Cuisine of the Midwestern United States
Midwestern cuisine is a regional cuisine of the American
Midwest. It draws its culinary roots most significantly from the
cuisines of Central, Northern and Eastern Europe.
Everyday Midwestern home cooking generally showcases simple and
hearty dishes that make use of the abundance of locally grown
foods. Its culinary profiles may seem synonymous with "American
food." Quoted in a 2007 interview with the Daily Herald, Chef
Stephen Langlois, a pioneer in the Midwestern local food movement,
described it: "Think of Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and cranberry
sauce and wild rice and apple pie."
In its urban centers, however, the Midwest's restaurants offer
a diverse mix of ethnic cuisines as well as sophisticated,
Sometimes called "the breadbasket of America," the Midwest
serves as a center for grain production, particularly wheat, corn
and soybeans. Midwestern states also produce most of the country's
Beef and pork processing always have been important Midwestern
industries, with a strong role in regional diets. Chicago and
Kansas City were historically stockyard and processing centers of
the beef trade, while Iowa remains the center of pork production
in the U.S.
Far from the oceans, Midwesterners traditionally ate little
seafood, relying on local freshwater fish, such
as perch and trout, supplemented by canned tuna and canned or
cured salmon and herring, although modern air shipping of ocean
seafood has been increasing Midwesterners' taste for ocean fish.
Dairy products, especially cheese, form an important group of
regional ingredients, with Wisconsin known as "America's Dairyland,"
although other Midwest states make cheese as well.
The upper Midwest, a prime fruit-growing region, sees the
extensive use of apples, blueberries, cranberries, cherries,
peaches and other cold-climate fruit in its cuisine.
As with many American regional cuisines, Midwestern cooking has
been heavily influenced by immigrant groups. Throughout the
northern Midwest, northern European immigrant groups predominated,
so Swedish pancakes and Polish pierogi are common. Wisconsin,
Missouri, Kansas, Ohio and Illinois were destinations for many
ethnic German immigrants, so pork sausages and potatoes are
In the Rust Belt, many Greeks became restaurateurs, imparting a
Mediterranean influence. Native American influences show up in the
uses of corn and wild rice.
Traditionally, Midwestern cooks used a light hand with
seasonings, preferring sage, dill, caraway, mustard and parsley to
hot, bold and spicy flavors. However, with new waves of immigrants
from Latin America and Asia moving into the region, these tastes
This section of the country is also headquarters for several
seminal hamburger chains, including McDonald's in Oak Brook,
Illinois (founded in California, but turned into the iconic
franchise by Ray Kroc beginning with a still-standing store in Des
Plaines, Illinois). The Midwest is also home to Culver's in Sauk
City, Wisconsin; Steak n Shake, founded in Normal, Illinois, and
now based in Indianapolis; Wendy's in Dublin, Ohio; and White
Castle founded in Wichita, Kansas, and now based in Columbus,
Ohio. Diner chain Big Boy, known for burgers, is headquartered in
Major urban areas in the Midwest feature distinctive cuisines
very different from those of the region's rural areas, and some
larger cities have world-class restaurants.
Part of the greater Akron area, this small industrial city with a
strong Central and Eastern European heritage has a culinary
contribution called Barberton Chicken, created by Serbian
immigrants, deep fried in lard, and usually accompanied by a hot
rice dish, vinegar cole slaw and french fries.
mix of the people of Chicago has led to a distinctive cuisine of
restaurant foods exclusive to the area, such as Italian beef, the
Maxwell Street Polish, the Chicago-style hot dog, Chicago-style
pizza, chicken Vesuvio and the jibarito, as well as a large number
Chicago also boasts many gourmet restaurants, as well as a wide
variety of ethnic food stores and eateries, most notably Mexican,
Polish, Italian, Greek, Indian/Pakistani and Asian, often
clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. Many of these cuisines have
evolved significantly in Chicago. For example, the Greek cheese
dish saganaki was first flambéed at the table in Greektown.
The Midwest is sometimes thought to be behind the coasts in
culinary trends, yet, perhaps ironically, Chicago is the country's
leading center of cutting-edge molecular gastronomy, likely due to
the influence of Grant Achatz.
