United States: The Midwest

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Author: Bruce Kraig
Editor: Ken Albala
Date: 2011
Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia
From: Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia(Vol. 2: The Americas. )
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Document Type: Geographic overview
Pages: 12
Content Level: (Level 4)

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United States: The Midwest


The American Midwest comprises 12 states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. These states span the midcontinent from the western edge of the Allegheny Mountains on the east all the way to the high plains that abut the Rocky Mountains in the west. The Midwest is cut in two by the Mississippi, a river that drains all the waters from two-thirds of the continent, while the Great Lakes and the 49th parallel define the northern border and the Ohio River the southern boundary. The whole region encompasses 820,000 square miles and is occupied by 66 million inhabitants. Today, roughly 50 million people live in metropolitan areas and large towns, unlike the 1890s, when the farming population was much larger and farmers' food came directly from the land on which they lived.

Much of the Midwest is relatively flat prairie land but not entirely. It has been further subdivided into broad areas: the Great Lakes and Old Northwest, Ohio River and Trans-Mississippi River, and the Great Plains. Each subregion represents different landforms, natural resources, histories, ethnic origins, and dialects. This fact counters the common perception that the Midwest is nothing but a flat and endless plain with food to match. Many of the Midwestern states have more than one of these divisions within them, and that is important in considering local foodways.

Although home to major cities, such as Chicago, and heavy industrial production, agriculture lies behind the idea of the Midwest as America's food-producing heartland. Some of the most important agricultural-production technologies were invented in the Midwest, including the John Deere plow and the McCormick reaper. From the 1890s on, the region has been seen as filled with small towns and broad farmlands, occupied by people who are slow to adopt new cultural trends. For these reasons the Midwest is usually thought of as center of “normal” American culture. Food is an integral part of this image: The Midwest said to be the land of plain cooking, of casseroles and “white food,” meaning mashed potatoes and cream sauces. In fact, Midwestern foodways represent a global food system with dishes and foods imported from the far corners of the world.

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Food Culture Snapshot

Steve and Brenda Wilson live in Saint Louis, Missouri, with their young son and daughter. They are interested in locally produced food and, on Saturday, go to the weekly farmers' market in Tower Grove, one of the 1,500 farmers' markets in the Midwest. They cannot fulfill all their week's food needs at the open-air market because it does not sell breakfast cereals, milk, cheap commonly eaten meats, flour, sugar, salt and pepper, canned soups and sauces, cooking oils, butter and margarine, juices, frozen products, snack foods, and imported fruits and vegetables, such as bananas. These will be purchased later, while pushing a large food cart, from the food aisles and cases in a local supermarket. The children have a lot to say about what cereals and snacks the family buys. At the farmers' market Page 314  |  Top of Articlethe Wilsons can buy in-season, fresh sweet corn, lettuce and greens (such as kale and chard), green beans and fresh peas, tomatoes (including some old heirloom breeds), varieties of green and red peppers, different kinds of eggplants, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, rhubarb, melons, grapes, berries, pears, apples, peaches, and fresh herbs. Basil, tarragon, oregano, thyme, mint, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro (fresh coriander leaves) are popular and used in a number of dishes. All of these are sold directly by the farmers who grow them. In this market there are also animal farmers. Sustainably raised lamb, beef, pork, rabbit, sausages, chicken, and eggs straight from the farm, as well as cheeses, are all available for sale, and the Wilsons stock up on some of these, though the meats and produce are somewhat more expensive than supermarket food. This market also encourages freshly baked goods. Young women from a local Mennonite community, dressed in plain, long skirts and wearing small white kerchiefs, sell their homemade cakes, nut cakes and cookies, yeast breads, and quick breads. Other bakers have crusty Italian, French, and whole-grain breads.

Corn chowder, a dish that mixes traditions from New England and the South, in Midwestern corn country. Corn chowder, a dish that mixes traditions from New England and the South, in Midwestern corn country. (Robyn Mackenzie | Dreamstime.com)

From these ingredients the Wilsons will prepare daily breakfasts, lunches or dinners, and suppers. On Sunday they usually make a roast beef or chicken served with mashed potatoes, green beans, fresh bread and butter, and a freshly made fruit pie for dinner. On this day, they are buying ingredients to prepare a dish for a potluck dinner at a nearby history museum. Steve grew up in a town on the Illinois/Indiana border where corn chowder has been made for generations. It is a dish that mixes traditions from New England and the South in Midwestern corn country.

