Tag Archives: Hy-Vee

The Ham Ma’am

July 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Ella Weber, her career as a professional artist began where all the greats get their start—bathing in a tub filled with 40 gallons of sprinkles. 

After working in a frozen yogurt shop, she was inspired by the toppings to capture artificial happiness in a video as part of her graduate thesis project. The final close-up shots show sprinkles moving around her body like mesmerizing multicolored waves. She’s practically swimming in a sea of rainbow sugar. Then, suddenly, Weber shoves fistful after fistful of sprinkles in her mouth and proceeds to regurgitate them. This is performance art that’s not for the faint of heart…or stomach.  

“There is a fairly large amount of work being made in the Omaha echo chamber that’s void of anything I would consider stimulating or surprising. Then there’s Ella Weber,” says Joel Damon, curator and founder of Project Project, a local independent art space. “She’s a breath of fresh air covered in Black Forest ham and beige vinyl siding.”

That’s right, this girl has a thing for ham. She’s a foodie, but not in the typical sense. Don’t look at her Instagram for shots of chic eats or expect Weber to whip up Chopped-inspired dishes for dinner. Instead, she uses food as a medium in videos and sculptural installations to explore the relationship between consumerism, sexuality, and religion. 

“I use food because I’m always thinking of it symbolically,” Weber says. “I hope my work makes viewers hungry for questioning and looking at life a different way.”

With a pastor father, Weber spent much of her childhood on the move, living in towns so small it was practically required for her to play sports so there were enough girls to form a team. Then, her family relocated to a suburb of Chicago where she discovered a great art program and sports teams that required players to have actual athletic skills. Just like that, it was hello to creativity and bye-bye to basketball. 

Her inner jock still compelled her to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and become part of Husker nation. As a freshman, she knew she wanted to cheer on the Big Red but wasn’t sure what path to take with art. 

“Before college, I had no clue I needed to open my eyes. I didn’t even know or understand what printmaking was,” Weber says. “I thought of it as ancient graphic design.” 

Ultimately, Weber specialized in printmaking for both undergrad and her University of Kansas graduate degree. In the two years since schooling, however, her career has been more about lunchmeat than lithography.

To save money, she moved into her parents’ West Omaha home, living a suburban life and working behind the Hy-Vee deli counter between artistic residencies. She looks at this idyllic version of Nebraska’s good life as research. 

“I was this depressed meat person, but then I had a change of heart,” Weber says. “I began to think of the deli job as a studio. When I clocked in, it was time to make art.”

What followed were more than 6,000 videos and selfies with slices of ham, some dressed up with smiley faces, of course. A bond with an oven-roasted chicken was also formed. Part performance art and part friendship, she decided to take home this chicken after it had slipped from the slicer onto the floor. Instead of just throwing it away, she showed her bird bud six months of Nebraska nice living. When it was time to part (because, after half a year, meat doesn’t smell so neat), a service was even held in Memorial Park for the chicken.

“I don’t know how she does it, but Ella makes sliced meat look like macro-porn and vintage high-end wallpaper. It’s completely bonkers in the best way,” Damon says. 

She’s just recently finished her seventh residency, teaching video and animation classes in Utica, New York. While there, she also curated a solo show where her suburbia/deli-land research came into play. During it, she showed a video that spliced images of neighborhood walks with a meat slicer, all to demonstrate the banality and repetition of everyday life.

“I’m trying to enable the viewer to see and connect with the absurdities and beauty that surrounds us all,” Weber says. “If your eyes are open to the everyday, you can find humor and hidden meaning in the most mundane and ordinary things—like sliced ham.”

Now home from New York, Weber has a lot on her plate. This summer, she’ll have an exhibition at The Union for Contemporary Art, followed by adjunct teaching of drawing classes for the University of Nebraska-Omaha in the fall. 

When she does find some free time, Weber expects it’ll be eaten up by work on a semi-autobiographical book, titled The Deli Diaries, and potentially more Hy-Vee “research.” 

“Me and the deli, it’s like a bad romantic relationship where my friends will kill me if I go back,” Weber says. “But I might need to refresh my memory, digest it all, and then I’ll be ready to write about deeper things than just ham.”


Visit ellaweber.com for the artist’s personal website. Her exhibition, Sounds Good, will run from July 20 to Aug. 25 at the Union for Contemporary Art. Learn more at u-ca.org.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. 

