Living in the Midwest, people often refer to this part of the globe simply, as “farmland.” Having grown up in the western suburbs of Chicago, I was able to take advantage of everything great the city has to offer while only being a stones throw away from the corn, cows, and tractors for which most of Illinois is known. Being fortunate enough to have traveled and lived elsewhere, I am now back in the Heartland, except this time about two and a half hours south of Chicago.
Not living close to the culinary delights that Chicago is famously known for, I have been wondering, “What is the rest of Illinois known for?” Wisconsin has cheese, Nebraska has corn, Idaho has potatoes, and Texas has beef. But when I think about Illinois, I revert back to the pizza, Italian beef, gyros, hot dogs, and other foods of Chicago that could send me on an epic food bender. So, how could the rest of the state form a food identity and in the process solve other problems?
I stumbled upon the answer after eating at The Harvest Cafe in Delavan, IL. This cozy, quaint, farm community of 1,689 isn’t exactly where I thought I’d find the answer…but I did. The Harvest Cafe bundles up everything that is good about the fertile and vibrant farming communities in the state and serves up a farm-to-table meal that is on par with any big city meal. Typically, when most think of the farm-to-table movement they think it is reserved for the upper class, foodies, or something out of a Portlandia sketch. To me, it just seems like common sense that a state with such plentiful resources put them to better use.
About the restaurant itself… this wasn’t my first time there, but knew there was a reason I really liked it. For starters, the owners did a beautiful job restoring an 1890’s building in the heart of the downtown. Everything from the tin ceilings to the re-finished wood floors adds to the atmosphere. The service is friendly, attentive, and not overbearing – exactly what you’d expect from the Midwest. And, oh yeah, the food. The seasonal, fresh, and unique ingredients from the local farms are certainly a lot better than what you’d find at a chain or doing the drive of shame through a drive-thru.
Although the Harvest Cafe has been open for less than two years, I believe it could be used as a model for success in historic preservation, sustainability, economic development, and forming a food identity. That’s a tall order, but listed below is how I feel it can be achieved:
- Restoring a unique and charming building has its obvious benefits. A historical building creates a sense of place but also serves as responsible land-use.
- Located in the downtown district, the restaurant is walkable and bikeable for almost all of the town’s population.
- Using local suppliers not only promotes small business, but cuts down drastically on the logistical costs that typically get passed on to the consumer. The consumers receive fresh ingredients and a great meal – all at an affordable price.
- Culinary knowledge gets passed along to aspiring chefs that otherwise would not be inspired by freezer to fryer cooking. These chefs are filled with valuable knowledge that inspires future restaurants to open.
- Towns will no longer have rely on tax incentives or wait for corporate chains to find them in order to “spur” development.
By no means is this a new concept – I fully understand that. Yesterday, our meal for two came out to $21.25 – not necessarily a budget buster. Hopefully, that dispels the myths of “if it’s good for you it has to be expensive.” The example of the Harvest Cafe is an illustration of how we can utilize our strengths as a state and forge ahead with a promising future in many respects. I see no reason why the Land of Lincoln couldn’t be known as the land of great farm-to-table cuisine.