Food gurus turn toward America's breadbasket to find simple, filling, real food with Midwestern honesty


November 28, 1990|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Not too long ago, if you mentioned "heartland cuisine" food snobs would hold their middles and double up with laughter. Heartland cuisine? You have got to be joking. Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

Regional food was big news during the past decade, but somehow we overlooked America's breadbasket. We were too busy searching for the spiciest New Orleans gumbo, the most innovative Southwest salsa or the weirdest California pizza to pay any attention to a "cuisine" whose dishes were based on simple fare of the farm -- like a perfectly broiled Kansas City strip steak or a succulent roasted chicken. If it wasn't fancy, it just wasn't fun.

But now America has come home to down-home and the gurus of heartland cuisine are getting the attention they say their honest food deserves.

*The turnabout began in 1988 when the International Food Media Conference, an annual meeting of food editors and industry leaders, met in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss the "Return to the Heartland."

"I felt the economy couldn't keep going like it was and when it burst Americans would be looking for escape routes," says William Primavera, conference organizer, who says he planned the event before the stock market crash of '87. "It was time for us to stop and say that we need to come back to traditional values. And food is the easiest way to do that."

*That same year, Prairie, a restaurant that was designed to honor Frank Lloyd Wright's contribution to architecture, opened in the Omni Morton Hotel in Chicago. The owners boasted that this new restaurant would redefine Midwestern food.

At the time, the Chicago Tribune described Prairie as "the first serious attempt to put Chicago on the regional map alongside California, New Orleans and the Southwest." Since then, the restaurant and its chef Stephen Langlois have been mentioned everywhere that's anywhere -- from Time and Newsweek to Business Week and Restaurant Business.

*Last fall, the American Institute of Wine & Food, held its seventh conference on gastronomy in Chicago so that food and

wine professionals could focus on the foods of the heartland -- from traditional dishes to innovative cuisine. This was a radical departure from previous conferences which focused on fancier food -- from Italy and France to California's Napa Valley.

David Strata, executive director of the institute, says Midwest food was starting to emerge and members were interested in learning more about it. But he also thought the time was right for real food.

"For a number of years, people were trying all different things. Different became better. More exotic was more interesting. But after a while these foods lose their novelty and people began to realize that it was substance that mattered, not novelty. People were ready to return to the basics."

And now, Stephen Langlois, executive chef at Prairie and chief architect of the heartland cuisine movement, has come out with a new book, "Prairie: Cuisine from the Heartland" (Contemporary Books, $18.95), to bring the heartland message to the home kitchen.

Chef Langlois, agrees that the '90s are a great time for Midwest food to flourish because current economic and political uncertainties make people nostalgic for the comfort of back-to-basic flavors and more simple preparation.

"Our Midwest philosophy is we do basic things, but we do them better than anyone else," he says. "We do the best stocks, the best roasted chicken, the best apple pie."

But many people do stocks, chicken and apple pie. What's so special about heartland cuisine anyway?

At Prairie, Mr. Langlois says he has redefined the food of the farm to fit an old Frank Lloyd Wright saying: All architecture should be regional in character, traditional in value, but uniquely modern.

Regional in character: The food products used at the restaurant come from 130 purveyors in the 11-state Midwest region. They range from dried fruits, morels and venison from Michigan to duck and cheeses from Wisconsin and wild rice from Minnesota.

Traditional in values: Mr. Langlois spent a year visiting state fairs and local historical societies in search of authentic recipes. He took the dishes most typical of the Midwest and updated them. (( For example, the schaum torte from the Milwaukee area typically has a meringue base topped with canned or frozen strawberries and whipped cream. The Prairie version was made less sweet by using a muffin as a base, splitting it in half and topping it with vanilla ice cream, fresh berries, whipped cream and warm caramel sauce.

Uniquely modern: Traditional foods that were thought of as bland and heavy have been altered for modern tastes by using vegetable purees instead of heavy sauces for thickening. He concentrates the pure flavors obtained from making the best quality stock or a perfectly roasted turkey. He has taken a staple, such as corn chowder, and made it new again by adding fresh thyme and tarragon leaves and paprika-flavored bacon.

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