APRIL 12, 2018

Cookbook Review: New Midwestern Table

“If Midwestern cooking has been hard to pin down, I think it’s because our best food has always been a celebration of this large, dynamic, plain-spoken place. Like the food, the vast interior of this country may seem ordinary to outsiders looking in, but it feels privately epic to those of us who live here.” – Amy Thielen, from The New Midwestern Table.

For all of us who have been cooking here in the midwest, I guess it seems fair that we all have earned the right to try to define our culinary culture. Thielen’s trajectory might have some similarities to our own, but then again, maybe not – she speaks of a deep cooking culture from her home area in upper Minnesota, which was so strong that not only could she take some of these techniques and background to cook alongside some very prestigious chefs in NY city, but most importantly that tradition drew her back home but with new insight and mission: how to apply new understandings and techniques learned to old recipes?

Many of us continually go through these same cycles in our cooking, but obviously not to the same level as a James Beard award winning cookbook as our result. We might cook from any number of sources or, like so many families, just wing-it night by night. If anything, midwest cooking, like any other area of the country for that matter, if limited by time will become a plate of simply cooked meat, a potato, a green bean. Even this can be a stretch. Let’s face it – take out, restaurants, granola snacking, all vie for position of top slot in many folks’ day to day cooking.

I’ve written about this so many times, but it bears repeating over and over again – cooking at home isn’t really about just the cooking at home. It is about a plan, a mission, a pause in each day to get groceries, a priority to stand in the kitchen for an hour despite all other responsibilities (or wish for the lack of responsibilities), and then that is only the beginning. Who will be available to come to the table? Will some of the well-cooked meal save, serve as a leftover? My goodness, will anybody help with the dishes? Oh yeah, one last question: did anybody really like this meal?

When we define midwest cuisine, then, it’s not just a genre of food that we are trying to figure out – it’s more about the lifestyles that surround the cooking. This is exactly one of the prime take aways form Thielen’s great cookbook. She spins us a family narrative which we come to realize very early on that is highly motivated by a food culture that has preserved recipes the likes of home made braunschweiger, for example, or a white fish tapenade of sorts. Recipe after recipe hold dearly several things at a time: certainly a nod back to grandma’s recipes, certainly an indication that her family is a very captive audience for the often communally driven meals, and an open curiosity at how those traditional recipes become modernized and yes, a bit more sophisticated.

In all, though, despite the fact that this new midwestern cuisine is traditional-modern, and that much credit is given to certain heritage roots along the way, it is time itself that makes midwestern cuisine. It is the very hours in the day that will or will not allow for a kitchen garden; allow for access to a pure butcher (her family is in the meat business); allow for the dividing of the day between work and food; a willingness to show children that they are a part of the food process, and so on down the line.

Without these devotions, midwestern cuisine fades very quickly to access to the nearest Culver’s. And doesn’t this make sense? Culver’s is midwestern cuisine, is it not? Red meat, potatoes, yes, even green beans. But available in a drive through form. And if Culver’s is not the choice, but that we provide ourselves with enough time to cook, do we pull out third generation recipes, or do we reach for the weeknight recipes found in Food Network Magazine, good recipes, to be sure, but by no means leaning toward midwest cooking. There are many reasons that midwest cuisine is nearly impossible to pin down, but this tendency toward sampling mass appeal recipes has got to be a big part of it.

I have been cooking in the midwest for twenty years, tried hundreds upon hundreds of recipes, but as I go through the New Midwestern table, I realize that virtually nothing except maybe an offshoot of the chicken and wild rice meal, looks particularly familiar as a staple. Shame on me. Surrounded by the land of world renowned cheeses, how often do I drive down to Monroe Wisconsin to Baumgartner’s to at this “kindly place, made with love, kindling fond memories of all the cheese sandwiches of my childhood.” Thielen has provided us with a potential new sense of ownership for food that might call midwestern. If we used to rely upon the great grandmother’s recipe index cards to seek out some secrets, we now have this book, written by a stranger, but who still holds onto time as if it were all precious and purposeful to devote to the kitchen.