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Midwestern Cooking

It would be a tendency, and yet a mistake, to associate the food of the American Midwestern states only with mainstream or classic American cuisine. The area has of course contributed much to American cooking, but it also has its own varied populations and culinary influences. The region is a thorough mix of rich agricultural areas and industrial cities. Migration from the American east and immigration from the British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia made its mark on both rural and urban areas; later waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe added to the mix; twentieth century African American migration from the south had its own effect on the region’s food.

The broadest definition of the Midwest includes the states that border the Great Lakes and the middle and northern states of the Great Plains: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. The territory is vast, the food variety rich. Anywhere in the Midwest, the diner may feast on classic American cuisine (pot roast, meat loaf, steaks, pork chops, tuna or green bean casseroles, apple pie, bacon and eggs, deviled eggs, savory pot pies), or local specialties that include:

  • Upper Michigan: The Pasty (pronounced PASS-tee) came to Michigan’s upper peninsula from Cornwall in England; skilled Cornish miners came to work in the area’s iron and copper mines, bringing their hearty savory pies—handheld pastries filled with meat or vegetables. Finnish and Swedish immigrants adopted the convenient workingman’s dish and modified it to an extent; today’s Michigan pasties have a thinner crust than do their present-day Cornish cousins and use more vegetables.
  • Cincinnati, Ohio: Chili (but a variety distinct from the fiery Texas variety) is the city’s signature food, with its own lore and peculiar vocabulary. Cincinnati (or Skyline) chili is made with ground beef. Order it alone, and you will be eating one-way chili. Two-way chili is served over spaghetti. A three-way adds cheese; a four-way adds onions. Go all out, and add beans on top of this, and you will be enjoying a five-way.
  • Kansas City, Missouri: Barbecue. The city claims to have more barbecue restaurants per capita than any city in the country. The sauce is relatively sweet compared to other American regions. Beef and pork are the preferred meats.
  • St. Louis, Missouri: Grilled pork fillet and barbecued St. Louis cut spare ribs. Typical St. Louis rib sauce is sweet and thick, made with both brown sugar and ketchup, with possible addition of mustard and cider vinegar. The diner in St. Louis may just as easily feast on the city’s extensive Italian-American or German-American offerings.
  • Indiana: Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches are prized throughout the state, served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and mustard.
  • Chicago: Deep Dish Pizza is a local specialty that has in fact become popular throughout the United States; it features a thick, doughy crust. Chicago Hot Dogs—usually beef-based and never served with ketchup—are a proud local staple; the Chicago hot dog stand is an important part of the local culture. The Italian Beef Sandwich fills a rectangular chewy Italian bread with thinly sliced roasted beef sirloin; the sandwich is dipped in a broth before serving and hence takes some skill to eat. The Maxwell Street Polish Sandwich is a grilled Polish sausage (kielbasa) served on a bun with mustard and gilled onions. Greek food is also popular, and as the nation’s third largest city Chicago is home to many fine restaurants of all types.
  • Cleveland Ohio: With the nation’s largest concentrations of Slovenes, Slovaks and Hungarians, as well as a distinct German and Polish influence, Cleveland is a paradise for hearty Central and Eastern European eating: goulashes, stuffed cabbage, schnitzels, and rich desserts. The city also has a vital “Little Italy” section.
  • Wisconsin: The top state producer of cheese in the United States; dairy is the center of the state’s foods heritage. Though not the only city in the United States with a significant German population, the state’s largest city Milwaukee is known for filling German food and the manufacture and consumption of lager beers.
  • Minnesota: Wild rice is a native grass (not actually a form of rice) that has a tasty, nutty, chewy texture; it is an expensive luxury food grown in the greatest quantities in Minnesota, most frequently under the control of Native American tribes in the region. Minnesota is the largest turkey producer in the country; a wild rice stuffing suits this bird perfectly. The strong Swedish influence brings Swedish pancakes, lutefisk (baked cod), and many luscious baked specialties, cakes and cookies.
  • Nebraska: The Runza Sandwich is treasured throughout the state. Brought to the region by German-speaking immigrants from Russia, the Runza (also called the Bierock in neighboring Kansas) is made from baked yeast dough that completely encases a filling of beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, with onions. Nebraska Runzas are usually rectangular, Kansas Bierocks round. These beloved sandwiches are relatives of Russian pirozhki.