Cooking in the Heartland
Germans, Scandinavians, Eastern Europeans and Russians, Brits, and Italians constitute the melange of immigrant peoples who made the U.S. heartland their home. Like nearly all American cuisines, midwestern cooking combines the traditions of Europe, the ingredients of the new land, and some Native American know-how. The grueling nature of work in the northern midwest and the plains has also been a defining influence on the cooking. Farmers, loggers, miners, and railroad workers eat vast quantities, and cooking in the heartland has always been a grand gesture, matched by a generosity of spirit and a sense of boundlessness. It is simple but hearty -- great roasts and stews, Cornish pasties (meat pies), sarma (Croat cabbage rolls), many different kinds of breads and cakes, trout and whitefish, relishes and pickles, pies and cranberry muffins.
The winters are harsh and long, which determines the kinds of crops grown and has forced cooks to learn the arts of preservation seen in the smoked meats, pickles, canned fruits, and vegetables of all kinds, and cellars full of winter vegetables that become steaming stews. Farming and logging are seasonal jobs, and often farmers would leave home to spend the winters in the mines and logging camps of Michigan and Minnesota. They lived in communal boarding houses where hardworking land-ladies knew that a good table drew a good work crew.
So, what makes up midwestern cooking? Dairy is central: eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. The Germans brought beer, sauerkraut, sausages and wursts of every ilk, as well as the tradition of serving meals family style, with meat, relishes, soups, pies, and vegetables all on the table at once. Wheat and corn were staple starches: breads, pancakes, cornbread, spoon bread, Swedish limpa rye, German stollen, and black walnut bread don`t begin to name the thousands of breads, buns, and cakes that are famous here. Wild rice and wild mushrooms grow in abundance. Scandinavians brought their lutefisk (lye-treated codfish), lefse (potato bread), and meatballs; Hungarians, their goulash, Italians, their cheese cultures. Spicing is mild, fresh herbs from the garden like dill, parsley, sage and the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger that also show up in New England cooking.