King and Queen of the Blacksmiths

May 5, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

These days, many couples find each other via dating websites or apps. John and Trena Thompson literally found each other at a meat market.

He was just a guy working in Hy-Vee’s meat department, and she was a gal in the deli who sometimes needed said guy to help take out the trash.

“When he asked me out, he took me to a Renaissance festival and spent the whole time looking at swords,” Trena says. “I can’t say it was the best date in the world.”

Three decades later, Trena and John are happily married (despite their one-of-a-kind first date) with a home filled with more swords, knives, spears, and axes than she could have ever imagined.

For the past 25 years, the two have worked as professional blacksmiths in the Renaissance festival circuit. He’s the muscle—the artisan who carefully crafts each Camelot-worthy weapon—and she’s the brains behind each sale. Together they have sold out stock at fairs from Texas to Kansas, and they annually dazzle local folks at myriad events around Omaha.

“What makes our product so unique is everything is 100 percent handcrafted by just one person,” Trena says. “John even makes his own pins to connect the handle and blade.”

It was due to a fair amount of scheming on Trena’s part that John got his first taste of blacksmithing. What she told him was a trip to visit family in Colorado was actually a secret vacation to stay in Albuquerque with an award-winning knife-maker. In Albuquerque, John learned to make his first knife from start to finish.

In a pre-Braveheart, pre-Game of Thrones, pre-internet world, John scavenged what little literature there was on knife-making to hone his craft. And in 1996, for John’s 30th birthday, Trena submitted her husband’s resignation at Hy-Vee so he could focus solely on blacksmithing.

“There were a lot of days spent in the shop messing up a lot of steel,” John says. “It’s surreal because now we’re the experts. People come up to us at festivals to ask how it’s done.”

And after 25 years of participating in festivals, it makes sense that John has become a master blacksmith. In addition to running the couple’s business, Dwarf Mountain Knives, John teaches classes at the Blacksmith Shop of Omaha.

Annually, the couple spend about 16 weekends a year at festivals, including the Nebraska Renaissance Faire (held at RiverWest Park for the first time in 2017), which is about half the number they used to attend before having two boys. Kyle, who is 25 years old, helps to polish and prep finished blades. Their youngest son, 10-year-old Zayne, is already sketching designs for Dad.

In this trade, it takes the whole family to keep the Thompson reputation sharp.

Through it all, Trena says, John has proven to be her knight in shining armor. After all, the two have slashed and conquered obstacles to their business and family like the mightiest of sword-wielding dragon slayers.

“Working Renaissance festivals is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Trena says, “but it’s easier and way more fun knowing we have each other’s backs.”

The metro area’s longest-running medieval-themed festival, the Nebraska Renaissance Faire, relocated to RiverWest Park on April 29-30, 2017. It was previously held at the Bellevue Berry and Pumpkin Ranch, which now hosts its own Renaissance Festival of Nebraska during the subsequent two weekends in May (May 6- 7 and May 13-14). Visit blacksmithomaha.wordpress.com for more information about learning the blacksmith trade in Omaha. Visit dwarfmountainknives.com for more on the Thompsons’ company.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce

April 26, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mary Current and her son, Anderson Current, started making hot sauce three years ago. She never planned on being a commercial food producer despite working the front and back of the house at restaurants, studying culinary arts, and being married to a retired food and beverage director. “It just kind of happened,” she says of Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce’s origins. One day this foodie and home gardener decided to make hot sauce from her bumper pepper crop. She had made pico de gallo and salsa, but never liquid hot sauce. Friends and family loved that first spicy concoction and wanted more.

Her four main sauces became habanero, jalapeño, datil, and chipotle, each with notes of poblano, anaheim, vinegar, citrus, garlic, and onion. Specialty sauces have followed. She only arrives at a recipe after much research and experimentation. Finding the right complementary combinations, she says, “is what I really like doing,” adding, “That’s what I get a kick out of. It’s like a gift.”

The initial strong reception got mother and son thinking, especially after the savory micro batches proved popular with Anderson’s friends in Colorado, where he lived with his wife, Constance. The couple worked for Whole Foods. When they moved to Omaha, Anderson helped his mom turn her food hobby into a business. Constance designed the logo with a Medusa-like head sprouting chili peppers. The two shopped the sauces around to trendy eateries like Block 16, and found that chefs and patrons also enjoyed the homemade spicy condiments.

