21 Things You've Definitely Eaten if You Grew Up in the Midwest
Midwesterners do things their own way -- seriously, ask anyone from the Midwest to say "paper bag" and you'll experience vowels you didn't even know existed. And when it comes to food, the region is flooded with deliciousness that much of the rest of the country hasn't even heard of. Credit that to a hugely diverse history of immigration, and to the fact that sometimes, when it's that cold for that long, you need to invent new foods just to pass the time. Behold the 21 foodstuffs you've definitely eaten if you grew up in the Midwest.
Where to get them: Indiana and Iowa
What they are: Iowa and Indiana fuss about which state owns the tenderloin sandwich, but wherever it came from, it’s a thing of beauty that puts schnitzel to shame. It’s a gigantic hunk of pork pounded Frisbee-flat, breaded, and fried. Then this gigantic hunk of golden meat is served on a tiny hamburger bun that covers about 30% of the meat. It’s usually topped with mustard, tomato, pickles, and other things that aren’t pork.
Where to get them: Michigan
What they are: Hot dogs are a big deal in the Midwest, with Chicago’s hogging the glory. In Michigan, though, they’re treated with the utmost respect. Hell, there are even regulations in place to make sure only top-quality meat’s used. And the vessel of worship is the coney, which has nothing to do with Brooklyn and everything to do with a beanless chili-topped dog with raw onions and mustard. The glorious chili tends to be more liquid-y than Detroit-style and is the consistency of taco meat for Flint-style. You can get one everywhere in the state. And you should.
Where to get them: Minneapolis & St. Paul
What they are: Cheeseburgers stuffed with cheese, which pours out like the most delicious lava imaginable. Iconic Matt’s Bar claims to have invented them (and spells them “Jucy Lucys”), but they've become a signature of MSP bar-food culture, where adventurous cooks have begun stuffing them with fancier cheeses and other accoutrements like bacon and jalapeños. No matter how it's served, you’ll never look at a burger the same way again.
Where to find it: Throughout the Midwest
What it is: Basically ice cream, but richer because of egg yolk, which lands it somewhere between gelato and hard scoops. “Oh, come on,” you say, elongating your vowels in that glorious Midwestern drawl. “You can get this stuff everywhere.” And while it does make appearances occasionally throughout the country, you’d be surprised at how rare it is once you leave. There are stands on damn near every corner in Wisconsin, and even big chains like Culver’s carry it.
Where to get it: Ohio
What it is: It’s easy to mistake Cincinnati chili for spaghetti sauce, since it’s meaty, saucy, and, well, served on spaghetti. Or on hot dogs. Or just in a bowl. No matter what, it packs a lot of spice -- cloves and allspice figure into a lot of recipes -- and is at its best when served up five-ways: piled on spaghetti and covered in shredded cheese, onions, and beans. Skyline is the most famous, but it’s everywhere, and no two recipes are the same.
Where to get it: South Dakota
What it is: Some of our writers (unfairly!) dissed SoDak’s food culture, but dammit, if anything they’re keeping the toothpick industry afloat with chislic. Simply put, it’s little meat cubes that take a swim in a deep fryer, get punched with salt/garlic/whatever, and then get skewered with toothpicks for easy eating. Be it beef, venison, or lamb, chislic is essentially kebabs without all the stupid veggies, and it’s wonderful.
Superman ice cream
Where to get it: Throughout the Midwest
What it is: A red, yellow, and blue confection that leaves your face looking like you made out with Papa Smurf, each of Superman’s colors represents a different flavor, though it can change depending on where you get it. Blue is usually Blue Moon, a nutmeg-punched vanilla flavor also native to the region. Red can be cherry or, if you’re lucky, Faygo Red Pop, while yellow is typically custard. Sometimes you can find it in far-flung ice cream shops throughout the nation, where it’s usually greeted with squeals of shock and delight (just ask the poor teenager who endured my 10-minute freakout at a tiny Colorado parlor).
Where to find it: Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin
What it is: Not to be confused with what the gents at the dance hall called your Grandma back when she was super bangin', hotdish is simply a form of casserole. It usually consists of a meat, something starchy (tater tots for the win!), and some condensed soup all poured into a single serving dish. It's served by spooning it out of the same dish. Your hot Grandma loves it.
Where to get them: Iowa & Kansas
What they are: Like a less-sloppy cousin to Joe, the loose-meat sandwich is just a bunch of lightly seasoned ground beef with a bit of onion. So basically, a burger that hasn’t been pattied, which means it’s also delicious with any variety of condiments... or on its own. There are even chains devoted to them, including Maid-Rite in Iowa and Nu-Way in Kansas, where they call them “crumbly burgers,” which sounds wonderfully cheeky.
Where to get them: Central Illinois
What they are: The glorious result of a wild orgy between an open-faced sandwich, cheese fries, and nachos, the Horseshoe has spread out a bit from its humble beginnings in Springfield, but really, it should be everywhere. You can score them with everything from fish to fried chicken or (ugh) veggies, but no matter the meat (or, UGH, veggies) the structure is the same: Texas toast topped with enough fries to feed 20 Belgians, all of which is smothered in cheese sauce. Oh, and you can get them for breakfast, with sausage and bacon. God bless America.