Corn Chowder

Serves 6–8

¼ lb bacon, chopped

8 tbsp butter

2 large potatoes, diced (about ¾ lb)

1 large carrot, sliced into rounds

1 small onion, chopped

4 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked and kernels cut from cob

Water to cover

4 tbsp flour

2 c milk

1 tsp salt, or to taste

Ground black pepper to taste

Place bacon in a deep pan over medium heat. Cook bacon until the fat melts but the bacon is not crispy. Add 4 tablespoons butter, and melt. Add potatoes, carrot, and onion, and sauté in butter and bacon until the vegetables are coated and onion begins to wilt. Add just enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover pan, and cook until potatoes are tender, 15–20 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 4 tablespoons butter in a separate saucepan. Whisk the flour into the butter until completely blended. Stir the milk into the butter-flour mixture until smooth. When the vegetables are done stir them with a whisk or fork until the potatoes break up into small lumps. Stir in the milk mixture, stirring well. When thickened and heated through, add salt and pepper to taste and stir well. Serve with corn muffins or cornbread.

Major Foodstuffs

What people eat everyday is the result of environments, history, and technology. Although the Midwest Page 315  |  Top of Articlestates are agricultural powerhouses, much of what they produce is not grown for local consumption. Iowa, for instance, is the number one grower of soybeans, Illinois number two, and Minnesota number three, but tofu is not a regular part of the Midwestern diet. Iowa and Illinois are the top producers of feed grains for farm animals, and Iowa is the nation's premier hog farmer. Most of this massive output is processed by large food manufacturers and sold in national and international markets. Before World War II (1945), farmers and people living in small towns were able to produce enough food in gardens and from truck farms to feed their own families during the year: Only some supplies such as flour and sugar needed to be purchased from stores. But today, with some local exceptions, food eaten every day by Midwesterners is bought in food stores and supermarkets, a lot of it coming from as far as 1,500–3,000 miles away.

Midwesterners consume between 1,500 and 1,900 pounds of food annually. Of this, about 35–40 percent comes from animal products, including both meats and dairy, and more beef (about 75 pounds per year) is eaten than in other parts of the country. Thirty percent of the diet is vegetables, but 30 percent of that is potatoes. Grains compose 13–14 percent of the average diet, most of them processed. Wheat is the most popular, made in the form of breads, sweet baked goods, and breakfast cereals. Corn is also widely used, but much of it is used in processed foods, including animal feeds, cornstarches, and corn syrups. Fats, oils, sugars, and sweeteners compose most of the remaining daily calories. Dried legumes such as navy, pinto, and black beans are a small (about 8 pounds per year) but growing food segment, in part due to a rising Hispanic population. The average per-person caloric intake is about the national average of 2,600–3,000, though Midwestern states are generally at the middle to lower end of the national overweight and obesity scale.

Meat is the center of almost all Midwestern meals, whether home cooked or in restaurants. Beef, poultry, pork, and some fish are common. Ground beef is the most widely used form, often as patties (hamburgers) or loose for chili and similar dishes, including a famous sandwich style in Iowa. Poultry zoomed in popularity in the last quarter of the 20th century because it costs less and is thought to be lower in fat. Chicken is used year-round, with breast meat the favored cut. Turkey is also widely available and a necessity at holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. A great deal of the poultry consumed comes from Midwestern states, especially Indiana and Ohio. Pork has declined in competition with poultry, but bacon and ham are staples of people's tables, often at breakfast and for lunches. Iowa remains a major producer. Though the region is surrounded by great lakes and big rivers, freshwater fish is less widely eaten than imported seafood, especially shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna. Of freshwater fish types, catfish is popular in southern parts of the Midwest and among African Americans, while along Lakes Michigan and Superior, local whitefish is used in fish fries and fish boils (in northern Wisconsin).

Other meats include game animals such as duck, goose, turkey, venison, squirrel, and rabbit, which appear during hunting seasons, especially in rural areas of the Midwest. With almost a million deer taken during the fall hunting season, venison is more widespread than might be supposed.

Animal-based proteins also come from dairy products. Like other Americans, people in the Midwest love milk in liquid state, as cheeses, and in ice cream. The amount of milk drunk per person has declined by 30 percent since 1970, but cheese use has increased by 100 percent over the same period (10 pounds of milk make 1 pound of cheese). Wisconsin, the Dairy State, produces more cheese than any other state, and its citizens are above-average cheese eaters (hence the common insult for Wisconsinites, “Cheeseheads”). A considerable amount of cheese is not eaten out of hand but instead used in pizza and pasta dishes. Ice cream is a highly favored dessert, and states such as Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota are major ice cream makers. Not a basic component of Midwestern diets, yogurt has nonetheless increased in usage to as much as 4 pounds per person per year, as compared to 15 pounds for ice cream.