Crazy Gringa has come a long way since Mary cooked and bottled the sauces at home and sold them out of the trunk of her car. Her condiments are now made in a commercial kitchen and are staples at the Omaha Farmers Market, select Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Hy-Vee stores, and some restaurants. She plans on keeping things small.

Working together allows the family more quality time, which is the main reason why Mary likes keeping it all in the family.

“When we make hot sauce, that’s our bonding time together,” Mary says of her and Anderson. Her husband, Doug, helps with receiving.

Mary also likes maintaining a small operation because it allows her to pour as much of her heart and soul into the operation as possible.

“It really is a labor of love. I’m never going to be rich, but I love to see the joy on people’s faces when we’re back at the Farmers Market and they say, ‘I can’t live without this hot sauce.’”

Just as Crazy Gringa showed up on store shelves, City Sprouts board president Albert Varas sought an area food manufacturer with whom he could partner. He realized these simple sauces with complex flavors have, as their base, items interns can grow and cultivate at the City Sprouts South garden at 20th and N streets. He contacted the Currents and found they shared a passion for building the local food culture.

The Crazy Gringa Hot Sauce maven partners with Omaha City Sprouts on a social entrepreneurship project that may spur more collaboration between for-profits like hers and the nonprofit urban agriculture organization.

City Sprouts South grows various peppers for Crazy Gringa’s signature hot sauces. The boutique company, in return, donates a percentage of sales over four summer weekends to support City Sprouts programs. Meanwhile, Crazy Gringa works with other local growers to supply the peppers City Sprouts can’t.

“We just hit if off,” Varas says. “They are all about community service, engagement, and sourcing hyper-local food with a mission behind it. It was always my dream we would partner on bringing a value-added product to market. It’s a great way to engage our interns.

“The relationship adds revenue and relevance to what we’re doing.”

Having the hand-grown peppers picked and processed in Omaha fits Crazy Gringa’s emphasis on fresh, local, and artisanal. Current also creates limited-run small batches for City Sprouts and other nonprofits to give away as gifts or prizes.

 

Anderson helped build the raised beds for the peppers at the site that community activists turned from a dumping ground to a garden.

Mary loves that her product helps a community-based ecosystem.

“So many kids don’t know where their produce comes from and City Sprouts helps educate them about how things grow,” she says. “Those interns learn how to garden, so they learn how to sustain themselves and their families. We’re happy to support good things in the community like this.”

Interns gain a sense of ownership in Crazy Gringa’s success.

Varas says, “The interns need something to do and something to believe in. One intern, Rafeal Quintanilla, is a mentee of mine and he really digs the idea that he has a stake in the finished product because he waters and cares for the peppers and harvests them. He has pride in being a part in creating this delicious hot sauce.”

The partnership with Crazy Gringa “has far exceeded my expectations,” Varas says, adding, “It’s not just transactional—it’s been an incredible reciprocal experience.”

Mary Current concurs, vowing the relationship will continue as long as she’s in business. “It’s an amazing concept. They’re wonderful people to work with. I can’t think of a better place to give back your money.”

More collaborations like this one may be in the offing.

”I think this is a model that could and should be replicated,” Varas says. “My hope is that we will be able to recreate this next growing season with Crazy Gringa and possibly other food businesses.”

Visit crazygringahotsauce.com

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

From Pioneers to Prosciutto

January 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Until not that very long ago, the only major rumbling in Fort Calhoun was the result of the teeth-shattering vibrations made by a never-ending parade of 18-wheelers lumbering through town along the busy commercial corridor that is Highway 75.

“Straightening picture frames is a daily chore here at the museum,” explains Julie Ashton, director of the Washington County Historical Association. “We go through the space to straighten things that forever seem to be just a little out of whack.”

The community first platted in 1855 and now with a 2010 census population of 908 is experiencing something of a youth movement as new businesses launched by an equally new generation of entrepreneurs have opened their doors up and down the main drag of 14th Street. The sleepy little bedroom community, perhaps best known for the Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, is increasingly becoming an attractive day trip offering a folksy alternative to the bustle of Omaha.

Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. Army military installation west of the Missouri River in the then unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase. The fort was erected in 1819 and abandoned in 1827. The present structure is a replica constructed by the state on the original site that housed a brickyard, lime kiln, stone quarry, grist mill, saw mill, and cooper shop.

The site’s position on a bluff above the Missouri River led William Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to recommend the plot of land as being ideal for a military outpost, one that was built 35 years before Nebraska became a territory. Colonel Henry Atkinson, who also became its first commander, established the fort.

