ANDERSONVILLE — The Midwest has given the world hot dogs, barbecued rib tips and jibaritos, but all anybody from the coasts can talk about is casseroles.
Paul Fehribach, the chef and co-owner of Big Jones, 5347 N. Clark St. in Andersonville, wants to make sure the Midwest’s food finally gets its due with his new book, “Midwestern Food: A Chef’s Guide to the Surprising History of a Great American Cuisine, with More Than 100 Tasty Recipes.”
“Nobody’s done a book about the Midwest where it addresses the Midwest as a serious regional cuisine,” he said. “Most books are just legends and lore, and they don’t deal with the establishment of a culture. I wanted to have a real, serious conversation about what this stuff is and where it came from.”
Fehribach is known for his authentic Southern cooking, which he chronicled in his 2015 cookbook, “The Big Jones Cookbook: Recipes for Savoring the Heritage of Regional Southern Cooking.”
The chef didn’t always revere Midwestern cuisine. When Fehribach was growing up in Jasper, a southern Indiana town founded by German immigrants, he didn’t think the food he and his family ate was all that interesting. When he began cooking professionally, he focused on Southern cuisine.
But as Fehribach got older, he began to realize: Yes, there was something special about the sauerkraut barrel that sat on his grandparents’ back porch and his uncle’s annual hog slaughter. Inspired by food writer John Egerton’s 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” Fehribach began traveling around the Midwest — which he defines as stretching from the Dakotas to western New York and Pennsylvania and from the Canadian border to the Ohio River — to track down facts and recipes.
Midwestern cuisine, Fehribach concludes, was formed by the convergence of immigrant traditions — with a large dose of German — with the industrialization of food starting in the late 19th century. Chicago was where hogs and cattle from the west were slaughtered and turned into meat. Minneapolis was a center for milling, and Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati brewed America’s beer. Later on, many fast food chains got their start around the Great Lakes.
“Why is Midwestern food often depicted derisively by the coasts as meat and potatoes?” Fehribach said. “It’s simple: Our cuisine evolved while we were working our asses off in factories to feed the country while people on the East and West coasts talked about themselves and invented stories about where things came from.”
For example: Contrary to the popular myth spouted by New Yorkers, mass-produced frankfurters weren’t invented at Nathan’s in Coney Island. They were invented in Chicago by the David Berg company in 1869, and Fehribach found the term “hot dog” first appeared in the Fort Wayne Gazette in 1883. Prior to automation, hot dogs were a luxury food item made from filet mignon and bacon chopped and ground by hand.
An even more shocking discovery: Fried chicken is not a Southern dish but a Midwestern one. This is a bold claim, but it’s one Fehribach is prepared to defend.
“If you’re going to tell the South that fried chicken didn’t come from there, you have to come with receipts,” he said
Fehribach means that literally: “Receipt” is an old term for “recipe.” In this case, he found a mention of fried chicken in a Viennese document from the early 14th century and dozens of German-language recipes, the earliest dating back to 1699, roughly 50 years before the first English recipe was published.
German immigrants brought fried chicken to Virginia in the 1600s, where it was incorporated into American food culture. They also took it with them as they traveled west.
This discovery explained a joke from Fehribach’s hometown about how Germans fry everything. It also explained why fried chicken was so popular in small and insular Midwestern towns and why Midwestern fried chicken is blander than Southern fried chicken, which was spiced up — literally — by African American cooks.
Fehribach includes more than 100 recipes in the book. His Midwest encompasses not just home cooking, but restaurant and street food — including a regional sampling of pizza and barbecue styles and Mexican and Delta tamales — plus quintessential Midwestern condiments and cocktails, such as ranch dressing and Old Fashioneds.
One of Fehribach’s favorite recipes in the book is for Detroit-style Coney Island hot dogs drenched in a beanless chili sauce. He’s also fond of the strawberry custard pie his grandmother used to win his grandfather’s heart, a lebkuchen he claims will blow people’s minds and cold-packed cheese.
“My staff laughs at me for eating the stuff,” he said.
“It’s astounding how good it is,” he said. “It also illustrates how rapidly and dramatically our foodways have changed.”
For hard-to-find ingredients such as suet and rib tips, Fehribach advises Chicagoans visit Paulina Market, 3501 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lake View or Peoria Packing Butcher Shop at 1300 W. Lake Ave. in the West Loop.
Fehribach hopes his book will bring a little more respect to Midwestern food. He also hopes it won’t be the last word on the subject as Midwestern food continues to evolve.
“I wrote in the book that Cincinnati chili is preserved in amber,” he said. “Literally weeks after I sent out the manuscript, [food writer] Jed Portman tweets out something from a Japanese restaurant in Cincinnati that they’re serving Cincinnati chili ramen. Immigrant culture is coming in and toying with innately Midwestern dishes. It’s going to refresh things.”
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