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Cuisine de Terroir in middle America

Until recently, I, like most New Yorkers, thought that cuisine in states without a seacoast was basically a choice between chain restaurants and chain supermarkets. If you wanted a regional specialty, you'd have to settle for casseroles made with canned Campbell's soup, Jello salads, or Frito pies. Even after much time spent in Tulsa, I wrote a post about typical Oklahoma restaurants, and all of them used ingredients that could have come from anywhere. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/140283 But recently I discovered a whole new dimension to middle American cooking, and I am posting this account of a meal I had last night in order to share that revelation with you.

One of my mom's nurses lives on a farm about fifty miles east of Tulsa. You drive along back roads and byways to get there. "The street is named after her!" I cried when we drove out there last year. And indeed a signpost by the road bore her name. "It's not named after me, it's my husband's grandfather", she said. Her family has been in the area a long time. Just beyond her farm, the road wound past the old brown Mennonite church that serves the region. Most of the people there are Mennonite or Amish.

Once a year, in early July, Liz, the nurse, drives about seventy miles to the small farm community of Porter, where she picks a bushel of a variety of peaches, called Red Haven, which grow only there. A delicious peach, redolent of the robust perfume of life. She makes those peaches into pies, with a light ethereal cream sauce and a crust as subtle as an epiphany. Lots of heavy existential metaphors there, but it's easy to write like that when you taste her pie. We wait for those pies all year long.

Yesterday she cooked dinner. Sort of a Fourth of July meal, a day early, and starring the pie. She got up at sunrise, put on rubber boots -- that endless rain which has hit eastern Oklahoma has turned the land into marsh and mud -- and trudged out to the farm. She dug up a lot of potatoes, picked some cucumbers. She got corn from a neighbor. A nearby farmer had just killed a cow, so she bought a few steaks. At our house, she peeled and boiled the potatoes and then seared the edges in a pan. She boiled the corn. The cucumber got sliced and served with a creamy yogurt-like dressing that a German grandmother had taught her to make. The steaks went on the grill. We ate and ate until we bust and then we ate the pie. It was a lovely meal, a family meal, a meal not unlike what a family would have had on a good day a hundred years ago and more. Everything on the table came from her farm, and the neighbors' To a city boy, those rich explosive flavors were a revelation. "You could never get a meal like that in New York," I told her. Yes, we have some of the finest cooking schools, and chefs, and restaurants in New York. But that food didn't come from a fine cooking school or chef. It came from generations and generations of family meals, carefully cultivated and lovingly prepared. It came from an American farm.

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  1. Red Haven peaches are widely grown in the Midwest with a particular concentration in the fruit belt in southwestern Michigan. I have used Red Haven peaches for years to freeze and make jam. The last few years I have been making mostly freezer jam when using strawberries or peaches because the absence of cooking captures the ripe essence of the fruit better than any cooked preparation. Fruit for farmers' markets and stands or direct restaurant deliveries is picked a bit riper than peaches from the same farm going to wholesalers, so full quality cannot be bought in supermarkets.

    The quality of produce produced in home gardens and small farms for farm stand or farmers' market sale is usually much better than anything in available in supermarkets because the varieties used don't have to hold up for long handling or shipping, can be picked at the proper ripeness and are very fresh. Seed catalogs aiming at home gardeners and local market gardeners normally indicate which varieties are best for quality but don't necessarily hold up for shipping.

    1. I enjoyed Jane and Michael Stern's most recent memoir in chow, Two for the Road, about the food and people of American towns.

      Sure, some of what you find is Frito pies and instant grits, but quite a bit of is homemade, one of a kind dishes, especially if you take time to seek them out.

      1. it's nice to see the op had such an eye-opening experience, but i'm a little saddened by his previous narrow-mindedness. the ethnic groups that originally settled the mid-west and west brought culinary traditions from their native germany, sweden, denmark, etc. folks living on or near farms, even small ones, have always had excellent access to the freshest produce, eggs and meats.

        those gloppy casseroles of canned soup were an invention of the 50s by companies like kraft.

        just because i live in new england doesn't mean i eat clam chowder and marshmallow fluff everyday, ya know?

        1 Reply
        1. re: hotoynoodle

          I've lived on both coasts and I can honestly say that I've never eaten as well in the US as I did as a kid growing up in the Midwest. Grocery bags of morel mushrooms in the spring, chanterelles in the fall. Blackberries and raspberries all summer. My father's huge garden, fresh strawberries, pears, apples, homemade dill pickles, my mom's jellies and canned fruits and homemade pies and candies... Raw milk from the neighborhood cow, homemade butter and yogurt. Fresh honey from our own bee hives! I could go on and on.

          My father and mother were definitely more "old world" (jewish and irish, respectively) than a lot of my friends parents, but I am always amazed by the gardens that people have in the Midwest and the homemade foods that get passed around the family and a visitor would never even know existed.

        2. I also am perplexed as to why you thought that there was no food culture in the midwest. I grew up on a dairy farm in WI, and not only did we have all of the fresh, homemade dariy products that we desired, but there was 2 acres of potatoes, and a couple of acres of garden for everythng else. 5 apple trees, blackberrys near the bog, strawberries, fresh wild mushrooms and homemade polish sausage, fresh pork, beef, chicken, duck, and eggs. I could go on forever. A root cellar kept lots of veggies over winter and hundreds of jars of preserved foods were consumed during the winter also.
          If you ever get a chance, go to the farmer's market in Madison, WI some time. It'll blow your mind.

          1. For many in the Midwest food beyond Kraft mac & cheese, wonder bread and tater tot casserole does not exist. Some of the most amazing foods are in the Midwest but they are a well kept secret. Consider it like someone giving to a tip to an exclusive new restaurant or getting your name on the guest list somewhere "cool".

            Some people who still have friends or family with farms or land still cherish things like garden produce and really good meats. But I didn't appreciate any of this until I went and lived in California for a while and then moved back. California gave me a new appreciation for quality food, new and interesting foods.

            Instead of looking at where I live as the bland land of casserole I try to see it more as someone would explore food somewhere exotic like Tuscany. With that mindset I rediscovered that underground food culture and also connected with the growing number of people with an interest in really good cuisine.

            I have a 1/4 of custom butchered aged beef coming in a few weeks. I would have never been able to score that without the help of a friend and fellow foodie that knows a farmer and butcher. I know our local cheesemaker, I know our local organic gourmet farmer and the hippie girls that have the best fresh eggs I have ever had in my life.
            What is cool is knowing that these things I obtain on a casual basis here would be featured and highly priced in a gourmet grocery in a big urban city.

            7 Replies
            1. re: blackpointyboots

              "For many in the Midwest food beyond Kraft mac & cheese, wonder bread and tater tot casserole does not exist."

              i think this may have to do with individual family cultures, as opposed to regional reality. we eat what our family eats. i never saw tuna helper or mac and cheese from a box til i moved in with college roommates. tater tots may have been a staple in your house, but not necessarily every midwesterner sat down to the same dinner, right?

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                I agree completely. We never ate any of these foods... I was shocked when I went to college and all of my (east coast big city) college roommates ate nothing but junk. And later when I saw my friends and my son's friends feeding their kids this same stuff. You can find this kind of food anywhere in America.

                1. re: butterfly

                  Neither did we. Who could afford that stuff? Heck, we were sneaking into the farmer's corn field behind our house and stealing ears of corn.


                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    Hah! I did too. It was fields of corn in Dallas, TX, in 1962...
                    We had some good, fresh, farm stuff, when we packed up the car and went to the farm, near Austin, each summer. Sometimes we were able to bring some canned food and some fresh food back with us.

                    1. re: Scargod

                      There are some varieties of corn that lose their flavor within a few hours of being picked. No one wants to plant them anymore and trying to find them now is like chasing a ghost.


