Paging through cookbooks that reflect our regional cooking, I am struck by several words that reflect the meals found on many home dinner tables: thrift, comfort, homespun, practical. And tradition, of course.
Perhaps this cooking speaks in the language of Midwesterners themselves.
“When I started researching ‘Savoring the Seasons,’ trying to get shy people to talk about themselves and their food was tough,” said Beth Dooley, author of several books on local cooking.
“Take old Jim Kwitchak. He hunted mushrooms, shot game, made sausage, smoked his fish in a gizmo rigged from a busted refrigerator. He presented me with a homemade loaf of his sourdough rye, and I asked if he had memories of his mom’s cooking. He answered simply, ‘My mother made bread and we ate it. Period.’
“By contrast, my relatives in Georgia brag about their collards and BBQ,” said Dooley. “The Italians and Greeks I grew up with in New Jersey argued endlessly about who had the best lasagna, risotto and spanakopita.”
Think of Midwestern food as the quintessential American farm cooking, Dooley suggested. “It’s simple, generous, fresh and seasonal, more so than in other states,” she said. And it is directed by the weather. “Winter demands hot soups and stews, whether or not you’re going outdoors,” she said.
Amy Thielen agrees. She’s the author of “The New Midwestern Table” and host of the Food Network show “Heartland Table.”
“When I go back into old American cookbooks, I find a lot of curiosity and respect for Midwestern food,” she said. “This is where you looked to find the really rustic, campfire, cast-iron, land-based American cooking. Mushroom hunting, grouse hunting, deer hunting, Dutch oven cookery, wood-stove cookery. These things were all associated with the Midwest.
“After the industrial food age, we became known as the home of the quivering Jell-O salad, and while I enjoy making jelled savory towers as an exercise and for kicks, I’m really more attracted to the older Midwestern history, our potatoes-in-the-embers past,” she said.
“And here’s a funny thing: Wherever Midwestern food is woods-based, you see the most pan-regional expression of this place, too. Native American, German, Scandinavian, Irish and more, all the people, original or immigrant, hunted the land.”
While there’s a steady stream of new cookbooks that focus on a single element of Midwestern cooking, I lean on several volumes that offer a broader look of the familiar flavors that say “home” to me. Here are my favorite Midwestern books — most of which include wild rice — all of which are still available, at least online.
“Celebrating the Midwestern Table: Real Food for Real Times,” by Abby Mandel. This was one of the early books, published in 1996, to celebrate our regional fare. From baked whitefish with tarragon mustard to squash bisque with sweet corn, Mandel gives us the perspective of a longtime Midwesterner who cooks us through vaguely familiar dishes and bumps up the flavor. Even 20 years later, these dishes reflect that comfortable familiarity we associate with home cooking.
“The Great Scandinavian Baking Book,” by Beatrice Ojakangas. My bookshelves at home contain a full row of volumes from the prolific Duluth author, who has more than 25 to her name. While I dip into all her books on occasion, one of my favorites is this Scandinavian baking extravaganza, which was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2005. Originally published in 1988, and later republished by the University of Minnesota Press, this covers what are the basics to me, from butterhorns to the sturdy loaves of bread that my ancestors enjoyed.
“Prairie Home Cooking,” by Judith Fertig. This book, from 1999, fairly shouts Midwest, with its chokecherry syrup and potato cakes, pot roast with parsnips and carrots, and sauerkraut with white beans and pork. There’s a nod to game — pheasant baked with cream — and the favored carbs of longtime Midwesterners, from homemade egg noodles to spaetzle or potato gratin.
“Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland,” by Beth Dooley and Lucia Watson. Published in 1994 as part of a regional series of cookbooks by Alfred A. Knopf and later republished by the University of Minnesota Press, this book is a treasure, with its wide range of recipes and commentary that reflect the diversity of the area, and with historical photographs that make us smile today (a giant fish, a woman churning butter).
“The New Midwestern Table,” by Amy Thielen. She sets the table today with this book from 2013, and it’s one that reflects the skills of a big-city chef who is at home in rural Minnesota. With compelling stories, intriguing recipes and colorful photos, she defines what our standard fare is today — and then makes it better.
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste