Summer Miller’s Culinary Journey Through the Great Plains
By Theresa Farrage • Photography by Alison Bickel
Cultures and geographic regions often define food, but no matter where you live or where you come from, food is universal because it sustains the body, nourishes the soul and has the ability to bring communities together.
For an award-winning journalist and food writer like Summer Miller, writing about food sounds like an understatement. “I don’t feel like I write about food, I feel like I write about the people of food,” says Summer.
Summer has been on a culinary writing journey for over four years and just completed her highly anticipated book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains.
“I’ve said this book is a love story, and it is. I wanted to validate living here not only to other people but also to myself. I didn’t always, but I’ve learned to value Nebraska and its neighboring states as remarkable places,” she reflects.
Summer, who currently resides in Elkhorn, Nebraska, penned New Prairie Kitchen because she wanted to make it easier for home cooks to find regional foods and use them in their own homes to feed their friends and families.
“There is a softness and gentle rhythm about life here, and I find that soothing. I think the same is true of our food. It is wholesome, experimental and even artistic at times, but always deeply satisfying and without pretense.”
Summer was seeking inspiration of her own accord and ended up finding it in the stories of the chefs, farmers and artisans she met along her writing journey.
“Their businesses are tough, the path is unpaved, the hours are long, and the profit margins are low, yet they do it. They do it because they have to, because it’s in their blood. Every time they shared their stories with me, I was inspired to work harder at my own craft as a writer.”
With a degree in English, professional writing experience under her belt and what Summer considers a love of writing since birth, she wouldn’t call herself a culinary pioneer. “I’m a home cook. I value a good meal with people I care about and, God willing, a dynamic conversation. I think that’s enough to ask of dinner.”
Summer has been writing about food for close to a decade but didn’t have a real interest in food until her early 20s. “I didn’t grow up making cookies at my grandmother’s hip. For me, food is a way to connect with people and that’s about as complicated as I try to make it.”
According to Summer, agriculture and restaurants are an intrinsic part of the culture of any community. “Food defines us. Food is an avenue to building a creative and vibrant city. I want to live in a place that inspires me and teaches me something. Ultimately, I wanted to learn more about the change agents in the local food world, so that’s why I tell their stories.”
When you think of popular geographic cuisine, one might envision the coastal seafood communities, but in a flyover state like Nebraska, sometimes all that comes to mind is beef. For Summer, focusing on the prairie is second nature and something that people take for granted.
“This is my home. I’m a native Nebraskan. I’ve always thought the middle states and the plains were beautiful. Even still, I thought I had to leave it to become a writer. My true affection for Nebraska grew slowly over time. As I’ve grown to love it, I wanted to share that with a broader audience.”
So how did this Nebraskan come to write her cookbook? According to Summer, it all started with an idea. “So often we let ideas die inside our minds. We let them linger and get tied up in the loose ends of our lives, but we forget ideas need oxygen to live. They need encouragement, input and even dissection from others in order to reach their full potential. This book is collaboration. It exists in this way because of all the people in it and so many others who were guides along the way.”
In her full-color cookbook, which includes more than 50 recipes and 25 profiles of the most innovative chefs, farmers and producers of artisanal goods from Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, Summer wanted to convey that the heartland is more than just corn, soybeans, beef and pork. She wanted outsiders to discover the “Old-Prairie-meets-New-Prairie” approach to cuisine that is redefining Middle America with its traditional staples in refreshing ways. “My goal was to tell stories about a place I love; I can’t think of a better way to do that then to offer a reader something compelling to read, beautiful to look at and inviting to eat.”
Organized by each season, New Prairie Kitchen introduces readers to emerging culinary talent from the Midwest region who use the freshest local ingredients to create everything from stuffed squash blossoms and braised bison short ribs to roasted rhubarb and asparagus pasta salad.
“I do not believe that food is the centerpiece of a table. Food is a gateway to the human experience. The people have always been the focal point for me; they make our communities what they are. They create shared experiences through their craft, and because they take the risk to farm or to open a restaurant, then our experiences as consumers are fuller and our communities are more interesting places to live. I wanted them to know it, so I told their stories,” Summer notes.
Next time you take a culinary cross-country journey, don’t just fly over or drive through, stop awhile and enjoy the simple humble recipes that not only define the cuisine of the prairie, but the people of the prairie.
Theresa Farrage, a native Iowan, is an event planner by day and freelance writer by night. She enjoys writing about and eating local farm-to-table cuisine. Her writing has appeared in Midwest Living, Edible Omaha, the Omaha World-Herald and a variety of other publications.
New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers, and Artisans of the Great Plains can be purchased at the Bookworm, Barnes & Noble and Books A Million in Omaha. For other stores offering the book, search on IndieBound.org for an independent bookstore near you.
For more information about Summer Miller, please visit ScaldedMilk.com.