The afternoon sun reached its rays far across the fields surrounding TD Niche Pork in Elk Creek, Nebraska, illuminating miles of golden crops dancing in the forceful breeze. I was sitting down for lunch with several others at a picnic table in the vast landscape’s epicenter. On the spread before us waited a traditional local Nebraskan meal: Pork five ways (pulled, ground, fried, ham sausage, cured cottage bacon), sweet corn, fried potatoes, tomato slices, cucumber salad, pickled beets, local honey, and watermelon chopped fresh from the back of a truck.
“If this isn’t the best watermelon you’ve had, tell me where you can find better,” Travis Dunekacke, TD Niche owner, told us. “Local trumps everything.”
As if in agreement, the hogs corralled in a trailer a few feet away from us grunted and squealed in perfect response.
Overall, my husband and I were in Nebraska for dinner. Lunch at TD Niche was just a pre-game show before the big meal the next day—a Secret Supper event in Lincoln with Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods as the guest of honor (aside from me, of course), held on center court in the brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena. Secret Supper events fall into the pop-up and farm-to-fork restaurant movements and diners have been eating across the country for a few years now. Basically, it’s a dinner where the menu and location are all revealed shortly before the meal takes place. The suppers are a testament to and celebration of locavore culture throughout the U.S. Zimmern noted that dinners like this are not only good for Lincoln, but good for the country as a whole—even though the Midwestern states have seen the light all along.
“Over the course of the last two or three generations in America, we became separated from the way we hunted, gathered, farmed, cooked, and ate all across this country,” Zimmern said. “The world became faster and the goal was to produce things cheaper and faster, but cheaper and faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. Then everyone on the coasts decided to start celebrating things that we in the middle of the country have known all along. [With these dinners,] we’re able to demonstrate the importance of the American family farm, of slower food production, of a lifestyle that pays more attention to health and wellness.”
We explored Lincoln for two days before the big meal, visiting many of the farms that would have a hand in the Secret Supper: Shadowbrook Farm, one of the first organic agriculture producers in Nebraska; Robinette Farm, a 113-acre business that offers an apprenticeship program; Branched Oak Farm, a grass-based dairy and cheese producer mimicking the traditional ecosystem of buffalo; and Common Good Farm, home of the oldest and longest running CSA in Nebraska.
Every dish at dinner came with a carefully planned craft cocktail pairing. For the Amuse, a roasted free-range chicken galantine paired with a “Leather Strap,” a mixture of Woodford Reserve and Sandeman Ruby Port. A cocktail combination of watermelon, sweet basil, and vodka accompanied the first course’s salad and avgolemono soup (a nearly traditional Greek lemon-rice soup). The second course matched cedar-brined pork with Bumper Crop, a Belgian-style beer from Ploughshare Brewing. The third course’s dish and cocktail were arguably the most unique: Wagyu beef with a sprinkling of mushroom dirt on mixed wild mushrooms, and Heaven, Bourbon, and Earth, a mushroom cocktail with Woodford Reserve, Barolo chinato, and Angostura bitters. For dessert (my favorite course) a peach mousse-filled bun and basil-infused white chocolate mousse came with a Nasca Tree, a cocktail with pine nuts and dessert spices.
Keeping in step with the locavore mindset, each mixologist and chef hailed from Lincoln or Omaha. And remember those pigs I met at lunch? Yep. They were dinner.
The farm-to-fork culture in Lincoln is making huge strides toward the reemergence of local, quality food. But as far as heading back to our roots by using every part of the animal, that still may be a struggle. Foodies throughout the country thrive on meals of heart, kidney, and intestine. Lincoln potentially has a long way to go: One of the big sponsors of the Secret Supper, the National Pork Board, vetoed use of offal during the dinner in an attempt to stop promotion of indulgence in these items. I was offally (sorry, just couldn’t help myself!) disappointed, but the overall quality of the meal made up for it by far.
It wasn’t until after the meal, sitting on the patio at Kevin and Karen Shinn’s restaurant, Bread & Cup, that the pork heart came out. I clinked my beer glass with my husband’s, took one giant bite, and let the warm breeze carry me into the evening’s perfection.