                      That article is by RW Apple, who is the bard of Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Eastern Shore of Maryland has a proud, colorful and fiercely independent history and a varied and unique cuisine. Apple was from there and he loved to sing its praises. Here are some articles he wrote about it, all of which -- especially the first -- fit in here:




                  2. re: butterfly

                    we ate out frequently; i'm a city kid, and none of that crap was in my mother's pantry. the only thing that came out of a box was pasta.

                  3. re: hotoynoodle

                    "For many in the Midwest food beyond Kraft mac & cheese, wonder bread and tater tot casserole does not exist."

                    True or not, you must understand that this is a common stereotype held by many coast people who should know better. Michael Bauer, the San Francisco critic, caused a big stink a few months ago by stereotyping all midwest food as bland and boring. And just yesterday a New York Times reporter who has spent the last several months rambling along the country roads of the Midwest, wrote this:

                    "AMERICANS do not like vegetables. At least, it seems that way after almost two months on the road, during which I’ve eaten at countless country cafes and rarely ever encountered anything fresh and green. When I have, it’s been iceberg salads with toupees of flavorless yellow cheese, battered and deep-fried string beans and, inevitably, cole slaw"

                    I hope that the posts on this thread will forever destroy this stereotype.

                2. http://vietworldkitchen.typepad.com/b.... This might be of interest to you and you might look into a Slow Foods, www.slowfood.com.

                  I think a lot of people have no clue of what is eaten and cooked in the Mid-West. Or, for that matter just ablouot anything else. When we moved here from northern NY I felt really deprived and when we moved from Savannah to northern NY I felt deprived and from the southwest to Japan and then back to the US to Texas and then Albany, GA. We become a bit ego-centric about foods from areas and don't always do good home work. It is sort of like a discussion with a friend about blueberries. She staunchly stated they are not blueberries if they were not grown in Maine and therefore not worth eating. Like blueberries have any sense of their geogrpahic location. The same variety harvested in northern NYstate, New Hampshire, north east Canada etc. are the same variety found in Maine. I'll quit rambling now.

                  1. I've lived other places, too, coastal important happening places where we measured the strength of our economies against the economies of entire other nations and of our institutions of higher learning by the number of Nobel prize winners.

                    I was so busy rushing around and being important that I had had no time to think about or care where my food really came from. But, the good news was, it came to me anyway. I didn't need to walk even a full two blocks before I encountered Mexican, Thai, Japanese and Korean restaurants. A few more blocks and I'd have Indian, Italian, Vietnamese and Eritrean covered. Sure, I'd pass plenty of chain restaurants along the way, too, but I had the disposable income enough to eschew those as did all of my busy, important friends and co-workers. Knowledge of the latest, hot new restaurant was like currency.

                    I now live in the Midwest--not in a small town, but in a mid-tier metro area-- I don't talk to my friends and neighbors about the latest restaurants (I have to come to Chowhound for that.) We have a culture of cooking in our homes. We talk about the latest recipes and cookbooks and our gardens (and our over-abundance of rhubarb and zucchini and tomatoes) and our bees. And the weather, which governs everything. It's not quaint or nostalgic, it's real. I get my vegetables from a farm (via CSA), the farmers market, or from our garden. Or from a co-op that is in my neighborhood. We trade honey with our neighbors for their pickled vegetables and jams and maple syrup. We know the folks who raise our beef and pork and poultry--we buy it directly from them.

                    We don't have personal dairy connections, but, again, we can get that from the farmer's market or the co-op. We have a short-growing season here--fewer than 90 frost free days a year--so we are acutely aware of what is in season and how to put it up to last all winter.

                    This is pretty much how my grandmothers did it, too. The Campbell's mushroom soup and tater tot hot dishes and jello salads are real (sorry, I've never had frito pie)--but they aren't the backbone of the Midwestern diet. The chain restaurants are real, too, but those are mostly for out-of-town visitors who want something familiar. And, for real Midwesterners who occasionally venture out, but haven't really kept up on the restaurant scene, so they eat someplace safe and familiar.

                    But, for folks who still care where their food comes from, even when they eat out, there are multitudes of restaurants and markets that focus on locally grown, artisanal ingredients. We're an airport hub, so we get exotic foods delivered to our virtual front-doorsteps daily, so our culinary horizons are starting to expand that way, particularly as immigrant populations (primarily Mexico, South East Asia, and East Africa) move in and all those expats pull up their Coastal roots, looking to plant them somewhere real.

                    Here's a list of just a few of them (rather Minneapolis-centric, I must say):



                    17 Replies
                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      Sorry to butt in but you have cited a 90 day growing season in a couple different posts and while that may be close to true (more like 120 days) for the Iron Range it's closer to 160 - 190 days 'round the Twin Cities. http://climate.umn.edu/text/historica...

                      1. re: MplsM ary

                        Hey, cool chart, thank you. I think I meant to be quoting the 120 days number--i.e., 4 months, not 3, of frost free days. You're right, 3 months is really hardly anything, even for most of MN.


                        1. re: MplsM ary

                          Growing seasons depend on water or soil moisture, day length, solar radiation, temperature highs, nighttime temperature lows, frost, evapotranspiration....

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            She's right, though, Sam, I had made a mistake and lobbed about a month off the "average" growing season in Minnesota--which arbitrarily shortened the season by about 25%! There's a big difference between "about three months" and "about four months." And it surely does matter which part of the state you're in, though, I'd say there isn't a lot of big scale farming going on in International Falls, nor in the Twin Cities proper. My point was that the season is short and intense (in part because of the super long summer days, I think) in the Upper Midwest and we are all aware of it. If only because it drives the local economy.


                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              Agree fully, DQ--growing season length, along with several other associated factors are important wherever you go.

                        2. re: The Dairy Queen

                          I think you hit the nail on the head, with the comment about a culture of home cooking. What's really amusing is seeing all of the raves on the LA Board about restaurants that feature things like hamburgers and pies, and other foods that those Red State folks make from scratch from local provisions.

                          1. re: mlgb

                            Which relates to raves about cassoulet, which is just a bean pot with preserved meats and poultry that are common to the south of France.

                            1. re: mlgb

                              People here really do cook. And while I don't think it's necessarily typical for people in the Twin Cities metro area to buy their meats and produce direct from farmers (we're also spoiled by some wonderful independent grocery stores), I don't think it's unheard of, particularly for folks who have small town roots. Folks in small towns even keep meat lockers at their local butcher where they can store the beef and pork they bought in bulk. Plus, there's also a culture of hunting and fishing in some areas of the Upper Midwest--so, people are used to the idea of getting a lot of venison all at once, for instance. For the most part, people understand where their food comes from and they haven't romanticized or idealized it.

                              And the co-op culture is alive and well in Minneapolis. I always thought of it as a 60's/70's sort of thing that died out, but Minneapolis seems to have more than a few beloved ones.

                              For the record, Minnesota has historically been a blue state--another thing the Scandinavians who immigrated here brought with them, aside from the lefse and lutefisk, was a tradition of being pretty liberal. ;-) .


