Start your year right with these guides to heartland cooking
This article is about two months late, after a lot of back-and-forth by e-mail and some follow-up cookbook orders. I’m telling you that because I want you to know how seriously I took this assignment—how much handwringing was involved. Twelve is not a large number. Each book on a list of just twelve essentials has to do double or even triple duty, packing as much onto one slim digital bookshelf as possible.
On top of that, major cookbook publishers have long overlooked the Midwest. When commissioning books on regional American cooking, they have clearly favored the South. It seems like every year we get half a dozen big new books about cornbread and barbecue. I get it! I live in Texas! We have great food below the Mason-Dixon! But I grew up in Wisconsin and went to college in Iowa. I’ve been glad to see that the amazing foods found in those states and across the Midwest are documented in cookbooks—just not as often in books published from New York.
To make this list, I started sending off for them. I wrote real paper checks and mailed them (with stamps!) to ag extension programs, not knowing if they even had stock left. I ordered cookbooks from state fairs, historic public markets, bartenders’ guilds, and university presses. And as they arrived, I began to wonder if we even need coastal publishers to wake up. We seem to be covering the bases pretty well on our own.
This list is the result of that process. The dozen cookbooks here shine light on the history of Kansas City barbecue and the cutting-edge Minneapolis cocktail scene, the grand Midwestern tradition of state fair recipe contests and the legacy of the late Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. This list represents new ways of cooking and old, the region’s history and some of its future. The books on it challenge preconceived notions of what Midwestern food can be while celebrating traditions, from Cincinnati’s Findlay Market to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
Are there gaps here? Of course. But the good news is, those East Coast publishers seem to be coming around to the Midwest. As part of my job, I cover cookbook deals, and I keep seeing new ones for (increasingly diverse) heartland authors. Come next year, this list might look different. Here’s hoping it keeps getting better. For now, here are a dozen books to get you cooking Midwestern in 2021.
First published to coincide with the U.S. bicentennial, “The Classic Hoosier Cookbook” is a gem from the Indiana Extension Homemakers Association. Members submitted the thousand-plus recipes in this dense volume. Many are short, efficient, and deceptively simple—optimized for budget and heartiness, in the tradition of home economics. Re-released in 2018 by the University of Indiana Press, its recipes for persimmon pudding and sugar cream pie are feeding a new generation of Hoosiers.
I would put this twenty-four-year-old book on all kinds of essential cookbooks lists: essential chef cookbooks, essential seasonal vegetable cookbooks, essential ahead-of-their-time cookbooks, essential fussy-as-all-get-out cookbooks. It earns its spot here by its dedication to regional produce. (Black walnuts! Morels! Ramps! Persimmons! Fiddlehead ferns! Wild watercress!) It’s also a document of an era’s cuisine, from a time when Chicago was better known for its steakhouses than for fine dining temples like the eponymous Charlie Trotter’s. Intense mid-’90s plating aside, many of these dishes would still feel fresh on menus in and beyond the Midwest.
You can’t cover Midwestern cuisine without stopping for burnt ends in Kansas City. Not a lot of cookbooks focus on the city’s barbecue style, but you’re in good hands with Doug Worgul. His definitive guide is a collection of pit master biographies, behind-the-scenes stories, and smoke-tinged photos. If that gets you fired up, keep reading. It ends with a brief but thorough beginner’s guide to backyard barbecue, complete with diagrams on smoker mechanics, advice on wood selection, and recipes for rubs and sauces. This is the next best thing to an apprenticeship at Bryant’s.
This isn’t a book about Midwestern food specifically, but Beatrice Ojakangas is a Minnesotan cookbook legend with a whopping twenty-one titles to her name, several of them honored by the James Beard Foundation. And while I vetted her books about the dishes of her Scandinavian forebears and wild rice cooking, as well as her memoir-with-recipes, “Homemade,” for this list, her doorstop of a casserole guide is my pick for Midwesterner. It’s the dish-to-pass bible. If you can cook it in a casserole, Ojakangas does it, from breakfast to dessert, with hotdish recipes that befit a cookbook author with a home ec degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
When “New Midwestern Table” came out in 2013, cheffed-up American regional cookbooks were almost exclusively the province of the South. Then, finally, we got the not-your-grandma’s approach to recipes from our grandmas. Thielen’s thoughtful work with the likes of bread-and-butter pickles, hotdish, and sour cream raisin pie didn’t so much elevate those dishes as give them long-due respect. “New” or not, this was an instant classic, and it helped position Thielen as a Midwestern Julia Child, educating us on regional tradition from her kitchen in Park Rapids, Minnesota.
