Friday, April 8, 2016

Taste Idaho Tour

A Taste of Idaho
By Amy Larson, as seen in IDAHO Magazine

Riding with a charter bus-full of other food and travel bloggers and writers, it was hard to keep my mouth shut. All I wanted to do was tell them the Idaho back stories.

United Dairymen of Idaho, who’d invited me on the TasteIdaho tour through a terrific magazine I write for (IDAHO Magazine), did a great job presenting Idaho information. It was a task I didn’t envy: How does one explain Idaho in three-and-a-half days?
The fry sauce, finger steaks, that most people say “Boise” incorrectly, that some of our potatoes are made from ice cream, and some of our ice cream is made from potatoes, but that we’re not actually all about potatoes all of the time. That we have a Table Rock, a City of Rocks, and places where water shoots out of rocks, miles of area that looks just like the moon, and about 340 natural hot springs. 

I wished they knew about the delicious brunch I’d attended at a real dairy farmhouse’s backyard a while back, wished they could heard farmer Brent Jackson say, “If my dad could see us all right now, he’d probably say, ‘Why are you all just sitting around? There’s work to be done’ ’’ and then with some tenderness, saying, “But my mother, Hazel, she’d just love this. She held a lot of family gatherings right here on this same spot, and she’d think it was great.”

I rode the toy tractor at the direction of Brent Jackson’s young grandson that day, and was shown the steepest ditch to roll down.

I tried to be understanding as I watched fatigue set in among the traveling writers, all the while wanting to talk their ears off about the place I loved.

The visit had been complete, beginning with a cycle tour of downtown Boise on a giant pub on wheels, allowing thirteen virtual strangers to get know each other better. The ride was halfway through before I realized not everyone had pedals. Three sat comfortably on a back bench, grinning broadly, and two others were pedal-free, seated above wheel wells.

We received red carpet treatment: posh rooms in downtown Boise, a reception on Eighth Street the first night, and dinner at a Leku Ona, a Basque restaurant on Boise’s Basque Block. I attempted to explain the Basques to those at my table: 

“They’re from France. And they’re from Spain. But they’re not French or Spanish, and their language has no relation to any other language. There are about 15,000 of them here, but I’m not exactly sure why. They also have a ‘Jaialdi’ celebration every five years, and they play this game called ‘fronton’, sort of like racquetball, but without the racquet.”

A few blank stares, a few nods of recognition. I tried.

Early the next morning, we loaded the bus to experience agri-touring at its finest, duly admonished not to don any fancy footwear. Boots or tennis shoes, we were told, or we’d regret it. 

“Don’t eat anything this morning!” our hosts had warned us, “because there’s going to be a ton of food for breakfast, believe us.”

They didn’t lie. A loaded buffet line awaited us at Simplot Foods, a large Caldwell food processing plant, replete with a Payette watermelon fruit salad, a Franklin egg /fresh Buhl brook trout/Gooding cheese/ smoked brown mustard combo, Burley bacon, a Boise bakery’s pumpkin French toast, Northern Idaho apple cider, huckleberry smoothies, and of course, shredded hash browns. 

Talking potatoes, I knew from my brother-in-law, a warehouse manager there, that multiple train carloads of product shipped out daily, and I knew how hard the people at that plant worked. I couldn’t help but think of that as I enjoyed the buttery spud dish.

 “That crispy bit on your pumpkin French toast was cheese,” we were informed, “We grilled it and got it nice and caramelized. We thought it contrasted well with the pumpkin, the sweet with the salty. That cheese is from a small family farm in Gooding, where the son is now the cheesemaker.”

“And the trout,” Chef Randy King added, “Came from the Snake River that’s carved a big canyon through the middle of our state. There’s about a 30-mile stretch where it’s cold, clean, and aerated where the aquafer dumps out.”

As forks clinked with plates, Chef King mentioned that Idaho produced a large portion of the trout eaten in the U.S., and I wanted to beam with Gem State pride.

“Um,” said blogger Brooke Bass, “That crispy cheese is so good.”

Back inside the tour bus, we saw “potato and hop field stops” on the itinerary, but were told that wouldn’t be happening this time around. 
“This tour is going to differ from what’s planned,” explained one of our hosts, Leah Clark of Idaho Preferred, “This year, due to our hot, dry summer, everything was early, starting with asparagus on March 28th. We’d planned to see hops and potatoes being harvested today, but they’re gone. We can’t ask the farmers to hold up for us, just so we can watch them do that. We should also still be in peach season, but we’re past the peaches and into apples, now.”

At a one-hundred-and-one year old Symms Fruit Ranch in Marsing, we were introduced to orchard workers who had been there for thirty years or more, whose fathers and children had worked there, too. We picked and sunk our teeth into crisp, green apples while Jamie Mertz, whose family had run the farm for generations, told of the strips used on trees to overload the orchard with pheromone points, skillfully tricking the culling moth into thinking there were no females to mate with. Wandering for days unsuccessfully looking for love, they soon died, thus resolving culling moth issues in a very effective, organic way.

