Category Archives: Miracles of Midwestern Cooking

5 Key Ingredients for the Perfect Midwestern Salad (Ready Your Mayonnaise)

Miracle Whip, though no substitute for real mayonnaise, can be used in a pinch.

Jell-O: Few things have captured the Midwestern imagination like Jell-O. Its mysterious jiggling qualities, its Biblical ability to suspend fruits, and its molded shapes that reminded German immigrants of their homeland, all contributed to Jell-O becoming the base of the ever popular Jell-O salad.

My grandmother once told me that everyone in their old farming community had to have the latest Jell-O salad. It was a simpler time, when the space race between the Reds and the Uncle Sams was matched by a furious Jell-O race between Kansas homesteads. It was also a time that witnessed truly frightening innovation, which reached its pinnacle in the “Perfection Salad,” composed of lemon Jell-O, pimiento, celery, cabbage, vinegar, and sliced pineapple.

Cool Whip: Cheers of joy were heard all across the Midwest when NASA revealed that its attempt at entering the hair product market had proven unsuccessful but that its creation, Cool Whip, was tasty and went great with gelatin. It quickly became the bosom buddy of almost every Jell-O salad. And thus Cool Whip made its way onto the dinner table, because Jell-O salads are not dessert.

Mayonnaise: If one is unlucky and fresh vegetables must be prepared, mayonnaise is a sure solution to make them palatable. Considered the Cool Whip of non-Jell-O salads, it is a must in everything from the Kansas Broccoli Salad (3/4 c.) to the Kansas Cucumber Salad (1 c.). According to a scientific study, when Midwesterners view a salad bare of this white miracle condiment, they are 57% more likely to enter Mayo-rage. Few survive.

Sugar: More necessary for the vegetable salads than mayo, sugar is what truly makes these savory combinations come alive and lose their gross savory-ness. Every kind of slaw, be it Chinese or German, and each kind of salad, be it corn or Sauerkraut, by definition must contain at least ¼ cup sugar. In fact, the Midwestern word for sugar actually means “salad spice.”

Leafy Greens: Just kidding. The only truly acceptable version of a leafy green is cabbage, which can be turned into Mayo-slaw. Otherwise, all leafy greens are prohibited from joining the salad party and should be left in the garden as decoration.

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Dear Lord, Thank You for Casserole

And the people of the Lord gave thanks.

What is like the casserole?

Could any other dish transform tins of canned goods into a steaming meal for prairie mouths, hungry from a hard day of television viewing? Does anything match the poetry of the phrase, “Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees. Recipe is easily doubled.” Is there another main course as picturesque or heartwarming?

Entire generations have attained greatness by feeding solely off of casserole nectar. Worlds of cream of chicken soup have bubbled and boiled over whole chicken breasts sitting atop beds of rice or sliced roast beef as the casserole’s alchemy creates dinner and a better planet.

As I browse through my cookbook, the endless casserole variation is like a never ending music.

Oh Zucchini Casserole, oh Country Corn Bake, oh Cheese Corn Bake, oh Broccoli Corn Casserole! And the tuna! Dear, sweet, God! The Tuna Casserole, with its 3 cans of Chinese noodles, 2 cans mushroom soup, 1 package of blanched almonds, 2 cans white tuna, and 1 cup of milk. Dry yourselves, my taste buds, for the dinner hour is not nigh.

The casserole gathers canned goods to its glassy bosom, accepting them for what they are as they are combined and layered and sprinkled with corn flakes. A masterpiece of non-cooking, an exercise in the art of assembly, this is Midwestern cuisine at its finest.

Would any church potluck be complete without a steaming pan of Creamy Chicken and Rice Casserole? Could the world continue to function on Monday night without a dinner of chicken enchiladas (1 cooked chicken, 1 c. shredded Taco Blend Cheese, 1 packet of Taco seasoning, Sour cream, salsa.) with its instructions to “Shred the chicken. Mix all ingredients together?”

And after being assembled into the tortillas, these proto-enchiladas will lie down on a sweet bed of glass and be smothered with equal parts enchilada sauce and cream of mushroom soup, topped with cheddar cheese in an eternal embrace that will continue deep within the digestive tract of the consumer.

In the kitchens of the Midwest, the cook’s most fearsome weapon is the 9×13 baking dish. The ammunition of choice: canned soup, cream of mushroom or chicken. With these tools, the chef is ready to face a ravenous family, to fight the devil with cheesy potatoes at a church gathering, and entertain the in-laws on the night of the big game.

When almost every ingredient is birthed from a can or a jar, when the objective of the dish is to combine it so thoroughly that one only tastes hot chicken-y, tuna-y, or beefy mush, when an complete meal can be eaten out of a mug, is there any way to go wrong?

Let the casserole state of mind cheese its way between your neurons. Let the open-and-pour mentality soothe your nerves and line your arteries. Life should be a steaming dish full of something that bubbles. It matters not what it is.

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Miracles of Midwestern Cooking

Dinner’s ready! Bring your Lipitor.

People on the coasts often have no idea how to categorize 60% of the states between New York and California, so they do what they can with the terms West, Midwest, and Southern.

As a result, Oklahoma is often incorrectly lumped in with Midwestern states, a classification that makes sense geographically but not culturally. When I hear Midwest, I think of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, etc., places that don’t have the hard-working prairie ethic instilled in them from their mothers’ breast milk as we do in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska.

I prefer to call my region the Central Plains, but for the purposes of this blog series, I will accommodate the ignorance of outsiders and call these great states part of the Midwest.

Imagine a people sprawled under a sky that scorches them in the summer and dumps snow and ice on them during the winter. In the spring, tornadoes and hail demolish homes and crops. There is no mercy: you will farm or become food for the farm.

Because fresh vegetables wither in all seasons (to be explained later), and dairy and carbs must pull up the slack. Bacon grease is a health supplement. People die at the age of 60, but they die having eaten egg yolks and butter their entire life. Healthy eating is a foreign imposition by people on the coasts, and God bless America.*

What kind of food do these people eat? What flavors, textures, and cooking methods typify their everyday noshes? How can they survive the blazing summers and bone-cracking winters?

The people of the Central Plains are ingenious. They have invented a cuisine that not only allowed them to deal with their harsh surroundings, but took the cooking out of cooking altogether. From the Midwest come an astonishing variety of casseroles, truly unique takes on the salad, and all different kinds of ways to prepare, texture, and name a meatloaf. For this reason, the Midwest is known for its incredible cuisine. When people from other countries and the coasts imagine the great gap between D.C. and L.A., they inevitably think of the mouth-watering food that has made itself known across the world for its creativity, flavor, and health-benefits.

Cities like New York, Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco, and Portland are overrun with restaurants serving up hot casserole dishes and dinner rolls to eager clientele, and top chefs hail cream of chicken soup as a miracle liquid revealed by the Almighty.

For the next couple of posts, I will be talking about this wonderful cuisine, aided by two cookbooks that my mother recently gave me. Stay tuned next week to learn about the Midwestern casserole, the salad experience in the Midwest, and culinary highlights of Midwestern cookery. It’s sure to be an enlightening journey.

*Do I have “science” to back up these claims. No. But I have been to family reunions.

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