Little Village sits down with Katy Meyer, owner of the Trumpet Blossom Cafe, to discuss the nuances of vegan cuisine. Meyer discusses what shaped her philosophy on food, her family’s history with cattle farming, food tattoos and more. Lets get to it!
Little Village: Is Trumpet Blossom strictly vegan?
Katy Meyer: Yes, a lot of places in town have vegan options but we’re the only place that’s vegan. We’re actually the only place that’s even just vegetarian.
LV: Is it true that you grew up on a cattle farm?
KM: Not specifically. Both of my sets of grandparents were involved with cattle farming. My mother’s parents had a farm. It’s actually the farm that’s in those paintings on the wall [of the cafe]. They did farming and sold cattle. My dad’s parents were cattle buyers. They’re from the Midwest and my mom’s family has been here in the Midwest forever. My dad’s family moved here from Kansas when he was a kid. So, you know, Midwest.
Both my grandmothers had gardens. They did a bunch of canning. Pretty typical for Midwestern families and American families in the ’50s and ’60s
LV: How do you think that has shaped your food philosophy?
KM: I told my grandma one time when I was twenty, “we’re going to go camping this weekend,” and she said, “Why would you ever want to go camping? I was basically camping the first 30 years of my life.” So it’s that kind of thing where there was no alternative to hard work. We have kind of chosen to do things the harder way any number of reasons. For me, I enjoy it because I like things that have a story and have a history and I like to be able to know where things came from and where they’re going and there’s a certain connection that I value when I do something or eat something or give something that was made with someone else’s hands and I’m holding it with my hands. I just find more value in that. So I choose to do things the hard way. I mean it’s not the hard way. But like I was saying with my grandmother’s generation, there wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t, “Oh I could buy these pre-made meals or I could make my own food.” You made your own food because that’s what you did. You grew it, you preserved it, maybe you traded with neighbors. It wasn’t like they lived in desolation out in the middle of nowhere or anything like that. It was part of a sense of community that just was engraved in them
LV: Are any of your grandparents still living? and what do they think of your restaurant?
KM: So I have one grandparent left. My grandmother from Kansas. She makes the napkins [for Trumpet Blossom], and I sell some of her bags. She is really into food and she thinks it’s really neat what I’m doing here. And she told her friends that I canned a bunch of asparagus and I serve it with my bloody mary’s and they said, “well doesn’t she know you just serve a stalk of celery with your bloody mary’s?” And my grandma’s so awesome, she said, “Anybody can serve a stalk of celery with their bloody mary’s — Katie serves pickled asparagus.” I’m like, you get it grandma.
LV: Do you have any cooking related tattoos?
KM: I have a whisk that I got a while ago with my good friend Jen who works in the kitchen and who worked in the kitchen with me at the Red Avocado. We went and got matching whisks like 6 years ago.
I got this trumpet blossom before we opened [The Trumpet Blossom Cafe] when I found out the [Red] Avocado was going to get torn down. We had a back court-yard that was covered with trumpet vines and trumpet blossoms would hang from the ceiling of this covered courtyard,and one of the things that made me really sad about the place getting torn down was all of this beautiful foliage that had been there. There was this magnolia tree that I had watched grow for like seven years. They tore it up … so I went and I got this trumpet blossom tattoo to kind of commemorate the [Red] Avocado. There are three blossoms for me and my two partners and it was also a horrible day actually. Bob Braverman from Friendly Farm passed away and we found out for sure that the Avocado was getting torn down on the same day. So that was a wretched day. So this is kind of a Bob Braverman memorial because I feel like he was kind of a trumpet blossom . He was super extroverted and really loud and in your face but also super gentle and warm and soft.
LV: Can you talk more about your particular twist on traditional cooking?
KM: I feel like [during] my mom’s generation, all of these things came about, like TV dinners as an example. And when I was a kid, I think of stuff like that weird peanut butter and jelly that was mixed in a jar, and weird breakfast cereal that’s more like dessert. Just like weird stuff like that. So I feel like we’re more at a point [where] we’re taking a minute to contemplate our decisions instead of ingesting all those things. As consumers we’re saying, “wait a minute, maybe I want to choose to go about this whole food thing a different way.” So that’s kind of what we’re doing.
My first question is always, “Well can we make that.” We serve flatbread with a couple of our things and of course I could buy packages of flatbread and it would save me time but I’m going to make them instead because I enjoy that and I think that they taste better and I have control over the ingredients and things like that. It’s all part of slowing down and giving each step a little bit more thought.
LV: Do you have a lot of special equipment in the kitchen?
KM: Not really. I have a food processor and a large mixer, we have a dehydrator. We just do water bath canning right now. My grandma’s actually getting me a pressure canner for Christmas.
LV: Do you also do your own baking?
KM: We do. We make bread from scratch every day. All of our desserts are made from scratch.
We have different flavors of vegan ice-cream, cakes and pies and zucchini bread with local zucchini right now. So, Yeah, we don’t make the tortillas and we don’t make the pasta but otherwise we try. It’s a bit of a challenge because we’re a vegan restaurant. Right now I’m trying to make gluten-free bread because people are really into gluten-free right now. So that’s on my list for this week is to try and find maybe someone locally who makes gluten-free bread.
LV: What kinds of things do you get locally?
KM: So it’s a bit of a challenge with everything vegan. we get a lot of stuff from local farmers. Friendly Farm and Echolective, Salt Fork, and a large organic farm in Fairfield where they have a ton of greenhouses so they can extend the season on a larger scale, so we get stuff from them. It’s Marharishi Vedic City Organic Farm and then we get some grains from Paul’s Grains in Laurel, Iowa and that’s a family who have been growing organically for over fifty years so that’s really neat. There’s some amazing cornmeal that they grind and buckwheat flour which is great because it is gluten-free so we use that in a lot of our gluten-free stuff.
