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Archive for Monday, March 9, 1998

FOOD FIGHT? MIDWEST SHOWS ITS TRUE FLAVOR

March 9, 1998

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I always reckoned Mama fed me right, and now I'm sure. Turns out that our family ate the kind of grub Midwesterners would serve somebody from Zimbabwe if they wanted to say to the visitor, "This is the taste of the Midwest."

It's not Mama who convinced me that I was eating pure Midwestern. It's research, which shows that the quintessential Heartland supper would feature roast beef or steak; potatoes, mashed or baked; green beans; cobs of corn; and apple pie.

Barbara G. and James R. Shortridge of Kansas University came up with this list. They've got an academic book coming out this month called "The Taste of American Place." Also in March, they're giving a talk at the Association of American Geographers meeting in Boston. It's called "Home Cooking in the Midwest."

Barbara Shortridge is director of labs for KU's geography department, and James is a professor of geography. For the home-cooking paper, they sent a questionnaire to 2,000 people in 12 Midwestern states, asking them to create a hypothetical meal for out-of-state guests. The meal was to be "typical and representative" of their part of the state. The Shortridges are still sorting out the 800 responses they got, but some conclusions, Barbara says, are already obvious.

For most Midwesterners, beef is what's for dinner. In fact, Kansas was the beef-lovingest state in the survey. A heavy hog-raising area in central Illinois makes pork the No. 1 pick of some people there -- and into eastern and central Iowa. Along the shores of the Great Lakes, where folks boil whitefish in washtubs, some of those surveyed put fish at the top of the menu. In other isolated pockets, venison, bratwurst, bison, quail, pheasant and turkey were designated the meat du jour.

How about chicken? Barbara said, "It's almost a default dish, to tell the truth."

What's for dessert is probably pie, she said, with apple at the head of the class. But the salad picture is a shambles. "No single salad seems to surface as The One," she said.

The research isn't funded, and a skeptic might question its value. Barbara says cultural geographers like her and Pete want to understand what makes people in one locale different from those elsewhere. Some things, like dialect, architecture and religion, have already been studied intently. There's less known about what geographers call foodways -- where, for example, grits lose out to hash browns, or gumbo to chicken noodle soup, she says.

That may interest her, but what fascinates me is where my family broke away from the Midwestern pack. Mama made potato pancakes, for example, not just mashed or baked. And she marinated beef into sauerbraten. I guess my family history -- some of my people fled Germany during the Franco-Prussian war -- could be told, in part, by the food on the dinner table.

But then there was the fried balogna. Anybody else's mama tell him that it tasted just like hot dogs? Was that a poor-people thing?

Some food for thought there, I guess.

-- Roger Martin is a longtime writer on research topics at Kansas University.

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