Meet the Makers of Savor Dakota

Last Updated by Katy Beem on
Timpsila Soup at Red Cloud Indian School
Melissa Hamersma Sievers

Ask Chef MJ Adams and SDPB producer Melissa Hamersma Sievers what “savor” means to them and both invoke food from a South Dakota childhood.

For Adams, the memories are homemade. “My grandmother in Mitchell, SD, always cooked oatmeal before we headed off to Whittier Elementary,” says Adams. “She’d have rhubarb cake or spice cake with a vinegar sauce waiting for us afterwards. Sundays were a big breakfast after church – French toast, scrambled eggs, or cinnamon rolls – and later the traditional family meal, like pork chops with mashed potatoes and green beans, pot roast with potatoes and carrots, or beef stew.”

Adams, a 1989 graduate of New York’s International Culinary Institute, ran Rapid City’s nationally recognized Corn Exchange gourmet restaurant for 15 years, where she toiled as vigorously outside the kitchen as inside to bring locally sourced ingredients to her elegant tables. Adams now works as a restaurant consultant and conducts cooking classes specializing in pheasant and buffalo. “It was those memories of my grandmother standing in front of the stove that I savored and recreated through my food,” she says.

Meanwhile, when Hamersma Sievers thinks “savor,” her mind calls up road food. Growing up in Beresford, SD, family daytrips were planned around dinner. “My parents would get in the car and ask, ‘Where do you want to eat?’ I still like to plan road trips that way.” She and her husband, a farmer who raises cows, row crops and hay, enjoy exploring local eateries and in her 14 years on the road as producer and camera operator for SDPB TV, Hamersma Sievers has partaken in fare from all four corners of the state.

This summer the two women bring their enthusiasm for Midwest cuisine to SDPB’s new food show Savor Dakota. Hosted by Adams and produced by Hamersma Sievers, Savor Dakota introduces viewers to a variety of South Dakotans who grow, forage, cook, can, and bake the food that gives our state its signature flavors. The first episode, Spring, focuses on the reemergence of fresh produce – both grown and gathered. Viewers can watch South Dakota Master Gardener David F. Graper lead Adams to a top-secret location to track the cagey morel mushroom. Later, Adams prepares and shares her recipe featuring the prized wild fungi in her Mushroom Tagliatelle Pasta dish.

Producer Hamersma Sievers is eager to spotlight ordinary South Dakotans creating extraordinary cuisine in the style of the SDPB-3 Create Channel cooking shows that run non-stop on the TV in her SDPB office. “I love the Create Channel and food is something that South Dakotans love to talk about,” she says. “Loads of people have asked, ‘Are you doing a segment on walleye? Dimmock Dairy? Hey, I know a lady who makes perfect frybread.’ Everyone has a favorite restaurant or a protected asparagus patch or way to prepare pheasant. I wish I could fit everyone in the first run.”

Hamersma Sievers approached Adams to host, confident the ebullient chef would bring her passion for locally produced food. “At my restaurant, I really wanted to highlight South Dakota and its bounty,” says Adams. “I felt like I was a spokesperson for the state. As the host of Savor Dakota, I feel the same responsibility – to make people aware of all the new things going on in food as well as some of the traditional.”

Although Adams has been in the region’s restaurant business for two decades, South Dakota’s culinary abundance continues to astound her. “The number of quality food venues and hidden gems that are scattered around the state surprised me most,” says Adams. “Bluebird Locker in Delmont grinds their own meat and makes their own sausages. Jerry Ward from Hackberry Hollow in Renner grows honeyberries, which I had never seen, and wants to start growing cardoons. I cooked with cardoons in a cooking class in Italy – they’re in the artichoke family. And you could market the pies Hackleberry Hollow makes for the farmers market.”

It’s this potluck, smorgasbord, kičhičhopi concept of room for all at the table that steers the philosophy of Savor Dakota. The program focuses on traditional foods as well as emerging cuisine. “South Dakota has a designated number of state foods, including frybread and kuchen,” says Hamersma Seivers. “The honeybee is the state insect. We’re looking forward to showcasing these foods and producers in different regions of the state.” Adams is excited about what the foodies deem The New Midwestern Table and Pioneer Cooking. “Food has been done for thousands of years and it’s hard to reinvent the wheel,” says Adams. “I like to think the fresh take is people trying to go back to their roots, using what is grown around them and putting it on their menus. People have this notion that it has to be all – local, natural, organic – or nothing, but it doesn’t have to be.”

Garden-fresh and local can be complicated in a state with a short growing season and plant hardiness zones that, varying between 3 to 5, aren’t exactly soaring. Fresh produce can also be scant in isolated areas known as food deserts. In Savor Dakota’s first episode, Chef Nick Caton, owner of Killian’s Tavern in Spearfish, says his establishment eschews a total go-local-or-go-home approach. “We try to do it so it’s not from a contrived point-of-view,” says Caton. “We don’t use the words ‘farm-to-table.’ We don’t put on our menus that we use local ingredients. By bringing in local ingredients, it’s the ability to get good ingredients because its right here, and I love to use it as much as I can. But we won’t always have local mustard greens.”

Mother Nature ultimately decides growing seasons, and as Hamersma Sievers can tell you, she is just as fickle when it comes to shooting schedules. “It was a cold, wet spring,” she says. “Fortunately we had a warm day and some mushrooms popped. Due to ditches filled with water, the asparagus was a no-show. And we had to postpone our trip to Pine Ridge to forage for timpsila (wild prairie turnip). The root hadn’t matured enough, so the shoot was delayed.” Adams says technicalities make shooting a food program akin to running a restaurant. “Everyone working on the show cares very deeply about the details,” says Adams. But she says two differences stand out. Whereas restaurants can be chef-centric, Savor Dakota is more collaborative. And, while restaurant kitchens are known for mincing everything but four-letter words, Savor Dakota won’t sound like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. “The restaurant industry has lots of swearing,” says Adams. “The kitchen has always felt like a pirate ship. I think people were worried when I told them I was working with public television. They’re like, ‘you can’t swear on TV.’”

A lack of expletives won’t quell the gastronomic avidity Adams and Hamersma Sievers seek to showcase. “Farming of any kind is hard work,” says Hamersma Sievers. “Running a restaurant is hard work. I really love helping the guests on our show share what they are most passionate about. You can hear it in their voices and see it in the food they create.” Adams agrees, saying, “Real cooking comes from the heart, which creates passion. Melissa and I felt like we barely scratched the surface of these folks in season one.” Hamersma Sievers hopes Savor Dakota will spur viewers onto experimentation and road trips. “I hope people will be inspired to try new things. David Napolitano of Breadico makes bread using a sourdough starter instead of commercial yeast, so I did, too. Folks can try new eating establishments as they travel the state.” There’s simply a lot to savor in South Dakota.

Savor Dakota premieres Thursday, July 14 at 8pm (7 MT) on SDPB1.