The Midwest is a state of mind just as much as it is a place. For all of its nicknames—the Heartland, the Bread Basket, flyover country, “the place I left so I could move to New York/Portland/San Francisco”—it has just as many identities. The region encompasses the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, a number of cosmopolitan cities, and many clutches of Amish and Mennonite communities.
While other American regional cuisines, such as those of New England or the Southwest, have won followings with their mystique and iconic ingredients, Midwestern cooking has, true to its sensibility, always just sort of been there, quietly proud of its understated glories. There was a time that I, a product of the Midwest myself, would have dismissively defined Midwestern cuisine as “ground beef casseroles galore.”
These five cookbooks prove it’s not so. Increasingly, as Midwestern chefs embrace the foodways of their homeland and dedicated farmers and artisans produce heritage meats and world-class cheeses, Midwestern cooking is coming into its own. And in many small, overlooked Midwestern towns, the passion for local, sustainable food isn’t a trend so much as an inherent tradition. While it’s unlikely that a Midwestern-themed restaurant will open in an East or West Coast city…well, ever, maybe that’s for the best. Each of these books offers its own take on the renaissance of awareness and pride in Midwestern cooking, but they also remind us that location—and the mindset it engenders—is the most essential ingredient.
Fresh off the presses and just in time for this summer’s ripening bumper crop of local fruit and veg, New Prairie Kitchen is driven by seasonal recipes from chefs and farmers who are actively defying the cliché of breadbasket commodities farming. Shining a spotlight on Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota, Miller includes profiles of hardworking producers who are dedicated to their crafts, be it cheesemaking, baking, or butchering, and that’s the biggest draw of this book; it reads like an extended Edible Communities issue in all of the best ways (incidentally, Miller is a contributor to Edible Omaha). Sunchoke gnocchi, braised bison short ribs, and goat cheese sorbet all showcase regionally produced foods and excite the reader to go out and cook up the bounty to be found in their own surrounding communities.
Adams, a food historian and writer who died in 2011, hosted various cooking shows on PBS in the 1990s, the most enduring of which was Amish Cooking from Quilt Country. In the book that inspired the series, Adams shares her unique outsider-insider’s perspective on the foods of the Amish and Mennonite communities. The layout of the book itself is elegantly plain, akin to the stark but moving geometry of the Amish quilting tradition, and the photographs by Alexandra Avakian have a National Geographic feel. Many changes have passed in the Amish community since the book’s publication—Vanilla Ice and reality television, for instance—and it already has a deeply poignant yesteryear quality to it.
A highly personal edible love letter to her home, The New Midwestern Table crackles with Thielen’s culinary excitement. The Minnesota native worked in high-end restaurants in New York City and returned with her husband to raise a family in a rustic cabin. (Hint: dwelling in an adorable cabin will crystalize the Midwestern living idyll.) She embraces local ingredients and foodways, and when she presents a mighty slab of homemade braunschweiger topped with pistachios, it looks way sexier than a fussed-over charcuterie plate. Chokecherries, freshwater fish, and birch syrup all make appearances, proving that Midwestern food can be as ingredient-driven as California cuisine. Thielen has a flair for re-energizing decades-old recipes with tweaks to cooking techniques or adding a few more crucial flavor elements—a lemony layered Russian salad comes off as fresh, rather than tired and mayonnaise-y—while still retaining the authenticity of the original.
A result of the long-running syndicated newspaper column that Amish mother of eight Elizabeth Coblentz wrote beginning in 1991, The Amish Cook offers a first-person account of Amish life that’s honest, unassuming, and utterly engaging. Coblentz, who passed away in 2002, wrote about not just the food that she made, but about episodes in her life and the everyday activities of her family. The book includes reprints of selected columns, as well as recipes for the sort of plain and simple fare that’s fitting for working people who rise at four in the morning and burn lots of calories (breakfast casseroles and baked goods abound). Reading it is like escaping to a slower way of living, but the tone is neither romanticized nor idealized. Even at the time of Coblentz’s writing, recipes like coffee soup and bread pie were falling out of favor for more Americanized fare (we also learn that that many Amish sects will happily use ingredients like Velveeta).
To experience a personality-driven cookbook without the forced image-crafting we see in many cookbooks today is refreshing. Coblentz’s daughter Lovina took over the column after Elizabeth’s death, and she, too, authored a number of enjoyable cookbooks in the franchise.
How any cookbooks make you long for Iowa or Ohio? This photo-heavy volume is a gorgeous celebration of the hard work and strong sense of heritage alive in between the Great Lakes and the Plains states. The food ranges from traditional to cutting-edge, and even the classic grub comes across with newfound sophistication. Fertig shares recipes for caramelized cabbage rolls, Heartland fennel slaw, smoke-roasted pork shoulder with sooey sauce, and root beer funnel cakes. Her copious sidebars reveal the history behind many beloved festivals and small-town institutions. Heartland: The Cookbook reassures us that rural America is not dying, but galvanizing its forces to preserve its identity. Fertig includes tasting notes about artisan Midwestern ingredients, reminding us that people craft exquisite foods in what many might think of as the least likely places.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor, and a proud resident of the Appalachian-Midwest interzone of the Mid-Ohio Valley.