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The Story of the Good Earth: Hoosier Restaurant Grows in Style

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Jackie Wilkerson, head gardener at the Story Inn

 

Story Inn’s Chef Eric Swanson has no need to visit a farmer’s market.  Every afternoon the Chef picks it himself. “We’re not ordering much produce these days” he says. “When the earth decides it’s time to fruit, we are there to collect the bounty”.

That’s because Story Inn currently cultivates all of its own seasonal herbs, fruits and vegetables. “The Story Culinary Gardens were an exciting achievement that have allowed us to take our food to a new level” says co-owner and General Manager Jacob Ebel. “We have tripled our gardening program in recent years to include many unique vegetable varieties not typically available in our state. It’s our commitment quality and sustainability.”DSC_0677-2

The Story Inn sits in the middle of an 18 acre, 19th century town in rural southern Indiana, making it unique, in a true seed-to-table way. At 39 degrees north latitude, that means a growing season which begins in April and ends in November (extended on either extreme with hoop houses) each species maturing as Nature commands. “Day-to-day harvests are a huge source of inspiration. Our menu reflects this spontaneity” says Chef Swanson, who is in his fifth season at the Story Inn.

Gardner Jackie Wilkerson and her husband Pete make it all possible.  Together they manage three distinct gardens as well as an orchard consisting of table grapes, apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries. Both are cancer survivors, making the most of each passing day and season. “I love my job” says Jackie. “Every winter Pete and I plan the garden. In spring we plant and cultivate. In summer we weed, water and maintain. In fall we collect and compost leaves and manure to enrich the soil for another cycle. The only thing we don’t do is harvest; that’s up to the kitchen”.  Story’s main garden, which is fenced to foil rabbits, even has its own water source: a century-old well.

DSC_0702A cold, much-delayed spring has complicated planting this year, but the early greens—butter lettuce, kale, bib lettuce, not to speak of ruby red strawberries, and herbs like basil, cilantro, lemon thyme—are sprouting in abundance.  So are seasonal flowers, which beautify the gardens and grace the tables in the restaurant. “We encourage our dinner patrons to come early and meet their salad” says co-owner Rick Hofstetter. “It’s not unusual to see Chef and his staff, clad in white uniforms, cutting or plucking directly from the Inn’s three gardens and orchard each day. You’ll need to go to Tuscany to see that happening somewhere else”.

Here are some specifics of the Story Inn’s 2018 garden:DSC_0709

  • Seven varieties of peppers-Thai hot, red, green & yellow bell, lunch box sweet, jalapeños, and biquinho;
  • Mexican sour Gherkin (pickled in house);
  • Numerous varieties of lettuces and greens- Friseé, Adrian, red and green butter, spinach, red and green Romaine, Bibb, 3 types of kale, collards and chard;
  • Four varieties of eggplant, including fairytale, white, purple, white & purple;
  • Three varieties of summer squash-yellow & green zucchini, patty pan;
  • Three varieties of beans- paldor yellow filet bean, maxibel green, romano bean.
  • Numerous heirloom tomatoes, including Hillbilly, Mortgage Lifter, Wooly Kate, German Green, and Cherokee Purple;
  • Butternut squash, delicata squash, and sweet corn.

This does not include a perplexing number of herbs, which include three types of basil, cilantro, arugula, rosemary, thyme, chives, and parsley.

Story’s immodest goal is to define and refine what Hoosier cuisine means. “Living in the present season provides the freshest product available”, says Chef Swanson.

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