December 4, 2020


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The 2020 Midwesterner Gift Guide

A dozen (or so) favorites, from our family to yours

We all win when we all win. The Minneapolis-based chef, author, and TV personality Andrew Zimmern—one of our holiday gifting pros this year—likes to say that, paraphrasing fellow Minnesotan Paul Wellstone. That’s our philosophy, too. If you’re reading this, you probably recognize the importance of supporting your neighbors. You don’t need us to tell you that you can make a difference right now, as we slide into a pandemic winter, by buying Midwestern.

Fortunately, gift shopping in our backyards has never been more fun. Don’t buy local out of some stoic sense of obligation. Do it for the famous sour cherry preserves, the homegrown black walnut nocino, and the stories about the places where you live and the places where you grew up. Make the holidays your excuse to sample and share the flavors that we’ve explored together over the past six months. It’s a win-win-win.

Last weekend, I went to a holiday market at Cincinnati’s Washington Park and left with a sweet-and-sour koji hot sauce from Cloud Food Labs. Taking it off the shelf this morning put a smile on my face, because it’s delicious and because someone here was inspired enough to give it a try. That’s heartland ambition and entrepreneurship in action. I felt the same way when reading these recommendations from Midwesterner contributors, which range from pemmican-inspired South Dakota snacks to ceramics that evoke the Great Lakes to a knife worthy of Frank Lloyd Wright. —Jed Portman

Axe from Alan Hlebaen, Minneapolis ($75-175)

“Alan Hlebaen is doing the Lord’s work by upcycling vintage axe heads and handles into affordable and devastatingly practical works of art. Check out his Instagram account, @MN_Vintage_Axes, where you can see his work and DM him for custom orders. Fireplace hatchets, log splitters, tree fellers… he has them all, and everyone needs an axe of some kind in their house. Low cost and high quality aren’t a common pairing these days, and this is stunning work. There you have it, my best-kept secret.”

Andrew Zimmern, chef, author, and TV personality

Milwaukee’s Favorites box from Usinger’s, Milwaukee ($41)

Courtesy of Usinger’s

“If you’re missing the traditional Christmas visit to Usinger’s marble-countered store, you can order the aura of old Milwaukee in a gift box with a photo of founder Fred Usinger on the lid. Collections like Milwaukee’s Favorites and Elfin Delights offer a range of possibilities, from the sausage shop’s greatest hits (bratwursts and summer sausage) to deeper cuts (braunschweiger), most paired with a handy sausage knife.”

Erin Hazard, architectural historian, Illinois Institute of Technology

Gift boxes from Tanka Bar, Kyle, South Dakota ($50-60)

“I’m always excited to promote products from our friends at Tanka Bar. Based in the area where I grew up, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, they are inspirations for modern-day Indigenous food businesses and have so thoughtfully crafted their philosophy, values, and product based on our Lakota principles. The Tanka Bar is a modern interpretation of a traditional, high-energy Lakota dried bison and berry recipe that we call wasna, and a great way to try and share traditional Indigenous flavors!”

—Sean Sherman, founder, The Sioux Chef

Cake stand from Mosser Glass, Cambridge, Ohio ($35-130)
and Ceramics from Angela Venarchik, Chicago (Prices vary)

Courtesy of Angela Venarchik

“A mainstay of Martha Stewart Living prop styling, Mosser Glass’s cake stands are timeless. It’s possible that their nested mixing bowls would get more use. Either way, these pressed-glass pieces are as pragmatic as they are artful, and made in Cambridge, Ohio, by a family-run company that dates back generations. (For those who prefer a more great-grandmother’s-living-room look, check out their hobnail candy dishes and emerald-green cordial glasses.)”

—Sara Bir, chef and author, “Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State

“With way too much time to shop online this year, my obsession with collecting ceramics has gotten a little out of hand. While I normally hunt for vintage ceramics, Chicago-based ceramicist Angela Venarchik has me buying her gorgeous, sturdy handmade pieces at a steady clip, creating a new heirloom collection in my home. Her inspiration comes from the dreamy landscapes of the Midwest, which is clear when scrolling her gallery. Her shipping is lightning-fast, with impeccable packaging.”