                              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                Not so fast. MN is Bright Purple, and you should be as proud of that as the fabulous food culture there! I am always thrilled when I get a job that takes me to MN, except for the few extra pounds I come home with!
                                I don't get the Coastal folks who think that fly-over country is full of processed foods and junk. I think even Hot Dish that I had was made with decent stuff - once you get over the sight of a table full of it. Many Twin Cities restaurants would stack up favorably to the ones I've eaten at on either Coast. The food I had in private homes and small cafés was fresh, local and delicious. I'm trying hard not to snarf down the entire box of Brian McElrath's artisan Toffee sitting here on my desk. He's one of the top chocolatiers in America and one of about 8 fine ones in Minneapolis.
                                How did you get so lucky? Answer: you're not just lucky. There's a serious population of Americans who love good food out there in Middle America. The "local food" movement is just getting trendy on the Coasts but they're playing catch-up to the folks who've been living it all along. Growing it, giving and getting it from their neighbors and never thinking twice about it.
                                You are very right, TDQ, they haven't romanticized it. They just enjoy it. The New York Times has a circulation of about one million - a third the population of the Twin Cities. A couple of their writers think that they've discovered something entirely new. Like the rooster taking credit for the dawn. I think it's just about time that they caught up with what's really happening in America.

                              2. re: mlgb

                                Nobody's addressed the original poster's statements about nowhere to eat out in the midwest. Whenever I've traveled in that area, I've also had little success finding anyplace to get a decent meal. I'll admit that I'm a snob from California, and that there are many places in my state where you can't get a decent meal either.

                                I know that my Aunt Hilda was a great cook, and she lived for many years in Havana, IL (after being born and raised in Duluth) and so were my Duluth relatives. They made wonderful food that I remember to this day even though they've all been gone for years.

                                However, if you're traveling on Highway 5 in my native state, or any other big highway, it's going to be slim pickings. You're in luck if Burger King, McD's, Denny's, etc. are you faves. If you want something other than crap, however, you're usually out of luck.

                                In California, however, you also have the option every once in a while, of finding a really good place if you go off the highway a bit. For example, there's a good Mexican seafood place in Los Banos, about 8 miles off I5.

                                I've never found much of anything good off of I80 between here and wherever.

                                If my relatives were any indication, however, the home cooking in the midwest is stellar.

                                1. re: oakjoan

                                  When you say there's nowhere to eat in the Midwest, I assume you mean the rural Midwest? Mind you, "the Midwest" is a vast place, but I can assure you we have plenty of restaurants in the Twin Cities and next time you come to the Midwest, if you're coming anywhere near the Twin Cities, I would be delighted if you posted on the Midwest board for recommendations for Minneapolis/St. Paul. I know there are people who post actively regarding other big Midwestern cities, too. You mention Duluth--I don't know when you were last there, but there's some great chow in Duluth these days, too.

                                  And these restaurants most certainly do serve fresh local produce and such. In fact, when John Kessler (of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) was in the Twin Cities last year for the Association of Food Journalists' annual conference and wrote a piece on how the Twin Cities dining scene compares with Atlanta’s and specifically mentioned how impressed he was by the "eating local" scene here “golly, these folks mean it.”

                                  As far as the availability of places to eat in the rural Midwest. If you're driving through on major highways, all you will see are chains. Chains chains chains. That's deliberate--the chains position their restaurants right off the highways so you know to exit when you see the big Golden Arches approaching. But, with the exception of my namesake, those chain restaurants aren't really there for the locals as much as they are there for the people passing through. The locals are eating at home. From their big gardens.

                                  There are also a lot of little cafes and diners etc. sprinkled here and there but I think those are harder to find unless you're actually staying in town awhile. But those aren't really places for serious eating as much as places to gather, warm up over a cup of coffee and piece of pie, and find out the latest gossip and crop news. Also, I will say that in some of these really tiny towns, the advent of a chain can pretty much put the small town diner out of business. Happened in the small town my family is from.

                                  Also, you have to remember that rural people are used to driving longer distances for certain things. When you live in a big city, you have an expectation that all of your amenities will be nearby, likely within walking distance. When you live in a small town, you think nothing of getting in your car and driving an hour to get to the nearest department store or "fancy restaurant". Yes, every small town will at least have a bar and probably a diner, but real restaurants are rare and something you have to drive to. There just isn't enough population mass to support lots and lots of "real restaurants."

                                  Also, in Northern Minnesota, I don't really know what to call these or if there even is a special name for them but I'm sure soupkitten will if she comes back to this thread, but there is almost always a tavern, locally owned, whenever two highways intersect. They serve nothing but bar food, but at least it's not a chain.

                                  Finally, I will say that I've noticed a bizarre phenomenon that when I've visited family in the rural Midwest, they often take me out--very proudly-- to these chain restaurants. I've learned over the years that they take me there because they think of those restaurants as places big city people, like me, enjoy. They hear me talk all the time about how I'm too busy to cook so, they take me out. Often, people from small towns are so excited to hear a big chain, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, whatever, is moving in. They think it means they've been noticed and are on the map somehow, so, at least at first, it's a source of pride.

                                  Anyway, I hope that helps.


                                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                    One thing that has surprised me when eating in rural areas is that a lot of the restaurants don't seem to take advantage of local produce, meats, etc. I used to think that I'd be able to find great small places featuring local products etc., with great "home style" cooking, but instead I tend to find lots of fried food, lousy tomatoes and lettuce and so on even at non-chain places. During my summer visits over the years to Northern Wisconsin, though, I have noticed more and more small farmers markets in small towns, and this year a new food market that features locally grown produce, locally raised beef and pork. This year we also discovered a local dairy that sells its milk, cheese and ice cream, and that was fun (and they sell it on the honor system). We unfortunately were not able to visit Roth Kase, but I was able to pick up some of their cheeses, and they were wonderful, though I didn't, for example, notice them being used in restaurants. There are a couple of high end places in the area we visit that do seem to feature locally sourced foods, and we had some great Wisconsin jam at a local bakery. And of course, enjoyed a broiled white fish sandwich on Lake Superior one day.

                                    I'm not sure why this is - and I'm sure there are lots of exceptions to my generalization - but it is what I've observed in rural Wisconsin, Virginia and North Carolina - and wonder why the small diners, supper clubs, etc. don't seem to take advantage of locally grown food. I'd love to eat at a place that served a meal like the one Brian S. described, and am not talking about trying to find some gussied up gourmet place, etc.

                                    Edit: Oh, and I did meet a farmer at a farmer's market who is raising pigs, and you can buy one, pay them to feed it your feed of choice (apples for sweetness, acorns for nuttiness, etc.) and then have them send the pig to the butcher for you to have the butcher cut it up as you instruct.

                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      MMR, yes! when you order an animal direct, you get to specify how you want your cuts: thick or thin pork chops; whether you want bacon --and, if so, how thick--or sidecuts; whether you want ham or not; what happens with the leftovers, link sausage vs. patty sausage and what spices, etc.. Also, do you want your lard? On beef you get to decide how much hamburger you want vs. roasts; how you want your various steaks cut; how big you want your roasts, etc. And, the other great thing is you get to decide how you want things packaged--4 chops to a pack? hamburger in 1lb or 2 lb packs? Etc. Of course, you have to pay for all this, so, if you don't want 3 coffee cans full of lard, then you say no so you don't have to pay to have it rendered...

                                      So, it's not only a great idea to have a relationship with the farmer, you also need to have a relationship with a butcher. We have all our preferences on file with our butcher so we don't have to specify every time.

                                      I've never been high enough in the chain to be able to be the one who gets to specify how the animal is fed (acorns vs. apples etc.) because I'm always sharing with someone else who is the person with the relationship, but it does sound neat, doesn't it?

                                      As far as your point about sourcing for these small town restaurants--my observations are for the most part the same as yours. All I can imagine is that these tiny places have to do everything they can to keep the costs down just to stay afloat. I do see a lot of "home style" cooking, but also a lot of bar food. The small town restaurant with amazing seasonal sourcing is a rarity, I think. I think that's really hard to do and am guessing that the chefs with those interests and talents all move to the big cities where there's a demand for that. Hard to say.


