Why Midwesterners Should Put Down Their Casserole Dishes and Create a Regional Cuisine
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have a regional cuisine and about where they come from. It can be a touchy subject coming from Minnesota and the Midwest, especially when everyone thinks our regional cuisine is hotdish and lutefisk.
It is something that is kind of ironic when you consider how much of the country’s food is grown here. I will admit to a certain extent that our reputation for hotdish is true, which doesn’t mean it’s still not embarrassing when you look at the quality of ingredients we produce.
What got me thinking about regional cuisines was Mark Kurlansky’s book The Food of a Younger Land about America Eats a series of unfinished books from the American Writers Project in the late 1930s and early 1940s that tried to document regional cuisines across the country.
Talking About Regional Cuisine
One of the things from the book that rang true was his comment that “[t]oday it is not easy to find local specialties in the Midwest, but it is surprising how strong that sense of regional cuisine was in 1940.” What resonates about the comment is how true it is, there’s a stark difference in the abundance and prominence of regional dishes between the Midwest, where they are few and far between, and the rest of the country where they are celebrated.
In some ways the comment was what you’d expect, when people talk about regional cuisines in America it always starts with stories from the South about BBQ, Chitlins, making moonshine, and the right way to cook things like greens and grits. In the Pacific Northwest it’s all about salmon and other good things that come from the ocean, which is very similar to the Northeast, where it’s all about clams and oysters with some Vermont maple syrup thrown in for good measure, then you have the Southwest with its chilies and tortillas.
In the Midwest there are a few stories about Native American cooking; unfortunately very little of it has made its way into the region’s kitchens and restaurants. Until the past fifteen years or so almost all the stories about Midwest cuisine were really stories about community. It was about the dishes people brought to church socials and community events that had their roots in the harvest and surviving long winters that came to us from the area’s Scandinavian and German immigrants.
Some of this has started to change as the food scene has exploded, particularly in Minneapolis. Everywhere you go in town there’s a great restaurant around the corner and all sorts of small purveyors creating new and amazing things from locally sourced ingredients.
What gives me hope is there are lots of people hanging out at farmers markets, trying new things at home, and who are willing to pay to eat tasty creations. The importance of fresh produce has become so prevalent that I think every kindergartner in town could explain what farm to table means.
As great as all of this is, almost everything everyone is doing is based on a cuisine from somewhere else, which can be a step on the way towards a regional cuisine or a step down the path of culinary mediocrity. Think about how California cuisine has its roots in fusion cooking but eventually moved on to become its own thing based on what Californians grow and catch and the lifestyle of the people living there.
Why Regional Cuisines Matter
So really, who cares, besides me, and why does it matter anyways. First, let’s talk about why it matters. The short answer is money, and the long answer is a sense of place. Just ask New Orleans about the importance of regional cuisine to tourism. It’s the same thing with Kentucky Bourbon or Napa Valley wines. Having a recognizable regional cuisine means more tourists and more money for the people growing and producing food from local products.
Regional cuisines are also a way to connect people to a place and a great way to build community. Many of the regional cuisines in America have their roots in the different cultural and ethnic groups that settled in an area. This can be something that helps bind people together and helps them consider a place home. This is particularly important for an area like Minneapolis that has waves of new immigrants from across the globe moving in.
So how do you build a recognizable regional cuisine? Most regional cuisines are built around techniques that are unique to an area and ingredients that have a connection to the people in that place.
You can see some of this around Minnesota with walleye and wild rice, both of which can be delicious when prepared right – they also can be easily diminished to a cliché. There’s also a lot we could do with venison, duck, Lake Superior whitefish, morel mushrooms, sweet corn, and the fantastic beer we’re brewing and spirits we’re distilling to name a few of the delicious things at hand. The challenge is we’re becoming less and less of a region of hunters and small farmers and the availability of these items is limited and expensive.
This brings up the other side of regional cuisines, dishes need to be widespread, they need to be affordable, they need to be made at home, they need to be eaten in restaurants, and they need to be worth people arguing about who makes it best. When you go to Italy, the regional specialties aren’t just what is in restaurants; they’re what’s been cooked at home for hundreds of years. They’re about the time-honored tradition of passing knowledge and technique from one generation to another and arguing over whose grandma makes it best.
What I hope is that we’re not too late, that we haven’t gone too far down the road of becoming a fast food, supermarket culture that only knows how to eat what everyone else eats. I think that would be a terrible waste of what our region has to offer.
I know most of the country thinks of the Midwest as a place to leave, but there are amazing people doing interesting things with the food here, and if we can ever put down the casserole dish it just might become a place you have to eat.
Mark is Umami's publisher