Another culinary event that I attended this past week was
the monthly program of the Culinary Historians of New York
(CHNY), of which I’m a member. The speaker was Bruce Kraig
(yes, I heard him TWICE in one week!), and his topic was
foodways of the Midwest.
I’ll deal with his talk in a moment, but first up, I’ll share pics
of my contribution to the evening’s repast. Being, as you may
know, from Indiana, which is most definitely the Midwest,
I baked my own version of a good ol’ Indiana cornbread.
Fresh from the oven:
Sliced and ready to eat at the CHNY meeting:
Also on the menu, a sugar pie, which, according to Kraig, everyone eats
in the Midwest. Personally, I’d never even heard of it, let alone eaten any.
A noodles and cabbage dish, of Eastern European origin. Again, never
had, let alone heard of, this at my house when I was growing up
in Indiana (and my paternal great-grandmother was German!).
I was definitely beginning to wonder about the speaker’s
Incidentally, both of the above dishes were delicious.
As to Kraig’s talk…it was fairly decent, albeit a bit rambling.
I must say, though, that I disagree with many of his statements
and claims regarding the Midwest and its culinary heritage.
To start with, when discussing the general settlement of the state
of Indiana, you divide it into thirds: the southern portion; the central;
and the northern. The southern was settled by people coming up
from the South, be it Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas, or any other
Southern state or territory. The central section was settled by people
who came from the East, whether Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and
so on. The northern third was settled much later than the other two,
with a mixture of people from the southern and central sections who
had moved north and of immigrants who’d arrived from other nations.
As to the National Road being the settlers’ route into Indiana. Yes,
some folks did arrive via that federally-built road (which began
in 1811 at Cumberland, Maryland; aka modern-day Route 40,
which happens to go through the middle of Indianapolis, Indiana),
but certainly NOT all. The Road didn’t even REACH Indiana until
1827! It was then another seven years before it completely crossed
the State, ending at Terre Haute in 1834. People were living throughout
southern and central Indiana long before any of those dates. The French
(who came down from the north) established a fur trading post in 1732
at Vincennes. White settlers (though, admittedly, not many) were living
in Central Indiana, trading with Native Inhabitants, by 1800, if not before.
Treaties for the “removal” of Native Peoples as far north as Ft. Wayne
were signed in 1804. By 1816, Indiana was a state, and the site of its
(second) capital city, Indianapolis, was selected in 1820. Etc.
As for all the German and Polish influences, which were reflected
in most, if not all, of Kraig’s suggested foods for the evening….
Again, I disagree. I can see that it may represent some of Chicago
(where Kraig lives), but not all. What about the large Irish and
Italian populations? Or the Swedes of northwestern Indiana?
Besides, Chicago is a major metropolis; its cuisine doesn’t
define the entire Midwest.
Then there was Kraig’s claim that my cornbread was a southern
dish. Well, yes it is, but it’s also northern. The first settlers
of the eastern seaboard made and ate cornbread. Early efforts
to grow the much-preferred wheat were unsuccessful, so they
“made do” with corn. Whether the early settlers of Jamestown
or Plymouth or anywhere in between, corn was often all they
had. It proved to be a stable, easily-cultivated crop, as well,
whether in the East, on the frontier, or “way out West.” In fact,
IMO, cornbread could be the first truly national dish!
One last comment, and then I’ll sign off. My paternal grandmother’s
parents came to this country from Germany, and they settled near
Green Bay, Wisconsin (aka the Midwest). I have her birth certificate;
it’s in German. However, as far as I know, the emphasis on all things
German stopped there. The goal was to blend in, to be as American
as possible. Now, how this affected the food served, or not served,
during my grandmother’s early years, I have no idea. But I do know
that, years later, at family gatherings when I was growing up, my
grandmother never ever served, let alone made, any German dishes.
Nor did my father ever wax nostalgic about foods of German origin
that he’d seen, eaten, or even heard of, when he was a boy. Nothing,
nada, zilch. So, to say that some German dish epitomizes Midwestern
foodways is, well, IMO, a load of good ol’ Indiana road apples.
I could continue, but I won’t bore you any further. I hit the main
issues. I think. Remember, too, this is my opinion. And experiences.
Feel free to disagree!
OH! Then there was Kraig’s explanation of the meaning and origin
of the word “Hoosier” (Indiana is known as the “Hoosier State,” and
residents are called “Hoosiers”). Now I’ve heard several different
versions throughout my life, but NOT the one he gave. Eeeegad.
Where does he get his information?! The thing is, it’s generally
believed that the word’s origin is unknown. There are many,
many different theories, but no one really knows. I think it’s
best to acknowledge that fact, even if you wholeheartedly
believe one and only one theory is correct. Again, IMO.
Sorry. Once I get going…! I’ll stop now.