To go easy on drought-ravaged fare, in fact, it would be wise to cut back on a lot of the foods that the hardest-hit crops—corn and soy especially—go into making. That includes much of the standard supermarket meat counter offerings, but it also reaches into most aisles of the store. Processed cereals, snack bars, and frozen meals as well as sweetened yogurts, salad dressings, and beverages all often contain hefty amounts of corn and/or soy. To keep product prices down in the long run, many food and beverage manufacturers might change their recipes, perhaps substituting more cane sugar in lieu of increasingly expensive high-fructose corn syrup, Hart says. The drought "shows that there's still some fragility in the food system," Hart adds, pointing out that even the most familiar packaged snacks are not impervious to things like the weather.
For consumers, this changing landscape can be an excuse to get back to the basics and find locally produced food that has weathered the drought. Chapman agrees that the best drought-conscious food-shopping strategy will be to seek out what is available at your local farmers' market or co-op . The very best bet is to eat what your growers are eating, he says, "to continue to ensure you're eating the best of the seasons."
It might be difficult to look for silver linings in these circumstances, especially when rain-bearing clouds are exactly what have been absent. But these challenges can also be an opportunity to look at our dinners in a new light. "Here in the U.S., we get used to everything being available," Hart says. Perhaps counterintuitively, the drought offers an opportunity to recognize a broader local food bounty. "Almost every area of this country can produce a wide variety of food, and this is a great time to experiment and see what is available at your local farmers' market from your local producers," Hart says. In Iowa, he notes, farmers can—and do—grow plenty of things besides field corn, including delicious lettuce, carrots, apples, asparagus, and, of course, sweet corn—which has been somewhat less affected by the drought than field corn.
Some produce has actually flourished with the drought. Summer and fall tomatoes and peppers in much of the hot, dry regions, including Iowa and South Dakota, have been abundant and flavorful (giving restaurants, and consumers with the inclination to can, plenty of sauces for the winter; Chapman suggests stocking up on any green tomatoes available in early October and letting them slowly ripen off the vine at home). And for Dale Casteel, who owns and operates DC Gardens near Rapid City and sells his produce at the Black Hills Farmers' Market—as well as to Adams' restaurant—it was a bountiful year for heirloom tomatoes as well as for eggplants. The key, Hart notes, is to look for foods raised locally, wherever you live: "It shows you what did come through the drought, and it supports those producers at a time when they're probably struggling."
With a little planning, a drought-friendly dinner can be a rewarding and delicious endeavor. Finding the best of the harvest now—whether it is last-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes or early-autumn winter squashes—and pairing it with simple, whole grains, such as rice (which has come out of the summer strong this year), and modest servings of local meat or dairy, creates not only an elegant plate but also a healthful one. And all of these things can be kept—if stored properly canned, frozen, or just packed properly in a cellar or other cool dry place—for future feasts for months to come.
Resourceful, locally minded chefs are experts at these tactics that, until very recently, were commonplace in most homes. "We pride ourselves on the fact that our menu is 90 percent local, which is somewhat hard to do in Nebraska," Chapman says, alluding, in particular, to the long, cold winters. "The only way we're able to do it is to do a fair amount of preserves—including pickles." And for the past months, Chapman and his staff have been snatching up everything that they can preserve, pickle, and can for the coming season. "We need to strike while the iron's hot because we don't know what's going to come in this fall." Knowing that their winter menu will largely be driven by root vegetables they have stored from the fall harvest, they have been pickling sweet corn, shallots, ramps, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, ground cherries, baby carrots, whole heads of garlic, and pears, among other peak produce. And for the pastry chef, the team makes jams using in-season fruits to save for the months to come.