                                      1. re: MMRuth

                                        I've been thinking about this sourcing-in-rural-Midwestern-restaurants issue and the more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with the priorities of farmers than it does with the priorities of chefs. When you drive through the Midwest, it's strangely Ancient Mariner to see a sea of crops surrounding you everywhere, but little on the tables of the small restaurants, but I have the feeling that the big farms there just don't have the time to work with a small, independent restaurant.


                                        1. re: The Dairy Queen

                                          Yes, and this is a recent phenomenon. Agriculture is becoming concentrated. You hear a lot about how younger people are leaving the land and moving to the cities. According to a recent NY Times article, this is not because they are lured by the cities. It is because they can't afford to stay. To keep costs down enough to compete with the big boys (agribusiness), you have to buy a lot of very expensive machinery. So big farms are the only farms that pay. (This is a new twist on agricultural concentration; the stark divisions between landed and landless you'd find in, say, ancient China had other causes.)


                                          1. re: Brian S

                                            Interesting observations - thanks to both of you.

                                            1. re: Brian S

                                              It's also true that mega-farms and mono-crops have taken over lots of the midwest. I read somewhere that there are hardly any birds left in Iowa anymore because of the proliferation of corn cros for fructose and biofuels. There is apparently much less diversity of crops throughout the U.S., and probably elsewhere in the world, since soy and corn crops have pushed out many others.

                                2. I was chatting with my MD's wife recently. She mentioned that one of the children will only eat chickn nuggets, guacamole and I think the third item was mac and cheese, not positive but in that vein. Gosh if that had been one of us we would have gone to bed hungry many evenings. It was eat what was put in front of you or go hungry......no peanut butter and jelly sandwich to make up for it. No special meals. You ate what everyone else ate or did without. Of course that made for some unhappy times at the dinner table whn my dad had to cook. With him you sat there until you either fell asleep or ate the dreaded green beans. I guess you could look at that like cruelty but luckily it did no't happen often, also at that time chicken nuggets and the like were not readily available.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Candy

                                    I don't remember ever not liking vegetables as a kid. Certainly I liked some things more than others. But my mom always said "just try it. if you don't like it, you don't have to eat it." And most stuff I liked. I never liked liver or raw tomatoes, I wasn't thrilled with squash, but I ate pretty much everything. Having that safety net of not having to finish it if I truly didn't like it was pretty comforting. BUT - if I took great gobs of it, then decided I didn't like it, or couldn't finish it, that was wasteful and bad. So you could take as much as you could eat, but you couldn't be a pig about it.

                                  2. What childhood memories you brought back for me. I grew up in Houston, where my father always had a big summer garden and we had a 1/4 side of beef in the freezer from dad's friend who had a small herd of black angus.
                                    My sister and I would spend a couple of weeks with our grandmother who lived in a farming area about 100 miles NW of Houston. Grandma didn't drive and lived in an old farm house on a couple of acres on the edge of a town of 900. She didn't have indoor plumbing until I was grown. Texas summers are HOT. I remember one day that we got up early and put on poke bonnets and walked to Grandma's sister's house. Great-aunt Augie made us the most incredible lunch straight from the garden - boiled corn, new potatoes and green beans, cucumbers and onions in vinegar, tomatoes right off the vine, homemade buttermilk biscuits with fresh churned butter (my sister and I churned the butter) and homemade jam and dewberry cobbler. No meat cuz they didn't have any. In hindsight, these were very poor country people who shared the bounty of their hard work with us. I've eaten all over the world, but I can't remember a better, fresher meal than the one we had that hot, summer day long ago in central Texas.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Pampatz

                                      I remember all over the South that the Vegetable Plate was a big seller at diners and small restaurants everywhere - even when there WAS meat available. The veggies were just that good and everybody loved them. Rich and poor. Add some cornbread or biscuits and that was Heaven on Earth!
                                      A tomato sandwich is still my summertime favorite. I eat out of my own garden or those of friends through most of the summer and, about half the time, the protein on the table is fish that was caught that day.
                                      Veggie scraps go into the compost. Fish scraps are buried for good soil in a few years. Hardly any trash to take to the landfill. Who needs processed food to ruin the good life? I think the food writers on the Coasts watch too much TV...

                                    2. I loved the soulfulness and sweetness of this post. What was conveyed was the complete-ness of the experience. Fresh flavors, robust portions, recipes from family history, a sense of community and warmth cumulatively created a gestalt-like satiety that went far beyond physiology. A meal like this reminds us of the glories of being alive -- I found myself smiling while reading.

                                      1. I'm so glad I found this post. It makes me think of my great aunt and uncle, who live on a farm in central Kansas. My great grandfather built the farmhouse a hundred years ago and my great aunt and uncle, well into their 80s, do a fantastic job of maintaining a true Garden of Eden on the property. The nearest grocery store is many many miles away but it doesn't matter, as most of the food in their kitchen is from their land or a neighbor. Meals at their house are always special, as every ingredient can be traced to it's literal roots. I think I'm overdue for a visit.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Jocelyn P

                                          how did i miss this thread?? i was just *bitching* about mid-west bashing wrt food on another thread, and here's this one. . . a beautiful post about a beautiful experience by the op, though i think a lot of people are going, "well *duh,* that's wednesday, or at least every other weekend (the pie and the local farm steaks-- the vegetables that were so incredible to the op are everyday, especially the fresh corn and the cucumber salad-- all summer)". . .

                                          on the other hand, quit telling everybody! let them think we get around by dogsled and eat condensed soup casseroles all year. don't tell them about our local food products, they'll move here and wreak everything! LOL! :)

                                        2. Whenever people generalize about rural/small town people eating poorly I am reminded of my friend's Dad. Not a farmer or a foodie; makes a point of drinking mass-market beer, bit of a reverse snob in general. But he and his wife eat local Mennonite summer sausage and apple cider vinegar, produce, meat and fowl from their own garden and friends, etc. And they eat very well.

                                          1. Where to begin...okay, I can't go reminiscing about everything here, much as I'm tempted to, having grown up in a family of talented cooks, gardeners and farmers (most of whom were not the same people, I have to say), and eating often well beyond my economic status because of that. What is truly sad, and what feeds these visitors' bad impression of Midwestern food, is that so many of the locally-owned eating places that used to prepare their daily menus from scratch (and locally-grown scratch, too!) have fallen into the hands of bottom-liners who get all their stuff from Sysco or whoever. Old recipes are discarded, seasoned cooks replaced with minimum-wage slaves making everything from commercial mixes, and yes, there are some who regard this as an improvement.

                                            Tom's Cafe, in Marshall, Illinois, was at one time an area destination. People would drive over from Terre Haute for dinner; sports-car people driving down from Chicago to Lawrenceville for weekend races would time their trip so that they could have lunch or supper at Tom's. Tom Koutsoumpas, the original owner, was gone well before my time, but his son Bill kept the place running and the food fresh and good right up through the '70s, into the early '80s. The last time I was in there, Bill was sitting at a front table, talking with one of the employees, smoking a cigarette and looking very glum. Some time after that I learned that he'd sold it, that the new owner had sacked a lot of the old employees, or else they'd quit in disgust; he'd thrown out all the old recipes and declared a new, improved restaurant, expanded into an adjacent space and acquired a liquor license. I went back to town for my 40th HS reunion and had breakfast there with some friends. The food was just edible, and the waitress as surly as a human can be and not get killed. At our reunion dinner there the service was friendly enough, but the stuff they were serving would have caused rioting in our old school cafeteria. At least I did get to have wine with my dinner...from a gallon jug that had apparently been opened last week.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: Will Owen

                                              I never knew there was anything in Marshall but then again it might pre-date me. But to hear someone mention my hometown of Lawrenceville is a miracle, lol.

                                              Speaking of Lawrenceville while it may not be gourmet I'd kill for some Bobe's pizza which is about as Midwestern as pizza comes.

