Local Runs Deep in Decorah
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia and Seed Savers Exchange | Illustration By Pete Hodapp 0
“This is not your ‘off the truck’ restaurant,” noted Mark Smeby, owner of La Rana Bistro in Decorah, Iowa. Simply stated without airs or pretense, these words were like music to my husband and my ears. If you are to know only one thing about us, a pair of self-proclaimed “foodies,” it is that we are not ‘off the truck’ eaters. While we understand that all food is transported by one way or another from farm to table, we are not interested in eating foods prepared largely from overprocessed ingredients shipped thousands of miles by semi-truck, arriving weeks, if not months, post-harvest with nary a nutritional offering and an ecological footprint that would rival a grocery-stocked tomato in the middle of a Wisconsin winter.
No, we long to experience foods of a particular place that are lovingly created, seasonally inspired and sourced locally with sustainably-produced ingredients. It is often through food that a visitor comes to intimately “know” a place. Through food we can taste tradition, soil and growing conditions of a particular locale with which it is intimately associated—this is often referred to as terroir. We are not only food enthusiasts but terroir enthusiasts.
Following years of gentle nudging by our close friend, renowned chef and fellow food enthusiast, Monique Hooker, we embarked on our first Edible Journey from our hometown of Viroqua, Wis., to Decorah. Decorah rests near the western boundary of the Driftless Region nestled in the Oneota (pronounced oh-nee-OH-tah) River Valley of northwest Iowa. Home to approximately 8,000 and the Evangelical Lutheran liberal arts institute, Luther College, Decorah has been coined one of America’s “Great Small Town Getaways” by Midwest Magazine.
To our delight, Monique was correct on all accounts. Decorah is a treasure of a town with a strong sense of place, and what’s more, a community so enthusiastically devoted to local food that you would most certainly leave a convert if you had no prior local food loving tendencies.The local food movement, or rather revolution, has been brewing for years in Decorah, according to La Rana Bistro owners Mark Smeby and Joanie Sheahan.