"We have more pigs than people in Iowa, so it wasn't much of a stretch," said Herb Eckhouse, the Fonzie-esque cofounder of La Quercia, an Italian salumi producer that's uniquely positioned at the intersection of prairie and prosciutto. Salt and fat perfumed the air of his curing room, where there were so many racks of beautiful hams on display that if I stared long enough it started to look like whimsical wallpaper.
In 2000, when he started to make prosciutto as good as any in Italy, the locals were excited . . . but a bit clueless. "People would say, 'That sounds great! What kind of cheese is it?'" Eckhouse recalled. Now Iowa is on its way to becoming the new Parma.
Moments later, I was on my first (and only) escalator ride in a shopping mall to a farmers' market, ever. At the Winter Farmers' Market in the Kaleidoscope at the Hub, it was a touch incongruous to see an artisanal duck producer next to a Cali Nails & Tanning, but the array of farmers and produce was staggering. On the lower level, I found Andy Grinnell of the 150-year-old Grinnell Heritage Farm behind a sign emblazoned with Team Carrot—an apt name for the largest carrot farm in Iowa. Looking like a much younger version of the American Gothic guy—but with a baseball hat instead of a pitchfork—he offered me a bag of Frost-Kissed Carrots. They were sweeter than any carrot I had ever had. According to Grinnell, when still-in-the-ground carrots freeze and thaw, they're transformed into almost-candy-like wonders. I happily munched on one on my way out, walking past Burger King.
That night, I was taking pictures in Taylor's Maid-Rite, a 90-year-old lunch counter that looks straight out of a Hopper painting and serves a sandwich called loose meat. A waitress, her hands on her hips, yelled out, "Hey! You don't have Maid-Rite's where you're from?" Nope. I bit through the soft bun into an amalgam of caramelized crumbled beef mingled with mustard—while most of the filling fell onto the wrapper below. "I get it," I blurted out between mouthfuls, "this is a sloppy joe." *Record Scratch* *Freeze Frame* Things haven't changed much at this Iowan sandwich sanctuary over the years. "The cheese and ketchup are new," the manager said. "We added those 11 years ago—after a vote."