“So, what do you do for a living?”

It’s a simple question, but my answer seems to be anything but simple.

The short answer: I use food as a way to connect with people around Indiana.

I suppose I could say “I discuss food and spirituality with a 90-year-old woman whose hands show her love of the land. I chat with a pierogi master named Jesús who is willing to brave 100° heat to make his masterpieces. I sample persimmon pudding with a woman who dreams of bigger things for her community.”

The full answer is that I work for Indiana Humanities and travel the state with our Food for Thought program, which was created as a two-year celebration of Indiana food culture. Specifically, I roam across the state with an interactive exhibit about the past, present and future of Indiana food culture. I take the exhibit from town to town, working with the festivals, visitors’ bureaus and libraries that host it to create programs that extend the conversation beyond the exhibit.

At Indiana Humanities, we believed from the outset that food could be a catalyst for conversations. And I’ve proved the point, talking with farmers, restaurateurs, foodies and Hoosier families I never would have met any other way. Something else happened, too: Over those plates of local specialties and Hoosier delicacies, I deepened my love for Indiana and the people who live here.

The best part of the Food for Thought adventures?

The people. They’ve defined the experience. Here are a few I met:

Jesús and Lynethe: For a respected Polish/Slovak chef, Jesús has an unexpected story: He was born in Mexico and cooked his first pierogies upon his arrival to the U.S. about a decade ago. But Jesús doesn’t simply cook at Lynethe’s Deli & Pierogies, the restaurant he owns with his wife in Whiting. He provides much more than food as he goes above and beyond for his customers. After our conversation, Jesús left to cook pierogies in the 104° heat of the Pierogi Festival in Whiting.

Rachel: I stumbled upon Rachel’s beautiful Amish farm one afternoon in Parke County. Ninety-year-old Rachel welcomed me in her home and spent hours telling tales of her garden, the animals and the role food has played in her life. When I looked at her hands that had worked the land for nearly 90 years, I felt something powerful; Rachel’s hands told a story. She was this tiny little lady with the strongest hands I’d ever seen. We discussed the intersection of food with spirituality, family and life. Now we’re pen pals.

Don: Once a race-car mechanic and Indy 500 pit crew member, Don Shepherd is a National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee and part of racing royalty. Now out of racing for a quarter century, Don travels to festivals in Indiana and beyond with his wife, Mary, making apple dumplings. People I spoke to at the Whiting Pierogi Fest traveled there just to buy the Shepherds’ creations. Don is an affable guy, and fair-goers can’t help but take part in this chapter of his life.

Jacqui: The youth services librarian at Mitchell Community Public Library, Jacqui facilitated Food for Thought programming for the youth in Mitchell. Over dinner and my first persimmon pudding, she explained her dreams for what Mitchell could be. From forming special bonds with senior citizens to pushing forward technology for the youth, Jacqui’s commitment to community and the role of the library in shaping the future inspires hope.

Deborah and Tony: This dynamic duo opened a coffeehouse on the Rockville town square to accompany their Old Jail Inn, a jail that has been converted into a hotel. Committed to investing in the local economy through food-centered businesses, Deborah and Tony do more than sell coffee; they lead and inspire fantastic things for their community.

The worst part?

The weather. We’ve set up in the rain, heat and freezing cold. I’ll never forget the time we were trying to stake a tent when the sky turned green and became saturated with lightning. We hid in the back of a (teetering) box truck until the tornado sirens stopped. Phew!

Best food?

Impossible to name just one thing! Jesús’s pierogies, Don’s apple dumplings, homemade pumpkin ice cream from the Covered Bridge Festival, Amol Indian restaurant in Bloomington, cookies from Fingerhut Bakery in North Judson, sandwiches from Goose the Market in Indianapolis and homemade persimmon pudding from Golden Gables, a restaurant attached to a gas station in Bedford.

Worst?

Never eat a funnel cake for breakfast on an unbearably hot day.

Biggest lessons?

The shared human condition opens doors. Everyone eats. Everyone has a story. Embracing this shared condition is a platform for growth. I’ve been amazed by folks who sniff me out as an outsider but invite me over for dinner, or to chat among the rows of a hardworked community garden. Differences melt away; likenesses connect us.

Food goes far beyond our taste buds.It adds to the narrative of our lives. There’s a lot more to dinner than the food. Who’s talking? What attributes define that person? What beliefs? It’s a similar story with farmers’ markets and restaurants. Why do these places exist? What is the driving force? How does the food connect the people? In other words, what’s the story at the heart of the food?

It’s a good time to be a Hoosier.Agriculture has been a huge part of our state’s past, but I’ve learned that it also could be the foundation for an exceptional future. From hunger advocates to biotech researchers to urban farmers, people in Indiana are generating a lot of momentum and creativity for the future of food in Indiana and the world.

Lasting impressions?

The traveling Food for Thought program makes its last stop in October, but it will live on digitally, and the exhibit will find a permanent home. I’ll take on another project at Indiana Humanities.

But it’s hardly an ending.

I set out on this adventure because I’m passionate about food, conversation and embracing the unknown. The journey opened my eyes to a world that constantly buzzes and hums around us – and yet one we often miss or take for granted. From large-scale farms to backyard gardens, from fancy eateries to diners and roadside stands, and from a quick sandwich to home-cooked comfort food, food affects and defines every one of us as humans and as Hoosiers.

As a result, food gives us something to think, read and talk about. At its most basic level, food is a necessity, but when we step back and examine its cultural, personal and emotional qualities, we share our humanity.

So, what I do for a living? I observe, support and champion the power of food to bypass animosity, rejuvenate the spirit, build relationships and instill hope for us as individuals and as members of a community.

What’s your role in the conversation?


MY TRIP, BY THE NUMBERS

Miles traveled: 2,822 (Would get you to Seattle, or Acapulco, Mexico)
Indiana counties traveled through: 33
Amount of coffee consumed: at least 570 ounces
Slices of pizza consumed: 27, many from Mother Bear’s Pizza in Bloomington
Time spent driving: 43.5 hours
Number of songs played in the car: 653
Photos taken: 3,978



Subscribe today!