate, the taste took me far from the flat Missouri prairie, and back to a toy train winding through the Indian Himalayas.

After dinner we had little cups of homemade pistachio ice cream, topped with threads of saffron. I ate mine, and then I ate Mary’s.

These were some of the happiest moment of my trip. Add to the mix gracious hosts, warm conversation, and a young boy whose story is worth telling the world, I went to bed grinning at the small things.

Part two tomorrow

Road Food Part 2: Breakfast Saves

In the “buckle of the Bible belt,” touting food as the harbinger of salvation could be seen as sacrilege. After a five-day string of meals I’d plot somewhere between barely edible and “for sustenance only,” Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe brought praise to my lips.

The historical downtown drug-store cafe turned hip brunch join came to our rescue after a rushed morning. We’d spent five hours gathering interviews at two local churches, and by the time we’d set our gear up and down twice (not to mention engaging and entertaining the locals with our wit), we were ready for something heartier than cereal.

So too was everyone else hanging out in downtown Springfield’s struggling core. There are a few gems, clustered together in a few square blocks, and this is most definitely one of them.

Gailey’s conjures up images of simpler times, when bacon and gravy biscuits and white bread were a-OK. Times when people could come get a prescription filled, order a coffee and an egg salad sandwich, and sit down on a shiny bar stool to chat about the day.

With simple but creative menu items and open, cheery windows, Gailey’s brings old-school charm to urban mod. In the other room, there was an acoustic guitar-harp duo to add mystery to the din of chatter.

The only regret was that they closed an hour after we arrived. There was only time to eat, check our email and make some phone calls. Then, out of pity  for the endearingly friendly staff, we were on our way.

Our way is likely to snake by Gailey’s at least once more before we leave.

Gailey’s Breakfast Cafe: 220 E Walnut St., SpringfieldMO 65806. Tel: (417) 866-5500.

Road Food Part 1

A warm —read: stifling — foodie greeting from Nixa, Missouri, land of chain restaurants, strip-malls and “Authentic Mexican” food. The quotes around that last one are meant to hint at the painful truth that here, we’ve found the exact opposite. This is Cielito Lindo, the best I’ve had so far but still barely passable:

I’m sad to announce that Fresh Cracked Pepper is going to look a little different over the next 10 weeks: I’ll be busy working on a multimedia journalism project on youth and technology (site to officially launch in August, but visit the link to see our trip e-journals), and so won’t have time to bake anything except my bod, running around in the hot Missouri sun.

Instead, over the next few posts I’m simply going to share what’s fueling me along the way (much like in my NYC post). From artichoke panninis at Panera to fresh smoothies at the local library cafe, my meals will be windows into my days.

Eating on the road, and on the run, starts out as a novelty but quickly descends into cravings for home cooking. Even restaurants advertised as “home cooking” (there are those quotes again!) often offer just the opposite. Let’s face it: it’s hard to get the taste of the fruit of your labor when it’s someone else’s.

I’ve been here in Southern Missouri for two full days, and while it hasn’t been too bad, there’s been nothing worth drooling over. My colleague came out a week ahead of me, and I’ve benefitted greatly from her travails along the Nixa food scene.  In the little free time we have, however, we still find ourselves hunting for that memorable Missouri meal.

Last night’s dinner, eaten on a patio spilling out into a parking lot, wasn’t too shabby. I spotted a Vietnamese restaurant called “Bambu,” set next to a natural food store where I later bought some Kombucha.

To help explain the diversity in restauarant offerings in the area, I will quote a young woman we talked to later last night: “What kind of food?” she said. Vietnamese, I replied.

“I’ve never even heard of that!”