Sure – you can stop by our spot for Crock Pot meals loaded with Cream of Mushroom Soup, or salads made mostly with marshmallows and Cool Whip. But the depth of the culinary and national influence the Midwest has had on the American palate is incalculable, says Fierebach.
Friebach, chef and co-owner of the Cajun restaurant Big John’s in Andersonville, is the author of the new book “Midwest Food: A Chef’s Guide to the Surprising History of the Great American Cuisine.” His second cookbook, it is as much a collection of recipes as it is a tour through our region’s food history.
While he mostly cooks Cajun these days, Fahrebach’s earliest culinary memories aren’t from Louisiana — they’re from Indiana.
“My grandparents’ house is on their old farm, where the cash cow was, where the smoke house was, where the blackberry patch was,” Fehrebach said. “They’re still doing pig murders. My grandmother had the garden and she used to can all this stuff, and I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
As he traveled throughout the South learning the cuisine he now cooks for a living, he became fascinated by the array of regional foods. When he returned home to visit his family, “I started to realize, actually, we have a lot of great, interesting regional foods here that I took for granted when I was growing up.”
“I wanted to write and document a lot of these traditional foods, because foodways are changing and disappearing,” he said.
By celebrating these recipes in his new book, he also wanted to dispel some of the narrow views people may have about Midwestern cooking.
“It’s derided as meat, potatoes and ranch dressing — which we all love, but there’s so much more to it than that,” he said.
“Throughout our history, the Midwest has been the most important region in the development of American food and drink culture,” Ferebach writes in the book.
“I can’t even get into why it’s so important,” Feerbach said. The Midwest served as the industrial center of the country, and that’s how it developed. It has been the breadbasket of the country as well.
Think meatpackers in Chicago and flour mills in Minnesota. But the Midwest wasn’t just making food, it was influencing how people cooked.
The Betty Crocker character was created by a Minnesota-based company that later became General Mills.
“Betty Crocker… had more listeners in the South for her radio show, in fact, than even the Midwest had,” he said.
Cookbooks were a large part of Feerbach’s research, especially community cookbooks, many in German brought by immigrants to the Midwest.
Among his discoveries: “The oldest hamburger recipe known to anyone yet. The oldest recipe for fried chicken.”
correct. Fried chicken is from the Midwest, not the South, Feerbach says. Fierebach also says that the Chicago Jewish community invented all-beef hot dogs.
“Sorry, New York. Nathan didn’t invent all-beef hot dogs. That was actually decades ago.”
Although fried chicken is not Southern, much of Midwestern cooking is shaped by patterns of the Great Migration, with black Americans from the Delta resettling northward as meat processing took off, Fehrebach says.
James B. Lemmon—founder of Lem’s Bar-BQ—saw meatpacking workers cutting off the ends of spare ribs and using them in Chicago-style barbecue, like the kind Feuerbach cooked on the morning of our visit.
“Most barbecue you do low and slow,” he said, standing over the grill at Big John’s. “Chicago style, we perform at a slightly higher temperature, and not for long.”
Fehrebach coats the rib tip and sausage link with Chicago-style barbecue sauce, “which is similar to Memphis. And again, there’s that connection: family recipes passed down and up the Delta.”
There are also multiple profiles of chefs across the region. Ferebach hopes to highlight the foodways of people of color in his book. He says it’s time for Black, Latino and Indigenous people in the Midwest to get their due in the food world and beyond.
“We need to invite them to the table… and support what they do, because we will all be richer by having them as part of our community,” he said.
The community Ferebach hopes will begin to speak up about his contributions.
“Maybe we in the Midwest need to think about tooting our horns a little bit and puffing our chests and having a little pride in what we’ve done for the country and what the country is eating,” he said.
“Midwestern Food: A Chef’s Guide to the Surprising History of Great American Cuisine” is available September 20.
Contact Nick Bloomberg: (email protected) | (773) 509-5434 | @ndblumberg