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On The Table: Growing Rogue

FINDING A DEALER: Sweet corn, jerky, all kinds of goods are available on the streets of Iowa.

I am supposed to meet him (I don’t know his name) at the corner gas station where I expect he will be standing outside of a beat-up farm truck with Muscatine county plates. Last time I was here to buy from him he told me that his friend does the growing and he does the selling. Seemed like a good arrangement, although I didn’t really care, and now I am in a hurry and just want to get my hands on what his “friend” grows. I pull into the lot and he is there and as I park, I quickly pat my pocket to make sure I have the cash. He doesn’t take debit cards or checks; this is a cash-only kind of business.

He greets me and shows me what I came for, silently holding out a handful of bright green plants that can seemingly only be grown from black Iowa soil. He darts his eyes toward another car pulling in.

“I’ll take a dozen.” I tell him and he bends over his tailgate and slings out a bulging tan burlap sack of of pure Iowa sweet corn for me.

“This will knock your socks off, it’s so dang sweet.” He says as he takes my $5 bill.

I hold the bag like a toddler straddling my hip as he informs me, “I’ll have Musc melons in a few weeks, so make sure to keep an eye out for me right here.” I assure him I will as he explains to me that his buddy’s Muscatine melon patch is the real deal: sandy river soil plots passed down several generations in Muscatine County, Iowa.

As I drive away, I notice about five more cars lining up to purchase the corn he sells in old burlap bags and crumply Wal-Mart sacks from the back of his late-model Ford F150. No tables, no signs, no legal permission to vend, yet here is where the best corn in the entire world can be had for only five dollars.

Rogue food purveyors are nothing new. In July and August, Iowans have gotten sweet corn directly from the field, not the store, for generations. Buying it from the person who probably picked it themselves by hand and filled up their truck that morning at the crack of dawn is a tradition because it is unequivocally the best. It’s unparalleled in taste, quality, freshness and price.

I first met “Zach” at a roller derby bout. A Facebook friendship followed, where occasional posts tipped me off that he has a side hobby making original, delicious high-quality beef jerky. Beef jerky happens to be a weakness of mine, especially homemade, so I asked Zac how I could get my mitts on some of his. He said he could mail me some or he would be at a location in an Eastern Iowa town on a certain night.  This should not imply an endorsement of all “rogue” foodstuffs—after all, those pesky government regulations can save your life if they help keep potentially toxic items, like misidentified mushrooms, off your plate—but it was all so cloak and dagger! In addition to buying my jerky direct, I liked that I was doing it on the down-low, that it was sold by the ounce, and that it came in a plain, zip-top baggie.

I asked Zach what prompted him to start making his dehydrated meat treat. “I started making it for myself when I went on a low-carb diet. I found low-carb snacks were very expensive and frankly, pretty bad. I’d made beef jerky before and it was really good so I made a batch. I used to hand carve slightly frozen beef (it’s much easier to slice that way) and took all the fat from the meat and sliced it thin. When it dried, it was crispy, like a meat potato chip.”

As for what prompted him to make the jump from beef jerky maker to beef jerky seller, Zach said that an unexpected life change was the catalyst. “When I lost my job, it became more difficult to maintain a low-carb diet and I decided that if I wanted to keep making the jerky, I needed to fund it somehow. So I started carrying some in my car at all times.”

An entrepreneur at heart, Zach has met people in bars, in driveways and parking lots to sell his food. Often using social media to let followers know that he has fresh stock, he tells me that after supplies and labor he might make around minimum wage funding his jerky habit.

The main barrier to Zach’s going legit and selling his products via the traditional channels of farmers’ markets or stores, he says, is the costs. As he is producing small batches, he says, the cost of raw materials is too high to afford the extra costs of professional packaging, labeling and a commercial kitchen.

My experiences buying and consuming food from “the rogues” have, admittedly, been good. Great, even. While writing this story, a few friends mentioned they knew others who make and sell salsa, pesto, eggs and sausage. I want all of you, dear readers, to know I tried my hardest to track down and try these goodies, but to no avail. They are, afterall, made by the rogues. But you can bet I’ll keep trying.

Collector of fanny packs, high-top sneakers and cashmere track suits, Tonya Kehoe-Anderson is a local artist, writer, freelance makeup/fashion stylist and wannabe hibernating cave bear. She blogs at
www.catalogTKA.blogspot.com.

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