—Shauna Sever, author, “Midwest Made

Pickles, preserves, and sauces from Big Jones, Chicago ($5-8)

“One of Chicago’s most qualified Southern foodways scholars is a trombone major from southern Indiana. That’s Paul Fehribach, chef and proprietor of Big Jones, whose cooking represents a gastronomical cross-section of the American South, from Carolina Lowcountry to Breaux Bridge Cajun. I’ve long admired the way Fehribach looks back in time—way back—for culinary inspiration. One dish he served at Big Jones was listed on the menu as ‘Red Beans & Rice, circa 1885.’ Turns out, 1885 was the year two seminal cookbooks of the Creole canon were published: Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole and Creole Cookery from the Christian Women’s League of New Orleans. Recently, Big Jones (which also serves my favorite fried chicken in the Midwest) launched an online store featuring equally thoughtful housemade condiments, from pickled peach hot sauce and chow chow to from-scratch Worcestershire. Expect anything Fehribach offers to be meticulously crafted and wholly delicious.”

Kevin Pang, editorial director of digital content, America’s Test Kitchen

Smoked whitefish from Northern Waters Smokehaus, Duluth, Minnesota ($31)
 Whole prosciutto from La Quercia, Norwalk, Iowa ($130)

Courtesy of Northern Waters Smokehaus

“This holiday season, consider sending a whole smoked whitefish as a gift. It’s just brilliant served on crackers or in chowder, and it looks magnificent on a platter. Order your fish from Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth—an Upper Midwestern sandwich destination with a lake-to-plate approach that puts out some of the tastiest bites to be found on the shores of Lake Superior.”

—James Norton, editor, Heavy Table, and author, “Lake Superior Flavors

Photo: Ellen Mary Cronin

“Iowa knows pork. The number-one pork producing state in the U.S. is home to nearly three times as many hogs as the second and third most swinish states, Minnesota and North Carolina. At La Quercia in Norwalk, Herb and Kathy Eckhouse go for quality over quantity, though they now make enough of their award-winning prosciutto—which I think rivals anything from Europe—to sell to Kroger and Costco. When they opened in 2005, they set an example for countless new-wave Midwestern charcutiers, answering the question, ‘Would people buy prosciutto from a guy named Herb from Iowa?’ (Yes!) I fantasize about someday, somehow earning a show-stopping $900 bone-in Acorn Edition Tamworth ham, but for now, I’d be thrilled to open a six- or seven-pound hunk of prosciutto from a guy named Herb from Iowa.”

—Jed Portman, editor, Midwesterner

Note: La Quercia is out of whole prosciuttos right now, but they are restocking today, Friday, December 4. Wait for the afternoon restock or go ahead and order via Goldbelly ($159)

Hot salami sandwich kit from Gioia’s Deli, St. Louis ($75)

“There are plenty of killer sandwiches on The Hill, the meaty Italian-American heart of Saint Louis, but the hot salami at Gioia’s Deli has been the king for more than 100 years. The coarse, peppery pork-head-and-beef sausage is boiled and then served hot—meaning the temperature, not spice level—along with Provel, pepperoncini, and giardiniera on garlic cheese bread. Each kit creates four sandwiches, and don’t forget to pregame with hot salami queso, an add-on worth the extra $10.”

—Jonathan Moxey, head brewer, Rockwell Beer Co.

Bourbon pecan pie from Justice of the Pies, Chicago ($75)

Courtesy of Justice of the Pies

“Everyone has a pie they think is the end. Mine is from Maya-Camille Broussard’s Justice Of The Pies. You can’t go wrong with any of her pies, but the bourbon-pecan is my number-one pick. Broussard named the business in honor of her father, a criminal defense attorney who loved to bake, but justice is part of her recipe: Through cooking workshops and pie fundraisers, her business supports lower-income Chicagoans.”

—Charla L. Draper, writer and consultant, It’s Food Biz!

Chocolate oatmeal cookies from La Campagne, Mequon, Wisconsin ($35)

“It’s got a confusing name—La Campagne Bakery: The Natural—and a dated website, but this Mequon, Wisconsin, wholesaler also bakes some of the best cookies I’ve ever tasted. The star is the chocolate oatmeal, with its hearty blend of oats, walnuts, and chocolate. These aren’t Levain-sized beasts, but they aren’t skimpy, either—justifying $35, including shipping, for twenty cookies (mix and match available).”