                                              1. re: pickychicky1979

                                                If you lived in the southern half of Illinois in the '50s, the airport course in Lawrenceville was the ONLY place for sports-car racing. I never got down there, but I used to see some pretty exotic cars parked around the Tom's block on race-weekend Friday and Sunday nights.

                                                If we wanted pizza back then, it was either make it from a Chef Boy-Ar-Dee kit at home, or go to the ONE place in Terre Haute that had been serving it since after WW2, Ambrosini's.

                                                1. re: Will Owen

                                                  pre-dates me by about 30 years but interesting for me to know =) although I think Bobe's may have taken their recipe initially from the good Chef, lol....just one of those hometown cravings.

                                            2. Just another example of the ways in which NYers are so provincial.

                                              But, I have to say that my experience as a native Northern Californian is that outside the big coastal cities, fresh produce is not widely served in restaurants. Maybe people eat it at home, but in restaurants it's all iceberg lettuce, coleslaw, and overcooked veggies (often frozen or canned). And I know lots of Midwesterners -- even ones who live or grew up in farm country -- who don't include fresh vegetables in their diets in a significant way. It's one thing to be eating in Oklahoma at peak harvest season, and another to be eating in rural Wisconsin or Minnesota most of the year.

                                              11 Replies
                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                Ruth, not trying to be rude, but i think your post has disinformation and bias as well. ime folks in rural wi and mn grocery shop for produce/greens about once a week in winter, as well as eating the keeping vegetables and fruits in the cellar and the produce that was put up in summer. it's true that there aren't a lot of raw foodists on the iron range, but that type of diet doesn't make economic sense here. i for one don't see a problem eating garden green beans in january that were frozen within an hour of being picked, or a portion of cabbage or winter squash that's been cellared since september, vs. 2-week old "fresh" mexi-cali-agribusiness veg that were shipped 2000 miles in a produce truck. i think that kind of buying/eating doesn't jive with a lot of people's sensibilities, except around holiday times, when people seem to buy anything at any ridiculous price. even the restaurants tend to put up preserves, syrups, pickles, sauces, purees, etc for winter menus rather than buying excessive amounts of trucked-in produce.

                                                i'm not sure how much of your post is speculation or poor info, but the folks in rural wi & mn are not exactly nutritionally deficient, and even the poorest among them tend to live longer than the rest of the u.s. population, in large part due to good diet. maybe it's all those wisconsin cranberries, but not a lot of scurvy around here. even in the northern heartland the growing season is 160 days, with 6 week extensions possible with high tunnels, & the harvest of many fall vegetables continue after the first frosts-- these veg keep until february. . . it's not really "most of the year" that folks are deprived of raw local veg in any part of the midwest, and for the months of january and february we do have supermarkets well-stocked with mexi-cali fruits and veg--it's just a matter of getting all the dogs' booties on to mush over all those miles of frozen tundra to bring those texas grapefruits home. . . ;-P

                                                1. re: soupkitten

                                                  I'm sure some people still put up vegetables and have root cellars, but I doubt that's the norm. I'm just reporting on my experience, which is that the stereotype of the meat and starch Midwestern diet is not completely baseless and that the rapturous description of Middle American food from the original poster isn't any more accurate a picture of the way "middle America" eats than a description of people eating nothing but tater-tot hotdish would be.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    oh, i disagree! i think traditional food preservation is really much more common than people think, it's just a little under the radar, like lots of domestic activities. people who have access to year-round cheap, fresh local produce in california may think canning has gone the way of the dodo, but fully 25% of american households can food annually, and i'd wager this is is > 50% in the rural midwest, where food preservation (and gardening) makes the most economic sense. i have a ridiculous number of jars of pickles, jams, jellies, salsas, and other preserves given to me by farm families in my area, i never have time to consume all the strawberry-rhubarb jam and maple syrup before i'm getting hit with pear butter, mint jelly, and apple-black-walnut conserve. root cellaring has also never really gone out of favor for rural midwestern families who have the means to do it, because it's easy, effective, and pretty much free. check out all of the canning and preserving recipes and guidelines on the mn, ia, & wi extension services sites-- these pages are very heavily used. or visit the preserves exhibits at any rural midwestern county fair. as far as meat and starch-- well, most families i know, urban, suburban, rural, buy whole or half animals farm-direct. i'm pretty sure that doesn't happen in nyc or cali, but it's "the norm" here for a significant number of people, despite the existence of costco. what folks historically *don't* eat in the rural midwest is a lot of mass-marketed, heavily processed single serving convenience foods, while other foods that are hard to find in urban areas, like raw milk and game meats, are regular parts of meals in the agricultural areas. i think *that* is what's valid and important about the op, and valid and important about this way of life. people want to knock the rural midwestern family for eating canned garden tomatoes, cellar potatoes, and local grass-fed beef (that was frozen--horrors!), scratch-made pancakes, farmstead cheese etc. in the winter, rather than the avocado, microgreens and processed, vegan fake-meat salad folks enjoy in another region. i don't see it. the op's "rapturous description" is of a very typical midwestern summer meal, except the steaks are obviously company food. when i was growing up, my mom would make a pie from local produce for the family once or twice a week, we'd have the leftover pie the next morning for breakfast or packed into our school lunches. she froze our garden berries and local u of mn apples for pie filling. she canned in the fall, just like all the neighbors. right now in my area, everyone is eating local corn on the cob, garden tomatoes, and cuke salad, and will for the next few weeks. it's simple, non-fussy, inexpensive/free locally available food. bizarre to think you don't believe it exists, but it surely does!

                                                    1. re: soupkitten

                                                      I clearly said it does exist. I'm just not buying your view that it's "common" and "the norm." Where did you get the figure that 25 percent of US households can food annually? That just seems bizarre to me. Given the fact that truly rural areas of the Midwest (rather than sprawling pseudorural areas that are really suburbs) are depopulating and make up an increasingly small percentage of the population, even in states thought of as rural, that seems really improbable. Or, it includes people like me who occasionally make a few jars of marmalade (or last year, I made mincemeat), but who don't do any kind of serious food preservation.

                                                      I never, ever said anything about looking down on home-preserved foods. I'll happily take any jars you don't need.

                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                        then i'm misunderstanding your above post, Ruth.

                                                        lots of Midwesterners -- even ones who live or grew up in farm country -- who don't include fresh vegetables in their diets in a significant way. It's one thing to be eating in Oklahoma at peak harvest season, and another to be eating in rural Wisconsin or Minnesota most of the year.

                                                        i assumed that you thought that winter lasts "most of the year" in the northern heartland, and that there is something wrong with eating local put-up produce during the colder months? or do you think people don't eat fresh vegetables in the summer, when they are cheap and plentiful? that just doesn't make sense, since the upper midwest produces more vegetables and other produce than oklahoma. one of the farmers was talking about being so sick of sweet corn the other day-- "i just can't eat more than 6 ears for dinner, no matter how i try."

                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          I agree with Ruth. None of my friends who live in the midwest do any of those things. Some are foodies and lots are not, but they don't can or buy "half animals farm direct".

                                                          I certainly do not feel that Ruth was putting down home-preserved food at all.

                                                          soupkitten, the part of your post that gets me is where you talk about "the avocado, microgreens and processed, vegan fake-meat salad folks...." This seems more snide and stereotyping than anything Ruth wrote.

                                                          I do think it's an exaggeration to claim that 25% of American households preserve food every year. I would also like to know where that figure came from.

                                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                            I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; no one in my family farmed, but my mother still made jelly every summer with the raspberries from the back yard, and cooked and froze tomato sauce for winter use.