Which takes us to the question of why the town itself does not carry the Atkinson name. Legend has it that it was a split decision on the naming of the hamlet, with the winning faction opting for the name of then Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, who would later go on to become a U.S. Senator after acting as Vice President under John Quincy Adams.

Back in modern-day Fort Calhoun, cash registers are ringing in a series of new and not so new businesses.

Sandy and Dane Kucera operate Too Far North, a charming little wine, craft beer, and gift shop. A faded Metz Beer sign is a clue to the space’s unique heritage. The building dating to 1904 originally housed a Metz Beer saloon in an era when brewers most often also operated their own taverns.

“We like to think that Fort Calhoun is a great place for a fun outing,” Sandy says. “The drive from Omaha is beautiful and there’s now lots more to do here, especially after the last few years. It’s an eclectic, friendly little community.”

Almost right next door at Cure Cooking, owner Chad Lebo was busy preparing some of his savory Vietnamese potbelly pig prosciutto and pungent, stir-cured cheddar. Lebo’s robust selections of meats, cheeses, and extras are sold mainly at Provisions in Midtown Crossing and at farmers markets.

Lebo shares the space with Big Green Tomato, whose array of specialty granola products are sold at Hy-Vee, Tomato Tomato, and other outlets.

The old blends seamlessly with the new in Fort Calhoun. Lunch at the seemingly always-crowded (and legendary) Longhorn Bar revealed something telling about small-town life. Glancing up from a plate of yummy, crowd-favorite chicken wings, this writer was suddenly struck by what one didn’t see—cellphones. No texting. No calls. None. It must surely be something of an anomaly even in the small town of Fort Calhoun, but there wasn’t a single cellphone being wielded. Which also meant no annoying ring tones competing with my attempt to tackle a heavenly pork tenderloin sandwich too big for the bun that struggled unsuccessfully to contain it.

The scene was probably much more sedate than in the earlier part of the 20th century when the bar was a roadhouse situated below a hotel that attracted by all manner of rambunctious souls.

The Longhorn is also where we found regular Ron Ferring, whose wife happens to be on the board of the Fort Atkinson Foundation. He was chatting about the easygoing vibe at the place, but he could just as easily have been talking about the quaint little community as a whole.

“These are good people here; real people,” Ferring says. “Blue collar, white collar, it doesn’t make any difference here. It’s the kind of place where if I happen to forget my wallet, it’s all good. They know it’ll be made right on my next visit.”

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Soy? No Whey!

January 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Protein shakes are popular these days with many people. Shannon Muhs, Registered Dietitian & Wellness Coach at the Shadow Lake Hy-Vee says, “People that I notice purchasing protein powder are adults having a protein-filled shake pre- or post-workout. Adults wanting to lose weight may use a protein shake for a meal replacement or snack—also, bariatric surgery candidates.”

So, as for protein, which “whey” do you go: soy or whey? There is no blanket answer. Both have their advantages. Says Muhs, “Soy protein comes from soybeans, has all nine essential amino acids, which makes it a complete protein. According to food scientists, soy takes longer to digest, and it is harder to digest than whey protein. On the other hand, soy can be a nice alternative for someone that cannot have milk products due to an allergy.”

Muhs adds, “Whey protein is a derivative of milk. Whey also contains all essential amino acids and is a complete protein. Whey has been considered superior to soy protein in aiding with muscle gains after a workout because of how easily it is digested and utilized in the body.

“There is still a lot of controversial information out there about soy protein related to its digestibility and chemical reaction it may lead to in the body,” says Muhs.

“The estrogenic activity from the soy isoflavones involves a whole cascade of events involving all of the reproductive hormones. The implications of these effects on hormones are yet to be determined…This is where dangerous deductions and premature conclusions can turn into controversial messages such as, ‘Soy may cause cancer.’”

It is certainly not a cut-and-dried issue. Muhs adds, “There are many studies that have found soy protein to help decrease the risk for many cancers and decrease tumor growth. There are some studies that have found a negative effect on consuming soy protein with high soy isoflavone content; specifically, negative [for] women with estrogen positive breast cancer. It’s not that the
soy is directly causing cancer; it’s that it may be affecting the environment in which the cancer may potentially grow.”

Lastly, Muhs says, “We simply don’t know enough to make a conclusion, but why not be safe and avoid soy if you’ve got a history or family history of breast cancer?”