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Big Momma's

Our friends Matt and Elizabeth from Shickley, Nebraska said that if we were going through Omaha on our way to Chicago, we should really consider stopping at Big Mama's Kitchen. Matt gave us a business card he'd been keeping in his wallet for just such a recommendation. And we're glad Elizabeth gave us very specific instructions for finding the restaurant once we arrived at the Turning Point Campus on the north side of the city. Formerly a school for the deaf, the campus is now home to a number of Christian community development ministries. Tucked away in the old cafeteria is an incredible soul food restaurant.

Big Mama is Patricia Barron, whom Matt and Elizabeth know from her involvement in the Mennonite Church Conference that encompasses their region. Just a year-and-a-half old, Big Mama's Kitchen has already been featured on the Food Network. And for as many people who seemed to find its obscure location on the Saturday afternoon we were there, word of mouth must be working in the restaurant's favor.

We were glad Pat was able to escape from her busy kitchen to chat with us for a bit. One of her primary values is making good food for people from scratch, the way she experienced cooking as a child. When food is made to order, it takes time and time gives eaters the opportunity to sit around the table and talk. Pat also tries to use local, organic ingredients when she can because our bodies weren't made to take in all the garbage that comes along with highly processed foods. Some of her greens come from City Sprouts, an urban gardening project in Omaha, while others come from a woman who grows them hydroponically in Iowa.

A short sentence on the restaurant's web site seems to sum up her approach: "Peace begins when the hungry are fed." I would say that Pat seeks to feed more than just physical hunger. Matt and Elizabeth mentioned that she tries to hire people who don't, for whatever reason, have any work history, allowing them to develop skills and a resume.

But of course, satisfying physical hunger with good food is still one of Big Mama's primary specialties. We had her famous oven fried chicken with cornbread, macaroni and cheese, greens and sweet potato pudding with a piece of sweet potato cheesecake for the road. Yummmmm.

Flatland Farm

Rob and I owe a large portion of the credit for inspiring the food tour to Matt and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller. Friends whom Rob met during his time at Goshen College, Matt and Elizabeth joined three others last summer in traveling around the region for the Central Plains Mennonite Conference. The mission of their tour, through conversation and worship, was to reinvigorate congregations in their practice of the church's Christ-centered peace ethic.

Given their inspiration for the tour and their blossoming interest in food production, it seemed appropriate to make our way out to visit Matt and Elizabeth in Shickley, Nebraska. They moved to Shickley, Matt's hometown which is located about an hour and a half from Lincoln, after their tour last year. After years away, Shickley still feels like home to Matt. While Elizabeth has had a harder time adjusting, she's made good connections with people, animals and land. In addition to their Pomeranian named Patmos, the small Troyer-Miller homestead two blocks from downtown is home to about 30 chickens, some purchased and some inherited from a local school project. A local family helped slaughter one batch of birds and the meat the Troyer-Millers eat is mostly very-local chicken raised in their backyard.

Flatland Farm 2In spite of never having gardened before, Matt and Elizabeth have also started several beds with onions, potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, leeks, peas, peppers and many other kinds of produce. A large portion of their garden is on the property of their 93-year-old next-door neighbor, Ethel, whose yard also contains perennial patches of asparagus, rhubarb and berries. Their friend Kate, in town between college and a Mennonite Voluntary Service assignment, helps out with the garden as well. In addition to eating and freezing what they grow, Elizabeth and Kate sell produce and home-baked goods at the farmer's market in York on Thursday evenings.

Another source of food for their household has been the small grocery store where Elizabeth works. When produce starts to look less than saleable or arrives damaged, she rescues it before it ends up in the dumpster, from a flat of strawberries to a bunch of red peppers that were over-ordered.

Members of Salem Mennonite Church, located outside of Shickley in the midst of cornfields, the Troyer-Millers understand their food habits as part of their quiet witness to a simple, stewardly way of life that maintains a connection to the land and their community. Matt articulates their philosophy this way:

One thing that we're aware of is that we're in the heart of agribusiness and there are a lot of people--a lot of really good friends--who make their livelihood and whose identity is wrapped up in farming. And farming in this area is very commercial, it's big. You either do one thing and you get big or you aren't a farmer anymore. While [Elizabeth and I] don't a whole lot about why we're doing what we're doing or the choice not to use pesticides or some of those things, ...I think it's obvious that we're doing things differently. I think it's a way of being prophetic, but not being a jerk about it. Because if you're just yelling at people and just telling them what you're doing, but you don't really love them, then you're just kind of being an asshole. But if you don't necessarily rub it in people's faces and you're doing it in a way that opens doors, then it's a different way.

Matt and Elizabeth's witness is bearing fruit literally and figuratively. About 30 people attended the food and storytelling workshop we did at Salem Mennonite Church--a big deal in a town of 360. A mother of three teen-agers marveled several times at their influence, especially on the youth in the church. A couple of teen-agers even came to the workshop without their parents, just because they were interested in the topic. Seems like good seeds are being planted all around in Shickley, Nebraska.

Nebraska sunset

With a population of 360, Shickley is one of many tiny towns dotting the Nebraska prairie. As Rob and I were driving in on Wednesday evening, we could see a storm approaching for over an hour across the vastness of the plains. We arrived at the home of our friends Matt and Elizabeth just after dark as they were about to walk the dog. Only two blocks from downtown, their house is at what would be considered the northeast edge of town.

The next morning, we walked to visit Elizabeth at the small grocery store where she works. One of her co-workers informed us that the best place to grab lunch would be a few doors down at Dawg's, a classic small town breakfast-and-lunch diner. He recommended the daily special.


Though we arrived just after noon, the lunch special of fried chicken, hash brown casserole and creamed peas was already sold out to the number of sun-tanned farmers who filled the tables, drinking glass after glass of lemonade and iced tea to replenish their energy for a 90-degree-plus afternoon in the fields. In fact, the tables were so full, that it took the only waitress in the place about a half hour to even come over and take our order. We were hungry, but otherwise not in a hurry, so it was pleasant to sit and see the local culture unfold. We watched with curiosity as a woman who had apparently come in for lunch realized how backed up the service was and started clearing tables.

On sharing this detail later with Matt and Elizabeth, Matt informed us that it's part of the character of Dawg's that people pitch in to help. In fact, most mornings, people take turns grabbing the coffee pot and re-filling mugs around the restaurant. And typically, it's the white collar folks in the room who pour for the farmers.