For years, he imagined making good food in Iowa. “It was clear that we had this incredible bounty around us, but we weren’t known for creating great stuff to eat,” he told me, stretching his rangy frame at his dining room table. (Clearly things have changed: his wife, Kathy, was serving us apple pie whose heartbreaking crust was made with lard rendered from acorn-fed organic Berkshire pigs, their latest project.) “At the beginning of the 20th century, Iowa fed people. And here we are in the 21st century, and we’re feeding machines. It’s just a priori wrong.” He continued: “People were saying, ‘Iowa’s dying, and there’s no value added here.’ At that point I was thinking, Gosh, I wonder if we can make prosciutto in Iowa.”
The Eckhouses developed their taste for the thinly sliced, richly marbled cured ham during the 3 1/2 years they lived in Parma, Italy, where Mr. Eckhouse was the chief executive of the Italian subsidiary of what was then known as Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the seed company in Des Moines. They lived an Italian life, sent their children to Italian preschools and ate prosciutto two or three times a week. “We didn’t learn anything about making it, but we learned about eating it,” Mr. Eckhouse said.
When they returned to Iowa in 1989, they were struck by the beauty of the landscape, with crops “bursting out of the ground and the rich black soil,” he said. “You think: ‘This is amazing. What are we making here that we can be proud of? What are we making that shows that we really appreciate this bounty?’ ”