A Love Letter To The Heartland, From A Cookbook Author In Nebraska
In Omaha, where writer and cookbook author Summer Miller is from, having a garden is almost a requirement, particularly in the rural area outside the city limits where she now lives. Her first ambitious cookbook, “New Prairie Kitchen,” profiles 25 Midwestern chefs and farmers from Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota amidst recipes they have contributed, organized by season. It’s a love letter to the Midwest, as Miller calls it. In her words, she introduces the world to “phenomenally talented farmers who grow asparagus thick as your thumb and tender as a strawberry and chefs who transform it into edible art.”
“I didn’t learn to cook at my grandmother’s hip, or anything like that,” she says. Miller has traveled all over the world, and settling near her home town was not part of the plan. “I was born in the ’70s and grew up in the ’80s, so it was about doing everything as a woman—not just cooking. But I did grow up with a garden.” Humans often fall into passions slowly and by accident much of the time, she says. “My story isn’t different than that. I wanted to go to bigger, brighter places than my hometown. When you’re younger, you’re always imagining these possibilities of what could happen somewhere else. That it couldn’t possibly happen where you are.”
She met her husband—from a small town in Nebraska with a population of 400—and they settled where they are now, just outside of Omaha. Miller always had big dreams in writing and publishing, but the journey didn’t unfold as she’d planned it. She quit a job in communications to attend a summer institute publishing program at New York University, to pursue what had always been her dream. The difficulties of starting a writing career in Omaha at the time was a roadblock then, and her husband wasn’t willing to relocate. “Things are different now,” she says. “But there’s also something that happens in marriage—one partner wants one thing and the other wants another, and how do those things combine? I could choose to be bitter or resentful that my husband wasn’t willing to relocate, or I could make the best of where I was. I’m incredibly stubborn and driven.”
She remembers talking to her husband about it, telling him, “I need to fulfill this.” And he said, ‘I know you do.’ Sometimes in a relationship you have to trust that each person still has their own journey to take. We didn’t know what would happen. Maybe I would have fallen in love with New York City, maybe I wouldn’t have. I’m such a believer in everything happening slowly.”
Her last day of work fell on a Friday, and she had planned to begin at NYU on Monday. That month, she had been tending to a tomato plant in her garden when a searing pain took hold of her back—a frustrating response to the recent decision she’d made to uproot the course of her entire life. Miller was in her early 30’s at the time, but she had had back problems for years. “It was my turn to have something go wrong with my body.”
Instead of preparing for NYU, she was rushed to the office of an orthopedic surgeon who told her it was unlikely that she’d achieve the writing goals she’d set due to chronic pain caused by three herniated disks in her lower back, as well as small-vertebra fractures. Sitting for long periods of time, as is required for working in a typical office, was out of the question.
Miller was scheduled to have a reparative surgical procedure on her back that Monday, but was informed she couldn’t because she was pregnant. “It was a shock. I was told I was infertile and wouldn’t be able to have children without medication and intervention procedures. Typically when you decide you want to have a baby, you want to be employed and able-bodied. And that was nine years ago. My son just turned eight.”
Everything had changed in the abrupt space of a few days. Suddenly she was home, enveloped in the isolation of chronic pain and in the midst of her first pregnancy. After months of bed rest, her son was born and so began the rounds of physical therapy and spine injections to ease the pain, which would carry on for years. However, she still had her penchant for writing—and a kitchen. “It was a very slow, tedious recovery. My husband helped me put my pants on, helped me lift the baby. I was on bed rest for a few months,” she recounts. “It’s one of those things where it just is what it is.”
It was this epoch of her journey that led her to cooking. “It forced me to take writing into the realm of cooking. And that healed me, in a way.” Today, you’ll frequently see her post Instagram photos of cherry bread, dough made from scratch for scones, bison stew, a variety of frittatas and more. Her first culinary business venture was a boutique bakery business in which she made specialty marshmallows from scratch. She started it about a year after her son was born and found that she could make them while standing. Sitting was the most painful.
“The truth is, I was feeling sorry for myself a good portion of the time. You want to be a better partner than someone whose body is broken down. I’d quit my job and taken a risk, and then everything fell in a pile at my feet. But then I started writing about chefs in the food world. If something is amazing in the Midwest, it’s treated as an anomaly, like it’s a one-off thing. And one way to get out of your own rut is to look at other things people are doing and celebrate them,” she says. “Every time I told one of their stories, I felt a little bit better. A little bit stronger.”
She began placing her ambitions elsewhere—“growing where you’re planted,” as she calls it. One of the chefs she interviewed for the book, Bryce Coulton, brought over enough food to feed an army when her husband was sick in the hospital and she was at home with a newborn baby. And Larry Cleverly, who she knows as a true salt-of-the-earth farmer from Iowa, made Miller feel like his own daughter during her book tour. “I value him for that immensely,” she says.
“I never thought I’d work part time and raise my family. I never thought I’d be able to have a child or be a writer in Nebraska. That was my 27-year-old self. But once you stop trying to move, and once you stand still, you realize that you probably have enough to live a really wonderful life. And you can let that life be whatever it’s going to be. It can be good enough. It’s the journey of knowing you have enough to be satisfied.”