We were told that four of the orchard’s original trees still remained and still bore fruit, and that they were unofficially named “Adam”, “Eve”, “Cain”, and “Abel”.

At a sunny Marsing vineyard we watched grapes being pressed by a machine, and some of us couldn’t help but reference the famous grape-stomping “I Love Lucy” episode.

“It’s not as fun as you’d think,” offered blogger Debi Lander, who’d just returned from a trip to Tanzania, “There are stems involved. And they hurt.”

We soaked in Vitamin D during a gourmet sandwich and homemade potato chip lunch on the winery’s deck, overlooking the Snake River and Marsing valley, and admired the stunning early October view. 

At AgriBeef, a Parma feedlot and beef processing plant, not everyone understood Idaho’s meat and potato ways right away, but those that didn’t still managed to express interest in the large silver belt buckles a few of the plant’s employees wore. There was a fascination over meeting real live rodeo people. 

I was intrigued by the livestock psychology. One cowboy explained that the best handlers entered a pen, virtually unnoticed. They were the ones that could tell if something was wrong with an animal, a tough thing to discern, since cattle tend not to display signs of weakness. There’s a hierarchy to cattle, and the weak ones get picked on. Therefore, even if there’s something very wrong, livestock take pains to hide it, but those working with the herds for a while can pick out the sick ones.

After our day on the farms, we spent the evening having a progressive dinner in downtown Boise, enjoying intricate foods with elaborate platings. 

“The sauce,” our entire table kept saying at Juniper, referring to a fish dish, “Oh, my gosh, the sauce.”
“What’s sitting under the fish?” we all asked. Herbed polenta? Ground spiced lentils? We weren’t sure, but we liked and ate it, anyway.

“Bacon wrapped bananas with homemade ice cream…” sighed the blogger sitting beside me at the next stop, a place with a glittering balcony overlooking the busy weekend street. 

“What’s that sprinkled on the ice cream?” she asked the restauranteur. 

“Foie gras,” he replied.

“That’s controversial,” a magazine writer at the next table commented.

“That’s delicious,” said the blogger, taking another spoonful.

I liked my entertaining fellow bloggers and writers. The well-traveled Debi, the three mom-type bloggers, Cathy, Megan, and Amanda, who all knew each other. The intellectuals, Roger and Scott, the funny, friendly Brooke, Lily, and Lauren, and savvy New Yorker Jenny Hart of Redbook Magazine. Listening to them experience Idaho was beyond interesting.

Up early on day three, we breakfasted on the bus: yogurt, scones, fruit, string cheese, and chocolate milk, courtesy of United Dairymen of Idaho, en route to Clear Springs Foods, the world’s largest trout farm in Buhl. Once there, we learned about egg production, the importance of nutrition, and about testing incoming water supply. The farm housed 50 million individual animals.

“You’ll be having some of them for lunch at Elevation 486 in Twin Falls,” we were told.
As we walked over to the sturgeon-viewing visitor’s center, I noticed two others had joined our group. When saying hello and introducing myself, the couple introduced themselves as Celia Gould and Bruce Newcomb. 

I thought those names sounded familiar.

Celia Gould is the Director of the Idaho Department of Agriculture, formerly of the Idaho State House of Representatives. And her husband, Bruce Newcomb, was Idaho Speaker of the House, among many other things. 

They’d seemed like normal folk, walking along the grassy lawn toward the sturgeon tank with us. That was something else I liked about Idaho. Everyone mingled. 

As I talked with Celia, the sidewalk we were on suddenly split, one side leading into the underground viewing area, and the other to above-ground viewing. As if by choreography, she took the high road, and I took the low road, and found myself finishing the thought intended for Celia with an entirely new person, who then laughed at me. 

I felt better after lunching at a restaurant overlooking the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, the very same canyon Evil Knievel attempted (without success) to jump over in his steam-powered Skycycle X-2 in 1974. 

The trout, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and herbed steamed zucchini with yellow squash, was scrumptious.

“Now this is my kind of food,” said food writer JohnGottberg Anderson, delighted over the old-fashioned granola fruit cobbler with real ice cream, a dessert we’d talk about for days.
Though our tour ran on a tight schedule, time would stop at the dairy farm in Jerome.
 “See that guy up on the tractor?” we were asked by our dairy guide at Si-Ellen, “he keeps the feed pushed up to the cows, coming on at five a.m. and going till five p.m. He works seven days a week.”

Sounds of surprise emitted from the group as we tried to imagine such an all-encompassing life of milk production.

At the calving area, two cows were licking each other in a nurturing, “it’ll be all right, dear” way. As our dairy farmer guide spoke, a hoof emerged from a mama cow, and that meant we weren’t going anywhere. A birth was something not many of us had seen before. 