You’ll find famous markets across the Midwest, from Cleveland’s West Side Market to Detroit’s Eastern Market to the Milwaukee Public Market. Many of them have cookbooks, but this one stood out for its history and diversity. Findlay Market has been serving Cincinnati since 1855, making it Ohio’s oldest continuously operated public market and one of the oldest in the Midwest. Its vendors represent generations of immigration from central Europe, southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In these pages, you’ll find a Greek mezze platter, Lebanese tabbouleh, Thai chile chicken, Vietnamese pho, goetta bruschetta (!), and, of course, “Obligatory Cincinnati Chili.”
Not many states can boast a restaurant style all their own. Wisconsin isn’t the only state with supper clubs, but you won’t find an authentic supper club experience far beyond the state’s borders. A supper club can be many different things: a weekend haunt, a road trip wayside, a vacation destination. This book is a record of the oases that define leisure time for so many people in the Badger State. Come for the history and culture, stay for the secret ingredients in the fish fries, brandy old-fashioneds, and grasshopper pies at such storied institutions as the Dorf Haus in Sauk City, the Buck-A-Neer in Stratford, and the White Stag Inn in Rhinelander.
Visiting my sister in Minneapolis a few years ago, I was amazed by the cocktail scene in the Twin Cities. No stranger to cutting-edge bar programs, I found myself repeatedly pulling out my phone to look up the ingredients and techniques on menus. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. This book, a reference for the serious home bartender featuring 125 original recipes, captures the spirit (sorry) of the Bold North.
In championing not only his own Oglala Lakota cuisine but also that of indigenous cooks and chefs across the continent, Minneapolis’s Sean Sherman has written a groundbreaking guide to Native American cooking in North America. His first book is meaningful in many ways. It’s a memoir, describing a chef’s journey from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to a culinary career in Minneapolis. It’s a field guide to the native bounty—the wild rice, wild berries, maple syrup, and more—of the Upper Midwest. It’s a clever kitchen reference that the James Beard Foundation named the best American cookbook of 2018. Taken as a whole, it lights the way to a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable way of eating Midwestern.
This deeply researched and intensively tested volume covers the entire region—making it, perhaps, the definitive heartland baking book. From cider doughnuts to sour cherry pie to scotch-a-roos and poke cake, if you’d see it at a church potluck or as a prize in a cakewalk, you’ll see it here. And while the recipes skew classic, native Chicagoan Shauna Sever takes enough creative license to keep the book from feeling old-fashioned—evidenced in the Chinese five-spice-seasoned sweet rolls, the giant chocolate éclair baked in a cake pan, and the meringue-topped take on vintage “dream bars” from modern-day Chicago chef Mindy Segal.
Outsiders tend to think of the Midwest as a meat-and-potatoes kind of place, and not for nothing, but they might be surprised by how many Midwestern cooks revere fresh, seasonal produce—cooks like Abra Berens, a former farmer who is currently the chef at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. Her vegetable-focused book explores the relationship between food and the seasons with results both creative and delicious: a spring toast topped with creamed ramps and morels; a summery bowl of sautéed corn with soybeans, tomato, and basil; a winter salad of matchstick-cut root vegetables. As modern as the book feels, it’s rooted in a make-do heartland pragmatism. “A strongly stocked pantry of a few stalwart components ensures that whatever vegetable I have on hand can be assembled into a dish quickly and deliciously,” she writes. That philosophy has fed generations of Midwesterners.
Every other year since 1983, the Iowa State Fair has published ribbon-winning recipes from the largest annual get-together in the Hawkeye State. The most recent edition, the twentieth, contains the winners from 2018 and 2019. It’s everything you’d imagine it to be—a collection of sour cream-based dips and secret-ingredient hot wings, potluck sides and salads, and endless, endless jams, bars, and pies. There’s a recipe for braided meatloaf featuring three—three—different kinds of loaf braided together. Since the recipes in this book all won prizes, you can have confidence that they’ll actually work. And after a year without most of the Midwest’s famous state fairs, some of us have never been hungrier for this taste of Iowa State Fairgrounds.