In days when more Midwesterners lived on farms, most vegetables and fruits were grown locally. Green beans, cabbages, carrots, peas, bell peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, spinach, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, Page 316  |  Top of Articleparsnips, turnips, rutabagas, zucchini, squash, and pumpkins (Illinois is the number one pumpkin grower) were raised in gardens and fields and eaten regularly. What was not eaten fresh was canned at home for use over the winter. Potatoes, however, were the most popular tuber and remain so. Today, many more fresh vegetables are available in supermarkets, though few are grown nearby, except for those sold in local farmers' markets. Most of the same vegetables are consumed today as in the past with the addition of broccoli and cauliflower because of their high vitamin content and antioxidant qualities. Also, salad greens have become very popular, making for higher lettuce consumption than ever before. Instead of being home canned, a good portion of the vegetables eaten now are frozen, actually the best way to preserve their nutritional contents.

The Midwest enjoys abundant fruit production. Michigan is the sixth-largest fruit producer in the United States and the leading grower of sour cherries, which are used in pie fillings. Wisconsin is number one in cranberries, and until early in the 20th century southern Illinois led the nation in peach exports. Surprisingly, citrus fruits from Florida and California are the most popular fruits, most of them made into juices. Melons, peaches, pears, sweet cherries, and berries are frequently purchased, but more popular are bananas (imported) and apples. A good deal of apple consumption in the Midwest is in the form of processed juices, 33 percent higher than the rest of the country. Altogether fresh fruits and fruit juices make up only about 18 percent of the average diet.

Living in the midst of the nation's greatest producers of wheat and corn, Midwesterners ought to be great whole-grain eaters, but they are not. Most wheat and barley is milled and baked into breads, pastas, cakes, and other pastries. Wheats, including the red durums from the Great Plains, are processed, stripped of their main nutrients, and turned white, into the flour sold for home use. Where whole grains mainly appear is in breakfast cereals. Oats and cracked wheats are staple cooked hot cereals, while corn, wheat, barley, and flax are used in cold cereals. That is appropriate for the Midwest because the breakfast cereal industry was pioneered in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. Rice plays a smaller but important role in Midwestern cuisine, none of it grown in the region and almost all of it milled to make it white, thus removing its natural vitamins and fiber.

Some historical local foods are still used even in the modern industrial food system, many of them gathered from the wild. American persimmons, mostly used for preserves and pies, are collected from trees in southern Ohio and especially southern Indiana and Illinois. Pawpaws, also called custard apples, or Hoosier bananas in Indiana, are found across the Midwest. Their creamy pulp is also used in sweet desserts and drinks. Both fruits are the focus of local late-summer festivals. Mushroom gathering is a popular pastime. Morels and chanterelles found in Midwestern forests are highly prized and widely consumed in season. Wild rice, Minnesota's state grain, in its true natural state is harvested by canoe from small lakes and streams, often by Native Americans. Although now farmed for national distribution, the wild version is very local. Fish, such as bass, perch, buffalo, and bluegills, is caught locally and widely consumed. Turtles and frogs (the legs) are in the same category, though eaten by relatively few Midwesterners in recent years.


What people cook and how they cook it depends on income levels, availability of ingredients, and the cook's interest in good cooking. In times when the more people lived in rural areas and worked on farms, cooking was almost entirely in the hands of women. Farmwives and their daughters rose early in the morning to stoke fires in their wood- or coal-burning ovens and started cooking. These stoves usually had two ovens, one hot for baking, the other called a warming oven to keep cooked food hot. The stovetop had anywhere from two to four hot plates on which the cook could set pans and kettles. Because coffee was an essential beverage, kettles and coffeepots were kept on the stove the whole day through. Skillets were essential because Midwesterners, like all Americans, love fried food. Deeper pans were used for soups and stews and for cooking vegetables.

Inventories of kitchens from around 1900 show that many had dozens of cooking devices, ranging Page 317  |  Top of Articlefrom knives to cooking spoons and spatulas, different-sized strainers, mortars and pestles, whisks, mixing bowls, baking pans of various sizes, apple corers, cherry pitters, hand meat grinders, sausage stuffers, and many others. Since few foods were pre-prepared, as now, cooking was labor-intensive. For the midday farm meal, meat had be cut to size and roasted or baked; and when the meat was done, gravy was made from the drippings. Potatoes were peeled and boiled, and vegetables like green beans picked, trimmed, and also boiled. Fresh bread had been made beginning with early morning preparations. Desserts were usually pies, the crusts made with lard that had been rendered at home, the fruit fillings prepared by hand. Most recipes were not elaborate, except for cakes, and many of the dishes prepared in country kitchens remain as staples of Midwestern cooking.

