Why the Beauty and Diversity of Midwestern Cuisine Is Overlooked

In a region known for pot roasts and Jell-O salads, Native traditions and waves of immigration prove that Midwest food is anything but a monolith.

Bison Steak at Owamni
Bison Steak at Owamni | Photo by Scott Streble
Bison Steak at Owamni | Photo by Scott Streble

Growing up in rural northwestern Minnesota, I ate my fair share of stereotypical Midwestern meals: Friday fish fries, Christmas lefse, church basement bars, cookie salads, and hot dishes aplenty. I also spent much of my youth hunting, fishing, foraging for wild foods, harvesting vegetables, pickling surplus produce for winter, and witnessing crops undulate out in every direction from our country home.

It wasn’t until adulthood, when I began traveling more widely, that I realized just how rare these childhood experiences were—and how seldom they are depicted to the rest of the country. Typically, Midwestern cuisine is categorized as dull and bland, and while I’ve eaten a little lutefisk and some Jell-O salads in my day, that’s not all there is to this foodway. From the Coen brothers’ black comedy Fargo to TikTok’s That Midwestern Mom, Midwestern food has come to be the butt of the joke. But local chefs and farmers are working to change that perception.

The Midwest region comprises 12 states and accounts for more than 20% of the country’s population, nearly 69 million people. Despite that geographic and demographic variety, the region is often characterized the same way: hard-working, self-effacing, self-sufficient, nice, average, and white. Many of these perceptions of so-called flyover country have been lumped into its food, too.

“One of the biggest myths about Midwestern cuisine is that it’s monolithic,” says Minnesotan Amy Thielen, the James Beard Award-winning author of seminal cookbook The New Midwestern Table and forthcoming Company. “In reality, it’s a bunch of regional pocket cuisines that developed from a combination of the Native American tribes who originally lived there, plus the first wave of European immigration, then the second wave of immigration, and today. So the character has changed due to patterns of movement and population.”

This idea of uniformity, true or not, characterizes our nation’s food as a whole. Plus, the region’s relative age also plays a role in its characterization.

“Europeans came a lot later to the Midwest than other parts of the country, with some areas not being settled until the mid to late 19th century,” explains food historian and North Dakota native Sarah Wassberg Johnson. “These immigrants from Germany, Poland, Russia, and Scandinavian countries had less time to get centuries-long foodways established, like in the Northeast or South, so they hung on to a lot of their traditions.”

Tepary Bean with Whitefish at Owamni
Tepary Bean with Whitefish at Owamni | Photo by Scott Streble

This historic timeline also explains why Indigenous culinary traditions—hunting bison and elk, harvesting wild rice and chokecherries—have endured in the Midwest. These precolonial customs are being revitalized by change makers like Oglala Lakota chef Sean Sherman, who grew up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and is helping drive the modern Native American food movement from his acclaimed Minneapolis restaurant, Owamni. Sherman uses ingredients from Indigenous producers to create dishes like Elk Short Ribs, Bison Steak, Duck Fat Squash, and Wild Mushroom Tartare—offering a regional culinary identity all its own.

Midwestern cuisine is also shaped by factors like seasonality and isolation, something Thielen experiences from her home near Park Rapids, Minnesota (population 4,122). “My closest neighbor is two miles away,” she says. “In these rural places in the Midwest where you have that kind of isolation, you’re generally going to see older food traditions being preserved.”

She received countless love letters after The New Midwestern Table debuted in 2013, thanking her for depicting these oft-maligned techniques and recipes in a respectful way. “There’s a lot of skill and knowledge to these rural traditions,” Thielen says. “If you’re driving 30 minutes to get the best chickens or planning an entire weekend to go pick blueberries in the woods, you clearly care about food a lot. I think my work serves to celebrate that and remind people they are working as hard as any New York chef.”

So why are certain foodways, say Southern cuisine, revered by some while others, like Midwestern, are rejected? As Wassberg Johnson says, it’s complicated. “One of the main reasons Southern cuisine is so revered is because it was a cornerstone of the Lost Cause,” she explains. “After the Civil War, there was a proliferation of Southern cookbooks as a way to transform cultural memory about the South. Other cuisines like Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Northwest are less well-defined because there’s been no political impetus to popularize them.”

A bountiful spread from “The New Midwestern Table.” | Photo by Jennifer May

Thielen echoes this idea in her theory that Minnesota’s big food industry, driven by the area’s agrarian roots, helped shape our collective understanding. “This vision of Americana and Midwestern food came out of the Betty Crocker test kitchens,” she posits. “After World War II, a lot of companies were putting ‘American’ products out into the world, and these home economists were essentially establishing a canon of what was American enough.”

We self-deprecating Midwesterners haven’t helped matters, either. “There’s this trope in immigrant communities that the first generation tries to assimilate, the second generation is ashamed of where they came from, and the third generation tries to save those traditions before they die out,” Wassberg Johnson says. “I think that’s true for Midwestern cuisine. There’s this cultural disdain for flyover country, and we Midwesterners have rejected our own foodways and ultimately fed into the stereotypes.”

But Midwestern food isn’t just destined to stay stuck in the past. Advocates like Girl Meets Farm star Molly Yeh—a Brooklyn transplant who moved to her husband’s fifth-generation Minnesota sugar beet farm—are shaping the cuisine’s next chapter. Her Jewish-Chinese heritage informs her unique takes on classics like hot dish and cookie salad, and the popularity of her new eatery, Bernie’s, signals that the future of Midwestern cuisine is bright.

Indeed, Thielen points out how more recent immigrant waves from Africa and South America are shaping the food scenes in places like Fargo, North Dakota. “Fargo has a lot of new Americans who are influencing the food community in ways you can see,” she explains. “For example, I now grow an African eggplant from seeds from a Congo immigrant named Simeon Bakunda, who lives in Fargo. I love that.”

In many ways, Midwestern cuisine is so misunderstood because it resists definition. It is rooted in many histories yet is ever evolving to reflect the confluence of those who have come before and those who will come next.

“The New Midwestern Table” Copyright © 2013 by Amy Thielen. Photographs copyright © 2013 byJennifer May with the exception of page 47, courtesy of Margaret Annexstad, page 102, courtesy ofIrene Kulig, and page 289, courtesy of Joan Dion.Illustrations Copyright © 2013 by Amber Fletschock.Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.”

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An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in ELLE, Esquire, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Saveur, and more.