Midwestern cuisine 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 an interview with the Daily Herald published Jan. 17, 2007, Chef Stephen Langlois, described it thus: "Think of Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey and cranberry sauce and wild rice and apple pie.
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 wild rice.
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 fish.
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 prevalent. In the Rust Belt, many Greeks and Greek Macedonians 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 are changing.
This section of the country is also headquarters for several seminal hamburger chains, notably 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 in Columbus, Ohio.
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 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 now the country's leading center of molecular gastronomy.
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.
Detroit also has its own style of pizza, a thick-crusted, Sicilian-influenced, rectangular type called square pizza. Other Detroit foods include zip sauce, served on steaks; the triple-decker Dinty Moore sandwich; 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 paczki. Bakeries concentrated in the Polish enclave of Hamtramck, Michigan, a suburb within the city, are celebrated for their paczki, especially on Fat Tuesday.
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 ethic restaurants, as well as nationally and internationally renowned restaurants. Indy is also home to many local pubs, including the Slippery Noodle Inn, a favorite hangout of the famous bank robber John Dillinger.
The Twin Cities share the obscure distinction (along with Green Bay, Wisconsin) of being associated with the neighborhood booya, a sort of mixture of cuisine and cultural event. Also, because of the strong influx of Asian immigrants over the past few decades, a form which combines traditional Midwestern dishes with Asian techniques and spices is developing, such as Chinese preparations of walleye.
The Twin Cities-based University of Minnesota has been a center for food research; such inventions as the Honeycrisp apple have come from the "U of M." Additionally, many important agricultural conglomerates, including General Mills/Pillsbury, International Multifoods and Cargill, make their home in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. The Betty Crocker food brand (named after a non-existent housewife) was born there.
One dish associated with the Twin Cities is the Jucy Lucy (or "Juicy Lucy"), a hamburger with a core of melted cheese. Several national restaurant chains, such as Buca di Beppo and Famous Dave's, got their start in the Twin Cities area. Dairy Queen, T.G.I. Friday's of Carlson Companies and Buffalo Wild Wings are also headquartered in the Twin Cities.
Immigration from Somalia has brought an unusual number of restaurants serving cuisine from that country. The Somali Resource Center's website lists 20 Somali community restaurants, most of them concentrated in the South Minneapolis and West Bank neighborhoods. In St. Paul, there is a preponderance Southeast Asian restaurants, including Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian food, along University Avenue.
Perhaps the most iconic Minnesota dishes are lefse and lutefisk. Both brought to Minnesota with Norwegian immigrants. Lefse and Lutefisk dinners are held near Christmas and have become associated with that holiday.
Bronco's, Godfather's Pizza, and the Garden Cafe are among the chain restaurants that originated in Omaha.
St. Louis-style barbecue uses pork steaks or St. Louis-style pork ribs and large quantities of barbecue sauce. St. Louis-style pizza has a crispy thin crust and is usually made with Provel cheese instead of traditional mozzarella cheese.
The large number of German immigrants have made "beer and brats" (bratwurst) the standby at baseball games and street festivals. Neighborhoods like The Hill have many Italian restaurants. Mayfair salad dressing was invented at a St. Louis hotel of the same name, and is richer than Caesar salad dressing.
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.
Walleye is the state fish of Minnesota. Its popularity with Minnesota residents means that the residents of that state consume more of the fish than in any other jurisdiction, although a 2004 TV expose revealed, after DNA testing, that some Minneapolis-St. Paul region had been substituting a similar, less expensive fish, imported zander, for the local walleye indicated on the menu.
Hotdish is any of a variety of casserole dishes popular throughout the United States, although the term is used mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Hotdishes are generally filling, comfort foods, convenient and easy to make, and well-suited for potlucks.
Lutefisk is a traditional dish of the Nordic countries made from stockfish (air-dried whitefish) and soda lye (lut).
Besides beer, Wisconsinites drink huge quantities of brandy, often mixed into the unique Badger libation, the "brandy old fashioned sweet." The drink originated in 1947 at "Chissy's Pub", in Waldo, Wisconsin. The pub was owned by Harry Chisholm at that time.
Wisconsin is a notable dairy state, and it's home to numerous frozen custard stands, particularly around Milwaukee and along the Lake Michigan corridor, as well as many cheesemakers, ranging from artisans who hand-craft their product from the milk of their own dairy herds to large factories. Cheese curds are common as a snack or fried as an appetizer.
Wisconsin is also well known for summer sausage and bratwurst.
These dishes, while not all exclusively Midwestern, are commonly thought of as typical or exemplary of Midwestern foods or tastes. Many are shared with Southern cuisine and Northeast cuisine, though some are unique to the Midwest, or have a Midwestern preparation style.