A baked casserole with potato, sausage, onion, and cheese. A baked casserole with potato, sausage, onion, and cheese. (Teresa Kasprzycka | Dreamstime.com)

For more than 100 years American cooking has trended toward easier preparation and faster cooking. Inventions such as the gas and electric stove, refrigerator, home freezer, food mixers, food processor, and, more recently, the microwave oven have saved a lot of time in the kitchen. To accommodate these new implements food companies created food products that were easy to use and also fit American tastes. Many of these companies are Midwestern, and the people who created the foods grew up with Midwestern foodways. For instance, a favorite dish, Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese dinner, was invented in Chicago in 1937 using powdered American cheese and pasta, butter, and milk. It is really a casserole that is a characteristically Midwestern dish.

Modern-day cooking varies from person to person. For those who are keen on new food trends and fine dining, kitchens are equipped with the best stoves and many electric food-preparation devices. They also have the best ingredients including varieties of fresh herbs and spices. Some of these cooks make eff orts to use locally sourced food products or at least foods that are organically grown, if not local. Although these innovative cooks are a significant part of the culinary scene, most kitchens and cooks are rather different, employing foods processed by industrial production techniques.

Modern stoves have the same functions as the old wood-burning ones: ovens for baking and roasting and cooktops for frying, sautéing, boiling, and steaming. Modern utensils are often made of heat-resistant plastics but serve the same functions as the old ones. Home cooking includes baked, roasted, or fried meats, but the rest of the meal might be prepared by heating pre-prepared dishes in a conventional or microwave oven. Casseroles, for instance, are often made with packaged or canned soup. Frozen foods are eaten in an average household six times each week, many of these heated by microwaves (the best way to preserve vitamin contents). These might be vegetables or the ever-popular pizza. Salads to accompany the meal often come from precut and washed salad mixes and dressings from bottled preparations. Desserts are one kind of dish that remains traditional. Fruit pies are a Midwestern specialty, and many are made at home. However, a good many might be made from store-bought pie crusts and canned fruit fillings. Cakes, too, are commonly made from cake mixes, mixed with an electric blender and baked in the oven. Or whole meals can be purchased premade from food stores. Roughly 50 percent of all Thanksgiving dinners are served from this source.

Though the basic foodstuffs of Midwestern cuisine seem homogeneous, there is diversity in its peoples and their foodways. Immigration and local environments make for distinctive regional and local foodways.

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Typical Meals

Native American peoples of what is now the Midwest used corn and gathered the same wild plants that people do now, wild rice and mushrooms, for example, but most modern foods came with later immigrants. The main English-speaking settlers followed two routes, the Ohio River in the south and northern trails. The southern areas of the Midwest tend to be hilly all the way from the Allegheny Mountains to the Missouri Ozarks. Settlers here came mainly from the American South and brought Southern, Appalachian foodways with them. Abraham Lincoln was one of them. In southern Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, pioneer women cooked with corn more than other grains. Cornbread, johnnycakes, and hoecakes, all made from cornmeal, were cooked in skillets set over open fires, and later on in ovens. Wheat flour, usually mixed with butter or soured milk, was used to make biscuits. Meats were mainly pork, all raised, slaughtered, and processed by each family. All the family members participated in what was a major late-autumn or winter event in the farm year. Baked ham fried in home-rendered lard was a commonplace meal served with red-eye gravy (made from the pan drippings) and corn grits. Hunting, usually by the men in the family, also brought protein to the table. One of the most famous dishes is still burgoo, a stew made with squirrel and whatever other meats might have been available, all cooked up with vegetables in a big pot. Wild greens often accompanied meals. Desserts were usually fruit pies, the crusts made with lard, and sometimes the pies were fried in deep fat.

Modern food production has affected these old foodways. Lard, for example, has been largely replaced by vegetable shortening and margarine. But many of the same meal ingredients remain common in the southern, Ohio River, and Ozark regions. Grits and biscuits are still on breakfast tables, pork is more widely used than in other parts of the Midwest, and frying is king at home and in restaurants. Home cooks still make pies at home, and they are popular in restaurants throughout the Midwest. One specialty homemade treat is sugar pie, Indiana's official state pie, made of a simple pie crust, sugar, and cream.

English speakers, including Irish immigrants moving to the central and northern parts of the Midwest, came mainly from New York and New England. Their foods were based on beef, with some pork, and wheat, rather than the pork and corn common in the South. Roasted beef, stews, and fried steaks in various forms were the center of most meals along with potatoes, a cooked green vegetable, and gravy. Desserts were usually baked—pies, cakes, and lots of puddings. The main variation was chicken for Sunday dinner and, especially for Catholic families, fish on Fridays. Today, chicken is far more common on everyday dinner tables, but beef in various versions is still the dominant meat. Coleslaw, from a Dutch word for cabbage salad, was also a popular dish at home and in public settings, such as potluck meals and church socials. It is still made at home but is now mostly purchased from food stores. In the rural Midwest dinner was the main meal of the day, taken in the middle of the workday, at about noon. Supper was lighter, usually the dinner leftovers, served about 6 P.M. This word usage is still used in many parts of the Midwest, less so in cities, and early evening meals are still the rule.

