Midwestern cookbook skips finest regional food

Books on the burner

October 10, 1990|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

Veal Sweetbread Pancakes with Hazelnut Yogurt in Indianapolis?

Lasagne of Quail, Foie Gras and Wild Mushrooms in Chicago?

Red Snapper wrapped in Eggplant with Tomato-Orange Sauce in Minneapolis?

Sweet-Potato Fettuccine with Shiitake Mushroom Sauce in St. Louis?

Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs with Cucumber and Bell Pepper Salad in Cincinnati?

The best of the Midwest? That's the name of a recently published book; "The Best of the Midwest," by Linda and Fred Griffith (Viking Studio Books -- 1990, $24.95) touts recipes from 32 midwest restaurants.

Come now. Who are Linda and Fred Griffith anyway? And where have they been eating?

Soft-shell crabs in Ohio? Quail Lasagne?

Is this some kind of bad joke?

There's a lot of good food in the Midwest: Perhaps the best beef in the world; creamy Swiss cheese; sweet bing cherries; deep-dish pizza that sets the standard; hash browns with cheese; succulent catfish, as well as pike, lake trout, perch and dozens of other "panfish" that populate the lakes and rivers and cook up into sweet morsels. And Steak 'n Shake -- slightly slow fast food that makes its burgers to order and it shakes with milk and ice cream.

Not long ago while vacationing in Iowa, we ate pork loin grilled on the Weber, fresh sweet corn -- $1 a dozen from a farmer that morning -- and tomatoes barely off the vine.

That's the best of the Midwest. Food doesn't have to get any better. Fresh true flavors, close to the source.

Sure, the Midwest has its share of haute cuisine. And there i among it, no doubt, wonderful food. But to tout the self-selected menus of 32 restaurants as "the best of the Midwest" is an insult to the people who have lived and cooked in the Middle of America for decades.

The authors do not hail from the Midwest. He was reared on a lard-based cuisine in West Virginia and she in Connecticut, according to the book's introduction. Although they now live in Ohio, it seems a residence of convenience for purposes of this book.

Anyway, is Ohio really the Midwest? To some it's still The East to others, a wide go-between.

But they admit to embarking on this book as a sort of charitable gesture:

"We saw the Midwest as an area neglected by food writers, who suffer from a subtle perception that from a culinary standpoint there isn't much to take note of there. But we thought of the Midwest as a place rich with grain, produce, meat and poultry," they write.

And it seems they did indeed sample many of the region's riches. The introduction goes on too long perhaps with details of where and what the Griffiths ate over their year of research for this book. But the covered-dish suppers and out-of-the-way restaurants seem to be largely ignored in the final compilation.

Rather, the authors chose chefs who showed "creativity and skill in synthesizing" indigenous ingredients "into a successful whole."

These chefs were then asked to submit menus and recipes for a complete meal, the authors say. It seems to be an odd way to compile a "best" book.

It assumes, first of all, that the "best" food in a dozen states is prepared only in restaurants. And it further assumes that these chefs are good, honest judges of their work, which they may or may not be.

Besides, the food detailed in this book largely ignores some of the characteristics of Midwesternism: simplicity, economy, friendliness, a straightforward approach to life. Most of the food in this book is not simple or friendly food: it is complicated and contrived. It is, no doubt, beautiful food and, in many cases, delicious food. Albeit, expensive food.

But representative of Midwestern food? Not a chance.

Perhaps the Griffiths will write another book -- The Second Best of the Midwest? -- that will present food more true to its roots.

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