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Arts & Life

A 'Nostalgic Feast' with Laurel Lather

Laurel Lather
Lori Walsh
/
SDPB

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

The restaurant scene in the city of Sioux Falls has captured national attention and continues to blossom. It's hard to fully celebrate that vibrancy without honoring the legacy of one of its great visionaries. Laurel Lather is the force behind Food n' Fermentations and The Market. She defined the scene for nearly three decades, creating spaces for adventurous palates, yes, but also for deep community connection.

Now she has released a book: Nostalgic Feast. It's part memoir, part manifesto, and it's woven together with some of her guest's favorite recipes. You can join her for a book signing and beer flight event at Woodgrain Brewing in Sioux Falls this Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. CDT.

The following transcript was autogenerated and edited for clarity.

Lori Walsh:

Laurel is here with me in the SDPB Kirby Family studio in Sioux Falls, and I am delighted to have you here. Welcome.

Laurel Lather:

Well, thank you, Lori. I'm excited to be here.

Lori Walsh:

We don't usually start here. But we're going to go back to your childhood.

Laurel Lather:

Where it all began.

Lori Walsh:

Because you write about this in the book, and you say you had an unstructured — a beautifully, blissfully unstructured childhood.

Laurel Lather:

That I did.

Lori Walsh:

And it made a difference in the work that you do as an adult. Tell me a little bit about that.

Laurel Lather:

Well, it was just being brought up with food. With my grandparents having the fishing resort — I spent so much time with them. And my grandmother was just an extraordinary cook; she could make something out of nothing. To be able to work with her in the kitchen when I was young, Those are some of my best memories. Grandpa did the gardening. We grew the food we were preparing. And so food, right from the start, just became something that was treasured to me.

Lori Walsh:

And the conversation over dinner with fish might be about the one that's not on the plate.

Laurel Lather:

That's right.

Lori Walsh:

The fish that 'got away.' In that way, was it always about story for you? I mean, you have this connection and this immediacy: We caught this, cleaned this, ate this, which is a very South Dakota story, for sure. We grew it; we harvested it. But there is also a conversational element. What do you remember?

Laurel Lather:

It's all about the story. I never ever felt that you eat just to eat. And so everything that you're consuming, the stories about how it comes to your plate — from the cooking to picking the vegetables or gathering the eggs, it's all such a love that makes anything that you eat taste three times better, because you do have that story behind it. It gives meaning to it, It's not just eating.

Lori Walsh:

Some South Dakotans are celebrating Easter this weekend — that big Easter dinner. Some South Dakotans are observing Ramadan, and when they break their fast, that meal matters. Passover is part of this conversation. Our meals have these great traditions attached to them. Can you do that with a weekday dinner too?

Laurel Lather:

Well, yes, and I think family should. I think because of our busy lifestyles, we've really gotten away from that Sunday fancy meal or Thursday-TV-tray-day. And I think it's important. Even owning a restaurant, I wanted people to come out to eat, but I felt it was really important to have those days with your family at home making meals together. It becomes an event at home also.

Lori Walsh:

I've lived in Sioux Falls for a long time; I grew up here. And when Food n' Fermentations opened (Is my memory correct?) It was a little bit of an advance on what existed before then? Not to discount anybody else who was doing great work. I just remember thinking 'this is different.' What was the process of opening the doors to a new experience for Sioux Falls residents like for you? How did you see it?

Laurel Lather:

Well, I saw it as bringing something different to the plate, so to speak. So many of the restaurants, especially in this area, are chain restaurants, and you get used to the eating the same things again and again.

So to take something that's a comfort food that in the back of people's minds, has a familiarity to it, but then making it in a whole different way and adding different ingredients — that gets people's curiosity up. And so that was important to me, along with having the staff that loved those items too and could go out there and really sell it.

Lori Walsh:

Did you see people grow? Did you see customers grow in their experiences as home cooks throughout that, or even as diners?