A distinctive British food tradition came with miners from Cornwall from the middle of the 19th century. Working the tin, lead, copper, and iron mines in the hilly country of western Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula was hard work and needed hearty food. The women of mining families made pasties for the men to take to work. Pasties are turnovers made with meat and vegetables such as potatoes. Cornish pasties were then taken up by Finnish migrants, and these homemade savories remain as an identifier of regional food culture.

In the 1850s Germans began to arrive in the Midwest in large numbers and settled on farms and in cities. Although their own religions and dialects varied, their foods were similar. Sausages and beer are important elements of German food culture. Noodles and various potato preparations, along with vinegar-laced preparations such as sauerkraut and sauerbraten, are all part of German cuisine. So are several types of cakes and cookies. It was not unusual for wealthier people in cities and farm households to employ young German women as cooks, and in this Page 319  |  Top of Articleway, German foodways became part of Midwestern cuisine. Cities with large German populations— Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Chicago, and Detroit, among others—became famous for beer manufacturing. A light variety called pilsner became so popular that it is now what we think of as American beer. Beer is an important item in everyday American foodways. It is the most ubiquitous mildly alcoholic beverage, and few sporting events are held without it being served.

German food culture centers on sausages. Several of the many German types are now embedded in the Midwest. Bratwurst is a signature dish of Wisconsin: There is not a fair or ball game, picnic, or festival that does not feature bratwurst. These are often lightly boiled in beer, then grilled on an open fire, and finally served on a bun with German-based mustard and onions. The same holds for frankfurters (supposedly from Frankfurt in Germany) and wieners (Vienna sausages from Austria), which became hot dogs in the United States. Hot dogs are served in restaurants, at stands, and by street vendors. Chicago has distinctive hot dog styles as do Detroit and Cincinnati. Perhaps the most famous hot dogs of all come from a German-founded company in Chicago and Wisconsin, Oscar Mayer. Since the 1950s Oscar Mayer wieners have been eaten at home by children, an easily heated convenience food and an important part of Midwestern and American foodways.

One group of German speakers came to the Midwest in the decades around 1900 from Russia, where large numbers of them lived along a section of the Volga River. Settling in the Great Plains including Kansas and Nebraska, many lived on family farms, planting and harvesting the hard red wheat that they introduced to the Midwest. One dish they brought is called a bierock or runza and is virtually the state food of Nebraska. These are savory pastries, stuffed with cabbage and sometimes meat, that are traditionally baked at home as everyday food—eaten by the farm men in the fields—and for holidays. So popular are they that a chain of runza restaurants has spread across Nebraska.

Scandinavians from Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden immigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries in large numbers. Minnesota, Wisconsin, parts of Michigan, and cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis acquired the food habits of these new settlers. Most of the food preparations were like those in the rest of the Midwest, heavy on meats and potatoes (potato sausage with white sauce is a classic homemade dish), with creamy sauces laced with lots of dill common. Several dishes remain as indicators of local culture and are still features of home cooking, especially on holidays. Lefse, a kind of thick bread, made with potatoes and cooked on a flat griddle, is one, and limpa, a rye bread made with cardamom, anise, citron peel, and some sugar, is another. Lutefisk is dried whitefish that has been soaked in water mixed with lye and then cooked. Almost no one except Norwegian Americans likes fish prepared this way, but that is what makes it culturally important. One dish that has translated to general Midwestern food culture is the Swedish pancake. Beginning about 100 years ago, this sweet pancake topped with berries and whipped cream was served in restaurants, and it has remained a popular breakfast dish, often after church services, ever since.

Eastern European foods and cooking have played a large role in Midwestern food culture. Czechs, Poles, Russians, and other Slavic-speaking people arrived with Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews beginning in the last years of the 19th century. On farms across the Midwest and especially in the newly industrialized cities, American began to learn about Polish pierogi (Polish filled dumplings) and paczki (jam-filled doughnuts), Czech kolache (small pastries made with butter and filled with fruit), Jewish blintzes (thin pancakes rolled up with fruit or cheese fillings, served with sour cream), bagels, biyalis (a small, flat roll similar to a bagel but without a hole and topped with onion and poppy seeds), latkes (potato pancakes), and sausages of all kinds, including the (Jewish) all-beef hot dog. All of these can be found in Midwestern supermarkets, especially in cities where people of eastern European descent live. Pastries such as paczki and kolache are holiday treats often made in homes by several generations of women in the family: grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. They are a few of the foods that serve as family binders.

