November 9, 2020

Rosamund Lannin

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The Myth of Midwest Bland

Look beyond hotdish, cheese curds, and scotcheroos

For many Americans, even Midwesterners, Middle America is not so much a place as a state of being—a sleepy middle ground defined by the likes of Fargo and Hoosiers. Their flyover country is a stolid place fortified by hotdish, cheese curds, and scotcheroos. To be fair, the national media doesn’t serve up much material to challenge those stereotypes, often describing a land of meat and potatoes punctuated by Chicago and culture flare-ups in Indianapolis or St. Louis.

Most credible outlets know better than to come right out and say it these days, but we understand what they’re insinuating every time we see the words “simple,” “hearty,” or “all about convenience.” Plenty of us have heard people make fun of our local foodways off the record, anyway. Maybe you’ve self-consciously done it yourself.

The Myth of Midwest Bland - Quote

To be fair, the national media doesn’t serve up much material to challenge those stereotypes, often describing a land of meat and potatoes punctuated by Chicago and culture flare-ups in the likes of Indianapolis and St. Louis.

First, the Midwest is not as lily-white as the movie Fargo. That’s important to note, because regional stereotypes often rest on the assumption of a broad, bland suburban whiteness that demands dairy and unadorned carbs. It’s more like the TV show Fargo, populated by people whose ancestors hailed from West Africa and Laos as well as Sweden and Germany.

A Black pitmaster, Henry Perry, defined Kansas City-style barbecue, and his heirs keep generations-old fires burning across Middle America. Hmong-American farmers have brought new life—and new ingredients—to the Saint Paul and Minneapolis Farmers Markets. In Chicagoland, Hispanic brewers are pioneering a new American beer genre at three cervecerías5 RabbitCruz Blanca, and Casa Humilde.

Keep going and a popular stereotype begins to collapse like an underbaked pie crust. (Yes, we really do take pies seriously.) Midwestern foodways aren’t uniformly pale in appearance or origin. Neither are Midwesterners. We never were. One of the most celebrated Midwestern chefs of the modern era is “Sioux Chef” Sean Sherman, a South Dakota native who is opening a high-profile indigenous restaurant, Owamni, in Minneapolis in 2021.

Sure, you have that aunt in Iowa who won’t do anything spicier than Pace Picante.

I won’t pretend that she doesn’t represent many people between the coasts. But remember her killer mac and cheese and breaded pork tenderloins? Why is mac and cheese less meaningful than cacio e pepe? When made with care, a cheese-and-pasta casserole can offer as much pleasure. What makes a pork tenderloin less interesting than trendy katsu, which is also pork pounded thin, breaded, and fried? Her comfort food deserves a place in the home cooking pantheon, alongside skillet cornbread and fried chicken. The fundamental problem seems to be those signature dishes’ association with heartland tables, long mocked for relying on bland commodity foods.

Look more closely and you’ll find vivid and interesting flavors even throughout the retro Midwestern cooking of stereotype and punchline—from Cincinnati, home to a Mediterranean-spiced “chili” created by Greek and Macedonian immigrants, to the Dakotas, where fruit melts into a luxurious custard base atop the kuchen, brought to the Plains in the late 1800s by immigrants from Germany via Russia. Today’s Midwest is full of artisans looking to regional tradition for inspiration, including the Iowa pork pros at La Quercia in Norwalkthe bakers turning out all-Michigan loaves at Zingerman’s, and the brewers who interpret Indiana persimmon pudding as a sour beer at Upland in Bloomington.

Our region is not a monolith, and the myth that our food is bland seems to owe as much to snobbery as seasoning. If you go seeking flavor in this part of the country, you’ll find it in many different and distinctive forms—in the Great Lakes gefilte fish at Larder Delicatessen and Bakery in Cleveland, in the sauced-up turkey ribs at Smoki O’s in St. Louis, in the golden, flaky sambusas at Afro Deli in Minneapolis.

It’s time to ditch the blandness myth and celebrate the realities of life in a diverse, bountiful part of the world. Not every one of our towns is a dining capital (who can claim that?), but as a region, we hold our own on the culinary stage. We’ve got war-su-gai, corn dogs, knoephla, and spring rolls made with ćevapi, and we should feel confident inviting the world to dinner. There’s plenty to go around in Middle America.


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