A Cooks' Tour Of The Midwest

HAPPY EATER

November 03, 1991|By ROB KASPER

Recently I took an imaginary journey through the land of black walnut bread, rutabaga casserole, sauteed perch, smoked brisket and coconut cream pie. I did it by leafing through a new cookbook, "Heartland" (Clarkson Potter, $30), by Marcia Adams.

Adams, who is the daughter of an Indiana county agricultural extension agent and who once was an art consultant, not only has a feel for the region, she also has an eye for its images. As with her previous book, "Amish Cooking from Quilt Country," I enjoyed both eating the dishes and feasting on the photographs. The photograph taken by Dorothy Handelman, for instance, of a corn-fed Iowa pig sniffing the morning air, is the quintessential piece of porker art. And as everybody knows, a good pig picture is hard to find.

I started my trek through the book's eight Midwestern states -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- in Chicago's Marshall Field department store. The book has a striking photograph of the ornate clock that sits outside the downtown store as well as recipe for the cinnamon crunch muffins that Midwesterners eat when they "meet at Field's" for lunch. Traveling a little downstate, I learned that rhubarb was brought to Nauvoo, Ill., by a group of Europeans called the Icarians, who attempted to set up a utopian community in the small town west of Peoria. The community failed. But Nauvoo rhubarb pie lives on.

Next was Indiana, and the visit there appropriately began with a photo of a basketball backboard attached to a weathered red and white barn. I wanted them both, the hoop and the barn. I also wanted to taste the sauteed perch fillets with cucumber relish from the Oyster Bar restaurant in Fort Wayne, the snickerdoodle cookies and -- yes! -- the molded pineapple cheese salad. Coming from the Midwest, I have a fondness for salads that jiggle.

Iowa brought the aforementioned perfect image of the pig on the hoof, as well as a savory treatment of pig on the dinner table, pork loin stuffed with cherries and covered with a sauce made of Jonathan apples. A blue cheese tart took care of the required bow to the remarkable cheese made by the Maytag family of Newton. And there was a recipe for corncob jelly, which is about as scarce a commodity as a good pig photo.

In a phone interview from her Indiana home, Adams said that the best place to find the dried red cobs needed to make the jelly is the nearest elevator. In the Midwest, when people talk about "the elevator," they frequently mean the kind that stores grain, not the ones that carry people.

In Michigan I couldn't take my eyes off the pasties. These are not the skimpy costumes once worn by exotic dancers on Baltimore's Block, but pies filled with chopped beef. Often carried by men working in the mines, the pasties have a dough that is supposed to be tough enough to withstand being dropped down a mine shaft. And it turns out that Michigan has its own version of scrapple. It is called "gritz" and is made with oatmeal, barley and pork shoulders instead of the cornmeal and pig snouts used in scrapple.

In Minnesota I was taken with the coconut cream pie, the rutabaga casserole, the blackberry soup and the chilled beef tongue. My grandmother loved beef tongue. I never ate it, but when Mom wasn't around, I would usher my friends into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door and let my buddies stare in amazement at the tongue.

From there, I jumped over to Ohio, where they serve sweet sauerkraut with tomatoes and bacon at the Waynesville kraut festival. This is recipe that seemingly travels well. As a kid I used to stuff my pockets full of buckeyes, the glossy round seeds that fell off buckeye trees. The book had a recipe for something better to put in my pockets, buckeye cookies.

While Wisconsin's creamy cheese potatoes and its lima beans and peas baked with herbs were unusual, nothing could top the drama of the Door County fish boil. Fish and vegetables were cooked outdoors in a huge pot over a wood fire. At the last minute, kerosene was thrown on the flames. It looked like a five-alarm immolation of a barbecue grill. But according to Adams, it worked. The whitefish steaks and potatoes that emerged were not flammable and highly edible.

I ended my imaginary trip in Missouri, my old stomping grounds. I was pleased to see the smoked brisket, the chicken fried steak, the ham loaf and the fried catfish that I grew up with. A wave of nostalgia came over me when I saw the photograph of black walnuts. My mom used to make a remarkable black walnut frosting, and the book has a recipe for black walnut bread. But as kids we were regularly told to stay clear of the walnut tree. The stain from their green husks was powerful. It could not be removed, even from jeans.

The fact that the walnut was a forbidden nut only drew us closer to it. And when I saw that photograph of the bright green walnuts, I could almost feel a walnut in my hand, the sticky dangerous juice dripping out of the husks. And if I tried hard, I could remember the delicious sensation that comes on glorious Midwestern afternoon from nailing your brother with a dripping

walnut husk.

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