When I saw local chef Paul Fehribach’s book “Midwestern Food,” I asked my husband what it could be about, aside from gluey white-people food. He muttered “coastal elitist” as he walked off to the kitchen.
I’ve lived in Chicago twenty-seven years, but I grew up in suburban Boston and lived in New York City in the nineties. I will always consider myself a Northeast person by accent, candor and outlook. But I wondered if this cookbook would be a collection that was something like the one compiled in my small hometown of favorite recipes, volunteered mostly by women. I called my mom to ask about that vintage collection and miraculously she still had it, so she sent it to me. Thumbing through the typed recipes, I found lots of canned ingredients, shortening, fruit cocktail, pimientos, “hamburg” and sifting. It’s a culinary time capsule of a small, affluent, pretty much white New England town in 1972. What and who would Fehribach’s book include? I was in for an eye-opener.
Well beyond a collection of recipes, “Midwestern Food” is an ambitious history of modern Midwestern foodways that developed over the past two centuries when people from many different cultures descended upon this part of the continent to create better lives for themselves. Fehribach has researched how the cultural foodways of early German, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian, Irish, British, Jewish and Mexican settlers from the 1800s onward melded (or didn’t) with those of Black Americans from the Great Migration out of the South from the 1910s to 1970s, and those of the original inhabitants of this land. Combine that tall order with the transformation wrought by refrigeration, freezing and the industrialization of food—which the Midwest developed and gave to the rest of the country and the world—and you have way more than a casserole: this is a fascinating, deconstructed social history told through food.
Initially inspired to write in honor of his German and Mexican immigrant grandparents, Fehribach, who is chef and cofounder of Big Jones restaurant in Chicago, mixes interesting interviews with a diverse group of modern Midwestern farmers, chefs, bakers and food historians, with recipes and old “receipts.” These are the kinds of basic recipes my Sicilian great-aunt wrote by hand (with no amounts of ingredients listed). Included are helpful listings of places to find best-of-a-kind foods from Minnesota to Kansas, Pennsylvania to Nebraska, and Cincinnati to Chicago. Through these histories, we can see how some traditions have been tweaked and interwoven with others, while other traditions such as the holy grail of fried chicken—is it from Germany? The South? Africa?—remain segregated and exemplify the racism that still keeps communities apart.
“Midwestern Food” celebrates working people’s food, dishes that have been shared at church socials, school potlucks,and community gatherings. From chow-chow and ranch dressing to horseshoes and mincemeat pie, from sausages and pizza to BBQ and whatever else you can eat with your hands, this is the book to help you find the best way to reverse engineer these staples at home and knock them into another ballpark. Sure, you can make a stereotypically Midwestern dinner by combining four processed foods already on your shelf: a starch, a protein, some cheese and corn flakes (and maybe a can of soup). But Fehribach gives us origins and recipes to create scratch hot dish, multiple kinds of regional BBQ sauces, pretzel salad (which is really a pie!), booyah, a fish fry two ways, every kind of pizza known on the prairie and in the foothills, Cincinnati chili, nifty vintage cocktails, and bonkers-sounding desserts like Cranberry & Bone Marrow Pie, along with more than ninety others. His reconfigurations show us why these all-stars became part of the Midwestern culinary lexicon in the first place.
Fehribach encourages home cooks to get out of their neighborhoods and take a field trip to a part of town where, for example, food blogger Titus Ruscitti (chibbqking.blogspot.com) says the local food is legit. While it’s still nice out, forget the supermarket and go to a farmers’ market and buy what’s grown around here, cook it and eat it. He stresses that to keep heirloom foodways alive, we need to eat local. I’ve never had caramel cake, but I’m going to Brown Sugar Bakery on the South Side to try it. I’ve also never read a cookbook cover-to-cover before this. I guarantee you I won’t ever make my own giardiniera, but you can bet your boots I’ll be cranking out some of his ranch dressing. I went to a gazpacho party last week, and I made his mom’s Cherry Delight for dessert; it was deelish.
Food brings us together, and local flavor is driven by immigrant communities. Human migration has always been a constant. This book celebrates the origins and adaptations of modern Midwestern food staples. One hundred and fifty years ago, no one knew what a hamburger (meat, bun, works) was. Who’s to say what Midwestern food will look like in twenty, fifty, 150 years? So many more immigrants from Asia and Africa have come to call the Midwest home, adding their foodways to the constantly updating meld. Get out there and eat local or make something Midwestern from scratch. Respect.
By Paul Fehribach
The University of Chicago Press, 280 pages
Kate Burns is a voice actor, audiobook narrator and writer based in Chicago. She’s a fan of soccer, gazpacho, rock ‘n roll, and knitting.