Elevating Village Food Culture One Plate at a Time
By Summer Miller
Photography by Alison Bickel
Lin Schwanebeck sits in the oak schoolhouse chairs, folds her fingers together in front of her and leans forward on her elbows. Light from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows of Eat restaurant bounces through the soft curls of her gray-brown hair. She sits back, then leans forward again. She wrings her hands and smiles softly.
She has high hopes for Eat, the restaurant she and her son, Michael Glissman, opened 13 months ago in the village of Dodge, Nebraska. Eat is a mix of country sensibility and urban influence with a strict focus on housemade, from-scratch cooking. It is not formally farm-to-table, though neighbors have delivered bags, bushels and boxes of garden vegetables to the mother-and-son duo from the moment they opened the doors. The investment by two outsiders in a rural community is significant, regardless of whether or not a farm is ever listed on the menu.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, rural communities continue a long trend of population decline. The people who call Dodge home don’t need a report to tell them this. Their school was consolidated with a neighboring town four years ago, and they have watched their children move away from the tidy bricked Main Street village for decades. U.S. Census Bureau numbers placed Dodge’s population at 700 people in the year 2000. Within 10 years the population declined by 12%, which makes Michael and Lin’s restaurant a bit of an anomaly.
Eat has 12 tables, plus a secluded dining space in the old bank vault. The restaurant employs eight to 10 people and provides the community with a modern take on scratch cooking, but more importantly it provides hope for the future of a village fighting to survive. During the week, Michael sees a steady stream of local people stopping in for breakfast or lunch. On the weekends, however, Eat is a dinner destination for those living in or commuting between the communities of West Point, Schuyler, Fremont, Wayne and Norfolk.
“It’s exciting to have a restaurant like Eat open in Dodge,” says Jim Pruss, a longtime resident. “I hope people realize what a gem it is. We are getting fresh food, which gives us such a wide range of flavors that you can’t get most places.”
Michael grew up in Bancroft, Nebraska, where his maternal grandmother owned a café called Mou’s Place. He built the foundation of his life in food at her heels. Three days after graduating from high school, he left Nebraska to attend the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. He later moved to California where he worked with many notable chefs, until returning to Nebraska two decades later.
Returning to a rural community was equal parts prodigal son and simple math.
Until recently, he was the only one of five siblings to leave the state, and still has living grandparents who he wanted to be near. The slow, dull ache of wanting to be closer to family eventually carried him home.
“I just thought if I’m going to move back, I need to do it now while I’m still young enough to re-root myself,” Michael says.
The building, which at one time was a bank, was affordable and has good bones. The high, pressed-tin ceilings, white hexagon mosaic floor tile, vault and woodwork gave him a creative structure from which to build, but perhaps it was Lin and Michael’s connection to Eddie Bures, a craftsman from Dodge, that subconsciously drew them to the village.
Decades earlier, Lin wanted to give Michael a gift. She’d heard of a man in Dodge who made metal figurines and other sculptures. She asked him to make two for Michael, one as a server with a tray and one as chef with a frying pan. Michael liked them so much that years later he commissioned Eddie to make wedding cake toppers for his clients in California. Unfortunately, by the time they opened Eat in June, Eddie had passed away. One of his daughters remembered Michael and Lin, and gave one of her father’s cake toppers to the restaurateurs. Now all three pieces are part of the family memorabilia placed throughout Eat. A framed handwritten list of the day’s specials from his grandmother’s restaurant, a serving tray she was given for her wedding and an enamel cake pan lean against the wall amid Bakelite-handled spoons and Depression-era glass measuring cups.
On the morning of my interview, Lin, who is also Eat’s resident baker, is finishing up homemade hamburger buns for lunch service, making loaf bread and preparing a takeout order of cinnamon rolls—a recipe that’s been in the family for as long as she can remember.
What Eat provides is a modern take on how food used to be. Eat honors the nostalgia of rural America—a time Michael remembers when kids still de-tasseled corn, families put up food from the garden and schools still cooked food from scratch. His longing to reconnect with days gone by is motivated by a chef’s aspiration to give people what they want, while pushing them a bit out of their comfort zone.
He replaces mashed potatoes with polenta; serves fish tacos or prawns during lent, offers faro rather than rice or serves ratatouille made with the vegetables from the height of the season.
“Using real cream, real butter, organic eggs, all of these things cost more, but we care about what we are doing. In the end we are proud of what we are putting on the plate,” says Michael.
For urban readers, these swaps may be commonplace dining experiences, but in a town with one church, one bar and a tiny, but critically important grocery store, this is not only extraordinary, it’s also much appreciated.
“Even though we are new here, I’m community focused,” says Michael. “I want to help grow the identity of Dodge. Isn’t that the purpose of living in a small town—when you see your neighbor, you say ‘hi’?”
Jim and Linda Pruss are two village residents who share the bounty of their garden with the up-and-coming restaurant. They graduated from Dodge High School in 1969 and have lived near the county line since 1976. They are ardent supporters of the restaurant and frequently drop bags or boxes of peppers, eggplant, beets or squash on his doorstep.
“I give him vegetables from our garden every chance I get because I want to see him succeed. They put a lot of effort into what they are providing,” Jim says, who gives away most of what he grows in his 5,000-square-foot garden. “I don’t want to have to drive to Omaha to get food like that.”
A newcomer who opens a small, whole-food-based restaurant in a village, who succeeds not only in serving the local community but also by drawing outsiders to it, could open the door for other local food business similar in nature. Michael intends to source more food from local suppliers in the future and has big ideas for harvest, should diners’ support of the restaurant continue to grow. Ultimately, he’d like to grow much of the produce used for the restaurant on Lin’s farm in Schuyler. These are still dreams. The first step is to keep the doors open and the people who visit happy and well-fed.
“I would hope that Eat is an extension of ourselves. We would both open our homes to people, and I want people to feel catered to and welcome,” Lin says. “We want them to have a good time and we want to treat them. We want them to feel special. It’s not just about the food; it’s the whole thing. Do you feel uplifted? Do you feel better than when you came in? We want Eat to feel like family.”
Summer Miller’s writing has appeared in Grit, Saveur and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, was heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.” Summer writes at ScaldedMilk.com.
Eat at Eat
Located at 327 N. 2nd Street in Dodge, Nebraska, Eat is one and a half hours’ drive from both downtown Omaha and downtown Lincoln. Open: Monday–Wednesday, 8am–2pm; Thursday, 11:30am–12:30pm; Friday, 8am–2pm and 5–8pm; Saturday & Sunday: 9am–2pm and 5–8pm. Info: 402.693.2292; EatInDodge@gmail.com; Facebook.com/EatInDodge