                                                            Much of the prepared food we ate came from the German deli, sausages, pickles, that sort of thing, or the Swedish deli, again, sausages, lingonberries. I don't really remember canned soup or packaged snack foods.

                                                            Summer dinners were usually corn (you could buy local corn at the grocery stores back in the 70s and early 80s), tomatoes from the garden, grilled brats, and maybe homemade ice cream with cherries from the cherry tree in my grandparents' back yard.

                                                            This was pretty common as far as I can remember, and my mother was a working mom, not a stay at home one.

                                                            As for winter food, who the heck eats a salad when it's 10 below? My mom made soup every weekend, turnips, potatoes, carrots, some of those frozen tomatoes from the garden.

                                                            I'm glad the OP had such an eye opening experience, but it says something about people from the coasts that they are so surprised by what what many Midwesterners consider business as usual.

                                                            1. re: lulubelle

                                                              In the past few years, I've found this stuff in New York City. I got to know people who live in Williamsburg, and have lived there for generations. That's in the row-house part of brooklyn, but behind all those tenement-type buildings are gardens. They grow tomatoes, a lot of tomatoes, back in those secret gardens hidden from the streets. Then there's the Bronx. A lot of people from Puerto Rico have taken over abandoned lots, cleaned them, turned them into gardens. They grow for the fun of it, it reminds them of their home villages, and they have so much that they eat their fill and still have some left to give away.

                                                        2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          RL... I know many, many people in the Bay Area whose main fruit intake comes in the form of an Acai smoothie, and whose main veggies are potatoes & the stupid little garnish size servings of veggies at most of our Bay Area restaurants. While it is absolutely true that there is very nice, high end (not cheap) produce in the Bay Area available most time of the year....

                                                          1) It doesn't mean a majority or even many people partake in it.
                                                          2) I don't think the best of the Bay Area farmer's market produce quite achieves the high level of stuff that has just been dug out the ground. Its good but not quite there.

                                                          I don't understand why... but it seems to me that the Bay Area foodies tend to overrate their produce to a much greater degree than people in other parts of the world.

                                                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                                            I'm sure there are loads of people who eat and drink crap here in the SFBayarea. However, ALL the good produce is not expensive stuff from the high-end markets or farmers' markets.

                                                            We get a box full of organic vegetables every week from a local farm (of course it has been out of the ground for several hours before it gets to our pick-up station, but that's just being picky). It costs $15. It has recently gone up due to gas prices and inflation, but for a long time it was cheaper than $15, more like $12 or $13.

                                                            I think this back and forth bashing is pretty pointless, especially since I agree that all parts of the country have some great farm-fresh vegs and fruit and culinary traditions are being carried on all over the place. I don't go around smirking about how great my home area is compared to all the bozos in the rest of the US. And I don't expect them to do that either.

                                                          2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                            I have to agree with soupkitten that putting up vegetables is absolutely the norm in the rural Midwest (my familiarity with the "rural" Midwest extends to 3 states that I visit regularly).

                                                            Most everyone I know in the rural Midwest has a big garden. (When I say "most everyone" the people that are exceptions in my mind are all elderly.) I will agree that not everyone I know in the rural midwest does widespread canning anymore (with the water bath or pressure canner and Ball jars etc,) but I think if you start to talk to people, you realize people are doing more than it seems. There is a lot of specialization and trading within families and neighbors. For instance, I have an aunt who does a massive amount of pickling and jelly making. We don't do pickles or jelly because we know we can get them from her and, in fact, that she'd be crushed if we went to another source. Plus, she counts on us for honey. (And notice how I say "us"--I don't live in rural Minnesota, but "us" includes very close family members who do, and we are expected to drive up and help with the honey and do things like pick up and deliver bees and such). It's not so coarse as, "We'll give you a jar of honey for every 6 jars of pickles" but more of one of those situations where we always manage to get enough pickles from her and she always gets enough honey from us. The easiest way of getting more, if you run out, is to return your empty, washed jars with heaps of praise. And you'll be sure to get a new supply.

                                                            Someone else in the family has apple trees--so we're all set there with apple sauce and apple butter and frozen apple pies, etc. Then there's the rhubarb contingent, the salsa contingent, the maple syrup contingent and so on. Everyone has their thing. At least one. And we all swap and gift until everyone has what they need.

                                                            I think freezing is super common and, perhaps among the people I know, has taken the place of a lot of hard core canning. Nearly everyone I know has a deep freezer and that's how a lot of food gets "put away" these days. Cellaring can be as casual as taking that basket of apples down to your basement for the winter. Many people do that with their root vegetables, too, potatoes and onions and all varieties of "winter" squash. Don't forget that it gets really cold here. Our basements stay at about 54 degrees in winter (that's where mine hovers at anyway). Our garages get even colder. In fact, when we all gather for Christmas dinner there's this bizarre (to me) tradition of storing extra foodstuffs in the garage when there isn't enough fridge space. The garage is most certainly cold enough--sometimes too cold!

                                                            As far as meat, well, don't forget that there's a significant hunting culture in the upper Midwest, too. Duck and deer and fishing and so on and all of that has to get preserved and shared.

                                                            My experience with buying whole or half animals direct is this it's a little less common than soupkitten's, but I will say that everyone knows someone in the business of raising beef and pork and and if you're interested and start asking around, it won't be long before someone will hook you up with buying your meat in bulk, direct. I personally do that with beef, pork, lamb, and bison--through a friends of friends of family. I get chicken from my CSA. In my case, I don't have a half a beef in my freezer 100% of the time, but about once or twice a year I get asked if I'd like to share in a half a beef that will be ready a few months from now, and it's up to me to say whether I'm in or out.

                                                            As far as the urban Midwest, I would say that the stronger your connection to the rural farming communities, the more likely you're engaging some of those preservation behaviors. In really urban parts of the Midwest where it's been several generations since those folks have had any connection to the land, I think it's probably true that there isn't a big tradition of food preservation, but that's more of a guess than anything as I don't honestly have a lot of personal connections in those communities.

                                                            The other thing I'll say is that people cook a lot here. I'm really tired, so I won't type this whole story out, but I was listening to the radio last fall and the host recounted this hilarious story about going to the Sur La Table in Edina (wealthy Twin Cities suburb) and discovering that the person in line in front of her was Lauren Bacall. Even Lauren Bacall is expected to cook, apparently!


                                                      2. Great topic! I'm with the group who observed that family heritage and personal preferences are the key factors.
                                                        My parents are from the upper midwest and didn't inherit any traditions from the old countries. Indeed, my Czech paternal grandmother emigrated at a very young age so she didn't have time to learn much from her mother.
                                                        Our California culinary heritage is pretty much based on personal preferences, budget and available foods. With four kids, Mom preferred frozen veggies for convenience - no canned ones darkened our door. In his own way Dad gave us a sense for quality food, for instance he was fond of well made sausage but didn't care for hot dogs. His (and our) mustard was ABF - anything but Frenchs. Our white bread was sourdough. Etc. As a WWII vet he bucked the trend and actually liked Spam (and didn't inflict it on us :-).
                                                        Mom cooked both casseroles and ethnic style (Mexican, Italian mainly) mostly, meat and potatoes was rare. Premade foods were often Italian due to local availability (IIRC Molino raviolis).
                                                        Family reunions have brought me mostly disappointments. We traveled all over upper Minnesota and Wisconsin and were appalled at the lack of restaurants featuring German, Czech and Scandanavian cuisine. Family meals and pot lucks were, uh, hit or miss.
                                                        I've no doubt that great food exists in the area, it's just well hidden. Thank goodness for Chowhound!

