"If each of all of the races which have subsisted in the vast Middle West could contribute one dish to one great Midwestern cauldron, it is certain that we'd have therein a most foreign and gigantic stew."
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That's Nelson Algren — Nelson Algren! — who, in the mid-1930s, took on a WPA-funded gig chronicling the foodways of the American Midwest. His report languished, unpublished, until the early 1990s, but his account of the heartland's culinary melting pot rings as true today as 80 years ago, though nowadays limpa and lutefisk share that cauldron with not just fish boils and fudge but tamales and deep-fried Twinkies.
As alternately beloved and disdained as flyover country itself, Midwestern food stretches far beyond the fried walleye and cherry pie that make up the title of this expansive new collection. And as edited by Tribune contributor Peggy Wolff, the volume exemplifies not just the culinary eclecticism of a dozen-odd states and their Great Lakes, high plains, river valleys and deep woods, but also the scope of the authors' approach to their subject matter.
"Midwestern writers on food," runs the subtitle — not, markedly, "writers on Midwestern food." It's a mandate that serves as a blank check for the contributors, who themselves run the literary gamut, from accomplished novelists to journalists, cookbook authors and even a few chefs.
Organized into loosely themed sections — "Midwestern Staples"; "Holidays, Fairs and Events" — each piece is prefaced by a short editor's note that I found structurally unnecessary and that more often than not hit a mark somewhere to the left of the author's point (at least as I intuited it). But that's a minor quibble that did nothing to mar the overall excellence of the collection itself.
Some of the pieces are as sunny and straightforward as a Minnesota church lady bearing a hot dish: Elizabeth Berg, for example, kicks things off with a paean to the joys of meatloaf (and childhood), while further on, Jacquelyn Mitchard unpacks the perfection of sweet corn. On a more melancholy note, Phyllis Florin memorializes her Norwegian "Gramma" with a clear-eyed look at the labor — and loneliness — that was the lot of a midcentury immigrant farmwife.
Other pieces complicate the stew, setting the German and Scandinavian heritage of much of the upper Midwest aside to foreground the Southern staples that arrived with the Great Migration and the myriad culinary explorations made possible by more recent waves of immigrants from Mexico, Africa and Asia. In her smartly informed "Tale of Two Tamales," former Tribune food editor Carol Mighton Haddix uses the tamales of Maxwell Street Market as a lens through which to trace Chicago's immigrant history. And in the moving "Thanksgiving Dinner," Mary Kay Shanley pulls off a beautiful tonal shift, as her story moves from the apparent kitsch of Jell-O salads to acceptance of the inevitable evolution of her notions of both family and tradition.
But the real rib-stickers in the book — those that, to belabor the metaphor, add depth and complexity to the melting pot — are those that find new angles from which to approach questions of food, and its relative Midwesternness.
In "Easter Island Almondine," Aurora native Thom Jones looks back without nostalgia at his youthful stint on the production line at the General Mills plant in West Chicago — the industrial food system being a less-than-romantic component of the Midwestern foodshed, and one Jones was happy to escape. And in "Tomorrowland" Peter Meehan explores Big Food from the R&D angle, peeking into the test kitchens of Kraft Foods (in suburban Northfield) and connecting the dots between the molecular-level experimentation of Kraft's food scientists and the much-lauded culinary daredevils at Alinea, in Lincoln Park.
Taking a different tack, Sherrie Flick's memory piece, "The Tam-O-Shanter, Lincoln, Nebraska" seems at a glance like a simple ode to a dive bar, but under her light touch opens up to reveal simple truths about identity, and how it can be fostered with the help of a place to put up our boots and call our own.
Perhaps my favorite essay in the collection was Timothy Bascom's unexpectedly lovely "Bicentennial Pie." In it, Bascom leverages his memories of the 1976 Fourth of July in small-town Kansas to contemplate the legacy of slavery and the meaning of home, and freedom. Of course, it's only nominally about food — in the form of a devastating peach cobbler — but it serves as an eloquent reminder of how food can be a key ingredient in the much larger stew of life.
Martha Bayne is a Chicago-based writer and editor.
"Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food"
Edited by Peggy Wolff, University of Nebraska Press, 280 pages, $19.95