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What is midwestern cuisine?

There are a few reasons why midwesterners find it difficult to describe the region's food.


THE FOOD ISSUE: An exploration of midwestern cuisine

Midwestern Cuisine

  • Photo illustration: Paul John Higgins; Photo: Lucy Hewett

To be a midwesterner is to be humble and proud of it. Let New Yorkers bray about how they have the biggest and best of everything. Let New Englanders brag about how goddamned old everything is. Let Californians bore us all talking about their stupid perfect weather and southerners go on about all that tragic lost-cause Gone With the Wind shit. Let Texans be Texans. We sit there modestly, quietly, midwesternly, secretly taking note of everybody else's foibles so we can mock them later amongst ourselves.

But here is where all these people, obnoxious as they are, have one great advantage over us: when they're far from home, in alien territory, feeling lost and homesick, they have the means to reassert themselves and reestablish their identities. At the very least, they can eat! If you know what good grits taste like, you must be a southerner. What do we midwesterners have?

Sure, we have the food of our individual cities and regions: two-way chili in Cincinnati, taco pizza in the Quad Cities, cheese curds in Wisconsin, toasted ravioli in Saint Louis. But those are all restaurant foods. They're comforting in their own way, but they're also gimmicks. They're not the midwest the way black-eyed peas and collards are the south or clam chowder is New England or Hatch chiles are New Mexico. They're not the foods we ate at home, maybe not for regular meals, but the foods we had when we had big, holiday dinners and wanted to impress everyone: our cuisine.

The problem with being a midwesterner is that when you think of which tribe you belong to (in terms of heritage, that is, not sports) you tend to think about where you were from, not about where you are now. You think about being Czech or Norwegian or Chinese or Jewish or Italian or German—and are you northern, spaetzle-eating German or southern, potato-eating German?

No matter how hard you try, though, your kuchen or gefilte fish or corn bread won't taste the same as your grandmother's. They make sour cream differently now. Or maybe your family used white cornmeal in Mississippi, but couldn't find it after they moved up here, so they switched to yellow. And maybe 20th-century commercial American food was too tempting to resist (can you really blame Grandma for wanting to try making dessert from a box instead of standing over a stove all day?), which is how red Jell-O and Cool Whip ended up in your Swedish family's traditional pretzel salad.

”There's more diversity to midwestern food than there is a universal cuisine. Midwestern cuisine is wherever you happen to be."

—Catherine Lambrecht,­ vice president of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance

Catherine Lambrecht has seen more of midwestern cuisine, in all its varieties, than most people; in her role as vice president of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, she spends part of her summers traveling to state fairs across the midwest to judge the alliance's family heirloom recipe contests. There are a lot of casseroles and salads in these contests, and also cakes and pies and cookies. It's impossible to draw any generalizations about what unites the entries, except that all the dishes were made by people in the midwest and the recipes originated before 1950. So Lambrecht has given up, or maybe just adopted a more Zen approach. "There's more diversity to midwestern food than there is a universal cuisine," she says. "Midwestern cuisine is wherever you happen to be."

Southern food used to be just as diffuse, says Paul Fehribach, the Indiana-born chef and owner of Big Jones in Andersonville, one of the first stops in the city for homesick southerners (and a source of southerner envy). But since the founding of the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999, southern chefs and food historians have taken a scholarly approach to defining their cuisine. Instead of depending on nostalgia, they researched what Fehribach calls the "pillars of the cuisine," the crops and pantry staples that formed the foundation of all the old recipes. When an old recipe called for rice, the historians looked through contemporary seed catalogs to determine which kind of rice the cook probably used. Carolina Gold rice tastes much different from Uncle Ben's. And the chefs took pride in those old dishes, now made with the proper ingredients, and worked on reviving them for a modern audience. (But isn't it much easier to be proud of fried chicken and biscuits than tuna casserole?)

The major flaw in taking that approach in the midwest is that most midwestern food isn't based on indigenous ingredients. It never had to be. At the time most of the midwest was getting settled, we had canned food, and railroads to transport it across the country; as early as 1848, Chicagoans could eat oysters just like Bostonians and New Yorkers instead of resigning themselves to a diet of locally grown corn and squash and beans.

The other difference between midwestern and southern cuisine, says Fehribach, is that in the south, there was a mixing of races, at least in kitchens, and all the disparate national cuisines blended to form dishes that were new and weird and totally American. In the north, though, there was almost complete segregation. "Black food" and "white food" remained separate entities. Ethnic whites stayed in their own neighborhoods too. In Chicago, we got gyros, and we got tamales, but no one has ever figured out a way to blend them together into something new, especially not in a fine-dining restaurant.

There is one exception: the hot dog. "If Jews made hot dogs, Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians, Italians, and Mexicans dressed them," Chicago food historian Bruce Kraig wrote in Hot Dog: A Global History. Even chefs, including Fehribach, have made their own fancy, "cheffed-up" hot dogs. (Fehribach used pork loin and grass-fed brisket from Local Foods, the Chicago supermarket filled exclusively with midwestern food.) Except the whole damned country has appropriated the hot dog. The entire world, even.

But maybe someday soon, the midwest will rise. (Not "again," like the south. Just "rise.") Fehribach is planning a new restaurant that will be midwestern the way Big Jones is southern. There will be beer, and maybe fruit brandy, like the old midwesterners distilled and drank. There will be meat loaf, made with veal and pork, served with sauerkraut. There will be casseroles, made with noodles and macaroni, but not tuna, because tuna is not indigenous to the midwest. They will be better than your mom's. Fehribach swears. You will want to eat them. And at last you will have something to brag about as a midwesterner.  v

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