When we say "American food," we mean the soothing comfort foods of the Midwest: fare that's hearty and simple, not fancy or frivolous.
Hearty Heartland Fare
The American Midwest is the bread basket of the country. Here in the Heartland, the farms produce the vegetables, grains, fruits, dairy and meats that the rest of the country consumes. When people talk about "American food" in any kind of general sense what they usually mean is Midwestern cuisine. These are the cheesy casseroles, pot roasts, and baked pastas; the soothing comfort foods that pull us through on a chilly winter evening--hearty and simple rather than fancy and frivolous, flavorful but not aggressively spiced. It should not be surprising, then, that the Midwest gave us "Betty Crocker," not an actual person but the personification of the ideal American home cook as conceived by Minnesota-based General Mills.
Kansas City Barbeque
As in the South, Kansas City folks take their barbeque very seriously. But that doesn't mean they can't joke about it. Kansas City native Calvin Trillon writes with biting humor about his hometown barbeque fanatics--the kind of people who visit other storied BBQ towns only to "sample the ribs, sneer, and fly back to Kansas City." Yet for all the purported snobbery, Kansas City barbeque is actually fairly inclusive. It permits both pork, like in the Carolinas, and beef, like in Texas--perhaps owing to Kansas City's history as a meat-packing and stockyard center. The difference is in the chunky, slightly sweet tomato sauces that are lathered liberally onto the meats.
Windy City Pizza
The famous Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a world away from the thin-crust Neapolitan style pizza that grew to fame in New York City pizzerias. In 1943, a couple of Chicago restaurateurs first presented their cheesy, thick-crust pie to a mostly pizza-puzzled Chicago crowd at Pizzeria Uno. It was not an overnight success. In the early days, they resorted to giving away free slices of pizza with drink purchases at the bar! Not anymore. Today, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a hit throughout the country.
Michigan produces about 75 percent of the tart cherries grown in the United States. These are the sour cherries that are best suited for pies, jellies, jams and juices. Early French explorers from Normandy (still a center of cherry production in its own right) planted the first cherry trees in the Midwest on their way to founding cities like Detroit. The trees thrived along Lake Michigan, setting the stage for a serious industry to blossom.
Sud City, Here We Come!
When you think "beer and a brat," isn't it the Midwest you have in mind? It's a tradition with a heady past. When Germans and Czechs settled in the Midwest, they brought beer-making knowledge from the old country--and made use of the surrounding prairie to grow the grains necessary for beer brewing. Cities like St. Louis and Milwaukee ("Sud City") remain big brewery towns. German and Polish immigrants in the Midwest also turned their knack for knackwurst and other German-style sausages into a serious industry--creating a perfect pairing of suds and sausage.
Your all-beef Chicago dog will arrive on a poppy seed bun slathered with mustard and sweet relish--don't even think about adding ketchup!--and topped with chopped onions, tomato slices, a pickle spear, sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. If you prefer your dogs dipped and deep-fried, you might consider the corn dog--though thought a southern specialty, corn dogs made an early appearance at the Minnesota State Fair back in 1941. Southern Wisconsin, meanwhile, is well known for its festive Friday night fish fries. In Milwaukee in the summertime, look out for frozen custard stands. Down in Ohio, a local style of chili keeps tongues wagging. Cincinnati Chili comes any of "five ways": as a straight-up bowl of chili or served over spaghetti and topped with beans, cheese and/or onions. And if you've never tasted toasted ravioli, give them a try next time you're in St. Louis. Finally, some of America's biggest burger chains got their start in the Midwest: McDonald's in Illinois and, in the square burger category, White Castle and Wendy's in Ohio.
If Americans really are what we eat, then it's surprising we don't have golden brown silks for hair and skin made of yellowing husks. We put away enormous quantities of corn, much of it disguised as high-fructose corn syrup, cooking oil, or as the various fillers and binders that go into processed foods. Corn also feeds the cattle, pigs and chickens that we, in turn, consume. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, calculates that about one quarter of all the products available at the supermarket (including the non-edible stuff) contains corn in one guise or another. Yes, corn is everywhere. And in parts of the Midwest, the fields of it stretch endlessly to the horizon. In 2005, Iowa alone produced over 2 billion bushels of corn.
The Fat of the Land
As with other regions of the United States, the Midwest's culinary history begins with Native Americans and their subsequent contact with Old World immigrants. Out on the central plains, Native Americans hunted bison and harvested sunflower seeds. Along the shores of Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes, they gathered wild rice (not really rice at all). In the Midwest, French trappers and fur traders traversed the river ways, fishing and hunting game. Early immigrants learned to plant corn, hunt local game and forage for wild rice. Even today, hunting and fishing remain popular pursuits for Midwestern sportsmen and women.