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Eating Homegrown: An Introduction

Almost every notable restaurant in town has one thing in common these days: a reliance on Hoosier farmers. From the Gunthorp Farms pork belly at Cerulean to the Miller Farms roasted chicken at St. Elmo, chefs have gone back to the land, crafting dishes that showcase the flavor of food that has never been frozen or hauled in from thousands of miles away.

Chefs’ commitment to using fresh, local ingredients seems an obvious outgrowth of our state’s rich agricultural heritage. And yet, the practice only took root—on menus, and in the public consciousness—in the last handful of years. Martha Hoover calls it the “Whole Foods effect,” after the grocery chain that figured out how to market homegrown wholesomeness on a grand scale. Hoover was one of the first Indy restaurateurs to fully embrace local meat and produce, and today her Patachou empire’s menus claim a laundry list of Hoosier farms. Her executive chef, Tyler Herald, regularly meets with farmers to plan dishes. The company’s latest venture, Public Greens in Broad Ripple, even has a “microfarm” that supplies the restaurant with the likes of chard and heritage tomatoes.

Hoover admits some may tire of “farm to table”—a Vanity Fair column this summer lamented the phrase’s overuse—but “let’s face it,” she says, “that’s how food tastes best—when it’s freshest and closest to you.” And chefs and diners aren’t the only ones enjoying the movement. The farmers Hoover began working with more than a quarter-century ago were “barely eking it out” when the original Cafe Patachou opened. Now, “Selling to chefs really stabilizes our income,” says Silverthorn Farm owner Nate Parks, and the number of vegetable farms in Marion County alone has doubled in the last decade. The state’s department of agriculture hopes to harness this power of provenance with its new Indiana Grown program, which hitches up Hoosier farms with retailers and restaurants. “Produce grown five miles from your local Marsh store is going to taste a whole lot better than if it came from Southern California,” says the initiative’s manager, David King.

It might seem a little much, to herald as progressive a habit as old as mankind. But the benefits of eating local were often sacrificed over the years in the name of convenience or the bottom line. And so in this season of harvest, let us praise the ties that bind Indianapolis chefs to the place where our food is grown and raised once more—right here at home.

A native of Inman, South Carolina, Amanda Heckert graduated from the Honors College at the University of South Carolina. Heckert joined Indianapolis Monthly in February 2012 and enjoys getting to know the Circle City with her husband, writer Justin Heckert, and their dog, Cooper.
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