Fried brain sandwiches
Where to get them: St. Louis, mainly, though spots in Indiana and Ohio serve them too
What they are: It’s not a clever name. Fried. Brain. Sandwiches. Usually it’s a cow or pig brain. Either way, it’s lightly fried and usually served on rye bread. And it’s delicious. Tender, fatty, and really mushy, kind of like sweet scrambled eggs. But, you know, brains.
Where to get them: North Dakota
What they are: Chocolate-covered potato chips, which have since been experimented with by the big chip companies, have their roots in Fargo. The most popular and widely known maker is Widman’s, which offers them in milk and dark chocolate, as well as peanut butter and white almond.
Where to get it: The Dakotas and Missouri
What it is: There’s a lot of German heritage in the Midwest, and that's resulted in a wealth of knoephla, which is a pretty basic dumpling that often swims in soups. They’re kind of like a dough-based version of gnocchi, and when the winds start picking up, they’re like a beacon of hope in roadside diners across the plains.
Where to find them: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and wherever else there is a rich Polish heritage
What they are: Paczki (say it with me: “poonch-key”) are little donuts filled with everything from cherries to chocolate to rose petals (it’s a Polish thing). They manage to pack about 500 calories and 25g of fat into something the size of a hockey puck, and on Fat Tuesday, they’re consumed en masse. Seriously. Paczki Day is a holiday in cities like Cleveland, Green Bay, and Hamtramck, and on this day, the person who eats the most is king. Or they at least win the eating contest and probably don't get laid afterward.
Where to get them: Upper Michigan
What they are: Sure, pasties -- that’s “pah-stees,” not “pay-stees,” which are what strippers wear in PG-13 movies -- originated in England, but Yoopers perfected them. A hearty treat that’s easy to freeze, pasties are essentially gigantic hand pies stuffed with root vegetables (rutabaga is a key ingredient) and meat, most often beef. You can score one with gravy if you want to be called a troll (Yooper slang for people who live below the Mackinac Bridge), or just dip it in ketchup.
Where to find it: The greater Cleveland area
What it is: Sure, kielbasa is great and all. But it’s even greater when it’s deep-fried (everything is), then topped with fries, coleslaw, and hot sauce. Some variations on Cleveland’s contribution to diabetes also include chili, cheese, pork shoulder, and other toppings. No matter what you go with, you’re not walking away clean.
Where to get them: Nebraska & Kansas
What they are: These are artisan Hot Pockets, only instead of pizza they’re filled with ground meat, onions, cabbage, and sometimes (if you’re really lucky) cheese. And instead of the flaky crust, it’s pillowy yeast bread. Though Russian in origin, Midwesterners, as they did with pasties, made them their own. They’re most often called runzas in Nebraska, where they’re rectangles. In Kansas, they’re round. Either way they’re shaped, they’re delicious. Jim Gaffigan could go on for days…
Where to get them: Michigan
What they are: First things first: these have nothing to do with Boston and everything to do with a street in Detroit. But that doesn’t matter, because Boston Coolers take something that’s already perfect -- that’d be Vernors ginger ale, Michigan’s greatest contribution to American culture since Motown -- and turn it into a shake via some vanilla ice cream. Suck it, Boston.
St. Paul sandwich
Where to find it: Missouri
What it is: Apparently before being canonized, St. Paul was super into Chinese food, and lo, upon man he bequeathed the St. Paul sandwich. Ok, this is actually probably more a case of some dude (from St. Louis, confusingly) just trying to get rid of a bunch of leftovers before they went bad. How else do you get to the logical conclusion of stuffing egg foo young, veggies, whatever meat’s lying around, and mayo between two slices of white bread? That, friends, is how you Asian fusion.
Beer cheese soup
Where to get it: Wisconsin, mainly, but throughout the region
What it is: Beer and cheese are the main staples of the Wisconsin diet, so it makes sense that cheddar and beer combine here to make a perfect soup that pairs wonderfully with pretzels, brats, and other food groups from Wisconsin.
St. Louis pizza
Where to get it: St. Louis and the surrounding areas
What it is: St. Louis pie is the unsung misfit in a region that obsesses over Chicago deep-dish and Detroit’s caramelized rectangle pies. Maybe people just don’t understand Provel, a regional Velveeta-type cheese product blending cheddar, Swiss, and provolone which is piled on a sweet sauce-topped cracker-thin crust that's cut into squares. This isn’t your Granddaddy's pizza. Unless your Granddaddy is from St. Louis. In which case this is definitely his pizza.
Andy Kryza is a senior editor on Thrillist's Food & Drink team who recently made his sister drive 100 Michigan hot dogs to South Dakota, where he picked them up, froze them, and flew back to his adopted home of Oregon, where hot dogs suck. Follow him to coney sauce that just doesn't taste like home: @apkryza.