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Thursday, April 14, 2011 03:21 pm

The fascinating anthropology of Midwestern food

The Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance preserves the region’s culinary character


Stuffed – Midwestern sausages, that is. Mother-in-law sandwiches. Journeying through Midwestern sweets and dessert traditions.

It’s anthropology of hoof, claw, fin, root and leaf: culinary anthropology.

“What in the world is culinary anthropology?” you might well ask.

Food anthropologists focus on peoples’ foods and agriculture past and present, how they’ve evolved and how they’ve influenced and been influenced by their cultures. As an academic discipline, food/culinary anthropology is relatively new and on the rise, with an increasing number of higher learning institutions offering post-graduate master’s or Ph.D. degrees in the subject. But culinary anthropology isn’t limited to academics producing esoteric papers and dry research. There are also organizations comprised of enthusiastic amateurs, some of those academics, chefs, and other food folks who’ve discovered that exploring food traditions and trends is not only intellectually fascinating; it’s also fun.

That mother-in-law sandwich? It’s a chili-topped tamale on a hot dog bun whose origins and history have been explored and documented by Peter Engler, board member of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance. His hobby is exploring Chicago’s South Side unique culinary traditions.

The GMFA is “dedicated to celebrating, exploring and preserving unique food traditions and their cultural contexts in the American Midwest. The GMFA uncovers the distinctiveness of a region that is as varied in tastes and traditions as it is in its geography, from the Great Lakes to the Great Plains. Whether indigenous foods like Wisconsin cranberries and Minnesota walleye, iconographic flavors like the wheat and corn from across the prairies, immigrant cuisines from early Europeans to 21st century newcomers, or fish boils and fine dining in small towns and big cities, the GMFA promotes and chronicles the diversity of the region’s culinary character.”

GMFA was initially inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance, the first such organization. Based in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, the SFA originated in 1999 and has become highly visible and influential.

“Foodways” defines these organizations: “The study of what people eat and why. Why [and how] we procure, prepare and serve the food we do has cultural, sociological, geographical, financial and political influences.” Their mission: “Preserving our past and present for the future by research, documentation and oral histories.”

The GMFA may have been inspired by the SFA, but has no intention of merely being a clone/imitation of the older organization. “We want to carve our own path,” says Catherine Lambrecht, one of GMFA’s founders.     

GMFA began in 2007. A couple years earlier, some of the present board members had been contacted by the Oxford University Press to contribute to its Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. In 2007, they were offered $500 to update a new edition. “Bruce Kraig [GMFA’s current president] made a glib comment about using that as seed money to start our own Foodways,” says Lambrecht. And the rest is history – or anthropology, if you like.

That same year, GMFA held its first symposium, “Stuffed: Midwestern Sausage Traditions.” Next came “Sweets: A Journey Through Midwestern Dessert Traditions.” Then “Beef: From Plains to Plate.”

Another primary focus is the heirloom recipe contests that GMFA sponsors at state fairs. The inaugural contest was at the Illinois State Fair in 2009. In 2010 the contest expanded to include the Indiana and Ohio state fairs. In 2011 Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota will be added to the list; Wisconsin is slated for 2012. “We’ll eventually get to Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota,” Lambrecht says. (Michigan no longer has a state fair.) Entries must include not only a written recipe and its preparation, but also a history of the dish. Judging is based on taste (50 percent), history (40 percent) and appearance (10 percent). All entrants’ recipes are available on the GMFA website under its Events heading.

The initial GMFA group hails from Chicago and the surrounding area, and that’s where the symposia are held. But the group is actively looking for people from other states to become involved.

“We envision GMFA as a locus for regional food and cultural history,” the group says of its mission. “Ultimately we invite anyone to the table who has an interest in Midwest food culture or who define themselves as Midwestern regardless of race, creed or arbitrary political borders. We encourage participation from all walks life from academics to food enthusiasts, chefs to grill masters to home cooks, farmers to heirloom gardeners, food scientists, students and industry.”

From April 29 – May 1, the GMFA will host its next symposium: “Midwest Eats! Foodways of the Great Depression.”

Program topics include:

Down on the Midwestern Farm During the Great Depression: Dust Bowl and Economics. Everyone knows about the great Dust Bowl that destroyed agriculture and drove farmers from their land in wide swaths of the Great Plains. But many do not know that the farm economy collapsed as food prices were deflated and surpluses could not be sold. Rural poverty was just as great as in cities, and in many ways, even worse.

Nightclubs and Bread Lines: Depression Era Foodways On Film. Perhaps no historical event went so quickly and directly onto movie screens as the Great Depression. Food writer and film buff Michael Gebert will talk about how Depression Era foodways were reflected in period films, and show clips depicting food in every context from soup kitchens to glitzy nightspots, from Automats to home kitchens.

Community Canning in the Depression: A case study. Commentary and photographs delineating Ball Corporation’s role in food assistance to Muncie residents during the Depression, including public projects that the corporation led. Ball set up community canning operations to can backyard garden produce and also provided company land for community gardens for apartment dwellers.

Co-Eds at the Co-op: Student Depression-Era Foodways at Old Normal.  Oral histories and archival documents examine student foodways at Illinois State Normal University during the Great Depression. Enrollments soared at “Old Normal” as teaching again became an attractive profession for both women and men. Most students lived in boarding houses or rented rooms. Some heated meals in their rooms; others worked for their board; many brought food from the family home.

No Longer does the Holiday Table Groan Under the Weight of Food. A look at holiday meals during the Great Depression. What traditions were upheld and which were altered to fit the family budget? Many components of holiday meals were simply produced on a smaller scale, but as processed foods like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Spam entered the marketplace they became incorporated into holiday meals. Media outlets focused on putting your best foot forward while entertaining (even if the crown roast was made of frankfurters).

Steaks and Shakes and the Great Depression.%u2028 The early history of Steak ’n Shake, a hamburger chain started in central Illinois during the Great Depression, begins with a description of founder Gus Belt’s original restaurant, a place he called “White House.” Belt made Steak ’n Shake all about T-bones and porterhouses, marquee lights, heavy china, and bright boys and girls eager to take orders.

Relief dinner served on May 7, 1938, in the Gold Room of the Congress Hotel in Chicago. Replication of a menu made from 8 cents of ingredients.

Beer Production after Prohibition: Setting the Stage for the Rise of the Mega-breweries. The 1930s set the stage for the rise of the Midwestern mega-breweries that ultimately came to dominate the U.S. brewing landscape. Prohibition had dealt the industry a serious blow that many smaller, local breweries didn’t survive. Reduced demand put additional pressure on those that did. Only breweries that could afford to adopt new cost-cutting technologies to achieve economies of scale would survive.

To find out more about the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, complete information about the upcoming symposium, including registration, and recipes for the state fair Heirloom entrants, visit the GMFA website: www.greatermidwestfoodways.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


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