Laurel Lather:

Oh, so much. We had a lot of regulars, including one couple who are really good friends of ours now. She won't mind me saying this: They knew nothing about wine! But they started to learn about wine and then cooking. And she has begun to just blossom with what she can do also. You see a lot of people that would ask for recipes because they wanted to make something at home. I still get people who message me and say, 'Oh, I really love this dish. And now that you're not there, can you teach me how to do it?'

Laurel Lather:

So there is a love, there's something that a certain dish can just grab a hold of you, and you want to continue to enjoy that flavor. And it's all about sharing those memories. It might not even taste the same when they make it at home anymore. It was having all those people around you and enjoying it together.

Lori Walsh:

I'm looking through the cookbook, Nostalgic Feast, and your instructions are: Don't take the recipe too seriously. Don't be intimidated by it. It's not a rigid thing. Talk a little bit about that. Because for me cooking is a rigid thing. I want to get it 100 percent right. If I don't get it right, then there are mental self-talk consequences? Everybody else would say, 'This is great.' And I'll be thinking, in my head, no! I should have done this better.

Can you release me and other people who feel like failures in the kitchen?

Laurel Lather:

You're probably thinking that you're a failure just because you're trying to adhere to those rules so strongly. A recipe is really, as I say, just a guideline of what you have to do. Like our lemon chicken dish. If you don't like artichokes, take the artichokes out and throw something else in there. Creativity is what makes these recipes, and recipes evolve from one chef doing it differently because they don't like that particular thing. So they change it. And now you've got a whole new recipe. You can be creating your own recipes out of any of the ones that are in the book.

Lori Walsh:

There is a lot of love in the book, and in your work. People who loved The Market loved being in your presence, frankly, but also you're a really smart entrepreneur and business person. How do you merge those? How have you merged those two things when you were doing the daily restaurant grind with love and that creativity and that tenderness that people know you for. You had high quality food. And then you also had to deal with the business side of things and keeping the restaurant staffed. That's a lot.

Laurel Lather:

It is. And it was very nice. I had my husband to help me with a lot of that too. So we were a good team together. Definitely the balance, we balance each other out very well. I started my first business when I was 22 years old, I think because I saw my grandparents running their fishing resort.

Lori Walsh:

Sure.

Laurel Lather:

You kind of grew up as a kid, as an entrepreneur, by being so close to them.

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk about 'Nostalgic Feast.' And specifically food writing. I'm a great lover of food writing. I'm way better at consuming food writing than I am at cooking food in the kitchen. How did you come to writing about food and wine, what you were trying, and this ongoing record we have of what you found interesting. How did you come to that part of your career?

Laurel Lather:

Well, and I always did like writing.

I had written, way back, a little paper cookbook on herbs and spices, and I enjoyed the writing. I did a couple of different magazines and things here in town; I did a blog for the Argus on wine.

But being in the restaurant business, you never really had the time to write. So when it came to the point that we decided to retire, then it was 'now I have the time.' And I happened to run into a publisher for the book, which gave me that push to get it done now. And Nostalgic Feast ended being kind of my way to say goodbye to being in the restaurant business and still kind of holding onto it too. So it keeps me in endearment to all these people that I so loved being in the business.

Lori Walsh:

And you had a big party — the cover and the art in the book is filled with people who have supported you all this time.

Laurel Lather:

Yes.

Lori Walsh:

I would probably would just cry during that whole photo shoot. Tell me about putting that together.

Laurel Lather:

The photo shoot of putting that cover together was really incredible. We invited a lot of friends who had supported us through the years and our regular beloved customers that had still kept in touch. And we decided being in the business, everything was about the people. So I knew that the book had to be that way too. We all got together. Some of us hadn't even seen each other for years since we had shut down. So it was like a reunion. I mean, the energy that was all around and everybody talking and telling stories, I mean, that was worth whether I wrote the book or not.

Laurel Lather:

We had fun with the filter. All the photography is my own, other than the cover story. The cover of the book. And because my camera isn't the best of quality, and since this was nostalgic, I wanted it to be kind of dreamy. I went through and I did a filter on every single one of the photographs that were in there and then did the same thing for the cover of the book.

