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Jul 4, 2007 08:54 AM

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. 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.