Ever heard of Winters, Calif.? How about Floyd, Va.? Small-town America is undergoing a dining renaissance, which is beginning to put these and other humble communities on the food map.
Roughly 45 minutes from Sacramento, the capital of California and the heart of its agricultural boon, sits the small, rural town of Winters. On crisp October mornings, store fronts on Main Street are festooned with scarecrows, Indian corn, and plump pumpkins. And inside the Putah Creek Café, a mix of locals and out-of-towners rub shoulders as they await a coveted breakfast table, where they will sip a steaming cup of jo and dine on freshly baked zucchini bread and the house specialty, Putah Creek Scramble, the restaurant’s version of Mexican Migas. The Putah Creek Café has become not only a favorite haunt for locals but also a popular stopover for bicyclists and wine country tourists.
Humble towns like Winters, once overshadowed by the urban coolness of their big city brethren, have become all the rage, and part of their allure can be traced to dining. “The restaurant scene is very much an emerging part of the city revitalization,” says Dan Maguire, community development director for the City of Winters. Maguire adds that Putah Creek Café’s sister restaurant, the national award-winning Buckhorn Grill, has become an icon for Winters.
At a recent conference hosted by the California Walnut Commission/Walnut Marketing Board, Clark Wolf, contributing authority for Food Arts magazine and president of Clark Wolf Company, a New York-based food and restaurant consulting firm with clients such as the Hard Rock Hotel and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., said he believes one of the next big trends in cuisine will be a celebration of the small towns scattered across America. From timber towns in the Northwest to fishing towns in New England, America is a quilt sewn together with the fabric swatches of small towns, each fashioned with their own colorful history and tradition.
This newfound appreciation for small-town dining echoes many changes across our landscape. On July 31, 2006, in a major address, Sen Hillary Clinton called for a rural renaissance to restore the promise and prosperity of main streets and rural communities, speaking specifically of the need to develop rural farms and businesses to build economic opportunities. “We can make the American Dream real again in rural communities and small towns. We can create a rural renaissance and restore the promise of Main Street and make our whole country stronger in the process,” she said.
In part, the small-town dining renaissance is fueled by folks splitting the city scene in hopes of the simple life, lower house mortgages, better schools, or retirement. Often, these newcomers bring their appetite for sophisticated dining with them, as well as their spending habits. They don’t mind shelling out good money for good food. “Baby Boomers, families moving to the country, and equity flight from urban areas are leading people to discover our town,” says Maguire.
The small-town dining experience has its own unique draw. Whether it’s friendlier staff, fresher food, home-style cooking, the absence of a valet, or a good table on a Saturday night without a reservation, there is plenty to love about small-town restaurants. And where else can you expect to find something as precious as fresh buttermilk biscuits baked by a cook who’s been churning out her grandmother’s recipe at a third-generation family restaurant for the past 25 years?
A Return to Main Street, USA
Perhaps the greatest benefactor of small towns has been The National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1980, this group started The National Trust Main Street Center, designed to revitalize historic and traditional commercial areas. Each year, the trust grants Great American Main Street Awards. Scores of small towns are basking in the afterglow of the “Main Street USA” designation, which has created new economic opportunities for towns while still allowing them to maintain their small-town heritage and culture.
Today’s revitalized, small-town main streets are crowded with an eclectic mix of old-fashioned family diners, ethnic and fusion dining spots, and trend-setting restaurants—all equally appreciated by visitors and locals.
Okmulgee, Okla., 45 miles south of Tulsa, once enjoyed the spoils of black gold. But when the oil money disappeared, so did the town’s livelihood. By the ’80s, only a handful of businesses remained. But thanks to the persistence of local leaders, Okmulgee became one of Oklahoma Main Street’s first communities. Now, restaurants fill the downtown, many of which reflect local and cultural food traditions.
“We are highlighting different towns with a culinary standpoint to a significant degree. I think in many ways people want to reconnect, they want authenticity, a sense of place. It is driving people to get out and explore. After 9/11, we saw a spiked increase in getting off of the path. People want a pedestrian experience. They want to get out of their cars and walk in town and bike,” says Kerri Post, vice president of new development for Visit Florida, a program implemented in 2005 that promotes small towns and downtowns of Florida.