                                                        10 Replies
                                                        1. re: DiveFan

                                                          Yes, a lot of it is cultural. I did a somewhat similar post on India. The title was, "Why are Indian restaurants so crummy compared with the glory of Indian cuisine?" Many people from India, like many people here, prefer to eat at home. And when they do eat out (to give Mom or Dad a break) they don't want something that competes with home cooking. They want something different.


                                                          1. re: Brian S

                                                            I was thinking something along those lines. As I look for places in Oklahoma to dine while there, I find a proliferation of hamburger joints, greasy spoons and chain restaurants. If you go rural it's diners, small cafes (with chicken fried steak (CFS), and Dairy Queens. Not much more.
                                                            Could it be, that besides youth wanting fast food, that they tire of simple, home cooking? I remember eating at the grandparent's farm and quite a few other rural tables, where the food was plentiful and often simple and healthy. I cook a little more exotically than that but we have a garden and a freezer. Sometimes I long for greasy Tex-Mex or Thai that is different from mine...
                                                            I think the average mid-western restaurant has a long way to go to match home cooking. Overcooked vegetables, greasy food, terrible breads and wedges of iceberg lettuce, sinking in pools of blue cheese dressing.
                                                            OK, I'm now putting on my asbestos body armor!

                                                            1. re: Scargod

                                                              I think you're onto part of it, but I think you're simplifying it a little by lumping a lot of eateries together that serve different functions in the rural Midwest (and, by the way, the Chowhound geography lumps a lot of states together that don't actually have a lot in common culture-wise--a lot of upper Midwesterners think Oklahoma is part of the South, frankly), so, it's really dangerous to make too many generations about the entire Midwest or entire "Middle America" (whatever that is) based on just a couple of data points. In the three Midwestern states I spend most of my time in (I also have roots in two other Midwestern states, but I don't spend as much time in those, at least not lately) I think there are:

                                                              1. Small town diner/cafes--more populated for breakfast or lunch than for supper. These serve almost more of a social function thank anything. This is where people warm up over a cup of coffee and catch up on the weather and crops and town news/gossip. Usually, there's at least one or two "from scratch" items on the menu that are really good, whether it be the pie the roast turkey or whatever. The diner in one small town I spend a lot of time in serves including homemade soup every day. It's not all crap, though some of it most certainly is.
                                                              2. Tavern/Bar--serves greasy bar food, and why not?
                                                              3. Dairy Queen--a Minnesota-based chain. Serves primarily as a summer hang out/gathering point for the kids.
                                                              4. Supper clubs--places where people go to for fun on Saturday nights, to cut loose (there's often dancing and drinking), to eat something different (ie., richer, more extravagant meals) than what they are cooking from their gardens at home.
                                                              5. Chains. Set near the highway so people passing through (ie., not locals) on the highways can pull off and eat somewhere "familiar" so they can get back on the road quickly. Locals eat usually eat at these places because they hear about them all the time (on TV, etc.) and want to know what the fuss is. This is what they assume we big city people eat all the time. Often, the advent of the big chain plus small town flight kills off the local cafe and, then, that's what the town is stuck with.

                                                              Here's my theory on why you don't find a lot of local, fresh vegetables on menus in rural Midwestern restaurants (upthread) http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/4177...

                                                              I don't find the surburban Midwest to be substantially different than suburban anywhere else, frankly. Lots of chains with occasionally rich chowish pockets ( in strip malls, etc.) depending on the particular 'burb.

                                                              I think there's too much variation among Midwestern urban centers to lump them together and generalize, so I won't even try.


                                                              1. re: The Dairy Queen


                                                                Speaking of "rich chowish pockets", about 8 years ago we were driving back from Chicago to Oakland and made a trip to St.Paul to visit friends. We had dinner in Minneapolis at a really wonderful place called somebody's name like Judy's or the like. It was partially veg. After settling for blah food on the road all through Illinois and Minn. on the way, this was heaven on earth.

                                                                1. re: oakjoan

                                                                  oakjoan, just a small clarification-- my "chowish pockets remark" was part of my making a distinction between the kind of chow that's available in small towns vs. suburbs vs. the big cities and I was saying that suburbs everywhere, not just the Midwest, in my experienced are characterized by being populated by non-chowish chains, with occasional chowish pockets. I think the dynamics of rural, suburban and urban areas are very different and I think it's a mistake to draw a conclusion about what's available in one type of area in a region based on your observations about other types of areas in that region.

                                                                  Alluding to a point you made upthread, just as it would be a mistake to say, "There's no good chow in on the West Coast" based on your drive up I-5 from LA to San Francisco", I think it's a mistake to say "There's no good chow in the Midwest" based on what was available on the long stretch of highway you drove from Chicago to Minneapolis.

                                                                  The occasional "rich chowish pockets" to which I was referring are in the suburbs of urban centers all around the U.S.--in the Midwest but also elsewhere (think, Sunnyvale, lots of chains, but lots of interesting chowish pockets in strip malls, for instance, if you know where to look). In my opinion the older the suburb, the more likely it is there is good chow. Unfortunately for the Twin Cities, which is expanding rapidly, many of the suburbs are new, which means not a lot of great chow yet.

                                                                  While I'm delighted you enjoyed your meal in Minneapolis (though, it tickles the St. Paulite in me to consider, for a moment, Minneapolis to be a suburb of St. Paul...HAHAHA), it's not a surburb. It's an urban center. I think the options in Minneapolis, the city itself, are much more extensive than simply "chowish pockets" here and there.

                                                                  You've mentioned "Judy's" or whatever in a previous thread--I'm guessing the place you at at in Minneapolis was Cafe Brenda. http://www.cafebrenda.com/ Brenda Langton has a new restaurant, more upscale restaurant you might also enjoy on your next visit, http://www.spoonriverrestaurant.com/


                                                                2. re: The Dairy Queen

                                                                  I certainly wouldn't lump Oklahoma in with the Midwest. There are cowboys and Indians and people fight over water rights. (Though that's true of some of the Midwest Plains States too...) In cooking the dominant influence is Southern. I used the term "middle America" because I was looking for a term to include all the vast reaches of America which some of what Eat Nopal below called the "bi-coastal bourgeoise" would unthinkingly, and wrongly, consider a culinary wasteland.

                                                                  While looking for typical American recipes, I found this interesting series of vignettes of American food history:





                                                              2. re: Brian S

                                                                Another factor is the economics of small business. In smaller towns of the deep South 25 years ago I noticed extreme risk aversion to opening something 'unique' or 'different'; virtually all new restaurants were chain franchises.

                                                                1. re: DiveFan

                                                                  I don't know what the South was like 25 years ago, but I know for certain the Midwest and West Coast are very different today than they were 25 years ago. I wouldn't draw any conclusions about what they are like today based on what they were like then. I mean, 25 years ago, Reagan was President and the Berlin Wall was still standing.


                                                                  1. re: DiveFan

                                                                    I should have elaborated a little more. I was mainly thinking of Huntsville, AL which had a lot more excuses to be diverse and unique. The Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal draw people from all over the country - highly educated and well traveled is the norm. Add to that the German rocket scientist factor - the only two restaurants that impressed me were run by their relatives!
                                                                    I was making an observation about economics that still applies - risk aversion! Due to the current financial crisis, banks and govt will ensure even more of the same :-(.

                                                                    1. re: DiveFan

                                                                      this factor applies in New York too. It answers a lot of questions: why are there so many regions of Italy which are never seen on restaurant menus? Why do many restaurants serve the same dishes? They'd rather have a slice of a pie that's certain than a whole pie that might turn out not to exist, and lead to bankruptcy.