Italian immigrants have had the greatest impact on Midwestern foodways—and those in the United Page 320  |  Top of ArticleStates as a whole. Beginning around 1900, most came from the southern parts of Italy and Sicily, bringing a whole range of pastas, breads, vegetables dishes, and tomato-based sauces. Though most were poor laboring families, before too long they entered the food business. Small Italian restaurants and green grocers sprang up in Chicago and other main cities, and some dishes became part of Midwestern cuisine. Eggplant, zucchini, greater use of garlic than elsewhere, lettuce, tomato sauce, lasagna, spaghetti, and casseroles are everyday cooking in homes everywhere in the Midwest. Spaghetti and meatballs is an Italian American dish, unknown in the mother country but suited to hearty Midwestern home cooking. Surveys show that pasta of some kind, not counting macaroni and cheese, is served at home once or twice a week, and pizza appears more often than that. Pizza is another Italian dish that became Americanized. The Chicago version, a very heavy, cheese-loaded version called deep dish, has been served in restaurants since the late 1940s. It is one of the characteristic dishes of that city. The largest chain of pizza restaurants, Pizza Hut, was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958. One very local traditional Italian food called cudighi is characteristic of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Invented for miners who worked in the Iron Mountain range in the 1930s by restaurateurs who came from northern Italy, this heavy, spiced pork patty sandwich can be made at home, but it is a common fast food for Yoopers, as the people there are known.

Two other important influences on Midwestern foods are African Americans and Latin Americans. In the early years of the 20th century and again just after World War II (post-1945), African Americans migrated from the Southern states to Midwestern cities in large numbers. In cities such as Chicago and Detroit some characteristic dishes came to be called soul food by restaurateurs in the 1960s. Southern fried chicken and fish, grits, greens, pork, biscuits, and certain cakes and pies are now staples in Midwestern cities, and ingredients are widely available in food markets. One important Southern food has crossed into general usage: barbecue. Around World War I, African Americans employed in the Kansas City, Missouri, region set up barbecue restaurants.

A backyard barbecue grill with pork meat on the slats and a bowl of homemade sauce on the side. A backyard barbecue grill with pork meat on the slats and a bowl of homemade sauce on the side. (Eti Swinford | Dreamstime.com)

Today, Kansas City has dozens upon dozens of barbecue places and is world famous. Often made with a sweet, tomato or ketchup base, Midwestern barbecue has distinctive styles. It is made not only in restaurants but also at home, usually by men, as a type of backyard cooking or grilling. Weekends and holidays are the great days for such preparations, and often home-style barbecue cooks bring their creations to the many barbecue competitions held across the country.

People from various regions of Mexico entered the Midwest in the 1910s and settled to work in industrial towns and cities in small numbers. From the 1960s immigration increased exponentially not only in cities but also in the countryside, where more recent migrants work in agriculture. Many Mexican dishes have become Midwestern, eaten out or in the home. Tamale pies and taco casseroles are common home-cooked meals. Tacos and enchiladas eaten out of hand, loaded with Wisconsin cheddar cheese and not too spicy-hot tomato salsas, are regular fast-food dishes and are made at home. Often these come in ready-to-eat forms made by large food manufacturers. And there is hardly a sporting event that does not serve tortilla chips covered in a melted cheese-food product. From fine dining to small local restaurants run by newly immigrated families, Mexican food is now an important part of the region's foodways.

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In many ways, Midwestern foodways are generically modern American with an increasingly global taste. But there are ongoing traditions of plain, hearty home cooking and regional dishes that set the Midwest apart from other parts of the United States.

Eating Out

Eating out in the Midwest varies by locations, incomes, and taste. Public dining places range from expensive fine-dining restaurants run by celebrated chefs (Chicago is a world leader in these kinds of eating houses) to middle-income facilities, both locally owned and corporate places, such as Applebee's and Olive Garden, and fast-casual establishments, of which McDonald's, Big Boy, Culver's, and Pot Belly are some Midwest-based examples. In between are many ethnic restaurants, local diners, and quick fast-food places. Of the latter, quick food, the Midwest has types that are closely identified with their communities. Chicago hot dogs loaded with condiments, Detroit coney dogs covered in meat sauces, Iowa loose meat sandwiches (Maid-Rite is the best known), and Cincinnati chili are examples. Few people eat family dinners at these places, but all are very popular for lunchtime dining and midday snacking.