Chefs Put Out Their Shingles in Small Towns
Chefs have also made the move from the city to the country, establishing fine restaurants that have single-handedly revived the economies of entire towns. Post calls the restaurant 32 East, located in Delray Beach, Fla., “one of the real movers and shakers” of restaurants. “It was a direct catalyst for revitalization of the town. It had a really different, outstanding menu that led traffic into town. It was a leader in the community,” says Post. At 32 East, Executive Chef/Partner Nick Morgan, named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the nation’s best new chefs, offers a creative menu highlighting fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“Little restaurants are cropping up in small towns that are very good. You have chefs returning to their parents’ or grandparents’ towns and renovating restaurants,” says Krista Reese, food critic for Georgia Trend magazine. “There is a phenomenon of retirees with money leaving Atlanta and moving to coastal Georgia and the mountains,” says Reese, who notes that the influx of people who can afford to frequent high-end restaurants has increased, supporting the demand for fine dining.
Cartersville, Ga., a historic city in the hills of northern Georgia that has experienced a vibrant revitalization, is an example of a small town that hosts great dining experiences, according to Reese. Chef Derek Morgan, a guest chef at New York’s James Beard House, offers fine cuisine at D. Morgan’s in downtown Cartersville.
The Tourist Factor
Perhaps the United States is following in the footsteps of Europe, which has always enjoyed the spoils of tourism due to the lure of their charming country hamlets and villages, where some of the best regional cuisine can be found. It doesn’t get much better than a respite along the back roads of Normandy, Tuscany, or the English countryside in pursuit of a small bistro, cucina, or pub offering a taste of local heaven.
Now, tourists plan trips around American towns and their restaurants with equal anticipation. And it’s not just in pursuit of humble, home-style fare. Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry, which won the 2006 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Restaurant, is set in the small town of Yountville, attracting travelers en route to California’s wine country. Thanks in no small part to Keller, Yountville is now unofficially known as the Culinary Capital of Napa Valley, drawing tourists from all over the world to sample its cuisine.
Small-town tourism is not only confined to the borders of California; it’s also happening in other parts of the country. In Pennsylvania Dutch country, sojourners take picturesque jaunts into Amish country and stop at restaurants such as Char’s Bella Mundo in Harrisburg, a town known for its restaurant resurgence. There, Executive Chef Ed Montuneaux serves dishes such as Artichokes Francaise and Seafood Creole. “Fine dining is coming to smaller towns. There is more expendable income in smaller cities now,” says Montuneaux, who moved to Harrisburg because it was his wife’s hometown.
Taking its name from a dramatic wooden bridge that straddles Box Death Hollow, a rugged corridor in Utah, Hell’s Backbone Grill opened in the tiny community of Boulder, Utah. The restaurant is perched near some of the world’s most breathtaking vistas, such as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park. Co-owners Blake Spalding and Jen Castle chronicled their experiences of opening their award-winning restaurant in the book With a Measure of Grace — The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant (Provecho Press, 2004). Hell’s Backbone Grill attracts diners for miles with their regionally based food with an emphasis on Western Range, Pueblo Indian, and Southwestern flavors. The restaurant is also committed to seasonal, local, and sustainable food sources and practices.
Slow City Dining
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains’ moonshine territory, Floyd, Va., is a small town with a soft spot for eco-friendly ways. Floyd enjoys a slower tempo of life—where cattle graze on bonafide pasture lands, families pluck fresh chickens for dinner, and small farmers grow local produce without pesticides or fertilizers. The local hot spot, the Oddfellas Cantina, specializes in “Appalachian Latino” cuisine, vegetarian dishes, Floyd County raised beef, and vegetables from local farms.
Floyd embodies much of the ideology behind Slow City, inspired by the Slow Food movement. The Slow City movement, with its focus on good food, sustainable living, and local community, is spreading across Europe. Some of the Slow City principles include cutting noise pollution and traffic, increasing green spaces and pedestrian zones, supporting farmers who produce local goods and the shops and restaurants that sell them, and preserving local traditions.
While the Slow City movement has yet to officially appear in the United States, many rural restaurants are finding much in common with their ideals. “We are seeing more restaurants interested in organic food, heirloom vegetables, and natural and local farming in small towns. Authenticity and freshness is what makes it unique in small-town restaurants,” says Post.
One of the most cherished aspects of small towns is the cultural and regional food traditions they preserve by serving up local dishes generation after generation. Small towns authenticate the feel and flavor of America’s classic foods. For some reason, the experience of dining on “Baptist Barbeque,” a dish of pulled, wood-smoked pork on white bread with a spicy tomato sauce, takes on new life when digging into it at Fresh Air Barbeque in the town of Jackson, Ga. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been preparing that dish since 1929 in one of America’s treasured rural towns.
