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The Midwest, considered America’s heartland, is home to many regional specialties and some of the most iconic foods of the United States. Though Midwestern food is not the fanciest cuisine, many of these dishes are symbols of Americana. From hot dish to Jell-O salad, these comfort foods are a product of a culture based on family and community.
A surge of immigration beginning around the time of the Civil War brought Europeans, especially from Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, and countries of Eastern Europe, like Poland and Hungary, to the region. Many early immigrants worked to assimilate into the culture of the region, which had been primarily influenced by the British. The new wave of immigrants adopted many regional dishes, adapting them to their own tastes and fusing them with traditions from their homelands.
As a region known for its focus on wholesome family values, the Midwest’s food has adapted to fit the lifestyle of its people. Large families, church suppers, and pot lucks call for fast, easy, and hearty meals. Hot dish, or casserole, is a classic Midwestern staple and a significant piece of American culture. Closely associated with Minnesota, hot dish is an all-in-one meal invented for its convenience and ability to quickly feed a large group of people. Hot dish normally consists of a starch, like potatoes, pasta, or rice, combined with meat, vegetables, and a liquid to bind the ingredients together. Cream soup, especially cream of mushroom soup, is a common choice for that binding liquid. As the name suggests, hot dish is then baked in a casserole dish and served hot, making it a hearty meal during the cold Midwestern winter.
With the Midwest’s focus on families and faith, the hot dish’s creation was inevitable, as a fast way to make dinner for a large family or church event. Hot dish is also a popular dish to bring to pot lucks, which are dinner parties in which each guest brings a dish to share. Some common types of hot dish are tuna with noodles, tater tot casserole, and green bean casserole. Various types of potatoes can be included, like hash browns or even potato chips. Some hot dishes are simply made from tossing together various leftovers to create new combinations.
Hot dish meals are often followed by a dessert known simply as “bars,” which are cookies baked in a casserole dish and then cut into rectangular bars. Jell-O salad is another popular dessert brought to Midwestern pot lucks, and consists of flavored gelatin mixed with cream and sometimes fruit or vegetables to create a fruit salad.
Loose Meat Sandwich
Known by many names, including loose meat sandwich, loose hamburger, tavern, and the brand name, Maid-Rite, these sandwiches are made of seasoned loose ground beef served on a hamburger bun. Maid-Rite is an Iowan restaurant that first opened in 1926 and popularized these sandwiches. Maid-Rite Restaurants are now found all around the region, and the name is synonymous with loose meat sandwiches.
The loose meat sandwich’s close cousin is the sloppy joe — a version of the sandwich in which the meat is cooked in tomato sauce or ketchup, making for an even messier meal. The origins of this sandwich are disputed, but it may have first been created by a chef in Sioux City, Iowa named Joe.
The pride of Cincinnati is its famous chili, known as Skyline Chili, or simply Cincinnati chili. This dish, a version of chili con carne, has no beans, but differs from Texas chili with its sweet seasonings, which include cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and even chocolate. Cincinnati chili was first served by Greek chefs, first at Empress, followed by the opening of the very first Skyline Chili in 1949. Skyline Chili continues to be one of the best places to try Cincinnati Chili, though its competitor, Gold Star has surpassed Skyline in number of restaurants.
Cincinnati chili is served in a number of “ways,” as they are known. This chili can be eaten by itself in a bowl, which is simply called a bowl of plain, and is the least popular style. Two-way chili, or chili spaghetti, is chili served over a bed of spaghetti. Three-way chili has the addition of shredded cheddar cheese to the chili spaghetti; four-way chili adds onions to that; and five-way includes chili, spaghetti, cheese, onions, and kidney beans. This distinct chili menu is fairly standard for buying chili in Cincinnati, and follows a set of specific rules for ordering. To order chili with spaghetti, cheese, and beans, for example, would be five-way, no onions.
Cincinnati chili is also served over fries, or as a cheese coney: a hot dog topped with chili and a pile of cheddar cheese. The Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitor Bureau reports that over two million pounds of chili are consumed in the city each year, topped with 850,000 pounds of cheddar.
As its name suggests, the Cornish pasty originated in Cornwall, England and was brought by miners who came from Cornwall to work in the iron and copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The pasty (pronounced pass-tee) is a convenience food that consists of pastry pocket filled with meat and vegetables. The pasty’s portability made it the perfect meal for miners to bring for lunch.
Though pasties originated in England, they are closely associated with Finnish immigrants of Michigan. After a wave of Finnish immigrants flocked to the region from around 1860 to 1880, they adopted the dish to assimilate into the British culture, looking to the former immigrants as an example of the road to success. Similar dishes were eaten in their homeland, causing many to assume the dish was Finnish in origin. The Michigan adaptation of the pasty uses a thinner crust and more vegetables. Typically, the pasty includes beef or pork, potatoes, and onions, rutabagas or carrots. Michigan pasties differ from the traditional Cornish pasty because the ingredients are mixed, rather than layered. A two-course pasty is made in some households, which contains a section of fruit at the bottom of the pocket for dessert.
Pierogi are dumplings, similar to ravioli or pot stickers, which are typically filled with potato, sauerkraut, ground meat, and cheese. Dessert pierogi are filled with various fruits. The dumplings are boiled and then baked or fried, and served with butter or sour cream. Pierogi, the Polish name for these dumplings, are the national dish of Poland. Similar dumplings are eaten in the surrounding regions of Eastern Europe, like Hungary and Ukraine. The Polish likely brought this meal to the Midwest, where they are a popular treat today. The Northeast and Midwest are the primary regions where pierogi are eaten in the United States, and they are sometimes found prepackaged in grocery stores in these regions. Some parts of the Midwest closely identify the pierogi with their regional cultural identity, like Whiting, Indiana, which is home to the annual Pierogi Fest.
American goulash, though derived from Hungarian goulash, has diverged significantly from the traditional meal. Though the American meal contains beef and paprika, it often includes macaroni, tomato sauce, and some vegetables like corn, peppers, or beans. American goulash is sometimes baked as a casserole, as is common for Midwestern cuisine, and topped with shredded cheese. This dish is especially popular in Cleveland, Ohio.
Lefse and Lutefisk
Lefse and lutefisk are two dishes that originated in Norway, brought to the Midwest by the Scandinavian immigrants who settled in Minnesota. Both dishes are common cuisine in this particular region of the United States, as well as neighboring Canada.
Lefse is a type of flat bread sometimes made of potato, somewhat like a pancake or tortilla, which is served as a side to many Minnesota meals. Lefse can be eaten with savory or sweet dishes, and are especially popular during the Christmas season. Lefse can be heated and rolled with melted butter, sugar, or cinnamon, or served as a side to coffee or dinner foods, including lutefisk.
Lutefisk is dried cod, cured with lye, and is a traditional Norwegian dish that became popular with Minnesotans. A result of the regional conditions in both Norway and Minnesota, lutefisk is eaten during the cold winters, since the curing process preserves the fish for an extended time. Like lefse, lutefisk is a common Christmas meal for Americans of Norwegian descent. Madison, Minnesota has claimed the title of lutefisk capital of the world, and the state consumes more lutefisk per capita than any other part of the nation.