                                                              3. I was raised in a little town in Missouri, and had parents who loved to eat out - this was in the '50's. Most food was from scratch or a can, just like it was at home. Those places are, with one exception, all gone. One of my high school friends runs a restaurant, and reports that she has to try to compete with the chains and keep her costs low, so she can't afford the kind of man power it would take to cook that way. It's just easier to buy big pans of lasagna and sliced roast beef. In addition, she admitted that she, and her older cooks, were just darned tired of cooking the same things day after day, over and over, especially when they had to listen to people saying they could just as easily get their fried chicken at KFC "and it's the same darned thing, y' know, Evie?" Cooking has almost never been seen as an art in that world, and when it was seen as one, it was ONLY in the private home setting where a gifted cook would receive plaudits for his/her work.

                                                                Traditional American home cooking is a dying art, I fear, and those restaurants may have been the canaries in the coal mine.

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: lemons

                                                                  Great points.

                                                                  I don't think people truly grasp that Quality of Life has actually been declining in many parts of the U.S. and certainly throughout the undeveloped world. Its very subtle and masked by the proliferation of cheaper communications & Chinese made goods... but when it comes to Real Quality of Life (as measured by Maslow, by philosophies, by religions... by anyone with half a brain) has been suffering.... it now takes 2+ incomes for an Average American family to make it... and its probably going to get worse. This obviously is going to affect the restaurant industry and not reflective of the values & human quality of people in hard struck places.

                                                                2. whoa-- this thread really blew up!

                                                                  what we ate for dinner yesterday: homemade swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes (from local fresh), carrots (from fresh), peas (put up), coleslaw (from john's garden cabbage that he brought over because they are growing so fast they're splitting. we weighed the head before i cut it up and it weighed a full 10 lbs), homemade clover rolls (scratch), apple pie (mixed granny smith & local apple--paula reds, homemade with storebought crust, still hot & soupy from the oven). oh and local milk. pretty normal. grandma used shortcuts like the pie crust because she also made a roasted vegetable soup for lunch, with 7 kinds of local produce she had sitting around. right now everyone's gardens are going nuts and it's normal for people to bring along 3 tomatoes, some zucchini, or a 20 lb watermelon when they visit or see each other, & for people to bring excess produce to work to get rid of it, etc.

                                                                  when i drove out a couple weeks ago to one of the farms there were old 1950's pickup trucks filled with melons (watermelon & local heritage varieties) pulled up alongside the road with a big spraypainted sign "melons $1." you take your melon and put your dollar in the cup. in a little while the same trucks will be there with different signs "pumpkins $1." when we had dinner out there we had bone in loin of boar, cucumber salad similar to the one described by the op, garden tomatoes, herbed potatoes, baked beans, & the aforementioned 20 lb watermelon, brought over from a brother's farm garden, and a relative's homemade pickle spears. for breakfast we had wholegrain pancakes (scratch) made with raw milk and the farm's own eggs, and their own free-range pork sausage patties, strawberry-rhubarb spread, some zucchini muffins (scratch), and more of that enormous watermelon.

                                                                  to Ruth and OakJoan, the 25% of households canning stat is something i read at a county fair preserving exhibit-- i was initially surprised too. the info beneath the statistic said that canning was up from 10 years ago & attributed a lot to "ethnic specialties" including salsa, saurkraut, kimchee, etc, which does make perfect sense imo. i believe the stat came from nchfp (national center for home food preservation) or some such.

                                                                  the rural restaurants in many cases failing to source local produce is more of a distribution problem than anything else. the sysco truck delivers to everyone along the highway, but farmer dave can't justify driving an hour round trip in his diesel pickup to deliver a half case of peppers to a restaurant. if there's another restaurant or two, or a farmer's market close to the first customer, then maybe it becomes worth his effort-- farmer's markets, farm stands etc can be very transformative influences in rural regions because they make the food available, farmers can unload small amts of a diversity of produce items, and the market interaction itself leads to lots of networking and trade. the rural school systems, which can buy in larger quantities, do a better job at sourcing locally, than many restaurants, actually. in the city where there are many distributors and farmer's networks operating to facilitate farm to table, it's pretty easy to source locally, especially if you're set up that way (non-sysco type restaurant/establishment). this is getting increasingly better, and i can now source a ton of things locally that i couldn't, just 3 years ago. in the rural areas, particularly further away from the cities, it's still challenging for many farmers to make the jump to supplying area restaurants and csas. sometimes relationships with orgs such as heartland food network, southeastern minnesota food network, etc are good for farmers, but some others have been burned-- these are not one-size-fits-all solutions. i don't know if it's just where i tend to go or not, but the indie restaurants in msp generally source a ton of stuff locally. i just had lunch at lucia's recently, everything on the plate from 50 mile radius; 2 fat grassfed lamb chops, fresh local snap pea pods, carrots, pattypan squash, regular zucchini, regular and blue potatoes, fresh mint sauce, warm home baked bread & local butter $10.50 or $10.95 or something. i was surrounded by working lunch-ers and retired folks, normal folks across the board, no rockstars. the restaurant is 20+ years old, i believe, and hasn't changed its m.o. in that time.

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                                                    Thank you for this lovely essay. People in New York City travel for 4 hours and pay $100 to eat a meal like the one you had yesterday... but of course not nearly as good.


                                                                    1. re: Brian S

                                                                      the thing about it, is that most of these traditional meals are/were the *anti* $100 meal-- using all the fresh local produce in multiple vegetable side dishes, the homemade bread, some filling dairy products, gotta save room for pie-- you can get by with feeding each person just a few ounces of meat-- though maybe supplemented with a little too much gravy, in some cases! :-P i think of the so-called "traditional american thanksgiving meal, with all the fixings" is a great example of a traditional rural midwestern meal-- you can feed a huge, hungry gathering of 20+ with one bird, the meat quantity stretched with stuffing/drippings, rolls/biscuits, & giblet gravy, and then you have all the seasonal veg-- squash/sweet potatoes, cabbage, potatoes, green beans, kale/greens, brussels sprouts, wild rice, chestnuts, apples, cranberries. . . this meal was at one time cheap/free for rural families in the region, now it's a huge, expensive production across the country and it's easy to lose sight of where it originated. people make one or two veg sides, open a can of cranberry sauce, buy a grocery store pumpkin pie and some cool whip and complain that the meal is boring.

                                                                      the type of farm-to table restaurant in the bruni review you link to, Brian, is very common here, maybe even becoming the norm for new restaurants in msp-- perhaps i'm getting a little ahead of myself, but still, the model is very influential. the prices are lower, here, though :)

                                                                      from the nyt review:
                                                                      "a rough purée that, Mr. Barber explained later by telephone, was hung in cheesecloth, with a container beneath to catch the drip. "

                                                                      this technique sounds a lot like the method for making what we called a "chairback syrup"-- a no-cook method for preserving an abundance of berries in the height of summer. i never thought of making a savory version, though it makes sense, of course! i described the method in this old thread:

                                                                      anyway, cheers. it's tough sometimes for different u.s. regions to assert, & reassert, their own food traditions, with the population centers on the coasts setting the trends. west coast agribusiness works very hard to put local farms out of business, suck out food resources at bottom dollar, and in return, expects us in the midwest to pay exorbitant prices for factory-farmed "fresh" bagged greens, tasteless strawberries, & others. although many people in the msp area have bucked this trend for generations, the local chefs and restaurants have finally brought it up to the forefront of how mainstream people are eating. it seems to be fashionable to bash traditional midwestern food these days-- just as folks used to make fun of southern food, provencal cuisine, northern italian, etc 20+ years ago-- but it's pretty exciting to be cooking in minneapolis right now, there's a lot going on and the local artisan food traditions are going through a much-needed revival-- which those on the coasts totally dismiss as quaintly parochial-- oh well, more good food for me. the problem with dismissing the foodways of such a huge geographical area as "the midwest," is that you're bound to overlook the cool stuff, and fail to recognize any real regional differences.