—Josh Modell, executive editor, Talkhouse

Apple liqueur from Du Nord Spirits, Minneapolis ($31)

Courtesy of Du Nord Spirits

“In 2013, when Chris Montana opened his small-batch distillery, Du Nord Craft Spirits, in his hometown of South Minneapolis, he became the first Black person to own a microdistillery in the U.S.—an astonishing first in a nation with more than 2,000 microdistilleries. Montana’s line of grain-to-glass spirits, available by mail-order, includes gin, whiskey, coffee liqueur (made with locally roasted coffee), and vodka, but his Apple Du Nord liqueur is the Midwestern standout. The distillery blends a base made from Minnesota corn with apple juice from a sixty-six-year-old orchard in Lake City. (Speaking of Minnesota apples, did you know that the University of Minnesota is home to a world-renowned apple-breeding program? It’s the birthplace of the Honeycrisp.) Buying from Du Nord supports both a regional business and Du Nord’s charity, the Du Nord Foundation, which distributes funds to minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis. This is a feel-good bottle in more ways than one.”

Garin Pirnia, author, “Rebels and Underdogs: The Story of Ohio Rock and Roll and “The Beer Cheese Book

Chef’s knife from Warther Cutlery, Dover, Ohio ($85-175)

“The most-used tool in any kitchen, whether you’re an aspiring home cook or a professional chef, is a knife. A hand-crafted knife makes an outstanding gift for anyone with a proclivity for slicing, dicing, or julienning. Nelson Mandela, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Perry Como all had knives from Warther, making heirloom-quality blades—with optional engraving for a personal touch—since 1902.”

Mike Stankovich, owner and bartender, Longfellow

Malt from Sugar Creek Malt, Lebanon, Indiana ($20-200)

Courtesy of Sugar Creek Malt

“Sugar Creek Malt is making some of the world’s most exciting malts—including “wind malt” dried in the Indiana breeze and barley smoked over persimmon, black walnut, and maple woods—in Lebanon. In 2020, they began selling homebrew-sized packages of their grain, previously available only to commercial brewers. You can now give the homebrewer in your life lavender-smoked barley, chocolate rye, or Norwegian-style Stjordal malt, made in Sugar Creek’s rustic wood-fired sainnhus.”

—Marika Josephson, co-founder, Scratch Brewing Company


If you know people who appreciate Midwestern stories like these, consider giving subscriptions to Midwesterner. We need your support. Since we launched in May, we’ve paid writers more than $20,000 for more than 100 stories from across the Midwest, covering everything from the elements of the Iowa pickle wrap to the best takeout joints around Youngstown, Ohio. We have bigger plans for 2021. To help spread the word, we’re offering 20% off annual subscriptions through December 31.

Other regional publishers need your support, too.

Many of you have read James Norton’s Midwesterner dispatches from the Upper Midwest. Our man in the frozen north has his own publication—Minneapolis’s Heavy Table, which has covered Minnesota and the Midwest since 2009. Subscribe to get info-packed biweekly newsletters in your inbox ($5-25/month).

Although I’ve never lived in Indianapolis, I get Indianapolis Monthly (twelve print issues for $24). You should, too. It’s an award-winning city mag with a national audience, and it’s home to one of our most popular Midwesterner contributors, longtime dining editor Julia Spalding. Get a taste with an article that helped me understand the Hoosier State: “Caught in the Middle: What Is Indiana’s Brand?

When I’m looking for insight on the rest of the Midwest, I turn to my collection of books from Cleveland’s Belt Publishing. I have a full shelf of Belt titles in my office, and I just ordered the new Dayton anthology, which I’ll wedge in next to “Black in the Middle,” “The Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook,” and “How to Speak Midwestern.” Fill your shelves this winter with thoughtful book bundles including the Midwest Starter Pack ($75), the Ohio Anthology Bundle ($60), and the Complete Belt Revivals Series ($90), a collection of re-releases from the heartland canon such as Nebraskan Willa Cather’s “One of Ours,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923, and “Dean of American Letters” William Dean Howells’s 1897 “Stories of Ohio.” Now is a good time to stock up: Belt is offering 20% off all purchases with the code HOLIDAY, plus free shipping on orders over $50.

—Jed Portman


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