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Growing the good life

Farm Bureau member Mary Meyer shows off her array of award-winning desserts available at the Peppercorn Pantry in Aplington. The family's tea room and gift shop are also receiving rave reviews.
Farm Bureau member Mary Meyer shows off her array of award-winning desserts available at the Peppercorn Pantry in Aplington. The family's tea room and gift shop are also receiving rave reviews.

Mary Meyer is at home at Peppercorn Pantry in Aplington. She’s doing what she always wanted to do — grow food and feed it to people.

Peppercorn Pantry, with its fashionable eatery and gift shop, is her current enterprise, along with a new cookbook, “Where Friends Gather,” due to hit book stores soon.

“It’s a mix of recipes my mother, mother-in-law and grandmothers used on the farm combined with proven recipes from the restaurant,” says Meyer. There are also photos of farm and family life through the generations.

Recipes include Peppercorn Pantry’s award-winning Wisconsin cheese soup, its angel coconut torte listed in the Des Moines Register’s 100 Things to Eat in Iowa Before You Die, and its trademark raspberry parfait pie. The pie is made, of course, from Meyer’s own raspberries.

Her home-grown spinach is in the quiche, her tomatoes in the salad, and her apples in the pie.

The Peppercorn's daily menu features four quiches, soup, chicken salad, an entree and 10 desserts. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, the day starts with brunch, moves on to lunch and ends with afternoon dessert and coffee. Meyer’s gardens and the local farmers market supply many of the ingredients, like the kale for the Tuscan potato soup.

Meyer supplies the dream.

“I always knew I would marry a farmer, raise a family and have a huge garden,” says Meyer. “My grandmother lived on a typical picturesque farmstead, with neat, red buildings and a large white house (built by Meyer’s great-grandparents).” And a large garden.

Meyer spent precious time there, learning about feeding the animals and de-heading flowers. “I always knew I would grow up to have a life like hers.”

She found that young farmer in Russ Meyer. High school sweethearts, they married and moved to the farmhouse his grandparents built. They had three children and settled into farm life.

She encouraged the kids to raise sweet corn for sale to neighbors for spending money. She and the kids set up tables at local community celebrations to sell produce.

While the family tended to the corn, beans and cattle, she took a job at the local tearoom, working there off and on for 10 years under two different owners.

Finally, 11 years ago, the opportunity to purchase the business and the two late 19th century buildings presented itself, and Meyer jumped onboard. “I had always wanted to own it,” says Meyer.

She changed the interior decor from Victorian to a Tuscan feel to appeal to a more diverse crowd and added new items to the gift shop and her signature dishes to the menu.

One of her gardens adds aesthetic appeal to the outdoor seating area, as well as herbs and some vegetables. Another small garden is on her farm. A larger one is located at her son’s farm. After earning a college degree in chemical engineering, he returned to the farm three years ago, where he is raising his two daughters, the seventh generation on the “home place.” Another son lives at home, and a daughter and three more grandchildren live in Pella.

The gift shop features cards, jewelry and kitchen gadgets as well as Iowa-made products like lotions, soaps, dips and salsas. Peppercorn has its own line of signature dressings and sauces, and you can have the coffee of your choice fresh-ground.

In addition to regular hours, Peppercorn Pantry is a popular site for receptions, reunions and other private parties. “They know they’ll get good, fresh food here,” says Meyer. Peppercorn Pantry was the Butler County choice for Travel Iowa’s "99 Counties, 99 Re­­st­­aurants."

A map near the register shows guests coming from all parts of the world — from Australia, Yemen and all parts of Europe. Meyer says their most common remark is: “What is this doing in such a small town?” Aplington’s population is 974.

Farm life and Peppercorn Pantry fit well together, and the business also provides an opportunity for Meyer’s son Caleb. Living at home with developmental disabilities, Caleb loves farming and working cattle, but he also has an entrepreneurial spirit and a big heart. Selling cinnamon rolls from a sidewalk stand in front of Peppercorn Pantry, he raises funds for his pet causes. Last year, he raised $3,400 for Feed My Starving Children.

Providing fresh, homemade food to her friends, neighbors and curious travelers is a dream come true for Mary Meyer. It’s a life worthy of her grandmother’s pride.



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