Driftless Terroir: Locating the Center of This Place by Finding It in Your Heart

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Odessa Piper

by Odessa Piper

When I’m admiring the shapes and scents of local apples or pondering whether to eat or weed some garden invasive, my thoughts frequently turn to how immigrants, be they plants, animals or people, naturalize to their place. And I wonder: When, on this peripatetic planet of shifting tectonic plates, climate change and migrations, are any of us ever truly indigenous? From deep time, seems like we have all arrived from somewhere else and perhaps are only just passing through. One could follow that idea all the way back to an exploding star, so I think I’ll scale down my question: How does one become native to a region?

The immigrant concludes her journey of miles to begin her journey of time to acquire what she needs to know in order to claim and be claimed by this new place. In the wander years of my youth I had migrated between the pine forests of New England to the ridge tops of Wisconsin. Both regions are firmly in the snow belt, so for me, the lessons came easily. At first it was to know the roads during mud season, then the courses of the streams and the birds in the flyway, to call their names as kin. Then I grew a fondness for burr oaks in prairie grass and monarchs on milkweed, and the moment of each season they held gently in place. I wanted to love and husband these things with all my grateful heart.

So I quit coaxing barely edible whole-grain loaves from a communal wood stove in New Hampshire and committed to a farming apprenticeship in Rolling Ground, Wisconsin. I would eventually come in to Madison and learn to cook, but not before my new region had shown me its good things to eat.

Our proto-organic farm in Rolling Ground was home to goats, chickens and six milking cows and was tucked inside a fold of windy orchards on Highway 61. From the peerless vantage point of its pastured ridge tops I could see how to time the last load of hay before a thunderstorm, and then how to cool down with watermelon chilled in the springhouse. A branch of Knapp Creek rises here, offering watercress at its head and further down its sandy banks there are wild plums. These nickel-size fruits are so tannic as to be passed up by those in a hurry. But if you wait to pick them when they are blushed with gold, pink, green and red — the puckery jam they produce, softened by ungodly amounts of sugar, is reason enough to incarnate. Other paths lead to old fallen trees sheltering morels, and as summer progresses paths to the sunny bramble at the wood’s edge give up the sweetest black caps. Winter holds hickory nuts, hard ciders and hearty hoop-house greens. I was so busy mapping the connections of an immigrant to her place that it took years before I allowed that I had up and married this region.

Old trade roads made new reveal that the watershed of a river is also a watershed of culture, its foodways and customs. Either version is a package of infinite folds and blending borders. 

Old trade roads made new reveal that the watershed of a river is also a watershed of culture, its foodways and customs. Either version is a package of infinite folds and blending borders. The most reliable way to locate the center of this place is to find it in your heart. The watershed’s creeks and dirt roads lead down to farms with friendly barking dogs. And pie. The county routes that gather them unfold to pastures and orchards, delivering their utterly unique harvests to populations further down stream. With cities and restaurants like the one I started on Madison’s Square over 40 years ago.

I marvel at the revival of this region, how we’ve grown. The good people of the farms and towns and cities of the Driftless made it possible for a new generation of smaller-scale farmers to get an economic foothold. It really is not unlike how a seedling protected in a crevasse slowly accumulates the earth it needs to grow. When the restless Kickapoo was unbound in sections and its banks were protected by better farming practices, countless other ecosystems were strengthened. An emerging food culture lifted up towns along its way that has spread to the Wisconsin and beyond. Viroqua and LaFarge, Gays Mills, Spring Green and Mineral Point, they became important links in a regionally reliant food network; a cultural watershed of sorts, a foodshed.

Now I am back in New England, and when asked by well-meaning friends to explain why I moved here, I summon the lifelong journey of the salmon, and say that I am returning to my natal places. In truth, after decades in Wisconsin, I never gave up my love for either region over the other. Both regions etched their reach into my soul the way two rivers find an ocean. I am endlessly enriched by these places that have made me their own.

Odessa Piper is the founder of L’Etoile, a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant in Madison that she established in 1976 and ran for 30 years. During that time she helped create local supply networks that enabled her to cook primarily from her region through all seasons of the year. Now resettled in her native New England with her husband, the wine importer Terry Theise, she continues to advocate for the gastronomy of the Snow Belt — its seasons, farmers and artisans.