As a major rail hub, Chicago historically had access to a broad
range of the country's foodstuffs, so even in the 19th century,
Chicagoans could easily buy items like live oysters and
reasonably fresh shrimp. Chicago's oldest signature dish, shrimp
de Jonghe, was invented around the turn of the 20th century.
Today, flights into O'Hare Airport bring Chicago fresh food from
all over the world.
Queen City is known for its namesake, Greek-influenced "Cincinnati
chili". Unlike other forms of chili, Cincinnati-style chili is
almost never consumed by itself and is a staple of "three-way"
spaghetti, cheese coneys, and various dips. Goetta, a sausage made
from pork and oats, often eaten at breakfast, and opera cream
chocolates are less-famous local specialties. The city also has a
strong German heritage and a variety of German-oriented
restaurants can be found in the area.
Cleveland's many immigrant groups and heavily blue-collar
demographic have long played an important role in defining the
area's cuisine. Ethnically, Italian foods as well as several
Eastern European cuisines, particularly those of Poland and
Hungary, have become gastronomical staples in the Greater
Cleveland area. Prominent examples of these include rigatoni,
pizza, Chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and kielbasa
all of which are widely popular in and around the city.
Local specialties, such as the pork-based dish City Chicken and
the Polish Boy (a loaded sausage sandwich native to Cleveland),
are dishes definitive of a cuisine that is based on hearty,
inexpensive fare. Commercially, Hector Boiardi (aka Chef Boyardee)
started his business in Cleveland's Little Italy, and Mr. Hero, a
regional sandwich shop franchise is based in the area.
Columbus, Ohio, area is the home and birthplace of many well-known
fast food chains, especially those known for hamburgers. Wendy's
opened its first store in Columbus in 1969, and is now
headquartered in nearby Dublin. America's oldest hamburger chain,
White Castle, is based there. Besides burgers, Columbus is noted
for the German Village, a neighborhood south of downtown where
German cuisine such as sausages and kuchen are served.
specialties include the chili dogs called Coney Island hot dogs,
found at hundreds of unaffiliated "Coney Island" restaurants.
Famous examples include Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney
Island, which stand next to each other, serving Coneys all night
in downtown Detroit.
Detroit also has its own style of pizza, a thick-crusted,
Sicilian cuisine-influenced, rectangular type called square pizza.
Other Detroit foods include zip sauce, served on steaks; the
triple-decker Dinty Moore sandwich, corned beef layered with
lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing; and a Chinese-American dish
called warr shu gai or almond boneless chicken.
The Detroit area has many large groups of immigrants. A large
Arabic-speaking population reside in and around the suburb of
Dearborn, home to many Lebanese storefronts. Detroit also has a
substantial number of Greek restaurateurs. Thus, numerous
Mediterranean restaurants dot the region and typical foods such as
gyros, hummus and falafel can be found in many run-of-the-mill
grocery stores and restaurants.
Polish food is also prominent in the region, including popular
dishes such as pierogi, borscht, and pączki. Bakeries concentrated
in the Polish enclave of Hamtramck, Michigan, a suburb within the
city, are celebrated for their pączki, especially on Fat Tuesday.
Indianapolis was settled predominately by Americans of British
descent and Irish and German immigrants, so much of the city's
food draws upon these influences. Much of the food is considered
to be "Classic American Cuisine". Later immigrants included many
Jews, Poles, Eastern Europeans and Italians, all of whom
influenced local food. Two of the city's most distinct dishes are
the pork tenderloin sandwich and strawberry shortcake.
A fast-growing immigrant population from places such as Mexico
and India is also beginning to influence the local food. The area
offers many diverse, locally owned ethnic restaurants, as well as
nationally and internationally renowned restaurants. Indy is also
home to many local pubs.
Kansas City is an important barbecue and meat-processing center
with a distinctive barbecue style. The Kansas City metropolitan
area has more than 100 barbecue restaurants and
proclaims itself to be the "world's barbecue capital." The Kansas
City Barbeque Society spreads its influence across the nation
through its barbecue-contest standards. The oldest
continuously-operating barbecue restaurant is Arthur Bryant's near
downtown Kansas City. Another popular barbecue restaurants is
Gates Bar-B-Q. Both Arthur Bryant's and Gates Bar-B-Q sell bottled
versions of their barbecue sauces in restaurants and specialty
stores in the surrounding areas.
immigrants settled Milwaukee. Sauerkraut, bratwurst, and beer as
well as other traditional German favorites continue to be popular
in homes as well as at Milwaukee's famous German restaurants.
