We recently traveled to Chicago and St. Louis for a family vacation and enjoyed several of the unique and fun things both cities have to offer including Lake Michigan, Wrigley Field, shopping on Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, The Museum of Science & Industry, St. Louis Arch, and, of course, we enjoyed some incredibly good food! It really got us thinking…how does a city develop its food culture? What gives a city a great food culture? And, what is Wichita’s food culture?
What is a “food culture?” This term has a different meaning for different people, but one definition is “the cultivation, distribution, preparation, and appreciation of delicious and healthy food which is critical to our individual and cultural well-being.” Some of the cities that come to mind with strong food cultures include San Francisco, Portland, Boston and Seattle, but there are also a number of smaller cities with great food cultures.
St. Louis is a great example of how a food culture can grow and evolve. There was a time – 20 or so years ago (showing my age) – when St. Louis was known for Imo’s Pizza (think square pieces of pizza on a thin, cracker-like crust) and toasted raviolis. Over the years, St. Louis has become an innovative, diverse city with a fantastic food culture that includes a variety of ethnic options, pork-inspired dishes, BBQ, microbreweries and much more. Here are a few things we noticed and found to be true in St. Louis, and quite possibly could be the key to what makes a strong food culture in any city:
- Local variety! Local eateries (vs chain restaurants) tend to best showcase the best food a city has to offer, and having more local restaurant options helps broaden the variety and types of cuisines.
- Multiple markets! Many options for accessibility of local food through farmers markets, CSAs and local restaurants.
- Appreciation of in-season produce. Many of the best restaurants in St. Louis develop their menus based on what ingredients are in-season and highest quality (vs. developing the menu, and then sourcing the ingredients). We even experienced farms that have evolved into restaurants; restaurants growing their own produce and herbs (literally, in their backyards) and restaurants and farmers partnering together to use fresh, local ingredients. The results are noticeable…the freshness, taste and quality of the meals were fantastic!
- Constant growth, creativity and innovation! Even though the St. Louis food culture has evolved, there is clear evidence there is no stopping them! There are many individuals who have a vision for how the St. Louis food culture can continue to rise to yet another level and they are taking steps to make it happen. There are passionate and creative chefs and producers who are willing to take some risk and try new things…and consumers who are rewarding them for bringing new concepts to the market!
- Collaboration — there is a strong supportive nature among local restaurants and producers. While there is clearly competition, there is also a recognition that partnering can create options that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
These are just some of the important variables that come together to help create the identity or food culture of a city.
We are so thankful we have learned that simple, well-prepared food can taste absolutely amazing, not to mention good for you too! Because of this, great food is a passion for us and we intentionally seek out local restaurants to experience the best a city has to offer whenever we travel. Much like researching attractions and entertainment in a specific city, we encourage you to do this for your meals too! Keep in mind, the “best” a city has to offer doesn’t mean the most expensive. Remember, it is all about simple and flavorful…not pricy! Trust me…doing this makes traveling and experiencing new cuisines so much more memorable and fun!
On this trip, we experienced a dish called Bi Bim Bop, using fresh, local ingredients at a Chicago restaurant – it was one amazing breakfast! Then there was Osage Café in St. Louis, where we discovered how a farm can evolve to include a restaurant with a truly mind-blowing farm-to-table concept!
We had a kale salad at a microbrewery in St. Louis, where the kale was grown on-site (there was also a farmer’s market in the parking lot before dinner). We ate the best Italian food we have ever had (yes, better than Chicago and NY in our opinion) at a restaurant on The Hill in St. Louis – again, using fresh, local ingredients including some grown in the backyard!
Our goal is to continue to share our passion for great food in the meal ideas we provide through Eat REAL America - we want you to be able to experience simple, flavorful meals with the best local quality ingredients Wichita has to offer.
So, what about Wichita’s food culture?
We are blessed to have some passionate and innovative people who are doing their thing to try to evolve the Wichita food culture. So, seek them out, support them, and let’s get Wichita on the map as having a great food culture!