Ethnic restaurants are mainly found in urban areas. Once, this kind of dining was confined mainly to Italian, Greek, German, eastern European, and Chinese restaurants. Today, diners in almost any city can choose from a much wider variety of international places, from Mexican to African, varieties of Indian, and Southeast Asian, among the most common. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are widespread, and in northern cities such as Minneapolis, Hmong cuisine is popular. Green, red, and massa-man curries, sate (grilled meat on a skewer), spicy soups, papaya salads, pho (beef soup), and many noodle dishes are regularly consumed by Midwesterners. One savory noodle dish, pad Thai, is so popular that it has become Thai American.

In former days, before the national interstate highway system was fully established, many towns had their own local restaurants. Often, the food was sourced from the nearby countryside, especially during the growing and harvest seasons. Fried chicken, pot roasts, and meat loaf, with baked or mashed potatoes and some overcooked vegetable, followed by homemade fruit pies with cream, were favorites. Today, most of these kinds of eating places have been replaced by corporate chain outlets, whether burger or family sit-down eateries.

Two kinds of restaurants with local roots remain, both of ethnic origin. Many cities and towns in the Midwest have Greek-owned diners, often called “family restaurants.” Diners such as these serve meals all through the day, with dishes ranging from pancakes, bacon, and eggs for breakfasts, to soups and sandwiches at lunchtime, to full-scale meals for dinner. A common joke is that “Grecian chicken” is the standard dish. These kinds of restaurants fill an important dining niche that was once occupied by several kinds of places, such as coffee shops, cafeterias, and locally owned small eateries.

A broad swath of the Midwest has been called “the chop suey belt.” Chinese American restaurants number in the tens of thousands in the United States and make more money than the major hamburger chains. Hardly a small town in the Midwest is without one, and hardly a Midwesterner has never eaten chop suey and chow mein, sweet and sour pork or chicken, fried egg rolls and wontons, sweet and sour soup, and egg foo yong. In many respects, Chinese American dishes are as Midwestern as beef and potatoes.

Special Occasions

Like all Americans, Midwesterners have plenty of holidays and festivals, all of them celebrated with the consumption of food in large quantities. Some celebrations are private, family affairs with meals, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Passover. Others are both private and public, with family dinners and food served in public, examples being Eid al-Fitr (the end of the Muslim month of fasting), Asian New Year, and Easter. Other festivals are regular calendric events, such as the Fourth of July; state, county, and town fairs; and specific public food events, often called “Taste of ____.” In most of them, Islamic fests excepted, alcoholic beverages are commonly served along with featured foods.

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Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday and nowhere more revered than in the heartland from which so much of America's food comes. It is also an autumn harvest season fest. Roasted turkey is the centerpiece, usually stuffed with an herbed wheat or cornbread mixture, and accompanied by thick, fatty gravy made from the pan drippings. Served family style, meaning put in large bowls that are passed around the table, are mashed white or sweet potatoes, a green vegetable (particularly lightly boiled green beans), baked squash, cranberry sauce, bread rolls, and plenty of butter. There are also plenty of beverages. Desserts will usually be fruit pies, possibly mince pie, or a fruit cobbler, all served with ice cream. One variation of the standard table is the addition of macaroni in tomato sauce, or lasagna. Introduced by Italian immigrants around 1900, these dishes migrated to the African American and other communities to the point where Thanksgiving lasagna is not uncommon.

Virtually all of the foods at this table are the same as those on a Midwestern farm table a century ago. Potatoes, squash, green beans, cranberries, dairy products, fruits, and the turkey are all Midwestern products that can still be obtained fairly locally. If any single meal holds a Midwestern food identity, it is Thanksgiving.

A garish hot dog stand at a county fair in Ohio. A garish hot dog stand at a county fair in Ohio. (Dreamstime)

Public fairs, the first held in Ohio in 1850, and food festivals are also occasions for plenty of eating in hearty Midwestern fashion. Fairs are often served by vendors who offer foods that can be found at similar events around the country: fried funnel cakes, doughnuts, hot dogs, hamburgers, and cotton candy, among many others. There are some special dishes that are either unique to one fair or another or characteristic of Midwestern food. Fried Page 323  |  Top of Articlecheese curds, often breaded, remind us of Wisconsin, where they are a common snack dish; Indian tacos (fried bread filled with mildly spiced tomato sauce, ground hamburger, and shredded cheese) are Nebraska's and the Dakota's contributions to America's cuisine; and pork chops on a stick and roasted corn are examples from Iowa. Corn dogs (hot dogs coated in a cornmeal batter and deep-fried) are a specialty of the Illinois State Fair and are called Cozy Dogs named after a local restaurant that supposedly invented them (it did not). In Wisconsin, bratwurst is king, boiled in beer, then grilled on open charcoal fires, and served on a bun with grilled or fresh onions and German mustard. Apart from such sausages, ice creams, and candy, almost everything to be eaten at a Midwestern fair is deep-fried.