Milwaukee also offers a diverse selection of other ethnic
Served under various names, a favorite sandwich for
Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites consists of a brat (often
butterflied to lay flat) on top of a hamburger in a Kaiser roll.
Frozen custard is a local favorite in the Cream City, with many
competing stands throughout the area.
Cheese curds are another local favorite, and Wisconsinites also
enjoy them fried.
Also known as Brew City, Milwaukee is home to many breweries
and the traditional and nominal headquarters for national beer
Minneapolis and Saint Paul offer a
diverse array of cuisines influenced by their many immigrant
groups, as well as those restaurant chefs who follow the trends of
larger cities. While at-home fare varies broadly within various
ethnic groups and their culture, historically, the overall
majority of Minnesotans were of white, European ancestry, many
with farming backgrounds and many home cooked meals still reflect
this, with comfort food items such as hotdish, hearty soups and
stews and meat and potatoes commonly being served. Many
Minnesotans claim some Scandinavian heritage, and while iconic
dishes such as lefse and lutefisk are quite commonly served at
home as well as church potlucks and community get-togethers, few
restaurants serve these items.
Another popular item in Minnesota is wild rice which has been
gathered in area lakes by Native Americans for centuries. In the
fall, the Twin Cities share along with Green Bay, Wisconsin, the
tradition of the neighborhood booyah, a cuisine and cultural event
featuring a hodge-podge of ingredients in stews. One item of note,
Minneapolis and Saint Paul pioneered the Jucy Lucy (or "Juicy
Lucy"), a hamburger with a core of melted cheese.
American restaurants in the Twin Cities supply a wide spectrum
of choices and styles that range from small diners offering simple
short order grill fare and the typical sports bars and decades old
supper clubs to high-end steakhouses and eateries that serve new
American cuisine using locally grown ingredients. Most types of
American regional cuisine can be found at restaurants in the Twin
Cities. Barbecue restaurants in the area tend to feature a
combination of the various regional styles of this type of
Germans composed the majority of the states ethnic heritage and
one can find authentic German cuisine at the Glockenspiel in Saint
Paul, the Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter in nearby Stillwater, and at
the Black Forest Inn and the Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit both found
in Minneapolis. The latter restaurant is in Minneapolis' Northeast
community which is also home to thriving Czech, Polish, Ukranian
and other Eastern European restaurants such as Jax Café,
Kramarczuk's, Mayslack's and Nye's Polonaise lending this area an
old world character and charm. The Twin Cities can also boast of
authentic French, Irish, Italian and Russian restaurants. Spanish
tapas restaurants exist, but are more trendy than homage. In the
Twin Cities, pizzerias tend to be American rather than rustic
Italian (although they too exist and offer inventive recipes.)
Authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants are quite popular in
the Twin Cities, as there are Hispanic neighborhoods in both Saint
Paul and Minneapolis. Many entrepreneurs have taken authentic
Mexican cuisine into the suburbs as well. Latin American purveyors
are also pioneering their home cuisines from Argentina, Brazil,
Cuba, Ecuador, Peru and the West Indies offering authentic
churrasco and ceviche among their dining options.
Asian cuisine was initially dominated by Chinese Cantonese
immigrants that served Americanized offerings. Authentic offerings
began at Minneapolis' first Chinese restaurant, Nankin which
opened in 1919, and many new Chinese immigrants soon took this
cuisine throughout the Twin Cities and to the suburbs. Authentic
Chinese cuisine from the provinces of Hunan and Szechaun and from
Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan are relatively new.
The cuisine of Japan has been present since the opening of the
areas very first Japanese restaurant, Fuji Ya in 1959. Since then,
sushi and teppanyaki restaurants have also become increasingly
more common. In the 1970s the Twin Cities saw a large influx of
Southeast Asian immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and
Vietnam. The urban areas are now proliferated by Vietnamese phở
noodle shops and Thai curry restaurants. Cambodian cuisine has
also flourished given the large Hmong population familiar with it.
Korean restaurants are few, as possibly their dining style and
flavors have not been as adopted into the American mainstream.
