From the IntroductionBarn

To see this region, get inside a speeding car on the interstate. Start at the eastern border in Ohio, where the shortgrass prairie begins, farmed by people like the Amish who use no electricity or modern farm machinery, and don’t stretch the seasons but adhere to the quaint notion of the ticking of the seasonal clock. Drive west from there and you will see large scale postmodern agribusinesses who don’t feel the slightest quickening at the sign of cold weather because technology has smoothed the boundaries between seasons.

Make your way through the Corn Belt in the three “I” states: Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. Corn, wheat, soybeans, corn, exit ramp, corn, and every few miles a herd of pigs or sheep way off on a reach in the distance, a house, a tree with a tire swing, a barn, a satellite dish. You will see America’s pastoral face. Grain silos are the only skyline.


Some of this land is flat as a cracker, a rural crossroads where corn is king. There is a hot breeze, and, in the wipe of blue sky, a wedge of birds. Piercingly loud and soaring like gulls with extended wings, killdeer throw the boomerang of their song across the ripening fields. Zigzagging on the sides of roads are fields of green, like tiles of colored dominoes laid end-to-end, the green tint of the Mongolian garlic matching the one of the Siberian garlic chive; the very rare Japanese shallot butted up against Crookneck squash. French Batavia lettuce next to Winter Density.

“The Sandwich That is Chicago” by Michael Stern

From "Midwestern Staples"

In the years Jane and I have traveled around America looking for authentic regional food, we have learned one surefire way to find it. We think of someone who used to live in the place we are about to explore but doesn’t live there anymore. We ask that person what they miss the most. What’s the first thing they would eat when they went back home and where would they go to eat it? Almost always, the reply leads to a unique dish and to a restaurant that does something other than reflect national common denominator taste.

I know this trick works because it was only after I moved away from my home town of Chicago at the age of 17 that I recognized the importance of the sandwich known as Italian beef: a heap of thin-sliced roast beef soaked with brothy gravy piled into a length of sturdy Italian bread and garlanded with spicy vegetable giardiniera or roasted peppers. I enjoyed plenty of Italian beef growing up, but never thought of it as a rarity. Why would I? It is everywhere throughout Chicagoland, served by countless places in the city and suburbs.


It is a distinct regional specialty, as fundamental a marker of Chicago’s culinary character as Frango mints, deep-dish pizza, shrimp de Jonghe, chicken Vesuvio, and red hots dragged through the garden in a poppy-seed bun. Indeed, I have come to think of it as the signature dish that embodies Chicago’s personality better than any other. It is brawny, intense, symphonic and, for all its apparent disarray, audaciously composed. As sandwiches go, it is brash and impertinent, but it demands savoir faire in its ordering and eating. In the broadest sense of the expression, it is a taste of Chicago; but to me it is more than that. It is the Alpha and Omega of American street food.

“Bicentennial Pie” by Timothy BascomPeach Cake

From “Holidays, Fairs and Events”

In the summer of 1976 I spent a lot of time at our town pool next to the brown-baked fields of the 4-H Club, where I kept cool by dunking or getting dunked. I was a fifteen-year-old Kansas boy with a fifteen-year-old’s perspective on the world, much of it filtered through the pool’s PA system. Radio DJ’s were still interrupting songs two years after the Watergate scandal, to insinuate that President Ford had made a secret deal with Nixon: a full pardon in exchange for keys to the White House. They were also joking about the Statue of Liberty needing a face lift before the Bicentennial celebrations.

I hoisted myself out of the water and pattered down the hot concrete in my dripping swimsuit, glad to hear Bachman-Turner Overdrive come onto the PA, shouting over the pool-side screams “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” I did my own mock rendition as I ran. Then I gave 25 cents to the pretty seventeen-year-old at the concession window and asked for a “Suicide,” watching in a happy, interested way as she twisted in her yellow bikini to mix a cup of Coke and Dr. Pepper and Root Beer, sun-bleached hair bouncing to the music.


The singer on the radio stuttered out his signature “B-b-b-baby,” and I was struck suddenly that this girl was so wondrously tan she might as well be from the family of Bertie Hamilton, one of the four black residents in Troy, Kansas. Eighty-year-old Bertie, whose skin was closer to the color of caramel, attended our church, and she was one of my favorite old people—in part because of her famous peach cobbler. In fact, just a few days later I would see her down at our church—Troy Baptist—for a Sunday evening potluck, where she appeared in her standard pink dress and white go-go boots.

Her cobbler was the one thing I absolutely knew I had to eat, so I didn’t wait for dessert time, instead scooping a square onto my plate next to some chicken casserole and green beans. I opted for Bertie’s cobbler over all the brownies and Bundt cake and pineapple turnover, and as soon as I had done the required damage to my main dishes, I forked into that luscious stuff, savoring its balance of dumplinglike crust and succulent fruit.