Two nights ago, about fifty of us had the good fortune to have five top chefs—Bill Glover of Galerie Bar and Bistro, A.J. Perry of Sassafras Bakery, Alana Shock of Alana’s Food and Wine, Andrew Smith of the soon-to-open Salt & Pine, and host Tom Smith of the Worthington Inn—put together a fantastic five-course dinner to raise funds for Slow Food Columbus. I had the even better fortune that they all agreed to take on an unusual question: What would traditional Midwestern cuisine look like if it were elevated to restaurant fare?
I had started to wonder about this question after visiting restaurants in other states and abroad that were exploring the cuisines of their own regions. I’ve always thought that the local food movement, while welcome, was only scratching the surface of what it meant to be local, and that a different theme—indigenous food, for lack of a better term: food with a historic connection to a region and its people—would resonate to a much greater degree with an American audience.
The problem is that, as a native Californian, I really don’t know that much about Midwestern cuisine. My mother was a native of the Midwest, but most of what she cooked came out of the I Hate to Cook Cookbook, so I didn’t really get much of a sense of the Midwest’s culinary heritage at my own dinner table.
Fortunately, all of the chefs were willing to explore the question further. Because I’d gotten them into this, I felt compelled at least to offer a few suggestions. So I bought a handful of old Midwestern cookbooks and one new one, Amy Thielen’s The New Midwestern Table (which I recommend very highly), and I dove in. In the end, I came up with a list of dozens and dozens of baroque old Midwestern dishes, from Shrimp Wiggle, a shrimp dish cooked in milk, to Hospital Soup, made by Hungarian immigrants in Indiana as a cure-all, to kroppkaka, a ham-flavored dumpling made by Swedish immigrants. The variety and obscurity of these dishes was just amazing.
Once the chefs had chosen their dishes, I started to tell friends about the dinner. One of them, Rod Chu, whose analytic bent always stimulates great discussions, thought the dinner sounded interesting but also wanted to know how I would characterize Midwestern cuisine.
What a great question!!
I have to confess, I don’t know the answer. But I think I’m considerably closer to knowing something about it than I was when I started in on this exercise. Traditional Midwestern cuisine is, obviously, heavily influenced by the northern European heritage of the men and women who expanded into the region from the East. It was, as my wife pointed out, exceedingly frugal: whether on the frontier or tilling the soil of the nation’s agricultural breadbasket, Midwesterners were typically not wealthy enough to be unconcerned about waste.
More than that, though, what I found in these recipes was an almost unconscious reliance on bountiful fresh ingredients. My favorite example is a recipe for kalvdans, a ricotta-like dessert of Scandinavian origin that’s made from the creamy, colostrum-rich first milk of a cow after she gives birth to a calf. This was a popular enough recipe to make it into a cookbook, and it’s awfully hard to make it if you don’t own a cow.
These ingredients were also unbelievably plentiful. An ordinary Friday fish fry at the Elks’ Lodge was a pretty amazing thing when you consider the fact that proteins are generally the most expensive part of a meal. The Great Lakes contained such a bounty of fish that ordinary folks could contemplate a meal made up mostly of fish—coleslaw, maybe, and probably some French fries, but mostly fish. There weren’t a lot of spices in most of these dishes, but there didn’t have to be: the quality of the ingredients spoke for themselves.
Rod listened to me and said, “Well, ok, but what you’ve just described is California cuisine!” Yes, I suppose it is, now, thanks in large part to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. But it was California cuisine before California cuisine even existed. Alice Waters’ revolutionary simplicity was, for a long time and in many places in the Midwest, more or less taken for granted. That might not surprise natives, but it was a revelation to me.
Despite having firmed up my understanding of the theme, on the day of the dinner I found myself second-guessing it. Would these dishes resonate with people? Would they be meaningful? Would they provide some sense of an overarching culinary identity for us as residents of the city and the region? Or would they just make up a nice dinner that everyone would enjoy? I mentioned my concern to another friend, Robb Hagen, who replied, “My grandmother’s kroppkaka iron is one of my most prized possessions.” Another friend, Rick Herrmann, told me just before the dinner that his mother also made kroppkaka. His wife, Peg, was openly surprised—she’d never known. In the end, while I doubt every dish resonated with everyone, I suspect that something at the dinner resonated with each of us, and that was enough to create a really unique and delightful evening.
I’m sure that what I learned about Midwestern cuisine from this exercise only scratches the surface of what there is to learn. In fact, I suspect we know less about the traditional cuisine of the Midwest than we do about that of any other region in the country—or, rather, that what we do know is scattered around in a thousand little out-of-the-way places, in old menus and in childhood memories. For that reason, exploring it should be immensely rewarding. Chef Bill Glover has agreed to host a second Tastes of the Midwest dinner in October, and I’m already looking forward to it. Stay tuned for details.
The menu from this week’s dinner, with its inspirations and the chefs who reinterpreted them, is below.