Midwestern Food Is the Most American Food

That’s what you might think after reading The New Midwestern Table by author Amy Thielen. She hosts a dinner tonight at Perennial Virant—but first, the Food Network host explained what makes the region’s cuisine special.

Amy Thielen   Photo: Aaron Spangler

When you think “regional American cooking,” Midwestern cuisine rarely springs to mind. But Amy Thielen, a native Minnesotan and host of the Food Network show “Heartland Table,” could change that with her recently published cookbook, The New Midwestern Table.

It’s a collection of 200 recipes ranging from party-friendly dips and spreads to imported Scandinavian favorites—and some of them will be available to taste at a four-course dinner at Perennial Virant (1800 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincoln Park, 312-981-7070) tonight and Thursday night. (Tickets for Thursday’s dinner sold out so quickly that the restaurant decided to add a second night, and there are still a few $90 tickets available for tonight’s meal.)

We chatted with Thielen about what makes food Midwestern, the big-name Chicago chefs whose recipes make an appearance in her book, and the weirdest dish she uncovered in her research.

So, what exactly is Midwestern food?

I always say my book is an answer in 200 recipes. But there are a lot of commonalities among the region’s different pocket cuisines. There’s a dependence on gardening and fresh produce, a lot of use of cast-iron pans. It’s not so much about common flavors as it is about the vessels used. And a sense of informality is what makes food seem Midwestern to me. There’s a tendency to have dips and big casseroles—things you can share are very Midwestern. Our entertaining is very informal as a rule.

Are there common ingredients?

This region in general makes good dairy, everything from cheese to heavy cream to a dependence on sour cream. I often think of smoked meats as Midwestern, and a lot of pickled things. Something like rhubarb is not that common outside of Midwest. In New York until very recently, people weren’t that familiar with it. You say rhubarb to a Midwesterner, they’ll tell you they’ve been eating it all month. Plus, there’s a lot of meat and potatoes. There’s truth in some of the stereotypes about us.

Why doesn’t it have as notable an identity in the U.S. as other regional cuisines, like Southern food?

I think it does, actually. A lot of stuff that seems deeply American is first Midwestern. Like an egg salad sandwich—that’s a dish that’s deeply Midwestern. It’s born out of habit of having a ham grinder on your counter to grind up leftovers to make these salads—ham salad, egg salad, and, in Kansas, roast-beef salad. Blank-salad sandwich is Midwestern. Plus, [Irma Rombauer, the author of] Joy of Cooking is from St. Louis. Betty Crocker is based in Minneapolis. So all of these home-ec teachers started using their recipes in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and they became very American.

How does Chicago’s food differ from the rest of the region?

I think what’s cool in cities now is you have chefs starting to mine their taste memories and their own old family recipes to come up with things everyone remembers. You come up with something fresh when you dig deep. I borrowed some recipes from a couple chefs from Chicago for the book: Paul Virant’s crispy cheese curd risotto cakes, the amazing wild-boar sloppy joes from Jared Wentworth at Longman & Eagle, and the malted chili chicken from Avec.

Did any of the recipes you learned about while researching the book surprise you?

My publisher didn’t even want me to do a recipe for this because it’s too obscure: kalvdans (a dairy dessert popular among rural Scandinavian immigrants to the region). But I made it. To do it, you have to have access to fresh milk from a cow that’s just given birth. You take the colostrum, which is the first kind of milk the cow produces for a calf—after the calf has some, of course. It’s thick, yellow, sticky, shiny. It looks like sweetened condensed milk. Then you take that and mix with milk and bake it. Then you sprinkle it with more sugar. It turns into the texture of ricotta cheesecake. It was surprisingly good. When my editor saw that, she wrote, “This kind of skeeves me out.” That’s when I knew it was a cool thing I had to include.

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