The Midwest, also known as America’s Heartland, is home to a myriad of cultures. Immigration, over hundreds of years, has played a key role in the development of its diverse culinary traditions, as evidenced by its variety of delicious dishes, such as classic Swedish meatballs, Polish perogies, German bratwurst and the hearty macaroni and cheese casseroles.
Midwestern culinary expert Capri Cafaro hosts the “Eat Your Heartland Out” podcast and regularly features guests from across this region to discuss its many culinary traditions. Born and raised in Ohio, Cafaro is well versed in Midwestern cuisine and the different cultural influences on the region’s dining scene.
In this interview, she discusses the importance of county and state fairs in building community and showcasing different local foods and farming practices. We also talk about dishes that are unusual in the Midwest, such as “dessert salads,” and the prevalence of farm-to-table programs, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, that allow urban dwellers enjoy fresh produce from local farms.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q. How do you think immigration has influenced the culinary sphere in the Midwest?
Midwestern food and culture is incredibly diverse. I often think Midwestern food is perceived as bland, or industrial, or just typical fast food. These things are somewhat true and have historical context based on companies like General Mills, Kellogg’s and Kraft, all of which originated in the Midwest. However, Midwestern food has much more depth and variety precisely because of the immigration and migration patterns of people who have come to the Midwest over the past 200 years or more.
The goal of my podcast, “Eat Your Heartland Out,” is to show how different immigrants have shaped the face of food in the Midwest, like the Germans in Wisconsin and the Scandinavians in places like Minnesota.
Q. Can you give us an example of an interesting Midwestern culinary tradition that is still practiced today?
One of the things that I personally associate as a food tradition – and something I actually did a podcast episode about – are the Lenten traditions surrounding the Easter holiday and the fish fries that churches and restaurants sponsor Fridays throughout Lent.
They each take on the color of their particular communities and the churches they represent. For example, some places serve macaroni and cheese on the side; some serve perogies because they have a larger Slavic community; some serve haluski, a type of Eastern European noodle dish.
They also serve as a means of bringing the community together every Friday during the Lenten season.
Q. Are there any distinctive dishes that you would only associate with the Midwest?
The Minnesota Hot Dish is a historic recipe from the 1930s that calls for hamburger meat, onions, celery, canned peas, canned tomato soup, and Creamettes – a special Minnesota macaroni – all to mix and cook. This is not a typical casserole as it is meant to be the main meal.
Then there’s the runza (a cross between a Hot Pocket and a burger), which resembles a meat pie of Russian origin that has become hugely popular in places like Nebraska. There’s also the Cincinnati Chili, a stew-like meat sauce served with spaghetti, which I’m not a particular fan of, but is very popular in this area of Ohio.
Q. Can you tell us more about the unique “salad dishes” of the Midwest and how they came to be?
Jell-O salads, which can also be served as desserts, were born when it was discovered that bone marrow could be used to make gelatin. This discovery happened just in time to be showcased at the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, Missouri, where gelatin was introduced as a brand new food.
As mechanization and industrialization progressed, women tried to spend less time in the kitchen and looked for something easy and simple to do in a quick and affordable way. Cookbooks were published by companies in the Midwest, such as General Mills, Kellogg’s and Kraft, to promote this new gelatin product. You can still find these well-used Jell-O cookbooks in many Midwestern kitchens.
Jell-O salads continue to be popular with hostesses, who find them convenient and easy to prepare and serve, either as a salad or as a dessert. They are also easy to prepare and transport for church suppers or potlucks.
Q. County and state fairs are a celebrated tradition in the Midwest. What typical dishes are served there?
It depends on where you are going. In my part of the country, northeast Ohio, you will always find pasta and meatballs because of the many Italians who live here. Perogies are also a popular fairground item where there are many Eastern Europeans.
County and state fairs have their roots in agricultural production, sharing farming techniques and marketing your wealth. You have dairy products that are often exposed. For example, in my area, people line up every year for the milkshake stands at the Ashtabula County Fair, because that’s the only place every year where you can get the freshest milkshakes in so many flavors different.
The places where you will really find local food at the fair are those that are affiliated with a local organization. So sometimes the local 4-H club [a national youth organization] will have specialty food stalls, but you also have fraternal organizations – like the Lions Club, Kiwanis, or Rotary – that will have their own stalls to promote local food traditions, as well as raise money for their various organizations.
Q. What do county/state fairs say about the American ideal of agricultural generosity and the desire to celebrate it?
Although more and more people are moving from rural communities to suburban and urban areas, much of our country continues to depend on rural agriculture. The Midwest, in particular, has always been known as the breadbasket of the nation, if not the world. This is because it is a major producer of grains, including corn, soybeans, and wheat, as well as a major producer of livestock and dairy products.
Fairs have that feeling of nostalgia and draw city dwellers to return to their roots, at least once a year, sometimes even if they have never lived in that particular state or county. There is also a sense that although you are not necessarily directly involved or affiliated with agriculture, you want to commit to supporting it in some way.
Although farming may look very different today than it once did, the popularity of county and state fairs continues. Our nation’s politicians certainly appreciate that fact when they regularly visit these fairs to meet and greet voters and to sample the most outrageous new food items, like deep-fried ice cream or donut burgers.
Q. What do you think of the trend of farm-to-table programs like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that allow urban and suburban communities to enjoy fresh, local produce?
CSAs have been part of everyday life in many Midwestern cities for decades. Nearby farmers and small artisans promote CSAs as a kind of direct-to-household or farmers’ market activity, and as a way for even city-dwellers to have farm-fresh produce on a regular basis. You receive your box of seasonal products every week or every two weeks. This way you support local agriculture, even if you don’t live directly nearby.
CSAs are becoming very popular in urban centers across America, not just in the Midwest. I think there’s a misconception that the Midwest doesn’t necessarily set the trends, but I would disagree. These programs are a long-standing trend in the Midwest that is now spreading to other places.
Q. Do you have a specific Midwestern dish that you particularly enjoy?
I come from the part of the Midwest that is heavily Southern and Eastern European. So for me, my favorite comfort food is pasta. Also, anything that includes cheese, as some of the largest cheese producers are located in the Midwest.
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.