In the Twin Cities suburbs, Oriental buffets are popular for
offering different Asian cuisines together. Restaurants offering
other cuisines of Asia including those from Afghanistan, India,
Nepal and the Philippines are also fairly recent additions to the
Twin Cities dining scene and have been well received. Local
ingredients are often integrated into Asian offerings, for example
Chinese steamed walleye and Nepalese curried bison.
The Twin Cities are home to many restaurants that serve the
cuisines of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. There are
numerous Greek restaurants that range from fine dining to casual
fast food shops that specialize in gyros. In both Minneapolis and
Saint Paul, there exist long established Jewish cafes and
delicatessens. Lebanese restaurants have also had a long time
presence in both cities.
Authentic offerings of Arab cuisine from throughout the Arab
world, including Egyptian, Iranian(Persian), Kurdish, and Turkish
restaurants can be found throughout the Twin Cities.
Various African cuisines are increasingly being found
throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area. While restaurants
that serve Ethiopian cuisine have been in the Twin Cities for
decades, more recent immigrants from Somalia have also opened a
number of restaurants in Minnesota. Somali cuisine consists of
an exotic mixture of native Somali, Ethiopian, Indian, Italian,
Persian, Turkish, and Yemeni culinary influences.]
West African immigrants have also introduced their own unique
cuisine in recent years. There is also a presence of
The University of Minnesota has been a center for food research
with inventions such as the Honeycrisp apple. The Minnesota State
Fair offers a sampling of many cuisines each year and Twin Citians
claim that the all-American Corn Dog and Pronto Pup made their
very first appearances there. Additionally, many important
agricultural conglomerates, including Cargill, General
Mills/Pillsbury, and International Multifoods make their home in
Minneapolis-Saint Paul. The Betty Crocker food brand (named after
a non-existent housewife) was born there. Several national
restaurant chains, such as Buca di Beppo, Famous Dave's and the
now defunct Chi-Chi's started in the Twin Cities. Buffalo Wild
Wings, Dairy Queen, KarmelKorn Shoppes, Old Country Buffet, Orange
Julius and T.G.I. Friday's (a division of Carlson Companies) are
also well known chains headquartered in the Twin Cities.
Omaha has some
unusual steakhouses, several of which are Sicilian in origin or
adjacent to the Omaha Stockyards. Central European and Southern
influences can be seen in the local popularity of carp and South
24th Street contains a multitude of Mexican restaurants. North
Omaha also has its own barbecue style.
Omaha is one of the places claiming to have invented the reuben
sandwich, supposedly named for Reuben Kulakofsky, a grocer from
the Dundee neighborhood.
Bronco's, Godfather's Pizza, and the Garden Cafe are among the
chain restaurants that originated in Omaha.
number of Irish and German immigrants who came to St. Louis
beginning in the early nineteenth century contributed
significantly to the shaping of local cuisine as confirmed by a
variety of uses of beef, pork and chicken, often roasted or
grilled, as well as a variety of desserts including rich cakes,
stollens, fruit pies, doughnuts and cookies. Even a local form of
fresh stick pretzel, called Gus's Pretzels, has been sold singly
or by the bag full by street corner vendors.
Mayfair salad dressing was invented at a St. Louis hotel of the
same name, and is richer than Caesar salad dressing. St. Louis is
also known for popularizing the ice cream cone and for gooey
butter cake (a rich, soft-centered coffee cake) and frozen
custard. Iced tea is also rumored to have been invented at the
World's Fair, as well as the hot dog.
St. Louis-style barbecue
uses pork steaks or St. Louis-style pork ribs and a unique type of
barbecue sauce and beer and bratwursts remain a standby at family
barbecues, baseball games and street festivals.
Restaurants on The Hill reflect the lasting influence of the
early twentieth century Milanese and Sicilian immigrant community.
Two unique Italian-American style dishes include "toasted"
ravioli, which is breaded and fried, and St. Louis-style pizza,
which has a crispy thin crust and is usually made with Provel
cheese instead of traditional mozzarella cheese.
A Poor boy
sandwich is the traditional name in St. Louis for a submarine
sandwich. A St. Paul sandwich is a unique St. Louis treat
available in Chinese-American restaurants. A Slinger is a diner
and late night specialty consisting of a plate smothered with
breakfast staples and chili, cheese and onion.