What Heartland Cooking Is All About
We took a broad look at the list of 2014 James Beard Nominees to see if there were larger trends afoot in the food world. Turns out there were. Here, we present What’s Happening In Food Right Now. First up: Midwestern food gets its moment in the sun.
Nebraskan Runzas. Photo credit: Jennifer May
Let’s just call it: The silliness of selfies and social media is at a saturation point. Is it any wonder there’s a wave of interest in the sensible, no-nonsense food of America’s heartland?
The country cooking of the Midwest—a region that spans the bullseye of the United States from Ohio to North Dakota, commonly called the breadbasket of America—is “rustic, gutsy, and simple,” says “The New Midwestern Table,” author Amy Thielen. (The book is nominated for a 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award in the “American Cooking” category; her Food Network show “Heartland Table,” is also nominated for an in-studio television program.)Traditionally, the Midwestern supper looks like a Normal Rockwell square meal: “meat, starch, two vegetables, and bread, followed by dessert.”
And while that traditional food is heavily influenced by the Scandinavian and German immigrants who settled in the region in the 1860s, the cuisine continues to evolve as new populations from Mexico, Asia, East Africa, and Central America immigrate. “The Midwest of a 100 years ago is different than the Midwest now,” says Thielen. “[It’s] changing in more exciting ways,” That means not only an influx of ethnic restaurants but also easily finding Asian varieties of basil at the farmer’s market where once there was only dill.
And when you live in Zone 3, you learn to take advantage of each fresh bounty.
“The local food movement is really, really strong,” says chef Lenny Russo, nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in the Midwest for St. Paul’s Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market. Russo, a New Jersey native, moved to Minnesota in 1985. “If you can say this was raised by a farmer or this is a native plant, [people are] really anxious to support it.” He ticks off a list of foods in season one day in late April: morels, wild watercress, wild plum, crabapples, ramps, fiddlehead ferns, alfalfa, wild onions, ground cherries, native wild serviceberries, chokecherries and chokeberries, wood sorrel, wild carrots, wild mint, and wild rice. It’s like poetry to the ears of broccoli-weary supermarket shoppers. And the popularity of hunting and fishing means there’s also duck, rabbit, pheasant, and fresh lake fish on restaurant menus and in home kitchens.
These local foods give shape to the region’s flavor, and what’s done with them gives shape to the culture at large. There’s a rich tradition of big, one-pot meals, like booyah, a stew of beef, chicken, and vegetables cooked outdoors in cast iron kettles to feed large crowds, or cream can dinners. “A lot of the food is dips, meant for sharing, bars cut into squares, and divvyed up, casseroles cut into squares,” says Thielen. “[My mom can] easily throw down for 20. At my son’s birthday, we invited kids and adults. Thirty-five people? We can do that. Food is an excuse to get together and sit around and drink beer.”
"People take care of each other [here]," Russo said. "We care about the community. You don’t live here for the weather!”