Gone out to dinner lately?
In Indianapolis, the chance that your answer is “yes,” is better than ever. The city is undergoing a renaissance when it comes to dining options.
It hasn’t always been this way.
For generations, Indianapolis cuisine could be characterized by overcooked vegetables and charred meat. With just a few exceptions, chain restaurants were the eateries of choice, and ethnic options tended to emphasize predictability and go easy on the spices.
The history of how all this came to change is a rich subject, worthy of more attention than I can give it here. Different people are bound to offer a variety of sound opinions about when the city’s culinary tide turned. For the sake of brevity, and without meaning to slight any of the pioneers who paved the way, I’ll offer May 2001 as the point where it seemed to me that something tilted.
That’s when Chef Regina Mehallick opened R Bistro on Mass Ave. With its emphasis on seasonal menus and quality Midwestern ingredients, R Bistro was the first restaurant to make a virtue of its locale. Before R Bistro, the vast majority of local restaurants seemed bent on trying to make diners feel as if they were someplace else — Europe, say, or California.
This was fine, as far as it went; still is. But it also betrayed a lack of local character, an inability to come to terms with what was memorable about Indianapolis. Regina began the process of setting that record straight.
One can argue — and I will — that the movement favoring independent restaurants featuring locally sourced ingredients has affected a lot more than the appetites of Indianapolis foodies. The current vitality of the city’s downtown is impossible to imagine without it. The food scene, and the energy (as well as the jobs) it brings with it, has asserted an originality and confidence that has helped to make downtown an attractive destination for visitors and residents alike.
The stadia, the cultural venues, the hotels — all of those, in various stages, were already present. The independent food scene added a sizzle that drew them all together. People from around the country would not be half as impressed with what they experience in downtown Indianapolis if, as once would have likely been the case, they were dining at an upscale chain with exactly the same menu found in 25 other cities.
The timing of all this could not have been better. Indy’s food movement coincided with large-scale national trends. It seems people are more interested than ever in where their food comes from, how it is grown, and who does the growing. They want food that is fresh, and as free of chemical additives and industrial processing as possible.
More and more of us want food that doesn’t just taste good, but is raised in ways that don’t abuse the land, and that supports our local economy. As the Indianapolis experience attests, grabbing hold of this momentum can be transformative.
You’d think all of Indiana would want a piece of this. It’s not as if our national profile couldn’t use a boost. What’s more, people here are doing some pretty amazing things. Farmers like Greg Gunthorp and Dave Fischer are raising world- class poultry, pork and beef. Artisans like Judy Schad, in New Albany, or Tim Burton in Medora, are producing exquisite goat cheeses and maple syrups. In Starlight, Ted Huber distills prize-winning brandy.
These creative folks aren’t outliers. They are part of a movement that could redefine and rebrand Indiana in the same way that Indianapolis restaurateurs helped Indianapolis regain its groove.
But on an official policy level, Indiana still stands for everything the new food movement is trying to outgrow.
Just as it’s hard to pinpoint when the food scene started getting better in Indy, it’s difficult to say where Indiana’s agricultural scene went wrong. For the sake of argument, I’ll pin that on Earl Butz.
Butz was born in Albion, Indiana, in 1909. He grew up on a dairy farm and, like so many Hoosier farmers, studied at Purdue. After World War 2, instead of actually farming, he found himself climbing the ladder of agricultural bureaucracy — first for President Eisenhower, then Nixon and Ford.
Butz made it his life’s work to do away with New Deal farm programs. These Depression-era government policies tried to control drastic swings in farm prices, while attempting to conserve soil quality. Butz wanted farms run on an industrial scale. He exhorted farmers to “get big or get out,” and “plant fencepost to fencepost.” Today, when you drive across Indiana and see virtually nothing but corn and soybeans: that’s Earl Butz. Agribusiness wanted lots of corn and soybeans for the mass-production of processed foods. Earl delivered for them.
Not only did Butz’s kind of agriculture play havoc with the longterm health of the American diet, it also created an unforgiving business model for farmers, who found themselves up to their necks in debt, as they tried to acquire more land, machinery, new hybrid seeds, chemicals and pesticides in their desperation to get as big as Butz said they must.
Hoosiers have a weakness for their native sons. Instead of encouraging the creativity and entrepreneurialism taking hold at the grassroots, the bureaucratic class appears hellbent on defending Earl Butz. We see this year after year at the Statehouse, as the Indiana Farm Bureau and industrial farming advocates support bills and constitutional amendments aimed at holding big producers harmless from the environmental consequences of their practices.
At the official policy level, Indiana agriculture seems trapped in its own version of “too big to fail.” While lip service is paid to Indiana Grown, a Dept. of Agriculture-supported initiative to promote a seemingly catch-as-catch-can assortment of Hoosier products, approvals continue to be given to establish factory hog farms in places like Steuben and Jackson Counties.
In North Carolina, a state once known for its factory hog production, they eventually declared a moratorium in the name of environmental justice. And that state’s agriculture department helps farmers distribute their goods by sponsoring strategically located farmers’ markets that are open like supermarkets, all week long. Maybe this January, when they’re in Indy for the General Assembly, the state’s agro-lobbyists will mull ideas like these over drinks and dinner in some of our independent restaurants. Then they might start doing for the state what the new food movement has done for its capital city.