There are also many specialized festivals centered on regional foods. Mitchell, Indiana, and Taylorville, Illinois, among others, hold persimmon festivals in the fall of each year. This native American fruit is not commonly eaten today, but persimmon puddings and pies were staple dishes in early American cooking. Lake Snowden near Albany, Ohio is the scene of a pawpaw fest. A once-popular fruit, the pawpaw can be eaten fresh only for a short time and thus does not appear in supermarket produce aisles. Some food festivals are very large and cover varieties of foods. The world's largest is the Taste of Chicago, which draws more than 3.5 million visitors over a 10-day period in July. Foods, served mainly by the city's many ethnic restaurants, range from kebabs to sate, pizza, hummus, hot dogs, Italian beef, and, most famously, barbecues. So popular is this event that Midwestern cities such as Madison, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and many smaller towns and cities hold similar festivals with varieties of food that represent their own communities.

Diet and Health

Ideas about diet and health among Midwesterners do not spring from religious tenets, with several small exceptions, but from modern science and common sense. This has not always been the case, since in the 19th and early 20th centuries folk medicine and folktales were often invoked to cure illness and promote physical health. One collection of folklore from the 1930s shows that some rural people believed that goiters (a painful swelling of the thyroid gland, usually from a lack of iodine in the diet) could be cured by hanging a warty frog around the victim's neck or by boiling a frog alive and rubbing the fat on the goiter. At the same time, many herbal medicines were concocted and used locally. Sassafras tea, for instance, was widely used as a healthful tonic after a long winter when “the blood thickened” and people wanted to cleanse their systems by purging themselves. Nonetheless, in the absence of scientific research, patent medicines were also widely used, most of them sold by “quack” (phony) medical practitioners who laced their potions with lots of high-percentage alcohol.

Diet has always played an important role in people's ideas about good health. Rural people looked forward to the first wild greens of the spring and ate them as “sallets.” When the first cultivated lettuces appeared, they, too, were consumed as health foods. Similar ideas about the obvious connections between diet and health drove the earliest health reformers, the most famous being Sylvester Graham in the early 19th century. He believed that chemical additives to foods were harmful and so promoted eating whole-grain flours. His graham cracker was widely known, though nothing like the biscuit of the same name today. His ideas were taken up by the Kellogg brothers, whose sanitarium (literally, “healthy place”) in Battle Creek, Michigan, became hugely popular. People who came to restore their health ate a special diet consisting of many vegetables and high-fiber foods. One of these was corn flakes, which the Kelloggs invented and one of the brothers marketed nationally. Thus began the breakfast cereal industry, many of whose products are still marketed as important to a healthy diet. Several of the major cereal producers remain as Midwest-based companies.

If eating a good breakfast is important to health, so are other dietary procedures and products. In the present day, people in the Midwest are as concerned about diet and health as they are in other parts of the country. Overweight to the point of obesity, high blood pressure, blood serum cholesterol as a danger to the heart, and cancers are among the chief worries. As a result, and despite the notion of Midwestern Page 324  |  Top of Articlefood being filled with saturated fats, sugars, and high amounts of gluten, people have changed their diets in the last several decades. Fat and salt consumption has decreased, and leaner meats and fruits and vegetables are eaten in greater amounts than ever. Obesity levels and other health statistics in the Midwest are about in the middle range for American states— about 26 percent of the population. Life expectancy is also at the national average. This compares favorably with statistics from 1940 when the surgeon general of Illinois issued a report stating that the average life expectancy of an average male in the state was 60 years old, without hope of it ever getting better.

The single dietary factor leading to ill health in the Midwest is poverty. The urban poor's inability to find and pay for healthy foods (high-carbohydrate, high-fat, and high-salt foods are cheaper) is matched by the lack of money for similar foods among the rural poor. Obesity rates for such people in the Midwest are among the highest in the United States, ranging up to 36 percent. Obesity leads to many other health issues, from heart attacks to respiratory problems. Individuals know this, but their circumstances do not allow for healthier diets. As such, this is a major public health problem in America's agricultural heartland.

Bruce Kraig

Further Reading

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Susan E. Gray, eds. The American Midwest: Essays on Regional History. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001.

Clark, Grace Grosvenor. The Best in Cookery in the Middle West. New York: Doubleday, 1955.

Long, Lucy M. Regional American Food Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Shortridge, Barbara, and James Shortridge. The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Shortridge, James R. The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1989.

Sisson, Richard, Christian Zacher, and Andrew R. L. Cayton. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1513300088