It’s a lot of farms because our focus is produce. We use Wake Up Iowa City Coffee. Just recently on Monday I started reaching out to some smaller companies about tofu and tempeh. I mean I would love to make tofu and tempeh but it’s just kind of too much to take on right now. We made tempeh at the [Red] Avocado and it worked and it was good but it’s just one of those things that you kind of maybe just want someone that that’s what they do and get it from them.
LV: Are there any community projects you’re involved in?
KM: I’m going to try and to benefit dinners once a month. It’s something we did at the Red Avocado that I enjoyed. We did an Iowa United Nations benefit. We did something for the Humane Society and I enjoyed that. I sent them the check they emailed me and told me all the services that could be provided with that money and that was really neat. We had the culinary ride, that was fun. We did the Harvest Dinner for Field to Family. A lot of money gets raised for that.
[On November 5 we were] involved in the 1105 Project. A bunch of restaurants donated a portion of sales to help renovate this building that’s next to the crisis center. The free lunch program is going to be there and that’s super important to me, that people in our community are fed.
LV: Are you vegetarian?
KM: I’ve been a vegetarian for twelve years. And just at the beginning of 2013 I became a vegan.
LV: What do you do for Thanksgiving?
KM: My family’s been really accommodating. My husband I are both vegetarian but this is the first year that I won’t be eating any animal products so I think I’m just going to bring my own food instead of asking them. I feel like it’s imposing a little too much because vegetarian is easier than vegan for people who aren’t used to cooking special stuff. It’s cool because I’ve been involved in a vegan restaurant since [my in-laws] have known me, and they’re open to eating here. If my husband wouldn’t have married me I doubt if they would ever have had a vegan meal. So it’s neat to expose them to that.
LV: What do you say to people when they ask you why you’re vegan?
KM: So I waver between getting super specific about it and just saying, “Well i’ve just found that it makes me feel better.” Really what made me change my mind about animal products as a whole was a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I mean it was just unreal. It was a lot of stuff that I knew, and a lot of stuff that knew but I hadn’t thought about and he’s a really good writer anyway, I’ve read all of his other books. I mean I checked it out from the library and I read it in one day and I was just like, “Nope, forget it, I can’t do it, I can’t do it again.” And I told my family to read it but to just be prepared to be vegan because I know you and you’re compassionate and if you read this you’re not going to eat cheese or drink milk or eat fish or any of that again or at least you’re really going to think about it if you do.
LV: Are there any other books that inspire you?
KM: Really what I do is I try and always be looking through cookbooks for different ideas and then I kind of put my own spin on recipes mostly based on what I can get seasonally and locally. I’m not going to make a fresh tomato dish in February and I’d love to have asparagus right now but I’m just going to wait until May or April when it’s around. We did pickle and can a bunch so I’m excited to open that
LV: When is your favorite cooking season?
KM: Probably I think September is my favorite time because you’re still getting all of the summer stuff like tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, and even sweet corn and you’re starting to get the winter stuff like butternut and beets, and cabbage, and carrots. Every year I swear it goes by so quickly and I just kind of realized yesterday, aw man I didn’t do hardly anything with tomatoes. I dehydrated a lot, and I made juice and froze a lot and I did make a bunch of pickled cherry tomato vinegar which was really good but I wanted to can a bunch. Now I’m like, okay next year. Each year I get a little closer to what I had thought I was going to do.
LV: What is your most popular item?
KM: I would have to say the tempeh rueben. We’ve called it the vegan gateway drug, Like, “oh wow, I love this tempeh reuben, maybe I can try something else on the menu.”
LV: What will your winter menu look like?
KM: We’re going to debut our new dinner menu on [November 8] and we have a pot-pie with gluten-free crust that is amazing. It would be in the same category as the rueben where if you were a meat eater it would be something that would not weird you out at all.
LV: Have you found an adequate substitute for bacon?
KM: I have done a maple-chipotle tempeh that is really good. I feel like it’s the sweet and the smokey and the salty, right? Sure you get flavor from meat, from like, animal flesh, but a lot of it is what it is seasoned with or how it’s cured so I felt like taking the maple and the chipotle and some cumin and a little vinegar and tamari and kind of mixing all those things and making a glaze for tempeh strips. That’s good. I mean, I’m not really looking for that bacon mouth-feel. I don’t miss that. I’m looking for the flavor profile more than the texture.
LV: Do you have any easy home recipes or tips for someone who might be thinking of trying cooking vegan?
KM: You know there are just a ton of resources out there. I don’t have a favorite one. Even the Iowa City Public Library has a really good collection of vegan cookbooks. As far as substituting ingredients there are a lot of great vegan items. Earth Balance is a great vegan butter substitute. There are a ton of vegan milks. I guess my advice would be to keep an open mind and be adventurous about it and not expect that everything is going to taste fabulous or really weird just experiment and have fun and use resources wherever you can find them. If you go to the farmer’s market and you buy a vegetable, ask the person who grows the vegetables, “What do you do with this?” Because they’re probably going to have more knowledge about that. I enjoy doing that, talking to the farmers who bring our food. It’s just a neat exchange of ideas.
LV: Will the Trumpet Blossom do anything special for Thanksgiving?
KM: We are doing a Thanksgiving pick-up menu. We’re closed during Thanksgiving but we’re open the rest of the week so we’ll have some vegan Thanksgiving goodies for your Thanksgiving needs.