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
Armchair Guide to Discovering Small-Town Dining
Best Food in Town: The Restaurant Lover’s Guide to Comfort Food in the Midwest by Dawn Simonds (Emmis Books, 2004)
In Search Of Mayberry: A Guide To North Carolina’s Favorite Small Towns by Scott Dickson (Parkway Publishers, 2004)
National Trust Main Street Center, www.mainstreet.org
On the Back Roads: Discovering Small Towns of America by Bill Graves (Addicus Books, 2001)
Rediscovering America: Exploring the Small Towns of Virginia & Maryland by Mary Burnham, Bill Burnham (Hunter Publishing, 2003)
Visiting Small Town Florida by Bruce Hunt (Pineapple Press, 2003)
Whole Wheat Pancakes With Apple, Raisin, and Walnut Compote
If you don’t cook all the pancakes at once, the batter will keep for a day or two, covered, in the refrigerator. Subsequent pancakes will not be quite as fluffy, but they will still be good.
For the compote:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup flour
Pinch of salt
5 Golden Delicious apples (approximately 21/4 lbs), peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
3 cups warm water, and additional water if needed
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup (2 ounces) chopped toasted California walnuts
For the pancake batter:
11/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 T brown sugar, tightly packed
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, separated
11/2 cups buttermilk, at room temperature
2/3 cup milk, at room temperature
Vegetable oil or nonstick spray
To make the compote: In a large bowl, place the sugar, cinnamon, flour, and salt, then stir them together with a fork or whisk until evenly mixed. Add the apples and stir and toss (your hands are the best tools for mixing) to coat them evenly with the sugar. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes or more, tossing once or twice, until the apples look wet and have exuded some juice.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add the apple mixture, along with any exuded juices, and cook, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom of the pan so the apples don’t stick for roughly five minutes; the mixture will become quite thick. Add the water and raisins and continue to cook, stirring until the liquid is smooth and any bits of flour have dissolved. Lower the heat and boil gently for roughly 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the raisins are plump and the apples are tender. The mixture should have a syrupy consistency; if it is too thick, add more water. Stir in the walnuts. If you are making the compote ahead of time to reheat later, add the walnuts just before serving.
To make the pancakes: In a medium bowl, place the all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cardamom, baking soda, and salt. With a fork or whisk, stir the ingredients together for one minute so they are evenly mixed.
In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks, buttermilk, and milk. In a separate clean bowl, using an electric or handheld beater, beat the egg whites until they stand in stiff, glossy peaks. Add the milk mixture to the dry ingredients and stir just until combined. The batter should look lumpy at this point. Scoop the beaten egg whites on top and quickly fold them in using a spoon or rubber spatula.
Heat a griddle or skillet over medium-high heat and grease it lightly with vegetable oil or nonstick spray. When hot, scoop 1/4-cup blobs of batter onto the skillet for each pancake (the pancakes will spread to approximately 4 inches across). Cook for roughly two minutes on each side; they are ready to turn when they no longer look wet around the edges and you see a few bubbles on top. Serve with the apple walnut compote. Cooked pancakes may be kept for a short time in a low oven, but the sooner you eat them, the better they will be.
Nutrition information per serving: 550 calories, 11 g protein, 94 g carbohydrates, 5 g fiber, 800 mg sodium, 96 mg cholesterol, 16 g total fat, 5 g polyunsaturated fat, 4 g monounsaturated fat, 7 g saturated fat
— Recipe courtesy of Putah Creek Café & Bakery, Winters, Calif., for the Walnut Marketing Board
Raspberry Yogurt and Walnut Fruit Dressing
This is lovely over fresh, baked, or poached fruit. If you are making the dressing ahead of time, stir in the walnuts just before serving.
2 cups plain yogurt (low-fat is OK)
2 to 4 T raspberry preserves or jam*
2 T raspberry vinegar
1/2 cup (roughly 2 ounces) California walnuts, toasted
* Note: For a sweeter dressing, use the larger amount of preserves.
In a large bowl, whisk the yogurt, preserves, and vinegar together until evenly blended. Cover and refrigerate.
Chop the walnuts very finely, either by hand or in a food processor or blender. (If the walnuts have been stored in the refrigerator or freezer, wait for them to reach room temperature before chopping.) Just before serving, stir them into the yogurt mixture.
Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups, serving 6
Nutrition information per serving: 120 calories, 6 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 60 mg sodium, 5 mg cholesterol, 7 g total fat, 4 g polyunsaturated fat, 1 g monounsaturated fat, 1.5 g saturated fat
— Recipe courtesy of Putah Creek Café & Bakery, Winters, Calif., for the Walnut Marketing Board