By Levi Wright
uesday night, German comfort food ruled the New Pioneer Co-op. Frank Wildensee, Iowa City resident and New Pioneer Co-op member-owner, brought southern German cuisine to Coralville with his class on the fine art of German cuisine.
Attendees were greeted with sauerkraut that left one wanting the immersion in the German gastronomical experience to continue a little longer. Once the onions started sautéing, one would not have been blamed for salivating. The room filled with scents of traditional German dishes in a kitchen that looked like the immaculately curated kitchens on television.
The environment, coupled with the influx of aroma, gave the feeling that audience members were in good hands, and Wildensee proved that to be true.
“[The event] is a great way to showcase some of the food items I know from growing up back in Germany,” Wildensee said.
Although he has traveled around the world, the cooking Wildensee showcased was traditionally German.
Wildensee’s food is strongly influenced by an overarching dedication to the natural world and a desire for his dishes to reflect the connection between it and humanity.
Wildensee himself didn’t grow up on a farm, however; his neighbor was a farmer.
“I remember driving his tractor when I was 10 years old going to elementary school. I would drive his tractor through the field because he needed to do something. He said, ‘Put it in gear, and just keep it straight,’ and I drove a tractor,” Wildensee recalled as he moved about the kitchen, sprinkling spices and setting sauces to simmer.
“I feel like I can come up with something unique and authentic because I’ve experienced it growing up,” Wildensee said.
As a result of living in this environment, in the Bavarian town of Swabia, Germany, Wildensee grew up on a diet of farm-to-table cooking.
“[Farm-to-table living] wasn’t a trend, that was just the way people lived and how they cooked,” Wildensee said.
This upbringing proves a key influence in his work today, as Wildensee sung its praises while preparing dishes, consisting only of simple, farm-fresh ingredients, in the Co-op kitchen.
“[With farm-to-table living] you know where it comes from; you know who made it, who produced it, you know what quality it is,” he said. “I think those are really important qualities, especially with all the factory farm meats out there.”
He emphasized that a lot of the animals living on factory farms aren’t fed proper diets, fundamentally altering their byproducts’ chemical constitution.
Dairy farms, for example, use hormones to increase milk production in cows, something that Wildensee and the Co-op are opposed.
“We’ve promoted and supported organic food production, free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and local and organic farmers,” New Pioneer writes on its website. “Our vision of sustainable agriculture is foods free of chemical residue and air, earth, and water free of agricultural contaminants.”
Environmental activists agree with this belief, seeing the practice of farm-to-table cuisine as an instrumental part of realizing a more environmentally sustainable future.
“[Farm-to-table living] supports the local economy, and we need to support small farmers in Iowa and to make sure our small rural towns and even farmers keep on growing,” said Sara Maple, the interim director of the University of Iowa Sustainability Office.
Molly Schintler, the Grinnell College real-foods coordinator and part-time employee at Echollective, one of the 137 local producers the Co-op sponsors, noted part of the logic behind this belief and why its proponents see it as so important.
“People aren’t here on the Earth to dominate natural systems, we’re here to be a part of natural systems,” she said. “We can choose to do that in a positive way, or we can choose to do that in a negative way.”
Coupled with its dedication to natural foods, the Co-op also serves the regional community by buying local produce and giving farmers fair prices and the immediate community through its support in schools and other educational outreach programs.
Wildensee said this is a key component of his attraction to the institution.
“They’re not out to make a profit, they’re out to provide the best possible food to the public, and education is a big element,” Wildensee said.
This proved instrumental in his desire to hold the class using the Co-op stove.
In the kitchen, as Wildensee recounted his tales, the cooking class became less like a two-hour seminar and more like a window into an entire culture.
While staying true to tradition, Wildensee also was sure to place his own stamp on the dishes.
“I create recipes based on other recipes, so it’s a kind of amalgamation of different recipes that I’m showing,” Wildensee said.
He combined modern elements in his cooking, all the while demonstrating simple techniques that audience members could do at home.
Wildensee paired each new dish will a story about the food and its origin. When preparing Maultaschen, a ravioli-like food filled with minced meat, he talked about how monks wanted to eat meat, but because they couldn’t, they took the meat and wrapped it in dough so God wouldn’t see. Whether the story has truth behind it, Wildensee didn’t know, but it kept the audience happy and engaged.
The whole time, he engaged his audience with humor and stories. He encouraged questions and happily answered all of them, ranging from what spice he used to where he grew up in Germany.
“[Hallmarks of Swabian cooking use] soft pasta and fresh-made dough batter, which has a consistency between bread dough and a cake batter,” Wildensee said.
Audience members experienced this first-hand and were left wanting more until the meal was finished with a perfectly cooked bread pudding.
All the dishes Wildensee cooked seemed complex, but he ensured all were easy to make, even if some take three days.
“I’ve created something that I wanted to have a few different elements; some are typical southern German, and it kind of just came about with this combination,” Wildensee said.
All the dishes chosen were selected very carefully and out of trial and error. He also made sure that the dishes are not only things that can be made again but dishes people will want to make again.
And, if the clattering of forks scraping every last bite off the plates in the Co-op kitchen was to be any indication, they will be made again.