There was a schedule, we were gently reminded, but no one budged as the mama dropped wearily to the ground, brown eyes widening with every contraction. We didn’t know that birthing was an iffy thing, taking anywhere from five minutes to an hour or longer, according to dairy expert Cindy Miller. Tricky, since we had dinner reservations at a Sun Valley eatery, and it would be bad form to keep them waiting. 

Still, we stayed. 

Assessing the situation, a dairy employee in plastic covering climbed into the pen and grabbed the protruding hoof, speeding up the process. Cameras went wild, with several writers climbing into the pen to get selfies with the new arrival.

“I just saw a cow being born!” was all over social media for the next hour.

The farm employees were unmoved. With Barn Number One, Barn Number Two, and Barn Number Three running 200,000, 135,000, and 88,000 animals respectively, they saw a lot of that.

The birth and photo frenzy thereafter was the cause of our being late to dinner at one of Ketchum’s finest restaurants the Ketchum Grill.

“I had an incredible dish for you,” the restauranteur teased us, once we gathered into a dimly-lit, richly-ambienced private banquet room, “but it got over-done in the oven while waiting…”  

The meal pattern became obvious. We visited the fish facility, we ate fish. We visited cows, we ate beef. One of the best cuts of beef many of us had ever had.

“This melts in my mouth like butter,” the blogger on my left gushed, and I nodded. It would be difficult to return to real-life, ordinary meals. And then they had to give us hard-shelled chocolate-covered chocolate mousse, and cheesecake, too. We all traded bites of our dessert, as I had the first pangs of knowing I would miss those people when they flew back home.

“I’m pretty sure there’s room for four of me in my room,” said Scott from Reno, and we all agreed, with many of us opting to return to the Sun Valley Lodge early, in order to luxuriate in the large rooms and our own deep, sunken tubs. We gratefully realized that Idaho had pulled out all of the stops for us.

Our last day coincided with the Trailing of theSheep Festival, and thousands flooded Ketchum for the spectacle of hundreds of sheep being herded through town from the hillsides. Free to split up and wander, most of us chose to wander together, finding small spots along the road to spectate. 

“Yer gonna wanta put yer feet up on the curb, sweetie,” a seasoned parade usher told me, “because they’ll stomp ya, sure as shootin’.”

I obediently tucked my feet up onto the sidewalk, not relishing a stomping.

The parade moved curiously slow. We assumed they were stalling. It had been whispered there’d been difficulties with the sheep. It seemed the herds contained that year’s crop of “smut-faced” lambs, and they were understandably wary.

“All hell’s gonna break loose,” the seasoned usher laughed, shaking her head.

Adding lambs with the ewes was unusual, and the animals were in a tizzy. Once in town, they scattered left, right, backwards, and ran in opposite directions. Spooked, some leaped several feet into the air, with excited bloggers shooting every move. It was a longer parade than expected, and everyone cheered the sheepherders on, applauding once they’d finally passed by with their charges.

Post-parade, we met at the park on the corner for one last meal at a long table spanning under several large trees, set with white linen and shining glasses. It wasn’t hard to guess what the dish would be: Barbecued baby back lamb, and lamb meatballs in a marinara sauce.

Diane Josephy Peavey, an organizer of the Trailing of the Sheep as many as 19 years ago, joined our table.
“The sheep ranchers here really speak from their heart about what it means to them. Their kids grew up with the sheep, and want to be in the business, even when they make nothing from it. It’s a tough business. If they make the cost of production, it’s a good year.”

Thoughts flooded in of all of the hard-working people we’d been made aware of during our adventure-filled tour: The food processing plant employees, the multi-generational orchard workers, the vineyard grape harvesters, the tough-as-nails cowboys and cowgirls at the feedlot, the fish farm employees out in the hot sun, the dairy employees working twelve hours each day, seven days a week, and the sheep ranchers who barely broke even. 

I thought about how the different sectors of Idaho’s agriculture worked together. How manure from the feedlot went to fertilize the fields. How potato drippings from the food plant got shipped to the fish farm for feed. How the rangelands fed the sheep that provided both meat and wool during our chilly Idaho winters. How the Idaho cottonseed, silage, corn, and soybean meal that was produced fed the cows, who gave the milk that made the crispy cheese on our pumpkin French toast, and the homemade ice cream on our granola crisp. It was amazing, really, the Idaho food circle, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever really put that together.

All of that hard work, all of those resources, all in the name of the harvest.

Glasses clinked one last time, as hosts and wordsmiths celebrated Idaho, one definite gem of a state.

*Special thanks to IDAHO Magazine, my hosts United Dairymen of Idaho, the Idaho Department of Tourism, Idaho Beef Council, and to Caldwell Transportation for the amazing TasteIdaho15 Tour. Loved every minute of it!