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.

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.

Dairy products, especially cheese, form an important group of regional ingredients, with Wisconsin known as "America's Dairy Capital," 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 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.

Also, diner chain Big Boy is headquartered in Warren, Michigan.

Urban centers

Major urban areas in the Midwest often have distinctive cuisines that can be very different from those of the region's rural areas.


Chicagoland has 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 of steakhouses.

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.


Cincinnati is known for its namesake Greek-influenced "Cincinnati chili", piled onto spaghetti. 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 was home to several major breweries in the past.


Cleveland's many immigrant groups have long played an important role in defining the regional cuisine. Polish and Eastern European foods, such as beer, pierogi, and kielbasa are popular in and around the city. The city is home to Hector Boiardi and Michael Ruhlman who have been noted for their contributions in the culinary world. The West Side Market is home to vendors selling many kinds of ethnic food, fresh produce, and ethnic restaurants can be found in the Little Italy, Slavic Village, and Tremont neighborhoods, among others. Little Italy has been known to have some of the best Italian cuisine outside of Italy, including pizza, Italian ice, and cassata cake. Cleveland also has Pizza Pan, Mr. Hero, Malley's Chocolates, and the Great Lakes Brewing Company.


The 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, started in Columbus during the 1920s and is still based there. Max & Erma's originated in German Village. Besides burgers, Columbus is also the home of Charley's Grilled Subs, Steak Escape, Bob Evans Restaurants, Damon's Grill (a sports bar best known for ribs), and Donatos Pizza.


Detroit 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-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.


Indianapolis was settled predominately by Americans of British decent, Irish and German immigrants, so much of the cities 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 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.

Kansas City

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.


Milwaukee, known for its strong German influences, serves loads of bratwurst and beer. Two well-known German restaurants are Mader's and Karl Ratzsch's. Frozen custard is also very big in the Cream City. Like most large Midwestern cities, Milwaukee offers a diverse selection of ethnic restaurants.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul

Despite being major food-producing cities, Minneapolis and Saint Paul offer few unique dishes of renown, instead sharing many tastes with the rest of Minnesota.

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.

The Twin Cities claim that the all-American corn dog made its first appearance there, as well as the Pronto Pup.

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.


Omaha boasts unique 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 locations 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.

St. Louis

St. Louis, reflecting its varied immigrant influences, is known for dishes such as "toasted" ravioli (which is breaded and fried), frozen custard, gooey butter cake (a rich, soft-centered coffee cake), and for popularizing the ice cream cone.

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.

Regional specialties


A popular dish seen almost exclusively in Indiana is sugar cream pie, which most likely originated in the state's Amish community. The pork tenderloin sandwich is also a popular state food. Beef and noodles is another homespun Hoosier dish. Fried biscuits with apple butter are served at many restaurants in southern Indiana.


Cuisine of Iowa includes the pork tenderloin sandwich, consisting of a lean, tenderloin-cut pork chop which is pounded flat, breaded, and deep fried before being served on a seeded hamburger bun with any or all of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and dill pickle slices. The main ingredient of this dish bears a striking similarity to schnitzel and as such, may be related to the large population of German immigrants that originally populated central Iowa. Iowa is also the center for creamed corn production and consumption. Yet it is also popular in the other Midwestern states.

Iowa is the center for loose-meat sandwiches, such as those popularized by Maid-Rite, although they can also be found in western Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska.


Western and northern Michigan are notable fruit-growing and wine-making regions.

Miners looking for a convenient meal to bring to work popularized the pasty, which is now the iconic dish of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.


Popular dishes statewide include walleye, hotdish, and lutefisk.

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).


A buckeye candy is a peanut butter and chocolate candy made to resemble the nut of an Ohio Buckeye tree, available throughout the Buckeye State.


The Friday night fish fry, typically fried perch or walleye, is ubiquitous throughout Wisconsin, while in northeast Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, the Door County fish boil holds sway.

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.

Seymour, Wisconsin, claims to be the birthplace of the modern hamburger, although several other locations make similar claims. The southern Wisconsin town of Racine is known for its Danish kringle.

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.


Many Midwesterners in more north central states refer to carbonated beverages as "pop." However, "soda" is preferred in Kansas City, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and the surrounding areas. Areas of the southern Midwest may also use the term "coke.


In the home, Midwesterners traditionally serve meals family-style, with platters of food all put on the table at once or passed hand-to-hand, or as a smorgasbord or buffet, rather than in individually plated, set courses.


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