Lori Walsh:

While writing it, did you learn things, remember things, preserve things that you thought, 'God I'd forgotten about that.'

Laurel Lather:

It did. It brought back so many memories. If I put them all together, I originally thought I was probably going to have four books of everything that I've done. I've been so fortunate to have such a great life and meet incredible people. You would look at the picture and sometimes you'd just kind of get lost in the thought and in making the food again. A lot of the dishes, we didn't even have recipes. You'd either have to break them down into smaller portions, or they were just all up in the head. I don't even own measuring cups and spoons.

Laurel Lather:

So my husband, Doug, got me (measuring cups) and spoons. That was my Christmas present so we could remake these recipes. And as you're making them, it just brought back so many good memories. Sometimes you'd get kind of stumped and you'd cry for a little while, and then you'd laugh. So I hope when people read the book they kind of feel that emotion and the stories that go along with the recipes.

Lori Walsh:

So the fact that you did not have measuring cups and spoons infuriates me, and then also liberates me at the same time. I find that equally, 'Like what?' And then, 'Oh, okay. I get it a little bit more.' This is not going to be, hopefully, your last cookbook.

Laurel Lather:

I know.

Lori Walsh:

What are you thinking of? What's the next culinary adventure for you?

Laurel Lather:

Well, for me right now, like I said, I was thinking about continuing with more stories, but now I feel this laid to rest, so to speak — everything that I loved about The Market. Now it's time to move on to the next thing.

My love for food and people is going to continue. I'm thinking Community Feast. So while we're out on tour, I want to go to these small towns, because every small town has the heartbeat of some food that's important to them ... and these small family-owned restaurants that are in town and reviewing them and talking to people — getting recipes that are beloved by family members that are some of the best out there.

The next book, instead of Nostalgic Feast about my recipes, this is going to be about all of your recipes.

Lori Walsh:

We have gotten away from, in so many ways, gathering around the table and making things and knowing where that food comes from. I don't want to overstate that because I know it's a big deal to return to that farm-to-table conversation now, but it's easier to talk about than it is to do. What are some of your tips for finding the ingredients that are going to make that great meal?

Laurel Lather:

Well, of course we do have the beautiful farmers' markets in Sioux Falls. There are more small farmers' markets popping up around the area too. And with everybody being on Facebook, there are so many local small farmers that offer up their goods, so that you can research that way. With prices being the way they are, it kind of equals out and you know that you're getting good, safe food.

Lori Walsh:

How were you doing that at the market? Were you getting up in the morning and finding ... What kind of relationships were you building with (local producers)?

Laurel Lather:

Well, we had a lot of relationships with different farmers, and so they came out and delivered. We would go out to some. Greg Springer was just an amazing chef for us, and he loved doing meats. And so we went on a field trip to this pig farm and got to learn from him how they feed them pigs, how they raise them, everything that goes into the production and actually having that whole pig brought down to the market and rendering it down and using every single part of it, was really interesting. So that was really important to us. And we all kind of learned along the way from the different farmers and how important all this was.

Lori Walsh:

Can you give us a favorite recipe that even I could make? Where would I start in this cookbook?

Laurel Lather:

I would say start with the lemon chicken. That was always everybody's favorite. And it's one of those pan wonders. You don't have to dirty up your whole kitchen to make this dish. Takes 20 minutes and you've got a beautiful meal.

Lori Walsh:

I love it. Laurel Lather, the book is called Nostalgic Feast. You can meet her in person in Sioux Falls at Woodgrain Brewing this Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. central time. There are other stops on her book tour, and there's always a little something special wherever you go to sign the books. This is a beer flight at Woodgrain Brewery that you have helped select. We'll put a link up to your website so people can find Nostalgic Feast online and follow your blog as the Nostalgic Chef. Laurel, thank you for making time.

Laurel Lather:

Thank you so much for having me here.